One of the more "mysterious" parts of the leadership of Enver Hoxha (who led the Party of Labour of Albania from its founding in November 1941 until his death in April 1985) deals with the demise of Mehmet Shehu in December 1981. Shehu is widely regarded as a man whose prestige within the Party and the country National Liberation War was second only to Hoxha himself. Many histories of Albania which mention his death fail to provide specifics, thus clouding this event in unnecessary "mystery," even though some few aspects still remain obscure. This article seeks to demonstrate why Shehu was denounced by Hoxha.
One of the major contributing factors to the decision to denounce Shehu seems to stem from his relations with British officers during the National Liberation War.
Jon Halliday notes in The Artful Albanian that:
"The key document is a report from Force 399 (SOE HQ) in Bari, dated 11 November 1944, summing up the consensus after debriefing twelve agents just out of Albania... '. . . there are clearly some who appreciate what Britain has done and who are fundamentally against the present Party policy, but unable to express their views openly . . . It is . . . important to consider the potential opposition within the Movement and its possible leaders.' The second (of five) names then listed is that of Shehu, described in these terms: '. . . a personally ambitious and vain man, who has been kept down by the Party for some time. He is undoubtedly the most respected and important military figure within the movement. He has recently been subordinated to [Dali] NDREU, Comd [commander] I Corps. He is a Communist but his personal ambition exceeds his layalty [sic] to the Party.' The document ends with the words '. . . every effort should be made to prevent the elimination of those pro-British elements already known to us and to endeavour to build these up unobtrusively.' Interestingly, the third name on the list is that of Haxhi Lleshi, described as a friend of Mehmet Shehu's."(Jon Halliday (ed). The Artful Albanian: The Memoirs of Enver Hoxha. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd. 1986. p. 329.)
It is worth noting that Lleshi retired from his post as Chairman of the Presidium of the People's Assembly in November 1982, a year after Shehu's death and around the time that the Albanian state media and Hoxha himself were openly denouncing Shehu as a foreign agent. Lleshi, however, was not purged and lived until 1998, whereas some other Shehu associates such as Kadri Hazbiu were executed.
After noting that this obviously doesn't demonstrate that Shehu was a British agent (which was one of Hoxha's allegations), Halliday does nevertheless note that this was not an isolated incident. Halliday continues:
"SOE agents in Albania spoke much more highly of Shehu than of any other Partisan; he was the only Albanian under whose command British officers placed their men. It is therefore, prima facie, highly likely that the British (or some British) tried to 'recruit' Shehu, even if only in the sense of trying to establish good working relations with him. This supposition is strengthened by the fact that the SOE group working with Shehu in mid-1944 stated at the time that they envisaged a break between Shehu and Hoxha. It is also important that in the middle of the civil war, the British officer on the spot, Major Smith, reported that 'Shehu believes possibility of a compromise exists' – which ran counter to Hoxha's stance at the time."(Ibid. pp. 329-330.)
It is worth noting here a part of Hoxha's September 1982 speech to the 4th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania denouncing Shehu:
"After his suicide, a program written by his own hand at the time when he came to Albania, was found in his safe. This was nothing but a bourgeois-democratic program which made no mention at all of socialism and the communist party, but of many parties, just as the Anglo-American missions and the reactionary groups which supported them tried to bring about in the period immediately after the Liberation of our country."(Enver Hoxha. Selected Works Vol. VI. Tirana: 8 Nëntori Publishing House. 1987. p. 570.)
Arben Puto, one of Albania's foremost historians in the socialist period, noted in a 1981 work (apparently translated from an Albanian edition published in 1976) that:
"... in 1971, the [British] government was forced to make a special statement in which it pledged to open the documents of the Second World War without waiting for the completion of the 30-years time limit. It came about by chance that our team should arrive in London only two months after this decision came into force. The archival materials up to the end of 1944 were available to the readers."(Arben Puto. From the Annals of British Diplomacy. Tirana: 8 Nëntori Publishing House. 1981. pp. 11-12.)
Halliday mentions Puto's work and notes that:
"Puto got past the file containing the information about Shehu (this file was then open; moreover, there are other interesting items in the file). But that file is not quoted in Puto's book. It seems certain that the Albanian researcher found this information about Shehu—which was undoubtedly dynamite, given Hoxha's suspicious mind; that he brought photocopies back to Tirana, which were handed over to Hoxha; and that it was the discovery of this document which detonated Hoxha's suspicions which, as we now know, rested on almost forty years of fractious relations with Shehu."(Halliday, op. cit. p. 330.)
