November 11th – Armistice Day

Liverpool Cenotaph

Liverpool Cenotaph

The first commemoration of Armistice Day in Britain took place on November 11th 1919. In order to get men to fight in the new style of warfare brought about by the start of hostilities in 1914 what was euphemistically called ‘the Great War’ by the British was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. With that as a background it made some sense to remember those who had died fighting for the interests of their respective imperialist countries. However, since the 20 million estimated to have been killed between 1914 and 1918 paled into insignificance in the century following that conflict the whole ethos of the day has changed.

Once the ink was dry on the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 29th June 1919, cities, towns and villages in Britain, France and Belgium (but not in Germany who had other matters – like starvation, an attempt at revolution and the rise of fascism – to concentrate the minds of the people following the draconian conditions of the ‘treaty’) made efforts to raise money so that those who died could be remembered in those places they lived before being shipped off to the trenches of the Western Front or other theatres of war. (The discrepancy about the dates you’ll see on such memorials stems from whether 1918 – which was the year of the end of the shooting – or 1919 – the year of the final treaty – had been chosen as the time when the war ended.)

Even the latter date might not have been totally accurate as the so-called ‘allied intervention’ in the Russian Civil War following the October Revolution – where 14 nations that had been trying to destroy each others’ armies and navies got together in an attempt to destroy the first workers state – continued until 1920. British fatalities in that conflict were, no doubt, listed on the local memorials to appear throughout the twenties although they were fighting in a completely different theatre of war and for completely different reasons.

So even before discussions on the treaty to end the war ‘to end all wars’ had even begun British forces were following the old imperialist road of killing all those who might challenge the right of capitalism to rule the world for the benefit of a few.

Added to that far off conflict the echoes of the guns on the Western Front had barely faded before those psychopaths from the British Army, who hadn’t had their fill of blood, volunteered to join the Black and Tans (the British equivalent of the proto-fascist Freikorps of Germany) who murdered with impunity in Ireland, when the Republican movement was a bit more principled than it is today.

When Nazi forces murdered without discretion, in various countries, during the Second World War the perpetrators were branded as war criminals. When the Black and Tans did the very same in Ireland between 1920 and 1922 they were commended as heroes fighting for the British State. Presumably those that were killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Irish War of Independence are also commemorated on the World War One memorials, if not by having their names recorded at least by association with the recently concluded war.

As time went on, and not too many years at that, the emphasis of ending wars as they were too destructive, in terms of personal suffering as well as the destruction of what a society had already created, was being pushed into the background.

My point here is that the idea behind Armistice Day, November 11th had become a lie, even before it could be first commemorated.

People in Britain seem to have an unhealthy appetite for celebrating war anniversaries. It was in just such a climate that the decision was made to make a big issue out of the centenary of the First World War – I could accept (just) commemorating the centenary of the end of the war in 2018 but the beginning in 2014? That’s just bizarre. But here the politicians are being clever. They know that there’s a deep-seated jingoism in a sizeable proportion of the British electorate that they can tap into. They also know that those very same people aren’t prepared to be critical of what has happened in the past – especially if the British ‘won’.

We have already seen a lot being made of the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’ and no doubt tours to the battlefields of the Western Front and the likes of the Menin Gate in Ypres have been selling like hotcakes but are we really dealing with the real issues at hand?

Although this particular ‘celebration’ was initiated by the Tories and the ersatz Tories of the liberal Party such pandering to the lowest political level is also a forte of the Labour Party. Through the centuries when the British armed forces had been killing, raping and looting throughout the world (of the 196 countries in the world today the British have NOT invaded only 22 of them) there had been no proposal of a day where those forces were celebrated – this was probably because even those in power at the time realised that making these killers out to be heroes would be tantamount to making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

So, if after so many years without a special day devoted to those who had fought and/or died in past conflicts, why did the Labour Party introduce Veteran’s Day in 2006 (3 years later to be called Armed Forces Day)? Because British forces were becoming even more deeply involved in a continuous series of futile, un-winnable, unpopular and more than probably illegal (on their own terms of reference) conflicts which are likely to go on for ‘a generation’. What better to throw in a parade every year and people can forget reality. It also makes it difficult for those who oppose such imperialistic shows of military might as they will be branded as being un-supportive of ‘our boys – and now girls – who are fighting for ‘us’.

Whenever I hear this type of ‘argument’ I always wonder how it would be received if it came from the mouths of the parents of German Waffren SS soldiers whose idea of fighting for ‘us’ was murdering all the villagers and burning every building, as they did in Borove in Albania, or corralling every villager they could into a large building and then setting it on fire, burning all of them alive, as happened in hundreds of villages in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

There was a sound moral reason why ordinary people (not the ruling class) of Britain adopted the idea of a day to remember those who had died in the First World War. Of course, many had died in previous wars but, in numerous senses, the war that began in 1914 was different. Although for the first year or so the war was conducted by ‘professionals’ they were soon joined by ‘volunteers’ and when that wasn’t enough to feed Death’s insatiable appetite mass conscription was introduced for the first time in 1916. These were children in many ways. Whether from the factories or the farms the vast majority of them hadn’t gone much more than a few miles from the place of their birth before being shipped off to some ‘exotic’ location. They took much of the propaganda fed to them uncritically and therefore were like lambs to the slaughter.

Any leadership was denied them when the traitorous Labour Party (yes, it’s been betraying the workers from the earliest days of its existence) decided to go back on the decisions made at gatherings, in the years leading up to the war, in such declarations as the Stuttgart Resolution (1907) and the Basel Manifesto (1912) – which called upon workers not to fight in a bosses war – of the Second International.

