-Karl Kaser: “I was a leftist, I expected to find real socialism, but I was disappointed, because Socialism in Albania, a nightmare, looking back, 50 years”!-
Memorie.al / He were 33 years old then. He had only heard about Albania. He was a leftist, but disappointed by the forms of socialism he had seen until then, he hoped to find the perfect version in Albania. In 1987, Karl Kaser, a young historian of Southeast Europe at the time, took advantage of an agreement between Albania and Austria, as well as the reluctance of all his colleagues, to come to the only communist, atheistic country in the world. Everything he saw during the days of his stay in Albania, he put in his diary. The socialism he found in Albania was a nightmare. He could not believe his eyes when he saw a country in extreme poverty. Badly dressed people, who didn’t dare to talk to him, because they were afraid of being punished, the lack of ethics, the hotels, the restaurants, the streets, the palaces… everything seemed like a step back in time…!
According to Kaser, at least half a century later. And yet, Kaser returned in 1988, 1989… Until 1992, every year for two to four weeks, closely watching the change of systems in Albania. His notes, taken more than 20 years ago, he has already published. “Albania, twenty years ago” – the memories of an Austrian historian – are included in the latest publication of the Center for Albanian Studies “Albania-Austria: Historiographic Reflection”. Today, not only the pedagogue of the University of Vienna, Karl Kaser, but also the Albanians themselves, have the opportunity to confront themselves with what Albania was 20 or so years ago.
Memoirs of the Austrian historian, Karl Kaser
At the age of 33, on the basis of an official agreement between Albania and Austria, I visited Albania for the first time, in November 1987. Until 1998, I returned to this country, almost every year, at most two, until in four weeks, every time. After that, my visits have been more sporadic. The initial desire for my first visits was to familiarize myself with a place that I had only known through books and from television broadcasts of football matches, where you could see the “Qemal Stafa” stadium and the Dajt Mountain in the background.
As a historian of Southeast Europe, the official purpose of my visit in 1987 and in the years that followed was to study historical and contemporary culture. I have to admit, there was a third motive: adventure. Visiting a closed country, off the official Alb-Tourism route, was a special challenge, since none of my colleagues were interested in this mysterious country, which claimed to be the only socialist country and the first atheist country. , in the world. As a historian, it is very clear to me that memories can very well be deceiving. My memories are definitely no exception!
My memories are influenced by my current life and my social positions, as well as by the many developments that happen in the meantime. However, my memories are based on written documents. These consist of my personal diary, which I started during my first visits, as well as two articles that I published, or co-published in 1990 and 1991, in the “Austrian Journal”. In addition to these, there are also two books, which I edited in collaboration, after long field trips, in the region of Obot in Northern Albania, in 1993 and in the region of Fterra, in Southern Albania, in 1998.
My memoirs must be read, firstly, through my perspective as an “objective” historian, but this, secondly, does not mean that I do not have my own political beliefs. I want to confess that I have been part of the left camp in Austria since the beginning of my political thinking and I finally found myself in this direction, as part of the Green Party, of which I have been a member for many years. I have always been an enemy of true socialism, but also of social democracy. Real socialism was inhumane; social democracy suited bourgeois parties too much, at least that was the conclusion of my political opinion in those years.
In the first phase of my experience in Albania, I had high hopes for the practicality of a third way, between true socialism and true social democracy. I must admit, that it was only an illusion; Albania also disappointed me. Despite the notes I kept, roughly during the period 1987-1992, I feel unable to provide a coherent account of my observations during these years. Therefore, I will only quote from the journal in question and from the aforementioned articles…!
November 12, 1987:
My first contact with Albanian soil, at the airport!
The airport is cool; friends and relatives are waiting for travelers at the corner of the track. I was received by a representative of the Academy of Sciences of Albania, a driver and a blue “Fiat”. My first impression on the way to Tirana: a very, very poor country and a very, very poor people; the main means of transport are horses and oxen. They put me in the ghetto of Hotel “Tirana”. The second ghetto for foreigners is Hotel “Dajti”. I want to enter a public café, but people let me know that I am not welcome.
