'Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania' by Blendi Fevziu (I B Tauris)

Imagine a country that has gone through the ravages of the second world war. Albanian territory during this time was a continual theatre of war. Initially invaded and occupied by Italy in 1939, then by Greek troops fighting the Italians in the south, its final and most brutal occupation was by Germany. (Ismail Kadare in 'Chronicle in Stone' described how they had to check daily which flags were flying in Gjirokaster, to see which country they were currently being occupied by.)

Throughout the war guerilla resistance groups hid out in the mountains and made surprise attacks on the occupiers, swiftly followed by reprisals on the local inhabitants. And while British Special Operations fighters assisted the resistance against Germany, there was bitter fighting among the different resistance groups.

Imagine the relief of the population, when, after the German retreat in 1944 the Albanian communist partisans, who had named themselves the National Liberation Army, entered the capital, Tirana, bringing a promise of freedom, independence and stability. Most people knew little about communist ideology, or about this new leader but he clearly had a well organised military group, which had seen off the German occupiers. The people were euphoric.

It was also not widely known that throughout the war, this leader, Enver Hoxha, had spent more time and energy eliminating fellow Albanians who had formed other resistance groups and whose political stance was different from his communist one, than he did on fighting the Germans. But there is no doubt that his group was effective in the latter aim too. The British aim was not to get involved in Albanian politics and so their men on the ground were ordered to assist whichever group was most successful in sabotaging the German occupation. As this turned out to be the communist partisans, it was British funds, arms and intelligence that helped to bring them to power in 1944. This despite the misgivings of some of the British operatives on the ground.

With his entry into Tirana on 28 November 1944 (carefully calculated to coincide with the anniversary of the declaration of Albanian Independence in 1912) in the eyes of most people, Hoxha was the hero of the day. It was the communist national liberation army which emerged victorious, defeating the Germans (Hoxha downplayed the role of Allied assistance) and Albania had a great future ahead of it. But in the following four decades, Hoxha, following the example of his hero Stalin, ruthlessly eliminated all those he perceived as enemies, set up the Sigurimi, the secret police, to document and control people's behaviour, stripped people of their traditional smallholdings in agriculture and livestock, and at one point even claimed on behalf of the people that they 'would rather feed on grass than betray the principles of Marxism-Leninism'.

Blendi Fevziu's book is so engagingly written. His style and lucidity keep us riveted on the unfolding story. Rather than going for a straightforward chronological narrative, Fevziu uses the techniques of fiction writing, beginning the book with the drama surrounding Hoxha's last days, and following it with Hoxha's greatest moment, his triumphal entry into Tirana at the head of the national liberation army, at the end of 1944. Our curiosity is aroused, and Fevziu then goes back to Hoxha's origins in the Albanian city of Gjirokaster, his life as a student and young man, and his rise to power in the years of the second world war.

Fevziu gives a clear account of Hoxha's early years, where he showed no propensity for political involvement or for study. As a student at Montpellier University, he 'would spend his time in coffee shops...rather than concentrating on his books and lectures'. As Hoxha only got around to sitting his first year exams in his third year, his scholarship was cut off and he left without completing his degree. He did however, have a talent for enlisting support from influential others who helped him acquire bursaries to study and later, to find work. Once he came to power he repaid these people for their generosity by singling them out for the harshest punishments. Every person who had helped Hoxha before and during his rise to power was punished in some way. Many were executed, sometimes after serving long prison sentences, sometimes simply 'eliminated' without any kind of trial.

It was Hoxha's activities during the war that seemed to nurture his political fervour and ambitions. Once he had become party leader he was able to settle old scores with fellow students at the lycée in Korça or in Montpellier in France, who had 'made fun of him' or who were more intelligent, better qualified or more well-connected than him. His enemies were personal. And throughout his dictatorship he continued to perceive 'enemies' around him, and get rid of them.

Fevziu has done tremendous research in the archives, only recently made available, and has interviewed many people who knew the dictator personally or who suffered from lengthy incarcerations, and often both. These people were silenced during the dictatorship and were only able to speak out or publish their writings after the fall of the communist regime. In his interviews we read some very frank responses, with descriptions of emotions ranging from adolescent admiration to adult terror.

These interviews or memoirs shed light on what was actually going on, rather than accepting the 'official' version written by Hoxha himself in his own voluminous memoirs. But Fevziu also uses their remarks or observations as tools to analyse the psychological make-up of the dictator. All this helps to demythologise the person who was 'revered as a god' by many of the people, though a god who often appeared in his more Jahweh-like mask, a wrathful, vengeful deity. Close up, we see someone who 'in his youth...was known for his egotism and his desire to be the centre of attention all the time [and for] his lethal jealousy. The smallest and most trivial things could arouse his unforgiving wrath...'.

Todi Lubonja, a writer and journalist, was a Communist Party member. Purged from the party and imprisoned for several years, he later wrote: 'I remember some formidably aggressive speeches, [in] which he unleashed his entire arsenal as an omnipotent leader: rhetoric, intrigue, insinuations, psychological pressure, intimidation, provocation and, invariably, some filthy language...'.

Other reports say how friendly and affable he could be, how 'forgiving' in some instances, of people who had been imprisoned and interned for years. Although sometimes those he had punished were mystified as to what they had done for which they might be 'forgiven'. In the case of Isuf Hysenbegasi, a doctor, he was forbidden to practise his profession but after a chance meeting with Hoxha (one he had desperately tried to avoid), he was reinstated in his profession and even given an official flat to live in. The only charge made against him, Fevziu writes 'was that he originated from a wealthy family in southern Albania'. Hysenbegasi surmised that his punishment came about because of Hoxha's 'jealousy of his academic success, or perhaps an old grudge about some youthful remark'.

All this information is valuable for the insight it gives into the mind of the dictator. As well as a fascinating read, it shows the danger of absolute power, of someone who could so easily feel slighted or offended, and become angry and resentful. A dictator is inevitably isolated, has no true friends when no-one dares to oppose them, and so has ample opportunity to exact revenge. It's a little bit like watching a giant toddler in the grip of a tantrum. They'll shout, scream, and lash out. Everyone was so frightened that they might be the next one on the receiving end of his wrath, that this behaviour was accepted without question.

It should be remembered that there was little experience of democracy in Albania's history. Only independent for three decades by the time of the second world war, it was latterly ruled by King Zog who brought a measure of stability to the country but who also tended to imprison opponents, though in nothing like the style and number of Hoxha's regime. Zog also listened to his advisors. To avoid capture by the invading Italians in 1939, Zog and his family fled and he was never to return to Albania.

Fevziu's account of the years of Hoxha's power brilliantly brings this era to life, skilfully interweaving the words of many of the major activists of the time and penetrating into the psyche of the main protagonist. Many suffered and died during the communist regime but his account, while compassionate, is never sentimental, bitter or accusatory, but exhaustively researched and lucidly presented.

For English-speaking readers, it will shine light on these dark times, shrouded in fear. Although in many respects it is a tale of horrors, it also celebrates courage and in some cases, survival against all the odds. Excellently translated by Majlinda Nishku this is an absorbing and captivating read.

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