Although there had been many casualties in previous wars the overwhelming majority of those from the ‘Great War’ were young men in their late teens and early twenties. This had a not before experienced effect on women who never got closer to the war than those living on the south coast hearing gun fire from across the Channel. For, more or less, each soldier who didn’t return there was a young woman who had little or no prospect of marriage (at a time when this was the norm in society) or experienced widowhood . And this doesn’t take into account the many more who did return but with severe physical disabilities and even more who fought the war every day for the rest of their lives due to the trauma suffered in the trenches.

In Britain the civilian population didn’t suffer in the same way as they did in France and Belgium during the actual fighting. The real suffering followed 1918 and that made Armistice Day commemorations much more meaningful for many more people in the 1920s. This was unprecedented and hasn’t really been repeated in any way close in Britain since (although other countries had to face a similar situation subsequently, most notably the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War).

This should have been a wake up call to British workers. It wasn’t, even with all the suffering caused, both economically and socially, in the 20s and 30s. Even though the conditions showed that the capitalist system offered nothing to the majority of the population the British working class weren’t prepared to go that step further and confine it to the dustbin of history. The working class were responsible for this but then they weren’t able to create in their midst a revolutionary party that would be able to lead such a struggle – not then, nor since.

Although the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the 1914-19 war that was only really a declaration that called for a time out. The war might have ‘ended’ but the same issues that caused the war in the first place remained. Those issues could have been resolved if the workers of Europe had stood firm with the young socialist state in the Soviet Union and changed their own countries but, for various reasons, they didn’t. The rise of fascism generally, the victorious coup carried out by Mussolini in Italy, the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and, especially, the rise of Hitlerite Nazism in Germany made the World War, Part 2, inevitable.

The war in which British forces fought between 1939 and 1945 can safely be said to have been the only ‘just war’ in the history of the country. It was an ideological war for many of the soldiers involved (despite the overarching agenda of the politicians and those capitalists they really represented) with the defeat of fascism being the prime aim. For those who fought the gaining of land, resources and materials for the capitalist class was never an issue, unlike the majority of previous incursions abroad. (This is excepting, as it was fought solely on British soil, the English Civil War of the 17th century where the people rose up in a national liberation war against the God-crazed despot and dictator Charles Stuart.)

When that war officially ended in August 1945 that should have been the point when the world could have said that it had gone through the war to end all wars. But again it wasn’t. The enemy of the war that had been won, in great part, by the unimaginable sacrifice of the Soviet people, changed. Expansionist German had finally been defeated but that didn’t mean that the new kid on the block, the United States of America – together with its already tethered and dependent poodles, the United Kingdom and the other western European nations – hadn’t picked up the baton for world domination. The country which had fought fascism, as one of the ‘allies’, was now the enemy and communists seeking to make a world without war had to be defeated at all costs.

The British Armed Forces were to played, and play to this day, an important and crucial role is this battle against national liberation, progress and freedom.

Lest we forget:

Vietnam

From August to November 1945 Japanese soldiers in Vietnam were re-armed, by the British, to be used as a force against the Vietnamese Viet Minh, the national independence force led by Ho Chin Minh, in order to allow the French time to organise their forces to regain their colonialist control of the region. The Viet Minh had consistently fought against the Japanese invaders, the French had surrendered to the Nazis quite quickly and half the country was under a collaborationist government.

Indonesia

The British were involved in one battle during October and November 1945 against pro-independence Indonesian fighters in the battle for the city of Surabaya. British troops came with tanks, naval support – in the form of 2 cruisers and 3 destroyers – and air support from the RAF. The British ‘won’ but the battle became a clarion call for independence fighters in the future. Thousands of local people lost their lives.

Palestine

British forces had been in Palestine since the end of the First World War and became increasingly in conflict with the Palestinian population as more and more Jewish immigrants arrived in the country following the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – which promised ‘a national home for the Jewish people’. This decision didn’t take into account that there were already people living on the land and to make the declaration a reality some of these people would have to move. This led to increasingly violent conflicts between the British and the Palestinian Arabs before 1939 and once the war in Europe had been won and the Holocaust became widely known it was only a matter of time before the State of Israel would come into existence. A UN decision at the end of November 1947 came up with a ‘solution’ of the partition of Palestine. This wasn’t accepted by the Palestinians – it was their country and who were European powers to say otherwise – nor the Israeli settlers – who wanted it all.

Although the British were attacked by various Jewish terrorist groups (the leaders of which were later to hold high political office in the state of Israel) they stood aside as the date for the Declaration of the State of Israel (May 15th 1948) approached and the Jewish settlers carried out massacres such as the one of the village of Deir Yassin. This is a sore in that part of the world which has been festering ever since, with the suffering of the Palestinian people become greater day by day.

Greece

In March 1946 British forces continued its support of the Monarchist government in Greece. This had been ‘a government-in-exile’, i.e., the King ran away when the Fascists invaded. The Communist guerrillas who didn’t have that luxury stayed and fought against the invaders. Once the Nazis were thrown out at the end of 1944 the British were there to help reinstate the monarchy and gave support to a ‘White Terror’ against left-wing movements within the country. This ultimately led to the ‘Generals Coup’ of 1967 and then seven years of military, fascist rule.

Albania

In May 1946 a small convoy of the British Navy sailed through the narrow Corfu straights between the Greek island and Albania. This intimidation of a country with a tiny population who had liberated itself from the Nazi invaders in November 1944 was all part of the British plan, with the aid of its far superior armed forces, to undermine the Albanian Communist Government. As in Greece, Britain favoured the cowardly monarchy that had run away when the Italians had invaded in 1939, this time the self-proclaimed King Zog, and subsequently tried to infiltrate spies and saboteurs faithful to British interests, this all failed miserably.

