Friday, April 20, 2007

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory chapter 3: King of the Stone-Eaters

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Three: King of the Stone Eaters

The Albania that Hoxha returned to had been occupied by Fascist Italy. Though the Hoxhaists would later claim that their master had returned from Belgium to lead the political struggle against Italian rule, he did nothing of the sort. He lived a lackluster life in the provincial city (by scale and size, Korce was little more than a village), regaling bored youths with his tales of bohemian adventures. It was only when the newly formed Albanian Fascist Party demanded that teachers swear an oath of loyalty to Italian duce Benito Mussolini that Hoxha showed the first signs of developing a backbone. Enver refused and, again, was fired on the spot.

At the end of his second broken career, Enver moved to the capital of Tirane. Almost immediately after arriving, he opened "Flora", a retail tobacco shop. It is uncertain if he financed the store with his father's money or with funds from the Communist International. The former is more likely, as the Albanian Communist Party was then considered a lost cause by the internationalists of the Comintern. It was fractured into a dozen factions, none of them very large and most were more hostile to each other than to the Italians. It was not until 1941 that a genuine Albanian Communist Party came into being. Tito of Yugoslavia sent emissaries to Albania in order to coordinate the reorganization and consolidation of the party. He did so both for long term reasons (the eventual incorporation of Albania into either post-war Yugoslavia or an ambiguously defined Balkan Confederation), and to open another front in the guerrilla war against the Germans.

Albanians were ornery subjects to the Italians. The first uprising against Fascist rule in Europe took place in Albania on November 28, 1939, supported by a desperate strike of factory and transport workers in Tirane. They demanded the Italians leave the country and take Sefqet bej Verlaci, the Italians' puppet in Albania and the country's largest slumlord, with them. A year later, the southern and eastern countryside were in full revolt against extraordinary Italian requisitions of grain - food being the most precious resource in the mountainous Balkan state. The rebels were joined by cast-offs and deserters who had fought with the Italians in Greece and Yugoslavia.

Hoxha in his tobacco shop had little connection with these developments. Instead, he held secret Communist Party cell meetings behind the shuttered windows. Verlaci's bloodhounds sniffed out the secret behind the mild-mannered tobacconist and his shop. It was shut down in mid-1941. Hoxha's adventures through the bordellos and union halls of Paris enhanced his reputation as a revolutionary, and he soon become locked in a dispute for party leadership with Mehmet Shehu, a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War who returned to Albania at about the same time Hoxha was fired in Brussels. They formed an alliance, tenuous until after the war was over and the irrepressible Loulou showed him who was boss. For the time being, the Albanian Communist Party followed the ostentatious Yugoslav "advice" and put Enver Hoxha in charge in spite of his total lack of organizational experience. Shortly after his discovery by the police, Hoxha set out for the Albanian highlands to make a revolution.

The rank-and-file of the Albanian Communist Party was made up largely of students and other city-dwellers, so the image of Hoxha roughing it with other Albanian partisans wasn't too incongruous. However, his transformation from biology nerd to simpering bohemian to Stalinist welterweight contender wasn't yet complete. Nako Spiru, a prominent Albanian Communist versed in, of all things, economics, painted this picture of the new party leader:

Enver Hoxha. Average intelligence. Average attainment both as a student abroad, and later as a teacher. In the period before the formation of the CPA [the Albanian Communist Party] he led a desultory life. He is sectarian within the party. He fancies himself. He has an inferiority complex. The people have no idea who he is, and those who know him do not think highly of him. The party has tried everything to make him popular. But the people are not convinced of his qualities.

