The bunkers of Albania

[Originally posted at Journal of Failure, April 2013. Slate recently posted a new feature about Albania’s communist-era bunkers.]

From 1944 to 1985, Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, a paranoid Stalinist who really believed the Americans and the insufficiently socialist USSR were about to invade his tiny country.  That’s why he peppered the landscape with ugly concrete bunkers, which no one is quite sure what to do with:

In Albania, 750,000 Communist-era bunkers populate the landscape, relics of the paranoia and skewed priorities of former dictator Enver Hoxha. Now they exist as quirky homes, animal shelters, ad hoc storage and make-out spots. The peculiar program of bunkerization, which lasted Hoxha’s entire 40-year rule, resulted in one bunker for every four citizens.

In November of [2012], Dutch photographerDavid Galjaard won the 2012 Aperture Foundation/Paris Photo First Photobook Award forConcresco, a book that surveys the scattered and now repurposed or deteriorating concrete blobs. As much as the bunkers have intrigued historians, Galjaard laments how little the general public knows about Albania.


“Everyone knows about Stalin but nobody knows Hoxha,” says Galjaard. “It’s a secret history, probably because Albania is so small. You can seeConcresco as an introduction to a country that only a few people know.”

The Communist leader Hoxha rose to power in 1944 as leader of the Party of Labour of Albania and ruled until his death in 1985. Hoxha was on constant alert for political threats and maintained his position with routine immobilization, imprisonment and eviction of his people and political opponents. Hoxha’s suspicions also extended beyond Albanian borders and the bunkers, which number 24 to every square kilometer, and were built in preparation for a multi-front war Hoxha expected from invading countries, East and West. Every citizen in Hoxha’s plan was a reservist. Twelve-year-olds were trained to fire rifles. The bunkers never saw action.

Today, Albanian authorities are at a loss for what to do. The reinforced concrete domes are as difficult to repurpose as they are to destroy. Tourists are fascinated by the bunkers strewn like confetti across scenery, but for locals they’re a largely uninteresting, if obstructive, part of the landscape.”

Construction costs were a huge drain on the small Balkan nation’s resources and diverted efforts away from improving roads or solving Albania’s chronic shortage of housing. The bunkerization program began in 1967 and ceased soon after Hoxha’s death in 1985.

And the place looked so nice in the propaganda films…

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