China

In April 1949 the British Royal Navy ship, The Amethyst, was sent up the Yangtze River in China. This seems to have been more of an example of latter-day colonial arrogance on behalf of the British government and a similar attitude in the Admiralty. They seemed to be totally oblivious of the fact that tens of millions of Chinese men , women and children had died at the hands of the Japanese invaders; that the Communist Red Army under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung had played the major role in the defeat of that invading force of fascists; and that for four years they had been fighting, and were close to defeating, the capitalist favoured nationalist forces of the Kuomintang – who Britain subsequently recognised as ‘China’ (although limited to the island of Taiwan) in the United Nations until 1971. As in all these situations there’s a huge dose of hypocrisy. What would be the reaction of the British state if a Chinese warship were to start going up the Thames to ‘protect’ the Chinese Embassy, the excuse used in 1949?

Malaya

The British anti-guerrilla campaign in Malaya, starting in 1948, was euphemistically called ‘The Malayan Emergency’ – it’s interesting that after 6 years of war the use of the term was avoided so as to con the British populace that they hadn’t come out of one war to go into another. This was a dirty war fought in a manner that was to become the norm in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the next 50 years. Here the people were fighting for control of their own country opposed by a colonial power. As many of the guerrillas were of an ethnic Chinese background one of the tactics of the British was to use a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, pitting ethnic groups against each other.

The British troops in Malaya were also the first to use the tactics that the Americans were to perfect in Vietnam in the 1960s. Torture of captives was common, the tactic known as ‘search and destroy’ was widespread and the burning of villages was a matter of course, a shoot to kill policy was in place – meaning that if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time (even if where you lived) you could die, whole villages were ‘resettled’ (read imprisoned in controlled areas) so they could not aid the guerrillas, the use of defoliating chemicals was used to clear the jungle of shelter for the insurgents, and massacres of entire villages were part of the British tactics. One of those villages was a place called Batang Kali, the story of which is very similar to the case of My Lai in Vietnam in 1967, and like the later example of murder by imperialist troops not one British soldier was held to account.

Korea

The Korean War took place between June 1950 and July 1953, when an armistice was agreed but not a long-lasting solution. The division of the country was as a consequence of conferences between the Allies in the final months of the war and shows that matters were not always thought through by the Soviet Union – it seems they didn’t fully recognise the antagonism they would have to face from the capitalist nations, who were planning the ‘Cold War’ before the gunfire of WWII had ended. Using the Soviet Union’s boycott of the United Nations Security Council (in support of the People’s Republic of China’s rightful representation in the international body and hence unable to exercise the right of veto) with the US and the UK in the forefront of rhetoric and actual ‘boots on the ground’, an international force was sent in an anti-Communist crusade – a situation similar to which we can all recognise to date. A total of 87,000 British troops (including conscripts) were sent to Korea, resulting in a 1,000 fatalities. The country is divided to this day with occasional flare-ups, either militarily or in a war of words.

Kenya

As the British armed forces became involved in an increasing number of anti-colonial struggles on moving into the 1950s it’s possible to see how ‘tactics’ used in one place were repeated, and often refined, in others. The Mau Mau Uprising (again a loaded word that indicates the actions of the local populace was somehow illegitimate) was the name given to a liberation movement that fought the British from 1952 until 1956, when the struggle was all but lost by the Kikuyu fighters. In all these actions what are described as ‘war crimes’ can be attributed to the British forces, whether they be actual British soldiers or militias, auxiliaries recruited locally.

In Kenya concentration camps were established, often in very remote areas to keep the activities secret from the rest of the population. (Here it should be remembered that concentration camps were not the invention of the Hitlerite Nazis from the 1930s. No, the Nazis took their lead from the tactics used by the British at the end of the 19th century in their wars against the Boers in South Africa.) Torture was common and recent attempts by those who suffered at the hands of the British to get some sort of redress have been told, surprise, surprise, that the relevant documents have gone missing. There are a number of examples were captured insurgents were clubbed to death and a number of massacres of the local population are also documented.

Cyprus

A move by the British to move their Middle East Head Quarters from the Suez area of Egypt (presumably due to the hostility of the nationalist government of Nasser) to the island of Cyprus in 1955 was the spark to ignite both the Greek and Turkish populations desire to separate from the British and unite with their respective mainland countries. A total of 371 British soldiers died in the 4 year period but figures of Cypriot casualties are unclear – though they would have been much higher. Documents released in 2012 seem to show that, as in other places where the British fought to defend a dying colonialism, they were able to act with impunity in the way they dealt with the locals. To give an idea of the situation I’ll quote from an article in The Guardian newspaper just after the release of the documents: “A young British army officer recorded seeing 150 soldiers indiscriminately “kicking Cypriots as they lay on the ground and beating them in the head, face, and body with rifle butts”.”

Suez

In 1956, in response to the Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal the British, together with the Israelis and the French, concocted a scheme to invade the country. Although this was a short-lived occupation and really a debacle for the British and the French before they left there was a tally of 4 to 5 thousand dead Egyptians.

Oman

Oman in the 1950s was somewhere between slavery and feudalism. All power and resources where in the hands of the Sultan, who lived in a palace, which he rarely left, and was serviced by hundreds of slaves. There was no development, no schools, no health care and disease was endemic. As a result there was an inevitable rebellion. But, to paraphrase Franklin D Roosevelt when he was referring to the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s Britain’s son of a bitch’. He was also anti-Arab nationalist, something the British liked after the disaster of the Suez Crisis, and he allowed the British to build a couple of air bases in a strategically important part of the world.

