A large 1960s style home
Albania,  Dark tourism,  History

The legacy of Enver Hoxha

As portrayed in two of Tirana’s museums

​Few people are all good or all bad. Most of us hope that in our cases the good will outweigh the bad. But there are some people for whom it is clear that the opposite is true. Such a person was Enver Hoxha.

Black and white portrait of a man in uniform
Enver Hoxha in 1940 (from Wikipedia, in public domain)

Hoxha ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985. He was inspired and hugely influenced by Stalin, and long after the latter’s death adopted Stalinist policies. He introduced a centralised economy with state-owned industry and institutions. Marxism-Leninism was taught in Albanian schools, and statues of Stalin erected in many cities.

As absolute leader of the Communist Party and of Albania Hoxha prosecuted and ruthlessly eliminated every real or imagined political opponent. His form of communism centred on the cult of the dictator, not unlike present-day North Korea. Under his rule Albania was isolated from the rest of the world and Albanians denied freedom of speech, of worship and even of thought. They were indoctrinated with the notion that they must be protected from foreign enemies, especially the ‘evil’ West.

Under his regime more than 30,000 Albanians were sent to labour camps and internment centres. About 18,000 others were imprisoned for political reasons and 6,000 were executed, many without trial. Today there are still more than 4,000 people unaccounted for, many of whom are thought to have been buried in mass graves.

Even after his death the horrors of his regime continued, as the Party remained committed to his ideology and to maintaining the cult he had established. It was only in 1991 that communist rule in the country was over-turned, as it was throughout eastern Europe.

But what of the good, you ask? Well, alongside his Stalinist policies Hoxha did introduce reforms that significantly helped the country recover from World War II. His collective farms enabled Albania to become almost completely self-sufficient in food crops. Electricity came to every rural district; the country got its first railway line; many diseases were largely wiped out; and illiteracy became a thing of the past. He also advanced women’s rights, shifting Albania from a patriarchal society into one where women were offered higher education and access to all jobs, not just the menial ones open to them in the past. Even today many older Albanians believe that overall he had a positive impact on their country.

Door of a large 1960s style home
Enver Hoxha’s former house in Blloku

However Albania remained the poorest European country through most of the Cold War period. Even today, according to the World Bank, it has the highest rate of poverty in the region. Hoxha’s legacy lies heavy on the country, as several museums in Tirana testify (although his former house is not as yet among them). We visited two of them.


Bunk’Art 2 is a museum in the former bunker of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This bunker is one of hundreds of thousands across Albania, constructed between 1967 and 1986 under Enver Hoxha’s ‘bunkerisation’ (bunkerizimi) policy. According to Wikipedia, the bunkers were:

‘intended to establish defensive positions across the entirety of the country. Smaller ones were laid out in lines radiating out within sight of a large command bunker, which was permanently manned. The commanders of the large bunkers would communicate with their superiors by radio and with the occupants of the smaller bunkers by making visual signals that could be seen through slits…

Citizens were trained from the age of 12 to station themselves in the nearest bunker to repel invaders. Local Party cells organised families to clean and maintain their local bunkers, and civil defence drills were held at least twice a month, lasting for up to three days, in which civilians of military age of both sexes were issued with rifles (but no ammunition).’

Arched entrance to a tunnel
The exit tunnel with the former Ministry of Internal Affairs behind – the entrance is under the concrete dome far left

The museum tells the history of the country’s secret police, the Sigurimi, before and during the Communist era. The Sigurimi had a network of 15,000 collaborators committed to spying on anyone deemed suspicious, as well as a large network of volunteers. The museum documents the organisation from its foundation in 1944 to its dissolution in 1991.

The entrance and first corridor

Most of the small (almost claustrophobic) 24 rooms in the bunker contain photographs, artefacts and descriptions covering the period from 1945-1991. They cover the establishment of the Sigurimi and the state’s persecution of its citizens as well as foreign visitors.

Museums exhibits [click on any photo for more information]

One exhibit describes how the brothers and sisters of the then Pope sought shelter in the Italian Embassy. They were there for five years while the embassy was effectively put under siege by the authorities, surrounded by 800 soldiers and policemen. The Sigurimi bugged the embassy, as officials there knew they would. The bugs were of course easily found and disabled – apart from one. This was hidden in the handle of a broom used by a maid who had been recruited as a spy by the Sigurimi.

Cut away broom handle showing small microphone inside
Mock-up of two rooms with camera lens pointing through dividing wall

Another describes how the Sigurimi created a network of local spies, recruited to monitor the behaviour of their neighbours in a manner that reminded me of the North Korean system of inminban (community) leaders.

There was a mock-up of two neighbouring apartments with tiny holes in the wall between them through which a camera and microphone could pick up activities.

I was also very interested in an information board explaining how foreigners whose appearance went against the norms of the ‘socialist aesthetics’ would be stopped at the border and forced to conform or be denied admission. These outlawed styles included men with ‘long hair like women and exaggerated sideburns’, and women with ‘mini and maxi skirts’.

A few rooms retain the appearance they would have had in Hoxha’s day. This is the suite of rooms intended to serve as the office of the Minister of Internal Affairs, with a meeting room, office, bedroom and bathroom. It was never used for its intended purpose.

Meeting room and office of the Minister of Internal Affairs

The House of Leaves

This 1930s villa was built as a maternity clinic. But during the Nazi occupation of Albania it became the Tirana headquarters of the Gestapo.

