The 750,000 Bunkers of Albania


We all have bad ideas. I certainly have them all the time,
as I believe this series is a testament to. And I bet that you do too. I certainly hope you think you do. Because ironically, feeling that you have bad ideas is usually a pretty clear sign of intelligence. If you’re the type of person who currently does not believe that you have bad ideas or that you’ve never had bad ideas for that matter, chances are, you’re the type of person
who has more than your fair share. But imagine having an idea so bad,
it’s remembered fifty years later. An idea so bad
that it becomes a defining feature of your nation. An idea so bad, I made a video about it. In 1967, a paranoid dictator
was going to war with his own mind. Although paranoid is a bit of a loaded term here. Because are you really paranoid
if everyone is actually out to get you? What if the reason that they’re out to get you is
you’ve been so antagonistic towards them? Is that still paranoia? I think it is. So I’m going to stick to the term. Enver Hoxha’s forty-four year, dictatorial, Stalinesque reign over the tiny European nation of Albania is likely the most commonly known piece of this country’s history. And when I say Stalinesque, I don’t mean
coincidentally similar to Stalin, but a genuine idolization and mimicry that I think is best described by the term ‘fangirling’. And while we’ll do a much more in-depth look
at communism’s effect in Albania
in a separate video in this series, today’s episode has little to do with Hoxha himself, and more to do with the downstream effects
of his most famously bad idea. A little over twenty years into his reign and Hoxha had thoroughly isolated the country from virtually every friend Albania had ever had. He looked around, and all he saw were enemies. Some real, some… uh… less so. Italy were ex-fascist capitalists
who’d invaded during his childhood. Enemies. Greece were historic rivals turning towards
a right-wing military dictatorship. Enemies. Yugoslavia, who’d helped to put him in power, seemed like they wanted to add Albania into their federation. And then Hoxha wouldn’t be a dictator anymore. Plus, Tito was no friend of Stalin.
And Hoxha loved Stalin. So, enemies. And now that Khrushchev was in power in the USSR, they were no friend of Stalin either. The USSR, of all places. Koba was barely in the ground before Khrushchev
said about reversing all the failed policies
that Hoxha had come to treat his gospel. That rat! So the USSR? Enemies. He briefly tried befriending Mao, who he considered
the last true Marxist Leninist, but after his death, China started
buddying up with the United States. Unacceptable. Enemies. Which left little Albania without a single remaining ally. A nation of just under two million people, who had only felt any form of independence
for a single generation out of the last 600 years, had nobody left to protect them. And I’m certain in the self-interested paranoia of Hoxha, he realized that he too had nobody left to protect him. Except for the people. The people would defend him! All he had to do was convince them
that they were defending themselves. And if he could get everyone
in the country to fight for him, he might just be able to cling to power
when the many hornets whose nests
he’d been swatting came round to sting. But they weren’t coming to sting. After all, nobody really wanted Albania. It just wasn’t all that tactically useful anymore. The economy was easily the worst in Europe, the population was small and mostly uneducated, resources were slim and transport logistics were poor. Anybody who took the country would find
the investment required just to build it up
to become economically useful would almost definitely be a net loss. With Europe still reeling from the Second World War
and the Cold War splitting the planet
in a First and Second world schisms, the superpowers were far too busy to concern themselves with invading a tiny nation on the periphery. But Hoxha didn’t see it that way. He believed his nation to be a jewel waiting for a crown, and in the extremes of his paranoia
began a process of bunkerization that would outright cripple his already weakened state. The bad idea I mentioned earlier. Over the next twenty years, Albania would aim to build around 750,000
concrete bunkers across the country. Due to the secret totalitarian nature of the dictatorship, nobody knows how many were actually completed. Yet, it must have been a ton,
because they’re quite literally everywhere. They aren’t just on the border or in strategic locations. They’re in city streets, farmer’s fields, tourist beaches and in the back alleys of small towns. No matter where you go here,
they’re a ubiquitous part of daily life. In two short decades, they theoretically built
a bunker for every four citizens. Twenty four per square kilometer. They’re like Starbucks. But the bunkers didn’t come cheap. Hundreds of thousands of pill boxes full of steel and concrete took a toll on the already depressed economy, and Albania had no friends to help. No foreign investment, virtually no aid, nothing
but a poor nation spending its last pennies to fulfill the delusions of its paranoid dictator. Although it’s hard to tell
given the communist state of the economy, it’s predicted that at its height over 20%
of the total economic output of the nation
was being spent on bunker production. It left Albania with an extreme housing shortage, unpaved roads, a weak military and a collapsed economy. Nobody benefited.