This was a ‘war’, which began in the middle of 1957, fought almost exclusively, at least initially, by the Royal Air Force. In supporting the Sultan they followed the tactic of making it so dangerous and unpleasant for anyone to support any opposition to the staus quo that they would think twice to do so. They also attacked water supplies, crucial for survival in such a desert country. These were war crimes in anyone’s definition but the pilots seem to, literally, get away with murder as they are so far from the actual killing zone – just like drone pilots today. If force needed to be used on the ground the British were happy to provide the weapons. Once the RAF had bombed the rebel strongholds to dust the SAS were sent in to finish the job, in the process gaining a reputation for being the hard men of the British Army but really just carrying out mopping up operations. By July 1959, the Sultan, with the military might of the British behind him, seemed to have won.

Brunei

An anti-colonial rebellion broke out in December 1962. Intelligence of the intention of an insurrection got to the British about a month before it was due to begin, thus allowing themselves time to organise a response. It seems that overwhelming force, with infantry regiments, including a couple of Gurkha regiments, on the ground as well as Royal Navy and RAF support was able to stop the rebellion before it gained any momentum.

Indonesia

Although British troops weren’t directly involved in the October 1965 military coup which put the pro-Western Suharto in control of the country and led to the murder, over the next couple of years, of millions of Communist and trade unionists, the Royal Navy did play the role of protectors of a boat load of Indonesian soldiers on one of their killing sprees. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The Labour Government of Harold Wilson knew what was going to happen before the event, virtually giving Suharto the green light. Communist led attempts at insurrection in Sarawak and the anti-colonial (British) failed insurrection in Brunei had both been supported by Sukarno and his removal suited Britain’s political and economic interests in the region. As was, and still is, the case the question of oil came high on the agenda.

Aden

Aden, which is now part of Yemen, had been under the control of the British since 1839 but at the end of 1963 (I know that’s a long time before getting fed up with foreign domination) the local people had had enough of colonial rule. The British response to this was to declare another ’emergency’ and send in the Army’s 24th Infantry Brigade and nine squadrons, helicopters as well as aircraft, of the RAF. This was a short but very intense conflict, with the balance of power changing after each battle. The commander of the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ so that will give you an idea of how the battle was fought on the British side. The British left, earlier than originally planned, in November 1967. Around 60 British soldiers lost their lives but the number of local fighters who were killed is unknown.

(As we were nominally supposed to be in ‘Peace Time’, it’s interesting to note that 1968 was the first year since the end of the Second World War when British troops were not in a combat role somewhere in the world. I think it’s true to say the only year from 1945 till now.)

Ireland

British troops were sent into Ireland, in the most recent version of ‘The Troubles’, on 14th August 1969. Although it could be true to say, initially, they were welcomed by the Catholic community that soon melted away. With Ireland it’s difficult to know where to start. It would depend where you stand on Ireland whether this was a national, civil conflict or the perpetuation of colonial rule. Whatever interpretation you choose it brings up difficult questions. If you think that Northern Ireland is part of the UK then British troops were mistreating, torturing and generally terrorising British citizens. If you believe in an All Ireland Republic this was a matter of the colonial conflict getting closer to home.

British troops in Ireland: kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night; soon had their backs to the Unionist attackers and faced the Republicans trying to defend themselves; killed children by firing ‘battery enhanced’ rubber bullets into their faces; killed civilians in a virtual ‘shoot to kill’ policy; the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in Derry – in recent days a soldier has been arrested for this, but, as always happens in these circumstances, a lowly soldier becomes the scapegoat for overall Army policy; the Springfield Massacre in Belfast where British snipers shot 5 people, including a 13-year-old girl and a priest; the Ballymurphy Massacre when eleven civilians were killed; introduced Internment; and generally made life miserable for the people of Northern Ireland and despite the Good Friday Agreement the underlying issues remain.

(When it comes to Army recruitment the worsening situation in Ireland changed the way the Armed Forces presented themselves. Into the early years of the 70s the call was for young people to ‘Join The Professionals’. When that was seen as joining a bunch of thugs who kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night advertising for the army virtually disappeared from the scene.

Ireland has now been all but forgotten in the public consciousness – in the mainland if not on the island itself. Despite the disastrous wars that the UK has been involved in since 2002 there is a new level of confidence in the state. However many soldiers might die or return with psychological issues there seems to be no shortage of volunteers to join up. Whether the advertising campaigns are really necessary is another matter, it does shovel money into the pockets of companies who support the State but more importantly keeps the idea of an internationally capable armed force in the public thinking.)

Muscat and Oman

The issues that caused the people to rise up against the Sultan in the 1950s didn’t go away, although the revolutionary forces were severely weakened by British military action. By 1970 oil was a much bigger player in the country and the rebellions continued to break out. Instead of making efforts to ameliorate the condition of the people the British government (Labour) instituted a coup against the old Sultan (who was past his sell by date), brought the more compliant son to the throne, and then used the RAF to again bomb the poor peasants out of existence.

Malvinas

The war with Argentina over the Malvinas was a nasty, tacky war encompassing all those reactionary and archaic aspects of wars fought when Britain was dominant in the world and ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’ and the short campaign brought out the worst in the British population. Those aspects of racism and jingoism latent in the country were given free rein by the Thatcher government, who revelled in the opportunity to distract people’s attention away from their inability to deal with the economy. ‘Victory’ in the South Atlantic also allowed those war-mongers within society to attain a level of influence that was still palpable more than twenty years later when the never-ending ‘war on terror’ was declared. More than a thousand men were to die in that short war, a quarter of them British.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and ……

Perhaps it’s unjust to lump all these countries together but circumstances in the last 13 years make it difficult to separate what happens in one country from the effects on another. There is no perceivable end to this war, even politicians saying (in a perverse way to gain support for their policies) that this was is a generational war, one that will go on for years. ‘Victory’ in one place only means the fighting break outs in another. So far 465 military personnel have died in Afghanistan, 179 in Iraq. When it comes to wounded the situation is not so clear, in Iraq almost 6,000 but the figures for Afghanistan are obscured, presumably to keep as many people as possible in the dark about the true human cost.