The whole city is a pedestrian zone; cars are almost non-existent, and there are only two traffic lights. Walk along the capital of Albania, which hardly resembles a metropolis. Since I came from Austria, I have the feeling that I landed on another planet! It seems that someone has taken me back in time, by at least half a century. It begins and realizes such a thing in the appearance and clothing of the population. Fashion does not exist. The clothes belong to another era, and so do the hairstyles. No one catches your eye. So far, I have not caught the eye of any woman that I would call attractive.
I hit the streets; people change direction in front of me, but stare at me, as if I came from another planet. I feel unhappy. The worst thing is that I can’t talk to ordinary people, only officials and colleagues from the Academy. I later found out that those who talk to strangers can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. Hopeless situation! However, things are not so black and white. The culminating moment in this regard, is three young girls on the streets of Tirana, students without a doubt, who pass by me. One of them glances at me, “How are you?” speak to me in english They laugh and run away.
November 13, 1987:
My most dramatic impression for today was observing the way Albanian customers eat at Hotel “Tirana”. Wow! Knives are completely unnecessary! The garnish is served cut into small pieces and can be simply eaten with a fork. To be devoured is the correct expression! Likewise, knives are not necessary, not even for the consumption of meat. Albanians stick their fork into the steak and take a bite of the whole piece of meat. In fact, this is the most subtle method. For the less delicate method, the fork is also not needed.
They take the chop with their right hand and devour it bite after bite. I can’t believe my eyes! The service at the hotel was somewhat strange, especially in the morning. Waiters have developed a specific way to avoid customers. One day they ignored me, for less than half an hour. In the end, I took the initiative and went to the kitchen for some butter and cheese. This is what touched them at the sensibility. They started serving me. I meet an Italian telephone engineer in the hotel lobby, who is also staying at the “Tirana” Hotel.
He only speaks Italian and my Italian leaves a lot to be desired. He is responsible for improving the telephone line; Tirana-Shkodër. Despair has overtaken him. Every day tells me new stories about work ethic; they have the habit of leaving their jobs and going shopping or other personal things. The Italian engineer has created a specific form of sarcasm to survive the situation.
November 15, 1987:
Visit to Kruja
Terrible impressions: dirty children barefoot and in shorts; shepherds and men dressed in old clothes, worn trousers and jackets, if not worse, sitting on the dirty curbs of the road, veiled women; moreover, the shoes are unimaginable. On the one hand, the first impulse is to photograph them; on the other hand, this idea disgusts me: treating poverty as a curiosity. Moreover, in front of my young companion, who is still a staunch communist, I don’t want to act like a typical capitalist, commenting on poverty, in the only country in the world with real socialism.
In the evening, I am back in my room at the “Tirana” Hotel: So alone, I ponder the “true face” of Albanian communism. Relying on the impressions of the past days, I write in the diary: The impressions we have in the West about communist Albania are completely wrong and misleading. The ideological battle that the Labor Party of Albania undertakes against the “revisionists”, “Euro-communists”, etc., gives the impression that Albania is a highly developed socialist state, even ideologically. These are pricks! Let’s start with the fact that “Voice of the People” is not that big of a press and it barely publishes four pages every day of the week.
Those who believe that Albanians are ideologically aligned with their party are terribly mistaken. It is enough to visit the villages; socialism does not welcome you there, but traditionalism, especially the Islamic one…! Moscow, Beijing, Euro-communism, revisionism – I have the impression that these things have no importance for the daily life of Albanians. Likewise, the alleged cult of Stalin in the country is not true at all. In the main square of Tirana, we find only the monument of a personality, Skenderbeu, not Stalin. So far, only two busts of Stalin in Tirana have caught my eye – without anything, not even any symbolic writing. Beyond the ideological nonsense, I think that the PPSh has two real goals:
To win the fight against poverty and, in relation to this, the fight against traditionalism, which is deeply rooted? In both directions, at least this is my impression, the PPSh has failed.
Maintaining the country’s sovereignty and overcoming the lack of development, relying on internal resources. This is defined ideologically, declaring Albania; the only socialist country in the world (there are no taxes; social services are free for everyone, etc.). Anyway, Albanian socialism is primitive, based on an underdeveloped society. Albanian socialism cannot function in a developed society.
