Wall to Wall: From Berlin to Tirana, 30 years later

Ruben Avxhiu

By Ruben Avxhiu

When the Berlin Wall collapsed 30 years ago, communist Albania, strangely enough, had a much better relationship with the capitalist and liberal West Germany than with its fellow socialist state on the East side of the Wall. How was that possible?
Early allies and members of the infamous Eastern block, Albania and GDR (the Soviet dominated Democratic Republic of Germany) were the two ends of the same rope that tied half of the continent together. East Germany had been the most developed country of the so-called “socialist camp” while Albania the poorest and the most backward one. As the Balkan country slowly tried to implement Soviet-like, socialist-minded reforms, GDR was among the countries that offered help.
However, when the communist world was rocked by the Moscow-Beijing divide, Albania curiously sided with China and the relationship with East Berlin became sour. In 1961, USSR took the extreme step of cutting all diplomatic ties to Albania. In the following weeks and months, all the East Germans who were studying or working in Albania were ordered back. Albania did the same with its citizens abroad. The friendship had practically ended. In his memoir, the dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, reserves nice words for Wilhelm Pieck, however those who replaced and succeeded him, were treated as traitors of “true communism” and of his presumed mentor Stalin.
Less than two decades later, as the relationship between Albania and China waned, and Hoxha began to pursue a policy of ultimate isolation, one of the last cracks in his mad ideological wall was left open for an unexpected newcomer: West Germany. It had always seemed like an impossible mission. Albania had demanded 2 billion of dollars in reparation from Germany, because of World War II. The Nazi invasion had lasted only a little more than a year, but Hoxha almost lost his army and his life during the winter of 1943-1944 when he practically hid and delegated most of his power to his more war-like lieutenants. Only in 1955, Albania declared officially its war with West Germany over.
The diplomatic exchange that began without fanfare in 1979, led to a careful but growing increase in trade. It took almost a decade for the two countries to establish official diplomatic relations, but it finally happened in 1987, almost two years after Hoxha’s death and two years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
There is probably more myth than truth to it, but many Albanians believe that Bonn had an offer for Albania, if the isolated communist fortress agreed to play along. Albania could be turned into a small economic miracle intended to show the East Germans what could be accomplished in a very short term.
The idea was spearheaded by Franz Joseph Strauss, then Prime Minister of Bavaria, who had visited Albania in 1984 and 1986. Strauss was not your run-of-the-mill politician. He was flamboyant and made a lasting impression on the Albanian leadership. He was also not new to this kind of endeavors. Foreign Minister Genscher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl probably saw his foreign trips with bemusement if not with unease. But, he had been to Romania and took credit for convincing Ceausescu to allow the repatriation of ethnic Germans. He had been to East Berlin and control had eased along on the Wall. He was not an official of federal Germany and could make proposals Bonn didn’t previously approve or could easily deny if necessary.
This early rare opening with West Germany was seen for a long time by Albanians as a missed chance to go all the way. Albania could have led the wind of change, whether there was a serous proposal or not by Bonn to make Albania an example that would have encouraged change in East Germany the rest of Eastern Europe. The communists in Tirana were too afraid of reforms. Hoxha was gone, but he had ruled with an iron hand and those who survived his numerous purges were not only his most loyal collaborators but also the most spineless and less inclined to take bold actions.
I remember, in 1988, when a new set of city buses sent by West Germany began to operate in Tirana. People who had never needed a bus ride, took them just for the sake of trying them. The difference with the old buses was stark. It was part of a number of products that gave Albanians a taste of what could come. They heightened the speculation of possible change.
A few months before the Berlin Wall collapsed, Albania sent a high-level delegation to Bonn, but the negotiations didn’t go well. West Germany may have lost patience or the interest while Albania was still too undecided after all these years.
In November 1989, the Wall collapsed in Berlin and scenes of joy filled the TV screens in the houses of many Albanians, who had defied state laws by watching Western channels. The event represented a new chapter of history that was finally beginning in Europe. There was little to celebrate in Albania however. We had abandoned the wrong side of the Wall, nearly three decades ago, and had yet to make it to the other side. We were not West and we were not East. We had wandered in uncharted ideological territories and we remained something else. The chance to jump the line had been definitively lost. Worse, Albania would continue to drag its feet, becoming the last in Europe to accept change.
A the Wall fell in Berlin, Albania’s communist leaders scrambled to underline the difference between our country and those who had “betrayed communism” a long time ago, including the East Germans. The relationship with Romania was suddenly being propped up. It didn’t last long. By the end of December, Romanians rose to overthrow their regime and Ceausescu was executed. A very lonely winter expected Albania. It turned out to be also the last winter in communism for us.
In July 1990, another wall collapsed. This time it was in Tirana and the wall served as a fence for the Embassy of West Germany. The reason why it collapsed was because a large truck filled with young people struck it on purpose. Then they proceeded to enter through the open crack and asked for political asylum in front of the shocked embassy employees. But the German officials reacted fast and refused the demand from the Albanian authorities to return the escapees. Within a few days, more than 3,000 people poured in through the cracked wall or over the fences, overcrowding the embassy, before the authorities acted to seal the perimeter. A few days later West Germany won the World Cup in soccer and the thousands uninvited guests celebrated loudly to the displeasure of the security officials surrounding the embassy. A couple of thousand more people had entered in other (mostly Western) embassies. After a week of negotiations, isolationist Albania allowed their departure.
On October 3rd, 1990, three years after West Germany established diplomatic relations with Albania, the two Germanies reunited in one state. In December, the students revolted in Tirana starting a movement that brought the regime down.
In the upcoming months, all these events and others that followed will have their 30th anniversaries. Most of them will remind us both of the great changes brought by history, but also of the missed chances. A bitter-sweet reflection is unavoidable. Almost 30 years ago many of us opted to kill fear and give a chance to freedom. Many paid with their lives, but it could have been much worse. What followed was a new chapter of history, where fortunes varied. Many dreams came through and others were cruelly crushed. Just north of Albania, another country that stretched in a gray area between West and the East (re)discovered the evil of extreme nationalism and went through a decade of wars that included a level of barbarism unseen since the end of World War II.
Thirty years later, I think most of us would still choose the break with the old world we left behind. It is what we did with the new one that may torture our thoughts and our consciousness.

The truck that cracked open the wall of the West German Embassy, in Tirana, Albania.