But the figures become another matter when we consider casualties amongst those opposing the invasion of their country and civilians who get caught up in the fighting. Those figures are probably well over 200,000 but we’ll probably never know the exact figures as numbers are a political game. And from experience of the past the numbers of enemy combatants will always be exaggerated, and those of civilians played down, to demonstrate that the ‘good guys’, i.e., us, are winning.

Industrial Disputes in Britain

Another matter which is never considered is the role that the Armed Forces have played in industrial disputes in this country. Up to the mid-1980s, when trade union activity dropped considerably with the success of the Thatcher government’s anti-union policies, especially with the defeat of the miners in 1984/5, the British Armed Forces were called out almost 50 times to basically scab (strike break) on behalf of the employers. This was at a time when trade union membership was close to 12 million, so hardly a minority group within society – although lack of solidarity amongst trade unionists often meant that groups could be picked off one by one – the tactic learnt long ago by capitalism but still not by those who oppose the rotten system.

When it comes to party politics in Britain it should be pointed out that the colour of the government at any time in the last 70 years has played no part whatsoever in whether British Armed Forces were sent to other parts of the world or not. The Labour Party has been as willing to send troops to maintain British imperialism’s control of various countries, considered by capitalism to be of such importance that force was necessary, as the ‘traditional’ representative of the ruling class, the Conservative Party. Even in opposition these parties play a game and might make noises around the execution of the deployment but never, ever challenging the morality of the issue.

My reasons for this long list (longer than even I remembered) of occasions where British Armed Forces have been in action since 1945 is to argue that it is impossible – if you have any moral compass whatsoever – to consider those who have been killed or wounded as having done so in order to make the world a better place to live, the sort of statements that have been bandied around in the last week or so leading up to November 11th – a phrase which I can’t remember being used in such the same way in previous years.

It seems that the longer the ‘war against terror’ goes on the more the British population in general are prepared to accept the cost that will have to be paid in men, women and materials – those at the receiving end of this mayhem not really being considered at all. There are crocodile tears for the refugees but the bombs continue to drop, drones get used more and more (becoming more terrifying to the people of the ground with the use of the ‘double tap’ tactic – where the drone will stay for hours if need be just to ready to send another missile on anyone who tries to help the injured.

One of the stated aims of even an imperialist army is to defend the people from the country which they originate but do the people of Britain actually feel any safer as a consequence of all these wars against diverse people’s throughout the world?

If wars against poor peasants in the past didn’t affect the civilian population of Britain that is starting to change. In my travels throughout the world I was always amazed that it was very rare to come across hostility from local people who had suffered under the British Armed Forces over the decades. That has changed now. The combined efforts of Bush and Blair have created a genie which will be very difficult (if not impossible) to push back into the bottle.

So have British troops, in the last 100 years, made ‘the world a better place’? I would suggest not. A better pace for the rich and powerful but not for ordinary working people, in whatever country and at whatever level of economic development.

Why do young men and women still volunteer to join such an organisation when it has such a history? I don’t know. There will always be the psychopaths who, if they did what they do in the armed forces in civilian life they would be pariahs of society. Put them in a uniform and they become ‘heroes’. But they, I would like to think, are in the minority – although I find it disturbing when a parent of a dead serviceman/woman will say that their son/daughter died ‘doing something they loved’, when the job of a member of an infantry regiment is to kill people’.

Way back in the 70s and 80s it was suggested that those who join (especially the Army) do so because they come from poor working class backgrounds and there’s nothing else for them to do. Even if that argument is correct the poverty of their origin does not give them license to go to other parts of the world and terrorise the local population.

And where does anyone think the foot soldiers to defend capitalism are to come from anyway? The highest casualty rate in the First World War was among the lowest ranks of the officer corp. Either because they were in the first ranks of those going ‘over the top’ or because they were shot so that the rest of the soldiers didn’t have to go ‘over the top’ at least they were fighting for a society that had benefited them.

Even in the 21st century troops after coming back from the wars in the east are complaining about the lack of support in civilian life. Don’t they have any idea of history? In the 1914-19 war they were promised ‘homes fit for heroes’, they didn’t get them. Why should the State act any differently now, especially when we are in a time of austerity where we are ‘all in this together’ and everyone must play their part?

I don’t want this country to keep sending its young people to fight wars for whom the ruling class are the only beneficiaries. I don’t want that we have to keep adding different campaigns to the list on the First World War memorials. But unless the people of this country stand up against these wars that is what will continue to happen, and now in a climate where people are so full of hate (and why is that surprising?) that they are prepared to bring the war back to the country which had sent the bombs to kill families on the other side of the world. These are very dangerous chickens that are coming home to roost.

For a time leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the war against Iraq many people wore badges with the slogan ‘Not in my name’. That should be the slogan all the time, a slogan which shouldn’t be forgotten once the fighting has started and the bodies of those young people start to arrive back home. If the country is not prepared to see the processions through ‘Royal’ Wootton Bassett (something which the General Staff of the Army hated and which will never be repeated however height the casualties) then it shouldn’t allow those young people to be sent out in the first place.

That would be in a world without war – but there are far too many vested interests to allow such a situation to arise without a fight. To attain that would be definitely worth fighting for – a war to end all wars.

 

 

‘Death to Fascism’ Mural in the National Historical Museum, Tirana

The complete mural

The complete mural

The mural that covers the whole of one wall in the room of the National Historical Museum in Tirana that’s devoted to the War of Liberation against the invading fascists of 1939 to 1944 is one of the few which can still be appreciated at leisure by any visitor. There’s another which can be seen, but not fully understood, as it’s in a room which is undergoing renovation at the moment. Whether it will be covered in some way as part of this renovation is unknown – but hopefully not.

