THE LADY MACBETH OF ALBANIA IS DEAD

 

 

To her enemies, Nexhmije Hoxha, who has died aged 99, was known as the Lady Macbeth of Albania, the sinister hidden hand in the 40-year Stalinist regime headed by her husband, Enver Hoxha, until his death in 1985. Towards the end of the regime, when Enver was virtually crippled with diabetes, Nexhmije is believed to have orchestrated single-handedly a number of summary arrests, purges and show trials. She remained in power behind the new president Ramiz Alia for a further five years until 1990 as chairman of the Albanian Democratic Front, which sought to defend the legacy of her husband’s isolationist regime and its vaunted egalitarian spirit. Nexhmije was conceivably Europe’s last unrepentant Stalinist and one of the few spouses of a communist leader to hold power in her own right. When I met her in the Albanian capital of Tirana in December 1991 she was about to be sentenced to 11 years in jail for embezzlement and abuse of state power.

 

 

While ordinary Albanians had starved in the poorest country in Europe, she and Enver had allegedly enjoyed supplies of Italian salami, French wines, western cigarettes and the services of French medical doctors. They were believed to own a string of houses, as well as 25 refrigerators, 28 colour televisions and 19 personal telephone lines. The Tirana newspaper Gazeta Shqiptare reported in 1993 that Nexhmije and her husband had between them squandered a total of $15m of state funds over the previous 50 years. Under house arrest in Party Villa No 6, a faceless tenement off Tirana’s Boulevard of National Martyrs, Nexhmije was a small-boned woman with a schoolmarmish demeanour, dressed in patent leather shoes and a twinset. She sat primly in an armchair throughout the interview, occasionally patting her grey hair or offering Belgian chocolates from a box. In fluent French she explained how she and Enver had first met in Tirana in 1941 at a session of the newly founded Albanian Communist Party. Four years later, in January 1945, they were married.

 

 

Born Nexhmije Xhunglini to Muslim parents in Manastir (now Bitola, in North Macedonia), she attended the Queen Mother Pedagogical Institute in Tirana. In 1941, having joined the Albanian Communist party (later renamed the Party of Labour of Albania), she fought alongside her husband in the National Liberation Army against Italy’s fascist occupation. After ousting Mussolini, and with Albania now proclaimed a socialist republic, in 1946 Enver Hoxha became de facto head of state. A cultivated woman who had worked as a schoolteacher, Nexhmije introduced Enver to works by Mark Twain, Lord Byron, Dickens, Edward Lear and Jerome K Jerome (Three Men in a Boat was Enver’s “absolute favourite”, she told me).

Together, in power, the Hoxhas collectivised the Albanian land and began to uproot local customs such as giakmarrje (blood revenge killings), which they considered part of backward Balkan tribalism. Though Nexhmije considered herself a modernising spirit, the Albanian politburo she helped create with Enver was in many ways a microcosm of the ancient, tribal Albania with its retributive sense of justice and purification of honour through vengeance. Party members were united less by Marxist-Leninism than by ties of family, blood and clan. More than 6,000 Albanians were executed as opponents of the Hoxha regime, some 34,000 jailed (1,000 of whom died) and 59,000 sent into internal exile.

 

 

 

From the mid-60s, Albania was torn apart by a cultural revolution modelled on Mao Zedong’s in China. Nexhmije was appointed director of the Marxist-Leninist Institute in Tirana in 1966, and Albania became a self-immolated model of Stalinist planning, as remote as the fictional Syldavia of Tintin comics. Enver had by now broken all diplomatic links with the Soviet Union: Khrushchev was a “disgusting, loud-mouthed individual” who had dared besmirch Stalin’s reputation. As minister for propaganda during the early 1960s, Nexhmije helped to run the country’s feared Sigurimi secret police, whose devotion to the regime was doglike and brutal. “We made our mistakes, Comrade Enver and I,” she admitted in her memoir, Jeta ime me Enverin (My Life with Enver, 1998). Though she remained faithful to her husband’s legacy, she said he expressed regret for executing so many people.

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