God and the Ghosts of Communism

If the invasion of Ukraine at the instigation of a former KGB agent were not enough to focus the mind on the legacy of the Soviet Union, 2022 also marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s infamous secret memo to the Politburo, expanding the Revolution to include butchering Orthodox priests. Thus began an age of brutal religious persecution wrought by secularist states. By the estimation of leading religious demographers, over thirty million Christians perished under atheist regimes in the twentieth century. Tell this to friends who might insouciantly associate “secularism” with deliverance from religious violence. Tell this, too, to American history teachers, who rightly cover the horrors of Nazism and slavery, but often have far less to say about the Communist tragedy.

While the Soviet Union and Communist China account for most lives lost in raw numbers, nowhere was the logic of Marxism-Leninism vis-à-vis religion pursued more ruthlessly than in little Albania, especially under the dictator Enver Hoxha (r. 1944-1985). His one-party regime went so far as to criminalize religious belief in 1967, making Albania “the first atheist country in the world.” The government crowed about the achievement. 

The People’s Republic of Albania

All this was on my mind as my driver and I wound our way up mountainous dirt roads in Albania’s remote north in search of Spaç prison. An abandoned, crumbling edifice, on which once-confident propaganda posters have proven no match for weather and time, Spaç was one of several work prisons established by Albania’s Communist regime to extract labor (and often life) from the state’s long list of political enemies. The buildings’ ruins, and the embittered ghosts haunting them, provide a bracing glimpse into Albania today, lodged between an uncertain future and a dark, difficult past.

Albania’s history is complex and strife-torn at almost every step. Pacified by Romans and then early Christian missionaries, the fierce tribes of ancient Illyricum became devout Christians, sending bishops to early church councils. This is the land of Saint Jerome and Mother Teresa, who is still an Albanian national icon.

When the Roman Empire divided in the fourth century, the Albanian church remained under Rome, while politically it reported to the new capital in Constantinople. After the church schism of 1054, its northern parts stood with Rome, while the south tilted toward the Byzantine East. Franciscans established a brotherhood in Albania in the 1200s and, rebounding from harsh persecution under Communism, remain active there today, as I gathered from a conversation with a friar in Tirana who, revealingly, refused to utter Enver Hoxha’s name.

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, a new faith presented itself: the dominant Sunni Islamic belief system foremost, but also several Shia-oriented Sufi dervish orders, led by the Bektashis, who today make their international headquarters in Tirana. 

As the Nazi bid for European mastery unraveled in 1944, the National Liberation Movement, led by the Communist Party Secretary Hoxha, seized power in Albania. The son of an imam, Hoxha studied in France as a young man and was smitten by eighteenth-century philosophes and historical materialism. He became a diehard Marxist-Leninist and a rapt admirer of Josef Stalin. Dispatching rivals with aplomb and breaking with nearby Yugoslavia in 1948, Hoxha and his allies turned the “People’s Republic of Albania” into one of the most isolated and ruthless one-party states in the Soviet bloc, imitating Stalin’s efforts of industrialization, collectivization, and de-kulakization–the unapologetic liquidation of propertied classes. When Nikita Khrushchev distanced himself from Stalin’s legacy in the 1950s, Hoxha demurred, breaking ties with the Soviet Union and seeking a new patron in Mao Zedong’s China. Then when Deng Xiaoping criticized Mao’s legacy in the late 1970s, Hoxha proclaimed “national self-reliance,” leading Albania into a rabbit hole of isolation, paranoia, and poverty. 

The intensity of government-orchestrated anti-religious sentiment and persecution found in Albania, yoked with Hoxha’s xenophobic nationalism, set Albania apart even from other Marxist-Leninist regimes during the Cold War, though they generally shared Marx’s equation of “religion” with the “opiate of the people” and a desire to control and erode its influence.

By 1971, only sixteen priests were believed to remain in the country, twelve in prison and two in hiding. The Catholic Church now officially recognizes thirty-eight communist-era Albanian martyrs.

Since 1967 stands out as a pivotal date for making sense of what happened in Albania, we might speak of persecutions before and after this watershed. 

Following the Soviet model, the new Albanian government used an Agrarian Reform Law to nationalize religious properties in 1945, terrorizing anyone who resisted. Hoxha and his key aide, Mehmet Shehu, a socialist brawler in the Spanish Civil War, targeted the well-educated Catholic clergy in particular, branding them as fascist collaborators and/or American or Vatican spies. In May of 1945, the regime expelled the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Leone Nigris, and summoned the Archbishop of Shkodër, Gasper Thaçi, and the Archbishop of Dürres, Vincent Prendushi. When both refused to cut ties with the Vatican and preside over an exclusively national church, as Hoxha requested, retribution came quickly. Thaçi died under house arrest in 1946, at the hands of the state security apparatus or “Sigurimi.” Prendushi received twenty years of hard labor, perishing under torture in 1949. 

