Death can be a powerful reminder. When Nexhmije Hoxha quietly passed away on February 26, at almost 100 years of age, many Albanians had forgotten she was still alive. It’s a risk you always take if you hang around too long. In the days that followed, the dictator’s wife was once again a ubiquitous presence, from private conversations to newspapers and talk shows.
Nexhmije Hoxha is certainly one of the most controversial figures in modern Albanian history — as was the regime of which she was part. History is not always kind to women. And by outliving both her husband, Enver, and the postwar dictatorship in Albania, Nexhmije was bound to bring down on her own head the rage and disappointment of an entire nation.
It’s not always easy for a country to accept its failures — the passing of its illusions, and the end of its bid to reach a future that never came. The late Nexhmije stood in for all this. She was, too often, portrayed with a language full of Macbethian undertones: thirsty for power and ready to liquidate political opponents. In the public narrative of the early 1990s she became the Ghoulish Lady, as Fahri Bariu called her in his biography.
Nexhmije was, indeed, a powerful figure in the Hoxhaist regime. But if she was the “face” of a historical period, she was also its product. The guilt for Albanian Stalinism was collective. She was just as much to blame as all those who out of cowardice, ambition, or conformity turned a blind eye to Hoxhaism’s monstrosities — the same kind every dictatorship commits when it falls into tyranny.
Nexhmije Xhuglini was born in 1921 to an Albanian family in Bitola, North Macedonia, at that time part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes created after World War I. Her family moved to the Albanian capital Tirana in the early 1920s, both with the objective of improving their economic conditions and giving their children the possibility of pursuing an education.
“I was allowed to not wear a veil and to continue my studies, many of my friends weren’t,” Nexhmije Hoxha recalled in an interview many years later. This realization of her privilege was a turning point for Nexhmije. Convinced of how important education is in shaping one’s life, she wanted the advantages she had enjoyed to be extended to every woman — connecting this to the question of women’s emancipation.
Till the end of her days, Nexhmije was proud of the men and women that were educated during the Hoxhaist regime. She believed in the new citizen, who would have to be selfless, learned, and trustworthy. In his time, Leon Trotsky had ventured to call the new socialist citizen a “superman”; while certainly no Trotskyist, Nexhmije would refer to these citizens as “the people that we made.”
A further turning point in Nexhmije’s life came in 1937 when she met Qemal Stafa, a young communist. That summer she began her Marxist theoretical education, and she soon joined the communist cell in the city of Shkodra. In November 1941, only nine days after the founding of the Albanian Communist Party, a Communist Youth Organization was established. She attended its founding meeting as representative of the antifascist women (and indeed, as the only woman present).
This meeting was important in involving Nexhmije in party-political life. But it was also here that she was introduced to Enver Hoxha — an encounter which began her lifelong commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology and to Hoxha himself. She also played her own active role in his career: for she was crucial in building a cult of her husband, a semi-mythological personality whose legacy she defended until her last days.
The couple’s rise was also driven by wider events. After Fascist Italy invaded Albania, Nexhmije had joined the demonstrators who occupied Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square on April 6, 1939, demanding that King Zog provide ammunition and build resistance. Yet the next day King Zog and his family fled the country — leaving Albania without political leadership.
The Communist-led partisan movement tried to fill this void, taking a leading role in organizing the resistance. Nexhmije herself joined the communist organization in Tirana, where she prepared news bulletins and political leaflets — and distributed them together with other resistance activists at great personal risk. Later she traveled to the city of Korçë under a false identity to join the armed partisan forces.
In this same period, Enver Hoxha was gradually becoming the party’s leading figure. Already upon his return from his studies in France he had shown interest in the incipient communist organization, and he, too, took part in the demonstrations against the fascist occupation. In October 1941 he was at the forefront of one of the most violent demonstrations, where he clashed with a fascist officer. Following this incident, Hoxha went into hiding. That same year he attended the Albanian Communist Party’s founding congress as the delegate for Korçë.
Enver Hoxha’s intellectual background, his Muslim family, and close relation with leading Communist Miladin Popović (killed by nationalists in 1945), all seem to have helped consolidate him as the leading figure in the Communist Party. In December 1945, as a result of its prominent role in the partisan war, the party won nationwide elections. Hoxha took office as the party’s first secretary — and in effect became the head of a new regime.
Nexhmije was more than a dictator’s wife. She held several important roles in the state: in 1946, she was elected the chairperson of the Communist Albanian Women’s League, and in 1952 she joined the Central Committee of the Albanian Party of Labor (as the Communist Party became known after 1948). Later on, she served as the director of the Marxist-Leninist Institute and as the chancellor of the V.I. Lenin Higher Party School.