This brief note, which Spiru sent to the Yugoslav Party's central committee, is as penetrating as the famed and much more voluminous "Mussolini Dossier" compiled by the Italian secret police before the duce seized power. Here, before any of his outward manifestations of paranoia, persecution, and alienation made themselves known, Spiru shapes a portrait of the future Supreme Comrade in few words but full colour. It shows that the bizarre personality and intense, almost hallucinatory paranoia which characterized Enver Hoxha's forty years of terror were already quite apparent to those around him. It is quite safe to assume that Nako Spiru was not exaggerating Hoxha's faults and judge his motivations above reproach. An ardent nationalist as well as a Communist, he frequently clashed with the fraternal Yugoslav "advisors" Hoxha welcomed, and committed suicide in 1947 when as minister in charge of Albania's economy, he found himself powerless to resist Yugoslav domination of his country.

Hoxha's flight to the highlands was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, which is the worst thing that ever happened to his country. That's even taking into account Albania's enormously sad history, in addition to recent events. Up in the mountains, he found a few hundred ardent Communists already encamped. Their ranks swelled following the entreaties of Dusan Mugosa, Tito's envoy, to unite all factions of the party against the Fascists. By the end of 1941, the Italian high command estimated that Hoxha had 3,000 troops behind him.

But factionalism dies hard in the Balkans, and in Albania in particular. Following Stalin's orders and Tito's example, the Albanian Communists formed a coalition with other groups fighting the Italians, gathered together under the banner of the LNC, or National Liberation Movement. The LNC was under Communist control but had a few non-Marxists placed in prominent positions as window dressing. Although officially a part of the LNC, groups such as the republican and anti-Communist force called Balli Kombetar continued to fight against their Leninist "allies". As in Yugoslavia, within days of agreeing to fight together, the two factions were at each other's throats. Balli Kombetar fought sometimes with the Communists against the foreigners, sometimes with the foreigners against the Communists. Their leader, Mithat Frasheri, even signed an agreement with the commander of Italian forces in Albania to coordinate their activities against Hoxha's LNC forces.

All of it, we can say today, had little effect. For all his conspiring, Frasheri only proved the obvious: that proletarians kick white bread ass. His troops fought disastrously, pining in vain for an American or British invasion to save them from their unenviable fate.

* * *

Like Pol Pot, whose sinful thoughts took on the concentrated power of Clorox Bleach when forced to subsist on lizards in the jungles of Cambodia - crawling around on his belly and eating boiled gravel for three years did horrible things to Enver Hoxha's already warped personality. The Germans replaced the Italians in Albania after Mussolini was deposed in 1943, but the gravel-eaters were becoming terrific guerrilla fighters. In fact, the Germans had to delay their deployment in Albania because Hoxha's troops had seized Tirane's main airfield, preventing their landing. An entire division of Italian troops defected to the Albanian side, forming the Antonio Gramsci Battalion, named after the imprisoned chief of the Italian Communist Party.

By 1944, after a failed attempt by the Nazis to crush the LNC in a vicious campaign through the countryside, the partisans expanded the territory under their control to almost 75% of the country. They worked closely with Both Tito's Yugoslav partisans as well as the Greek Popular Liberation Army (ELAS), coordinating their activities to smash the Aryan balls on the Balkan anvil. On November 29, 1944, the last Fascist soldier had withdrawn. The LNC marched into Tirane with Hoxha at their head.

Enver followed Stalin's advice and Tito's lead again when he legitimized his power with horrible farcical elections in December 1945. Former leaders from the Italian occupation, followers of King Zog -- even those who were believed to be potential rivals - were arrested and given a predictably fatal sentence in Stalinist show trials. In a personal touch to rub elbows with the People, the show trials were presided over not by a pedantic prosecutor but by the Interior Minister himself, the gleeful hangman Koci Xoxe. All parties outside of the Democratic Front (the successor to the LNC) were outlawed. In this environment, it's almost incredibly that 7% of the population didn't vote for the Communists. Loulou was congratulated by his inner-circle, and Albania was declared a People's Republic the very next day.

It was a glorious moment in the history of nerds, and a touchstone for every embittered beatnik languishing away in the obscurity of flophouses and getting roughed up in alleys behind working class taverns. With no training, little experience and a bourgeois past, Enver Hoxha had created a whole new identity for himself as Albania's very own Supreme Comrade.

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