20 February 1991: Iconoclasm in Tirana
20 February 1991 has remained in the historical memory of the Albanian people as the day when the country’s most central monument for dictator Enver Hoxha was pulled down, carried out by a crowd of hundreds of people, decapitated and towed around town behind a police truck that was hijacked by two young protesters. From 18 to 20 February 1991, 700 students entered a hunger strike because the party leadership refused, among other things, to remove Hoxha’s name from the state university. Accordingly, supported by thousands of citizens of Tirana and all Albania, the University of Tirana decided to drop the dictator’s name. Calls for the union between Albania and Europe became a symbol of the student protests. As mentioned before, the spectacular climax of the protests was the collective destruction of the gigantic Enver Hoxha statue, located on the capital’s main square. When taking in consideration the opposite paradigms of the “spontaneous destruction by the people” and the legal and regular elimination; the distinction between iconoclasms “from below” and “from above,” we may conclude that the toppling of the Enver Hoxha statue was definitely one “from below.” The police tried, without any success, to protect the statue from the surging crowd of “iconoclasts.” on television Hoxha’s successor Chief of State Ramiz Alia condemned the historical event as vandalism. Of course Alia’s words made no sense at all. I would like to refer to Dario Gamboni’s book The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, in which he defines the distinction between iconoclasm and vandalism by characterizing the first as a senseless, gratuitous act perpetrated by the uneducated; in contrast to iconoclasm, which indicates an intentional, dominating act aimed at change.
The inauguration of the Pavilion of Communist Terror
Today, on the occasion of this historic date, the government organized the inauguration of the Pavilion of Communist Terror in the National Historical Museum. Different people told me that this exhibition has been under construction for several years, so I was more than excited to pay the museum a visit. Unfortunately I found the doors closed. The guards that surround the building let me know that the opening will be tomorrow morning. Maybe today was only the official opening for an exclusive audience, but I strongly doubt that since the press release and the posters at the entrance announce the date of today. Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who would be present at the opening, explained to the press that today, February 20, is the date when dictatorship in Albania was overthrown.
Berisha’s hidden agenda
According to Berisha, dictatorship descendents have never voiced remorse for the crimes committed against those who sacrificed their lives for a “Europea-oriented Albania.” Although he strongly denies it, everyone in Tirana knows that Berisha was a representative of the Labour Party at the time, sent to talk to the protesting students at the University of Tirana, trying to stop the protests. Today, exactly 21 years after the historical events, Berisha proclaims the protests to be a highly meaningful turning point for Albania. He calls out a national day of remembrance but the motives he holds on to remain obscure. Obviously Berisha is totally in favor of an official day like this, since he finds here a great opportunity to present an exhibition about the communist era within the context of his own parliamentary, propagandistic agenda. He said that “this important date recalls the date on which thousands of Albanians overthrew the bronze with incredible courage and bravery and separated the Albania of today from the decades of extreme oppression and inhuman humiliation.”
It may be clear that Berisha likes to talk about the thousands of unsung heroes that were prosecuted by the communist regime; in fact no concrete efforts or economical compensation have been undertaken at all. An incident that happened only a few days ago illustrates that still, after twenty years, there are people protesting to call attention to incorrect treatment of political prisoners who were excluded from society by the communist regime and never received compensation in any form: last Thursday a group of ex-political prosecuted called for financial help to bury a fellow ex-prisoner that recently passed away. Nor his friends nor his family were capable to pay for his funeral. His body stayed in the mortuary for one month, after it was assigned to the office of the general organization that supports the politically prosecuted. Accordingly an official homage for the man took place, right in front of the parliament building. At a certain moment a member of the parliament walked by, showing complete indifference, which made one of the former prisoners go mad and punch the politician in the face. ”Berisha’s heroes” were, again, arrested.
Tomorrow, when the Communist Terror pavilion will open its doors to the public, I expect to see pictures, numbers of prisoners, personal objects and related documentation and artifacts. Of course carefully screened and composed by the ruling party. The communist era remains a heavy subject to digest, especially for hypocrite political organizations that partly still exist out of former members of the communist party.
Update: Opening of the Pavilion of Communist Terror
Apparently, according to a Top Channel news item, the opening indeed took place on Monday 20 February, but only politicians, former politically persecuted people and relatives of victims of the communist regime were allowed to be present at this official occasion. Since the day after the official opening the pavilion is open for the public. An impressive collection of clothes from prisoners who were killed under the communist regime; images and attributes that remind of the inhumane treatment of prisoners and other artifacts are to be found there. Hanging screens play documentaries and even a prison cell is simulated to give the public an idea about in what terrible environments prisoners spent their days. Also there was a substantial amount of documentation about the February protests from 1991, to mark the symbolic end of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime. Personally I find it a very impressive collection of great importance, although it bothers me that Berisha is wrongly depicted like one of the rebels that made this event happen. Some things never seem to change; like the politicians in power shamelessly re-writing history in order to boost their personal legacy.