Those who knew her personally all agree that Nexhmije was reserved — she liked to listen more than to talk. Her analytic nature was greatly valued by her husband, who relied on her opinions significantly, especially in his final days. Her daughter-in-law, Liliana, described Nexhmije as the Marxist-Leninist and Enver as the Albanian nationalist. The indication was clear; of the two, Nexhmije was the one who followed Marxist-Leninist ideology in the more “orthodox” fashion.
Unlike many leaders of tyrannical regimes, the Hoxhas were not extravagant, but lived discreetly. In her memoirs, Nexhmije recalled that even her wedding day in December 1945 was prosaic, for she did not wear a wedding dress, jewelry, or any makeup, and the couple did not have a wedding reception or a honeymoon. They were looking forward to the work that awaited them — the effort of building the society they had dreamed of.
This did not go to plan. “I can’t say whether socialism or communism failed because we didn’t have time to establish socialism,” Nexhmije clarified in an interview after the fall of the regime. “We were still in the first phase. Some mistakes may have been made, but we knew what we had found and where we were going.”
This clarification is important. Often tyrannical regimes like the Stalinist and Hoxhaist dictatorships are treated as if they were communist. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx had presented communism as a fully developed humanism. Such a society would have gotten rid of the state apparatus — to put it in Louis Althusser’s words, the state would no longer be a class state, but the state of the whole people.
This was far from the reality of Hoxhaism. The postwar regime did seek to build a modern state apparatus and industrialize the country. But it didn’t take long for it to turn oppressive, creating a separate ruling class who ran the country in the name of the workers. Its isolation from the masses was not only ideological but also physical. The country’s leaders — the members of the politburo — lived in a restricted residential area that became known as the Bllok.
The socialist society that Nexhmije envisioned was, in principle, meant to be based on the working class as a leading revolutionary force. She was, at least theoretically, against the growth of a privileged “labor aristocracy” and any “red bourgeoisie.” She feared, more than her husband, the degeneration of the Communist Party into a reformist one. But as well as fearing ideological disorientation, she was also afraid of criticism — dismissing it as “revisionism” and an attack on the socialist state.
The paranoia developed by Nexhmije and her close collaborators went to such extremes that almost everyone who was ever in line for the party leadership was themselves eventually pushed out. Her daughter-in-law Liliana went as far as to speculate during a 2010 TV interview that Nexhmije Hoxha and Ramiz Alia (Hoxha’s successor after his death in 1985) were responsible not only for the death of rival leader Mehmet Shehu, but also that of the dictator himself.
A relatively new country without an institutional tradition, Albania was bound to fail in building communism — and the dictatorship of the proletariat was not safe from the dictatorship of the handful of people who ruled with Hoxha. In her youth, Nexhmije Hoxha had been ready to sacrifice her life for her ideals. Yet the regime she dedicated herself to was itself responsible for the persecution of many intellectuals, including Zef Pllumi, Arshi Pipa, Amik Kasoruho, Musine Kokalari, and Havzi Nela.
Indeed, these names are only a small fraction of the cost it took to maintain Hoxha and his entourage for decades in power. Over 6,000 people were executed during the dictatorship, over 34,000 were arrested, about 1,000 died in custody, and over 59,000 spent their lives in internment camps, because they did not side with a state that they considered oppressive and tyrannical.
In December 1991, after the fall of the regime, Nexhmije Hoxha was arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison. She rebutted the corruption accusations and considered her arrest an attempt to politically discredit Enver Hoxha’s family before public opinion. She declared before the court: “I am not scared of the decision. I am fully aware that I have not committed any of the criminal offenses of which I am accused and, therefore, I am innocent before the law.”
Nexhmije Hoxha never felt the need to apologize for the crimes that took place during the regime. She did not feel remorse, and she did not feel guilty. She justified the political prisons, the absence of freedom of speech, the regime’s failures in international relations, and the country’s consequent isolation.
Nevertheless, her work in protecting her husband’s legacy proved relatively successful. In a 2015 survey, 45 percent of the surveyed stated that Enver Hoxha had a positive influence on Albanian politics. Today, there is still a certain nostalgia for the country’s former leader; but it doesn’t extend to his wife, who received perhaps the biggest share of blame among all of the regime’s highest functionaries.
Nexhmije Hoxha spent her last days among her loved ones. Even after the fall of the regime, she remained certain that she had taken the right decisions — and always on behalf of her country.