Since the end of the 1990s, when relative stability was regained in the country, various Albanian governments of various colours have sought to slowly but surely eradicate the period of the construction of Socialism, from 1944 to 1990, as if it had never existed. Those of the neo-fascist right (some of whom were even members of the Party of Labour of Albania for many years but changed their allegiance once the opportunity presented itself – therefore justifying the idea of Joseph Stalin that the Party constantly needs to purge itself of opportunist elements) want the past eradicated so that their names cannot be associated with those actions and tactics which they now deny.

Those of the opportunist now social-democratic ‘left’ don’t want to show themselves in their true colours, offering ‘easy’ options to difficult problems and denying that the efforts to construct a wholly new world order had any value whatsoever. They look for comfort in the ‘tinkering’ of the system as they are totally inadequate in the task of substantially changing society forever. Efforts by those who have tried to do so in the past – whatever the failings and the mistakes that might have been made – only show them up for the weak and cowardly opportunists that they are.

Capitalism has, in the last hundred years, constantly criticised Socialist states of ‘re-writing history’. This is not the place to argue the truth of such accusations but what is certain is that this ‘holier than thou’ approach is mainly used as a smokescreen for the oppressive and exploitative system to justify the way it has, still does and will until the days it is destroyed forever, interpreted history in a manner which portrays capitalism and imperialism as the only possible system that can exist throughout the world – despite the innumerable crimes it has, still does and will commit in the future.

But back to the mural.

This one depicts images from the war against German Nazism. It does not pretend to be a view of a particular battle at a particular time and place. It’s more of a montage with images that attempt to record, in a visual manner, the struggle of the Communist-led Albanian Partisans against the Nazi invader.

It seeks to portray the Partisans as fearless and determined fighters who will do any and everything to rid their country of the invaders. In doing so the painter (and this has been repeated in an number of other places, both in paintings and in the sculptures of the Albanian lapidars) effectively has dehumanised the German soldiers.

This ‘dehumanisation’ is necessary to stress the difference between the moral authority of the Partisan fighters in resisting the invaders and the lack of such authority of the German forces who sought to dominate and enslave the Albanian population.

The depiction of the Nazis as no more than unprincipled and vicious animals also seeks to remind the Albanian people of the atrocities that were perpetrated by the invaders during their time in the country. In their frustration against their inability to defeat the Partisans (who carried out for the first part of the organised armed struggle after the formation of the National Liberation Front in Peze in 1942 a guerrilla war against first the Italian and then the German armies) the Germans carried out a total war which, among other things, involved such actions as the massacre and annihilation of the village and people of Borove after a particularly successful and stinging ambush carried out near-by.

The painting seeks to remind the viewer, in one relatively small space, of all of that and to value the sacrifice of those Partisans who gave their lives for the freedom of their country.

The fact that now, seemingly, the majority of the population of Albania don’t give a toss about that sacrifice is neither hear nor there. The reality of the struggle in Albania is that it was the Communist Partisans who liberated their country from the invaders without the assistance (other than material) of any external major ‘power’.

The mural tells that story by the use of images which can be seen in various lapidars throughout the country.

The armed, fighting, fearless, female, Communist Partisan

The armed, fighting, fearless, female, Communist Partisan

The principal and central character is a female Partisan. It is around her that all the action takes place. She’s physically the largest representation and in her image she tells a lot about the history of the success of the Albanians against the fascist invaders.

What I consider the most important aspect of the manner in which she has been portrayed is that she is armed, heavily. This is an aspect I have seen in visiting all those lapidars (monuments) and other art works produced during the Socialist period (from 1944-1990) – such as bas reliefs and mosaics – in that if a woman is represented in a military context she is always armed.

This can be seen in the wonderful mosaic (The Albanians) at the front of the very same building as well as in the Martyr’s Cemeteries in Lushnje and Fier, to name just a few.

Not only is this depiction of the female Partisan as an active armed fighter for the liberation of her country a recognition of the role that women played in the victory in Albania it also stresses what Mao Tse-tung expressed so succinctly ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. True ‘female liberation’ will not be achieved until workers have freed themselves from oppression and exploitation and the system of patriarchy that has been strengthened and perpetuated under the economic system of capitalism. It won’t come naturally even then but will never happen unless this pre-requisite is achieved.

We don’t know if she’s the leader of this Partisan group but she’s in the vanguard of the attack and although she is moving forward she looks back to those behind and with her left arm she is signalling for others to hurry as the battle is being waged. The speed of her onward rush is captured by her cape, her long, black hair and her scarf which fly out behind her.

In her right hand she holds a light machine gun, she has a couple of stick grenades (captured from the enemy in a previous attack) tucked under the belt that holds ammunition pouches and there’s another ammunition belt across her chest. She’s also the only one of the Partisan fighters who wears what resembles a uniform.

The Communist calls for the attack

The Communist calls for the attack

We know she’s a Communist as she proudly displays the red star on her cap and the red scarf around her neck reinforces that declaration of political allegiance.

In fact the use of red in this painting is quite interesting. In general the palette used is quite mute but the bright red appears only from the dress and symbols of the Partisans – apart from a flash of flame from the machine gun being fired by the Partisan on the extreme right and the flames from the burning Nazi tank on the extreme left. Even the blood of the dead and dying Nazis is a dull, lacklustre red.

Traditional footwear in a modern war

Traditional footwear in a modern war

We also know she’s from the countryside, as most Partisans would have been at the time, by her footwear – sandals and the colourful woollen socks. This is in contrast to the heavy boots being worn by the Germans and even those of two of her male comrades.