Their fates bespeak a larger story. In 1946, the government expelled all foreign priests, monks, and nuns, massacring twenty priests and incarcerating many more in the same year. The Jesuit order was also banned in 1946, after the mock trials and executions of the Jesuit vice-provincial, Gjon Fausti, and seminary director, Daniel Dajani. Banned the following year, Franciscans had it even worse. When the carnage is tallied, between 1945 and the early 1970s, the government tortured and executed six bishops, around sixty parish priests, thirty Franciscans, three Jesuits, ten seminarians, and eight nuns. With other political prisoners, many endured unspeakable cruelties before death, including beatings, electrocution, dehydration, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and worse.

By 1971, only sixteen priests were believed to remain in the country, twelve in prison and two in hiding. The Catholic Church now officially recognizes thirty-eight communist-era Albanian martyrs, thirty-one of whom perished between 1945 and 1950. Several number among the 6,000 bodies (likely a higher figure) still not accounted for from Communist-era violence, according to a 2021 report from the International Commission of Missing Persons.

But Catholicism was not the regime’s only target. In 1949 the government issued a Decree on Religious Communities that required all faiths to be sanctioned by the state and profess absolute commitment to it. Additional post-war regulations and mandated “charters” in 1950 and 1951 forbade religious communities from educating the young, owning real estate, running publishing houses, operating hospitals, or setting up philanthropic or welfare institutions. 

Sunni Muslims and Bektashi felt the sting of these regulations. Several high-profile muftis received prison sentences for collaborating with Axis occupying powers or fomenting dissent against the regime. By 1947, the regime had incarcerated forty-four Muslim clerics, executing twenty-eight of them in its first decade in power. Many others simply went missing. 

A similar pattern was seen in the Orthodox community. Communist officials infiltrated its churches and monasteries and shuttered the main Orthodox seminary. Two outspoken critics of the regime, the Metropolitan of Tirana Christoph Kisi and the Bishop Irene Banushi, were deposed.

The assault on religious leaders in the late 1940s and 1950s did not end religious practice, but it certainly curtailed it, instilling fear in laity and leaders alike, at a time when the Sigiurimi’s mandate against political enemies, the state’s surveillance apparatus, and a network of prison and labor camps expanded rapidly. The harassment, imprisonment, and execution of clergy persisted in the late 1950s and 1960s, if less feverishly than in the immediate postwar period. In many places, simply staffing religious services became a problem. What is more, the government ramped up anti-religious propaganda at this time, branding both Christianity and Islam as “foreign” impositions, inherently retrogressive, and inimical to the true interests of the Albanian people and the dialectical process of world history. 

In the 1950s, the regime also reformed education to exhibit a consistent secular and anti-religious Marxist-Leninist message. Brochures appeared in the centralized school system with titles such as “Religion, Opium of the People” and “Is Religion against the People’s Democracy?” Anti-religious films, books, radio transmissions, and periodicals proliferated. 

The Frenzy Against Religion

The situation in the country worsened in the mid-1960s as Hoxha, beholden to Mao Zedong after 1961, felt Albania should undergo a yet more radical “Cultural and Ideological Revolution,” not unlike that taking place in China. Already beginning to take off in 1966, Hoxha made clear its anti-religious dimension on 6 February 1967, inciting young people to cast off religious “superstition” as antithetical to Marxism-Leninism and modernization. On 22 November, a new decree (#4337) repealed previous laws that paid lip service to freedom of conscience, essentially criminalizing religious belief and practice in all forms.

These measures coincided with a state-orchestrated campaign against sacred architecture, in which indoctrinated youth and party loyalists were prodded to demolish Albania’s religious past. Astoundingly, in the span of just a few years, practically every church, chapel, mosque, monastery, and Sufi shrine (tekke) in the country, in addition to many Ottoman-era tombs (turbe), were either destroyed or re-purposed for non-religious purposes. Orthodox icons, wrenched from churches, became firewood; Qur’anic calligraphy in mosques was plastered over with concrete; sarcophagi of Bektashi saints, vandalized. Whole churches and mosques were dynamited or hacked apart with pickaxes. A remarkable photograph displayed at the Site of Witness and Memory (a museum on religious persecution in the city of Shkodër) shows a female gymnast swinging on flying rings in the city’s cathedral above where the altar once stood. In all, the late 1960s witnessed the destruction, vandalizing, or re-purposing of 2,169 sacred sites, which the government, incredulously, attempted to portray as a spontaneous, popular uprising.