And this type of socialism can only work as long as the country remains isolated. Once the country opens its doors to the outside world, the beautiful system will crumble. At the same time, this isolation will turn into the country’s biggest problem. A whole generation grows up totally focused on their country, without any idea about Europe! On the other hand, we have the attractive effort, which is about overcoming the lack of development, fully relying on the resources within the country.
Albania does not receive any development loans from international organizations. If this model were to succeed – I have my doubts about it – then it would become an exemplary model for the entire Third World. The effort is impressive, but history teaches us that this effort does not need the PPSh and its ideology.
November 17, 1987:
Second visit to the National Museum. It’s actually something interesting. But, if I had known that the third floor of the museum is completely dedicated to the National Liberation War, I would not have spent so much time with the Ottoman period. All in all, it’s been six hours and we have a lot to see.
I find it difficult to navigate around Tirana. All apartment blocks look alike, every street like every other street. There are almost no road signs, so I often lose my way.
November 18, 1987:
Pogradec, by Lake Ohrid
The town is considered a famous tourist destination. I don’t understand why. They depressed me. Hotel “Ylli i Quq” of AlbTurizm is a real stupidity! The tourists have long since left and the hotel has opened to the public. The restaurant looks like a train station. I order fish and red wine of the brand “Skënderbe” and my life gains its balance. Korçë: The hotel is more than rural; the environment of the restaurant is very elegant, more than suitable for the “Austrian delegation”. Apparently, Korça is famous for its beer…
November 21, 1987:
We have left for Shkodër
It has been raining for two or three days. It is clear that the fields do not have drainage systems, so they are flooded. Harvester workers try in vain to open drainage channels through the wonderful fields – everything is done by hand. An incredible volume of work. In Shkodër, we visit a sports palace with arches – the former Catholic Cathedral. The closing of the Cathedral in 1967, – the companion explains to me, – came as a result of the “spontaneous” initiative of the youth, and the Party had to respond. In Shkodër, especially, the situation must have been exceptional, because the clergy were considered close collaborators with the reactionaries, the Italians and the CIA. Apparently, all reactionaries were paid by the CIA to provoke counter-revolution. The party had to respond, and could there be a more logical way than to declare yourself “the first atheist state in the world” and exterminate the clergy?
November 23, 1987:
Since the morning, a visit of honor to the honored grave of Enver Hoxha has been scheduled. I am not enthusiastic at all, but I am an official “delegation” and I have no way to refuse. Armed with a wreath of flowers, they lead me to the grave, next to the “Mother Albania” monument, which is guarded by honor guards. I’m wearing jeans, a anyway jacket and casual shoes, but I behave “very respectfully”. I’m actually having fun.
November 25, 1987:
Visit to the permanent exhibition “Albania Today”
The achievements of the Albanian masses and the latest results of the Albanian industrial production are presented there. I feel like I’m visiting an industrial museum. I can’t believe these goods have just been produced! The conclusions of my visit: “The real socialism that exists in Albania is a real nightmare! I want to scream as much as I can: Long live Austrian-style capitalism! The truth is: The party has distributed poverty equally among Albanians, with the exception of the nomenclature. This is the greatest achievement of the Albanian comrades. If people in the Soviet Union, or in China, had not spent so much on Albania, the country would never have ceased to exist.”
Despite this, official Albania is proud of its achievements. Does the party that governs the poorest country in Europe know? Officially, it does not compare Albania with other European countries. She compares the production figures of the time, with those of the wind of King Ahmet Zogu. Naturally, this comparison turns out to be a fantastic achievement. It is clear that these figures are incomparable; it is enough to mention the fact that Zogu had only a decade to experiment, PPSh, has almost half a century.
It is true that the party started from scratch in 1944! However, the achievements are disappointing. Proclaiming atheism is certainly no great achievement. Then, the solution that Qemal Ataturk gave to the problem of religion, under much more difficult conditions, was much more convincing. Beyond that, the atheist state is nothing more than a village of Ptemkinas. I have the impression that in general, traditional behavior has not changed! The only positive phenomenon for me is the obvious fact that the Party is looking for its own way to overcome the lack of development. Memorie.al
(* Austrian historian, University of Vienna)