Forward always

Forward always

To the right of the female Partisan is a young male. In his right hand, stretched out in front of him giving the impression of his rushing forward to join in the attack, is a rifle. His stance is of one who is fighting in mountainous terrain, with his right leg bent and his left stretched out behind him to give his forward movement more force. This is a stance that is very reminiscent of that of the Partisan statue on the Durres seafront.

But his role in the picture is not as a fighter but as a bearer of the symbol of the Albanian Partisans. He is the flag bearer and in his left hand flutters the rallying point of the Communists.

The Albanian Communist Banner

The Albanian Communist Banner

This is the red flag on which is the black, double-headed eagle with a gold, five pointed star embroidered above the two heads. This was to become the national flag of Albania after the declaration of Independence on 29th November 1944.

This would normally be of a brighter red – as the red stars on the caps and the red scarves – but I assume that the artist didn’t want to detract from their flashes of colour which a large expanse of red in the middle of the picture. So he has chosen more of a purple colour for the flag.

He knows where he's going

He knows where he’s going

Apart from him being responsible for the flag we also know his political allegiance, again, by the red scarf that’s around his neck.

Her red scarf, her sacrifice blood

Her red scarf, her sacrifice blood

Behind him, and slightly in the background, we are reminded that victory in anything, especially war, comes at a cost. And here we see the cost being paid by a young female Partisan who is shown at the time of death, her back arched as she is about to fall. We don’t see her face but we sense the pain as the bullet that kills her enters her body. She has no weapon but there is spare ammunition in her belt and her red scarf singles her out as a Communist.

Shooting down from the mountains

Shooting down from the mountains

The Partisan in the extreme right corner shows the extent of the population that joined the National Front against the fascist invaders. He is older, also from the countryside but here almost certainly from one of the mountainous regions of Albania.

He is also a Communist, with a red star on his fez, but in place of a scarf around his neck he has it wrapped around his hat. Typically at the time men from the mountains had moustaches and he sports a dark, black one.

A Communist peasant from the mountains

A Communist peasant from the mountains

He shows his physical strength by firing a moderately heavy machine gun but without the need of the normal tripod. His proximity to the dying woman also gives the impression of him taking revenge for the loss of a comrade. His machine gun spits fire and the bullets fall in a shower down by his feet.

The British contribution

The British contribution

It’s true that the British did supply the Communists Partisans with war material during the War of Liberation. They would rather have given the supplies to the Nationalist forces but 1) British representatives on the ground realised, and advised, that the Communist forces were the more effective and 2) the Nationalists eventually tried to pull the German Nazis out of the mire they had dug themselves into by attending a Quisling Assembly in 1944. The answer of the Communist Partisans was to drag a canon up the hills above Tirana and deliver a response to this traitorous act in the shape of a shell. It was exactly the same type of cannon that is seen, slightly in the background, in the centre of this painting.

A number of British died in Albania during the war and there’s now a small cemetery in Tirana Park – bizarrely using the old grave stone which was denied Enver Hoxha (when his remains were removed from the National Martyrs’ Cemetery and re-interred in the city cemetery at Kombinat) when the counter-revolutionaries gained control in the 1990s.

For some reason the British thought (whether it be the government of Churchill during the war or the government of Atlee after it) that because they had provided a few weapons they had the right to determine the future of the country. This led to Britain, in concert with the Americans, attempting to achieve ‘regime change’ before the term became popular. This included the aggression that was later referred to as the ‘Corfu Incident’.

They also constantly winged about their assistance not being recognised by the ‘ungrateful’ Communists. However, there are any number of paintings and sculptures where the Mills bomb (grenade) is depicted – to the best of my knowledge only, in that particular style, being produced by the British.

Bullets and sandals

Bullets and sandals

It’s strange when I think of it but as I’ve tried to understand the stories told by Albanian Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture I’ve learnt that the detail the artists have placed in their work when it comes to what people wear (or sometimes don’t wear – as in the great arch at Drashovice) can tell a great deal about the politics of the time. Here we have another example where the Partisan wears what he had worn from his youth – hand made shoes of his area and not the industrial production of western capitalist states. Probably made the fighting more comfortable.

Spitting fire and death

Spitting fire and death

Once you get to know Albania as a country you get to understand how hard it must have been – for both sides – to fight in such terrain. An incredibly beautiful country with its mountains and ravines are a different kettle of fish in a war situation. Now, obviously, war isn’t easy at any time but when you enter mountainous terrain into the equation it becomes even more difficult. Especially for the invader.

What the Americans, and the French before them, discovered later in Vietnam, the Italian and German Fascists discovered in Albania during then Second World War. Whatever material advantage you might have on paper it’s as nothing if you can’t dominate the terrain. The Albanian Partisans did in their country, the Vietminh did so in theirs.

And that fact of mountain fighting is represented in many works of Socialist Realist Art in Albania. As here the Partisan is firing down – into a valley, into a road during an ambush from a high point. The Partisans always controlled the high ground and that was one of the aspects of the Liberation War that ensured them success.

The battle continues in the background

The battle continues in the background

There are only a handful of ‘actors’ in the foreground to tell the story of the struggle but obviously there were many more involved and here they are depicted almost as ‘ghosts’ in the background – as can be seen in the previous couple of pictures.

The mountains are a protagonist

The mountains are a protagonist

Because the mountains of Albania played such a crucial role in the battle between the Partisans and the Fascists they are also often represented in works of art that tell the story of the struggle. Often, if it is of a particular battle it will be the mountains that would have been near-by and recognisable by the locals. These seem to be ‘generic’ mountains but they might have meant something to the artist.

Death to Nazism!

Death to Nazism!

