The bunkers, many of them broken and damaged, hunkered like giant multi-colored tortoises along the rocky shore, extending up the rugged hills, partially hidden by overgrowth, boulders, and trees. More than 750,000 of them were built over forty years -- just one of the obsessions of Enver Hoxha, the dictator of the tiny country of Albania from 1944 to 1985.
It’s impossible to escape, these days, the fierceness with which people cling to power once they have it. It doesn’t matter how they got it, they intend to keep it. In fact, they probably hold tighter if they’re aware that they don’t deserve it. Plus, there are the perks, all those delicious advantages of being in control.
Not long ago, traveling through the Balkan countries, we discovered plenty of historic examples of absolute power – and how, as is often said, it corrupts absolutely. Nowhere was it more obvious than in the impoverished country of Albania, pushed uncomfortably against the Adriatic Sea by Montenegro, Greece, Serbia, and Macedonia.
Vast sums of money were spent on creating these miles of fortifications around Albania’s borders. Why? According Hoxha, to keep out the rest of the world, which was insanely jealous of what the Albanian people had. Since no Albanian was allowed to leave the country or have contact with anyone beyond those fortified borders, nobody could contradict him.
The towns of Albania were dotted with unfinished buildings, victims of continuing economic hardship. That didn’t mean, however, that people didn’t live and work in them. Now that the country was inching toward a more democratic and free market existence, optimism was on the rise. However, optimism alone doesn’t create jobs or improve your way of life. As farmers used to say, you need to prime the pump. Maybe our short visit helped a little.
We saw something similar during the reign of absolute dictator Nicolae Ceauescu and his wife Elena in Romania. Among other transgressions, they destroyed acres of historic buildings in Bucharest, once the “Paris of the Balkans,” to build their massive, hideous palace and headquarters. The people went hungry and lived miserably so that Nicolae and Elena could demonstrate their power to anyone who bothered to look.
Marshall Tito of the former Yugoslavia played the same game. We saw grotesque examples in his capital city of Belgrade, but even on scenic Lake Bled in what is now Slovenia, where one of Tito’s many palaces still stands at the water’s edge. William Randolph Hearst built his fabulous San Simeon complex overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the nineteenth century robber barons filled Newport, Rhode Island with their multi-million dollar summer “cottages.”
Roman Emperor Diocletian built a a palace so huge in what is now Croatia that much of the city of Split still exists inside its remains. Several times, we became lost wandering the streets in the palace. Alexander the Great conquered lands because he could, as did Napoleon, for as long as he could. Germany expanded its borders, supposedly seeking “security” and “living” room for its people. Today, other countries do the same thing. China has annexed Tibet. Israel is steadily, relentlessly encroaching on the Palestinian territories, ignoring the borders established by international treaty decades ago. Why? Because they can. As the protagonist in my book Delphine learned, they have the power and nobody is stepping up to challenge them.
In Syria, President for Life Bashar al-Assad, son of the previous President for Life, has killed thousands of “his” citizens and destroyed much of Syria’s ancient culture and historic treasures as he battles to retain power. Those in power never yield it willingly, but the rationalizations they invent to justify their actions have no limit. Those other people are thugs, hoodlums, terrorists, barbarians. We need the space more than they do, we are entitled because of God, because we were here first, just because. If I weren’t in charge, the whole country, territory, planet would self-destruct.
Lies repeated loud enough and often enough begin to sound like truth.
No human being or organization has ever possessed the power – both economic and social -- of the giant international corporations of today. With fewer and fewer controls, they have changed the way people live and die, controlling the jobs people can get and what people are paid for those jobs, transforming the food and drink people consume, controlling the media that communicate so-called facts and create public opinion, destroying the environment, threatening the quality of life for everyone, and manipulating governments and courts.
Even Gulliver, Mr. Swift’s traveler to outlandish lands, wouldn’t believe any of this. Too absurd to be happening, he’d say. Unfortunately, he’d be wrong.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Diesel Bookstore-Oakland, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local bookstore.