Although the visit occurred 10 years earlier from the time Shehu committed suicide in 1981 it is indeed quite certain that these documents played a large role in the decision to turn against him. Arben Puto, discussing matters as the socialist system in the country was unraveling in the 1990-1991 period, said the following:
"I was accused of hiding material I had gathered in the archives in London in order to protect Shehu. This was in 1982, ten years after I had been there! I was tried in a five-hour hearing presided over by a prosecutor and Xhelil Gjoni, and was close to being expelled."(Quoted in Miranda Vickers & James Pettifer. Albania: From Anarchy to a Balkan Identity. New York: New York University Press. 2000. pp. 38-39.)
Halliday speculates that one contributing factor to the decision to denounce Shehu was the situation in Kosovo in 1981, when student protests were suppressed by Yugoslav authorities. Halliday notes that Hoxha may have disagreed with a "hardline" Shehu on this issue. Veli Llakaj, a former high-ranking military man, was expelled from the Central Committee as a "putschist" associated with Shehu in October 1982 and sent into internal exile at Cërrik. In Albanian-language interviews he later noted that both Shehu and Hoxha considered the possibility of invading Kosovo. It's probable that the military-oriented Shehu had significantly more interest in this than Hoxha.
It is worth noting also that Shehu's views of Hoxha during the National Liberation War were in some cases decidedly negative, something that Hoxha must have been aware of. Thus on November 23, 1944:
"The second Plenum of the Central Committee of the Albanian Communist Party was held in Berat and was marked by Yugoslav interference in Albanian internal affairs. The newly appointed Yugoslav representative, Colonel Velimir Stojnic, supported by his assistant, Nijaz Dizdarevic, was critical of Enver Hoxha's policies, particularly concerning the future of Kosovë and Dibër and his firm stand on the question of complete Albanian nationalist independence, free from Yugoslav control."(Owen Pearson. Albania in Occupation and War: From Fascism to Communism, 1940-1945. New York: St Martins Press. 2005. p. 411.)
And in response to this situation on December 10, 1944:
"In a letter to the Central Committee of the Albanian Communist Party, addressed to Koçi Xoxe, Mehmet Shehu described the leadership of the Party as 'a clique within the Party', and praised those who opposed Enver Hoxha at the second Plenum of the Central Committee at Berat on November 23rd, at which Shehu himself was not present. Shehu wrote that if, in the decisions reached there in favour of co-operation with Yugoslavia, 'the party had not made the turn which it is making, we would certainly be heading for disaster'."(Ibid. p. 418.)
With his wartime record being in doubt, there are also matters closer to the 1970's and 80's:
"By 1980 Shehu still appeared to have the best chance of succeeding Hoxha. [Beqir] Balluku had already been purged, and Kapo, the third-ranking member of the leadership, had died in 1979. Shehu fared relatively well during the reshuffling of government officials in April 1980. Although he was relieved of his duties as minister of defense on the grounds of his 'heavy responsibilities' as prime minister, Shehu was able to ensure Hazbiu's appointment as defense minister, while another relative, Feçor Shehu, became minister of internal affairs."(Elez Biberaj. Albania: A Socialist Maverick. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1990. p. 36.)
Yet not only Shehu's past, but also his present stands were a strong consideration in his evaluation by Hoxha:
"On the eve of the Eighth APL Congress, held in November 1981, Hoxha and Shehu apparently clashed over priorities in domestic economic development and economic relations with the West. Hoxha rejected the first draft of the new economic plan submitted by Shehu. In contrast to Hoxha, Shehu reportedly had advocated a reallocation of resources away from heavy industry so as to boost the consumer-goods sector, effect an improvement in the system of prices and stimulate economic interaction with the West. Shehu [also] incurred Hoxha's wrath by reportedly neglecting his government responsibilities and delaying the preparation of his report to the Eighth APL Congress because of his preoccupation with writing a book on the world economic crisis."(Ibid.)
The aforementioned Veli Llakaj made somewhat of a mention of the latter in a recent interview in which Shehu apparently described the world capitalist economy as being in a crisis, but that capitalism was not facing a political crisis. It is possible that Shehu was using such an analysis, however, to promote undue economic cooperation with the West and a relative liberalization of the economy. The Chinese leadership actually attempted something quite similar to this with an opposite angle through its "Three Worlds Theory," arguing that American imperialism was critically weakened and that Soviet social-imperialism was thus a "bigger threat." In the August 6, 1971 letter of the Central Committee of the PLA to its counterpart in the Communist Party of China on Nixon's visit to Beijing, for instance, Hoxha remarked that:
"It is true that American imperialism is now in great difficulties at home and abroad. The American people are showing marked signs of being weary of the policy of aggression and international tension pursued by Nixon and his predecessors in the White House...