It was a terrible idea. But it wasn’t just an economically bad idea,
it was a militarily bad idea as well. It was a little more than an expanded Maginot line,
and look how well that did. Because even though every citizen was trained
to shoot from the age of twelve and were all considered reservists in the army, how long can one bunker filled
with four civilian soldiers really hold out? How do they get their bullets? How do they get their food? What are the supply lines like to these bunkers? Who organizes their activity
to make sure they work in unison? Nobody, that’s who. In building them, Hoxha was both imagining, and in turn virtually guaranteeing
that any invasion would have to be fought off
in 1930’s guerilla style warfare. And given that’s how he came to power, it isn’t all too surprising that in times of fear, he fell back on what he knew. But the world had moved on. Guerrillas were certainly doing their part around the world to expose the weaknesses of superpowers, but not the way he was going about it. They wouldn’t be like the Vietcong.
The Vietcong were organized. They wouldn’t be like the Afghani, the Afghani were mobile, doing hit-and-run attacks from the mountains. No, they’d be crushed. Static, non-moving civilian targets
waiting in a hole to be killed. If only anyone cared to invade. But of course, nobody did. The lasting effect of these bunkers had little to do with war, and far more to do with psychology. Because by putting these babies virtually everywhere around this country, he’d convinced the people to be paranoid.
Just like their dictator. For an isolationist nation with no friends
and a plethora of imagined enemies, having a physical reminder of that isolation only helped to stoke their fears and increase Hoxha’s control. Like any group who falsely imagine
themselves as being threatened, the further the bad idea was followed
the more the bad idea made sense. After all, if they weren’t under threat
why were there so many bunkers? But, eventually, all bad things come to an end and in 1985, eight days before yours truly was born
on a military base in Northern Alberta, Hoxha died. Not sure the two are connected. Though it would take another two years,
his bunkerization policy would die with him. The world was changing. And as the USSR came to a close,
so too did Communist Albania. The dictator was dead.
It was time for capitalism to have a go. And oh my God did it go poorly here,
but we’ll be covering that in a different episode. However, even though Hoxha’s plans were dust,
the bunkers weren’t. There were still hundreds of thousands of pillboxes
just randomly strewn about the country. Farmers had to plow around them. Apartments and roads had to be built to avoid them. But beyond that, they reminded
people of the dictatorship. It’s hard to feel like you’re living in a brave new world when the most important symbol of that fearful past is still on every street corner staring back
at you with its cycloptic concrete eye. Yet the bunkers remain a defining feature
of Albanian life to this day. As the country has changed and slowly opened to the outside world, they’ve changed alongside it. Their fates are strangely symbolic
of the fates of the people. While thousands were destroyed in an act of revolutionary defiance and thousands more
were dug up and scrapped for their steel, many of the remaining bunkers have slowly found themselves as part of the new economy. Cafes have set up shop in their crumbling shells. Houses have been retrofitted in areas
where poverty reaches into the extreme. They’ve been turned into apiaries, restaurants, museums, hostels, art installations, beach huts, souvenirs for tourists, photo galleries, Kosovar refugee camps and even mushroom farms. Virtually any way to turn a small dark space
into a profitable venture has been tried. And while they’re certainly no longer
as ubiquitous as they once were, and no longer hold the imagination
of the people in their dark hearts, there’s no denying that they’ve become
a visible part of the modern economy. Which is why I think they make
such a great symbol for the country. They’re a poignant introduction to foreigners
into the last fifty years of this nation’s history. And while certainly no tourists are coming
here to see the bunkers alone, they’re the first thing on their lips when they get home. They pass it around like it’s a secret. As if they’re the first to come across this hidden oddity. Because once you discount the history
that put them here, the bunkers feel kind of fun. They’re unique. Special, even. As more tourists come to create the standard image
of how this newly opened country
will be pitched to future travelers, the bunkers have become a defining feature. Something you can only find here. And the history that they contain within their walls
is the evolution of modern Albania. So I wonder just how far these bunkers can
actually be considered a bad idea. In hindsight, I mean. Because certainly, when they were built,
they were terrible. But now, as the world has changed and
Albania looks for something to set itself apart, new life has been breathed into these crumbling shells. They’ve found a way to make a bad idea good. But that said, the successes of modern adaptations have less to do with Hoxha’s policies and more to do with humanity’s
undying resilience and ingenuity. Once a symbol of fear,
they’re becoming a symbol of hope. Day by day, the dark past is becoming a bright future. Because while the moral arc of the universe is long,
it leans towards a mushroom farm. This is Rare Earth. Because the real effect of
putting these babies everywhere was… I was laughing in my own head about babies.
I can’t even think.