Amid the destruction, Muslim and Christian clergy were denounced as social parasites. Those who resisted found themselves in prison or labor camps such as the one I visited at Spaç. Others had to attend “re-education” classes and were given menial jobs. In several cases, ousted clergy were denied ration cards and literally starved to death. Beards, seen as a religious symbol, were made illegal. In one sensational episode, in April of 1967, forty Orthodox priests were escorted to the city center of Delvinë, where they had their vestments removed and beards shaved off in an act of public humiliation.

The frenzy against religion in the 1960s preceded constitutional changes in the 1970s. Article 37 of the revised Constitution of 1976 makes clear that “the state does not recognize any religion at all, and supports and develops atheistic propaganda in order to implant in mankind the scientific-materialistic world-view,” while Article 55 forbids “the creation of any type of organization of a fascist, anti-democratic, religious, or anti-socialist character.”

Additional decrees took issue with religious names. Parents were forbidden to choose biblical or Qur’anic names for their children and enjoined to change their own names if derived from these sources, choosing instead from 3,000 suitably secular and “national” names listed in the Dictionary of People’s Names.

Religious holidays wound up on the chopping block too, as did periods of religious fasting. Sigiurimi spies cunningly tried to entrap practicing Christians and Muslims during religious fasts, such as Lent and Ramadan, by distributing forbidden foods in school and work, and then publicly denouncing those who refused to eat. Refusing pork, not pork itself, became verboten for Muslims! 

No doubt, true believers in the system existed, but the devout chafed under the anti-religious measures, and often resorted to clandestine practices. During my travels, I learned of several secret baptisms; in one case, an Orthodox woman hid their child’s baptism from her own husband, worried that he might expose her. Pilgrimage sites, which the regime shut down, sometimes received the faithful furtively and at night. Clandestine religious services took place in homes or in remote areas among trusted family members and friends. But since the Sigiurimi employed countless civilian informants, these sorts of things always carried risks.

Some catechesis went on in the confines of a household, but children presented a special danger, because they might innocently betray their family while at school—which the regime encouraged them to do. As one father remembered the time: “Parents were afraid to teach their children explicit words such as ‘love God and neighbor’ because a child might unwittingly use them in school,” triggering the government’s retaliation. 

While some efforts to skirt the system succeeded, many, sadly, did not. Religious families and individuals caught in a violation at a minimum had their work and educational prospects narrowed. Not a few wound up in labor prisons or camps for internally displaced people. The latter were not exactly prisons, but they restricted people with a “bad biography” (in the government’s Orwellian jargon) to certain areas, usually performing difficult agricultural work, ostracized by those with a “good biography,” and compelled to report to local authorities every day.

In 1973, Enver Hoxha confidently assessed the situation: “Was not the crushing blow dealt to religious dogma, that ancient plague, that poisonous black spider, in our country the most heroic, the most daring, the wisest, the most well-considered and the most skillful act? . . . A cure for cancer has not yet been discovered, but for religion [in Albania] it has been, and if a struggle [continues to be] waged in this direction, consistently and with conviction, the cure will no longer take centuries but a few decades, a few generations.”

Hoxha died in 1985. The regime ignominiously collapsed in 1991.

The Legacy of Secularism

“Once the state had become the appanage of the party with its anti-religious philosophy, this separation [of church and state] was impossible. The party’s ideology became that of the state, and all forms of religious life perforce became anti-state activity,” wrote the great Polish social theorist Leszek Kolakowski in his magisterial Main Currents of Marxism. He was describing conditions of the Soviet Union in the mid-twentieth century, but he could easily have been writing about Albania.

Marxist-Leninist ideas about religion informed the party, and thus the government’s social policy and conception of history. Yet secularism, like politics in general, is perhaps always also a local affair. Hoxha, though a Stalinist of the strict observance, was also an ardent Albanian nationalist, rhapsodizing ancient “Illyricum” as a pagan idyll before marauding empires—Byzantium (Orthodoxy), the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Catholicism), and the Ottoman Empire (Islam)—despoiled everything. This should remind us that nationalism and socialism are emphatically not antithetical to one another, as progressives today might assume. 

Of course, Albania is only one chapter in a bigger story. Violence against clergy and religious communities and many other forms of repression came to most Eastern-bloc countries, to say nothing of Communist Mongolia, China, Tibet, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba. 

That the dots are not more regularly connected and made known to young people today compounds the tragedy. Remarkably, our elite classes still cling to the belief that religion is a stepping stone to political violence and that secularism (often hitched to socialism) is the clear solution. Religious traditions have been complicit in violence, to be sure. The historical record on this is clear. In recent history, however, secularism, too, has served violent ends on a massive scale. This should make us think more perspicuously about our vocabulary, asking more probing questions. Which secularism, whose religion, under what circumstances, and with what complicating factors have history’s worst tragedies been committed? Albania, a small, severe instance of a much larger tragedy, beckons us to reject the warm cocoon of historical amnesia.