Old house with climbing plants
The House of Leaves

After the war the house was used as the Central Directorate of the Sigurimi until the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. The name comes from the climbing plants that partly cover its façade. Just as they hid the building, the building itself had its secrets. No one knew what went on inside, but they knew that it wasn’t good. As the museum’s website says,

By opening the doors of this house, presenting the activities that were conducted in it and many other things related to it, this museum will unfold simultaneously aspects of Albanian society in the conditions of a regime that aimed at the total control over the human bodies and souls.

Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside. Still, I’ll do my best to describe the range of exhibits, my memory prompted by the museum’s excellent website.

Stone steps leading down to an underground room
Bunker in front of the House of Leaves

The first few rooms tell the history of the building from its genesis as a clinic via Gestapo HQ and then to its adoption by the Sigurimi. This area I found the least interesting and tended to skim. And to be honest there were so many documents, in Albanian, forming the basis of many of the displays that there were others I skimmed over too.

The next section is called ‘Bugs and other creatures’ and has displays of a range of tapping devices. It is followed by a display called ‘Living microphones’ focusing on the role of collaborators who eavesdropped or recorded conversations.

‘What is the enemy?’ looks at how various groups of innocent people were deemed enemies of the state under Hoxha’s regime. One room here has a long list of innocent people who were imprisoned or executed for political reasons.

I found the section called ‘The external enemy’ perhaps the most interesting. It covers the bugging of embassies and of hotels used by foreign visitors to Tirana. Old video footage captured in one hotel shows a woman bringing illegal Western ‘luxuries’ into the country in return for payment.

Elsewhere there are recordings of intercepted conversations, but of course all in Albanian. Beyond this we came to the clinic’s laboratory which was repurposed by the Sigurimi to be used for film developing. They also made keys to open doors and safes and opened envelopes suspected of having been written by invisible ink.

It was, as I said, a shame we couldn’t take photos here, especially as they had been allowed in Bunk’Art2. I found this shot of a display of objects used to carry bugs on Flickr, licensed for non-commercial reproduction.

Table with old cassette recorders, computer monitors etc.
Old recorders, computers etc. used in bugging [credit Pa Wa]

And this one by the same photographer is of an outline map of the city. It shows how the House of Leaves was centrally located to the various buildings that were being bugged.

Simplified city plan in model form
Model showing buildings in Tirana [credit Pa Wa]

If we’d had time during our stay we would perhaps have visited the original Bunk’Art in a much larger bunker in the city suburbs designed for use by Hoxha himself. That however will have to wait for another visit …

I visited Tirana in April 2023


  • wetanddustyroads

    Enver Hoxha was complex – so much bad and good in one person – it’s incomprehensible.
    The entrance and exit doors of Bunk’Art 2 are very interesting. I believe, after reading this, that this is the kind of information used to make all those spy movies. Thank you for telling me more about a country I know almost nothing about.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Not much good in him I fear – some of the things he did produced some good outcomes for the country but I’m not convinced his intentions were ever really good!

  • Brad M

    Interesting article on a scary part of history. If we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      No, on balance his record is a pretty bad one. So many people died as a result of his regime and the infrastructure improvements are hardly compensation for those lives lost.

  • margaret21

    Fascinating stuff. We spent little time in towns, and in fact little time in Albania last year. But we became aware of buildings, particularly churches, that had been rebuilt after their forcible destruction, exactly as they’d been before. In the country, his positive legacy was more evident. Agricultural land is still divided into narrow strips, so everyone in the community gets their share of whatever land is available, and each therefore gets their share of good and less-good land, They’ve retained this system. In many ways, farming harks back to the old days: horse drawn equipment, ancient tractos, goat and sheep herders. I gather that in Greece, since its accession to the EU, Greek shepherds have become extinct. But shepherds still exist. They come from … Albania.

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    This is a super interesting post, Sarah. Again, I’ve never known much about Albania, but you’re providing me with a wonderful tutorial. It’s hard to hear about the atrocities. Thankfully the people are recovering, albeit slowly.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Some similar ideologies to Pol Pot, sadly. I think we learned while we were touring Albania that Hoxha maintained one allegiance – not Moscow, but Beijing. It wouldn’t be surprising if that was true. As I mentioned before Sarah, of all the countries we’ve visited, Albania is the one with the biggest gulf between capital and provinces. Bearing in mind our trip was only a few years ago, the level of poverty was like nothing we’ve come across anywhere else in Europe. Seriously, nobody has anything and their lives are extremely spartan. They had recently dug up the two remaining railway lines (none left now); there may be electricity but to everywhere other than Tirana the supply is so unstable that there are long outages every day, everywhere. Yet the natural beauty of Albania is absolutely stunning….if only they could get to grips with how to attract tourism their fortunes would change enormously.

  • Margaret

    There’s a very debatable quote saying there are no bad people, only what people ‘do’ can be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
    Thankfully the majority of people seem to be a mixture of good and bad actions.

  • Alison

    Yes agree very interesting, I knew Albania was off limits for many years but never really knew why. What a terrible time to live there, goes to show how indoctrinated people were if they still think he was a good person!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I guess the people who feel he was a positive influence on the country may not think he was necessarily good, but are somehow able to turn a blind eye to the atrocities because of the plusses. From a display panel in the House of Leaves it seemed that a higher number of older people felt positively about him and a higher number of rural inhabitants.

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