Nevertheless, without overestimating or underestimating the enemy, the picture of the situation in the United States of America today does not impel us to the conclusion which you have reached, that America is caught up in a great revolutionary storm.
The big popular protests and demonstrations in the United States of America against the war which is being waged in Vietnam, and the other movements of the masses are a fact, but they have to do only with opposition to a given activity, to a concrete act of the American government, and only indirectly affect the whole of its aggressive line. They do not transcend this limit. As regards their economic situation, the ideology which inspires them, their way of life, customs, traditions, links, etc., the American people are far from being on the eve of the revolution. A great deal of water will flow under the bridges over the American rivers before that time comes. We are convinced that it will come, but it will take a great deal of work and a great struggle.
In Western Europe the movement of the masses, which has long-standing traditions, is much more extensive and powerful than in the USA. Its overall political trend and class character are evident. Nevertheless, here, too, it cannot be said that the revolutionary storm is blowing up and that the revolution is imminent. To judge otherwise would mean to create harmful illusions and the revolutionary forces could easily fall into extremist errors, especially into ultra-leftist errors."(Enver Hoxha. Selected Works Vol. IV. Tirana: 8 Nëntori Publishing House. 1982. pp. 673-674.)
It is thus hard to see the idea of Hoxha disagreeing with Shehu on ideological grounds in this instance (assuming a political crisis of capitalism entailed revolutionary situations in the USA and Western Europe), but in fact disagreeing with an attempt by Shehu to undermine the Marxist-Leninist basis of the policy of the Party of Labour and to undermine the socialist economy.
Besides these things I have mentioned there is also another, rather stranger incident that was the immediate catalyst for Shehu's denunciation and subsequent suicide. Biberaj presents the incident like so:
"When Hoxha's subtle efforts to convince Shehu to voluntarily step aside failed, the first secretary stepped up the campaign to dislodge his former comrade-in-arms. He took advantage of the engagement of one of Shehu's sons to a young lady from a politically undesirable family to vilify Shehu. At a Politburo meeting on December 17, 1981, a month after Shehu had emerged from the Eighth APL Congress with seemingly much of his power intact, Hoxha succeeded in having all the participants, including Hazbiu, rebuke Shehu. The following day the leadership issued the astonishing announcement that the prime minister had committed suicide. Shehu was succeeded by his deputy, [Adil] Çarçani."(Biberaj, op. cit. p. 37.)
This son was apparently to be married to a relative of Arshi Pipa, a prominent anti-communist émigré and one of the foremost polemical opponents of the socialist government from the 1950's onwards.
Hoxha, in his September 1982 report to the 4th Plenum, reported matters as follows while speaking in third person:
"In this context Mehmet Shehu arranged the engagement of one of his sons to the daughter of a family in the circle of which there were 6 or 7 fugitive war criminals, including the notorious agent of the CIA, Arshi Pipa. Such an engagement could not fail to attract the attention of the public. And it was done precisely with the aim of attracting public attention and causing a sensation, so that if it were accepted by the Party, it would lead to splits and liberalism among others, too, in the Party, the Youth organization, etc. If it were not accepted by the Party, measures would be taken against Mehmet Shehu, not imprisonment, of course, but demotion, removal from his position, or even expulsion from the Party. This would cause a sensation and the Yugoslavs could use it, as they needed it, for their propaganda purposes to discredit the leadership of the Party of Labour of Albania, and especially Enver Hoxha, who, as they have repeated over and over again, is 'eliminating' his collaborators as Stalin did."(Hoxha, op. cit. Vol. VI, p. 590.)
Bashkim, the only one of Shehu's sons who was home with his father at the time of his death:
"... has maintained that his father committed suicide, though he has been unable to throw any light on the reasons why Shehu had agreed to the controversial engagement of his brother, knowing that such provocation would inevitably elicit Hoxha's wrath, if not his ultimate revenge."(Paulin Kola. The Search for Greater Albania. London: C. Hurst & Co. 2003. p. 167.)
And thus, after noting Hoxha's desire to have his successors continue his legacy, Biberaj concludes that:
"With the [subsequent] decimation of Shehu's faction, Alia had the succession firmly within his grasp. Hoxha would tell his French friend and consulting physician, Paul Milliez, that the succession had been settled and he could now die 'peacefully.'"(Biberaj, op. cit. p. 38.)