Not all fighting in a war is at a distance and from time to time it comes to a hand to hand struggle. This is where we find the final, identifiable Partisan in the painting. Just to the left of the female Partisan we see a life and death struggle between another Communist Partisan and a Nazi soldier. We don’t see the face of the Partisan, just a glimpse of the side of his face, but we do see the Nazi. His eyes are wide open in horror as the Partisan has his left hand grasping his throat and in his right hand he has a dagger which is about to end the horror for the German soldier. This soldier is depicted almost as a demon, the human characteristics being erased from his features. This approach can also be seen on the lapidar at Berzhite.

Dead Nazis and dead Fascist Panzer Tank

Dead Nazis and dead Fascist Panzer Tank

Apart from a few ghostly and shadowy figures in the background the invader is confined to the extreme left of the painting and along the bottom, where their dead litter the ground.

The Nazi red is either flames or blood

The Nazi red is either flames or blood

Their tank is of no help, the flames leaping from the turret and the clouds of smoke indicating the crew are probably dead and unable to use the superior fire power. And anyway, in the terrain where the fighting took place in Albania tanks wouldn’t have been much use, the uneven ground and lack of any clear shots would have meant they did more damage to the mountain than the Partisans.

Those who are about to die ....

Those who are about to die ….

Those that are still alive and prepared to continue the fight are depicted as featureless, only the shapes of their faces in profile being seen. Here again the artist has stripped them of their humanity. They are killing machines so don’t merit individuality.

Faceless Nazis fighting for their lives

Faceless Nazis fighting for their lives

And in the case of one of them he is shown as no more than a shadow, a dark shape in the background.

The Nazi banner and the Nazi dead

The Nazi banner and the Nazi dead

Whereas the Communist banner flies high and proud the banner of the fascist invaders with its swastika symbol lies in the dirt, tattered and torn, the hand of a dead Nazi touching it reinforcing it as a symbol of death but one that itself is in the process of dying.

(The fact that this symbol is seeing a resurgence at the moment is down to a number of factors – amongst them being the betrayal of the Revisionists in those countries that had achieved the Socialist Revolution (including in Albania) and the failure of the working class in the industrialised countries to take power into their own hands. They might, some day, rue the consequences of their cowardice and pusillanimity as they suffer the death and destruction that accompanies fascism when it gains momentum.)

Arrogance pays its price

Arrogance pays its price

The remaining images of the invader are all of death. Fittingly the soldier that was so surprised of death knocking at his door that he has his mouth open is lying on the ground directly beneath the foot of the principal female Partisan.

The Iron Cross is no saviour against a Communist

The Iron Cross is no saviour against a Communist

And even the holder of an Iron Cross is no match for the onslaught of the Communist Partisans.

The Artist

Unfortunately I can’t say who is the artist of this mural. There’s no signature and I can’t definitively identify the artist by comparing his (there seem to have been few female artists whose work was displayed in museums and art galleries throughout Albania – I don’t know why that was the case) style with other paintings I might have seen.

However, I assume that it was created for the opening of the Museum in 1982.

Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery

Lushnjë Martyrs' Cemetery

Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery

Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania have a statue of one or more Partisans to stress that those commemorated were those who died in the National Liberation War of 1939-44. Sometimes there’s just one male Partisan, as in Korcë or Ersekë, sometimes there will be both a male and a female, as in Librazhd, sometimes (though rarely) there’s a group of three, as in Pogradec but there are also times when the symbol of sacrifice is in the form of a single female, as in Saranda and Fier. There’s a certain commonality between many of these statues, having been constructed at a similar time, but the statue of the female Partisan at the Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery is quite unique in style and presentation.

The cemetery itself is built into the side of a small hill just a little way from the centre of town, on the northern edge of the main building concentration. The buildings close by are relatively new and when originally planned it would have been more or less in the countryside, but only a short distance from the main population centre.

There is a line of gates and fences at the bottom which guard two flights of steps, a narrow one on the left and a much wider one on the right. These sets of steps are separated by a line of six concrete containers in which a palm tree has been planted. Those on the left of the main steps are mirrored by smaller containers on the right hand side. This planting of palm trees in the martyrs’ cemeteries was quite common in those towns at lower elevations and would have created an avenue of trees for those visiting the cemetery. However, palm trees have to be trained to grow healthily and as some of the containers now only contain flowers I assume that the older trees have died off and haven’t been replaced.

Lushnjë Martyrs' Cemetery - tombs

Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery – tombs

The tombs of the fallen are on four levels, going off to the left of the steps, following the curve of the hill. All these are in a good condition and the majority have a red star alongside the name of the partisan commemorated.

The Museum

Half way up the steps, on the right hand side, and a few metres from them, is a one story building which was the museum. This is a smart, one storey building which is in a good physical condition – I’ve seen some that have been allowed to decay (especially the one at the Krujë Martyrs’ Cemetery). The building is faced in marble tiles and on the side facing the approach road are the words:

Lavdi Dëshmorëve

which translates as:

Glory to the Martyrs

These words appear at virtually all martyrs’ cemeteries in the country.

The words are in black, painted metal and look in a very good condition – too good a condition to have been the originals. This cemetery must have had a major clean up in recent times and it now has the aspect of a cemetery where the people respect those who died in the war. On my visit there were a couple of women tending to the gardens and this is something that has become more common over the last few years – after decades of neglect. On the top left hand corner of this facade, to the left of the letters the concrete has been designed so that a large star has been cut out of the mould and the recess painted red. Here the paint looks very bright and new so obviously part of the renovation. There are a number of such stars throughout the area, including one at the very top of the steps and a some on the levels beside the tombs.

The word ‘Muzeu – Museum’ is in similar, though smaller, metal letters to the right of the entrance door. Inside there’s no longer a museum as such. Virtually all of these small, one room museums were looted in the early 1990s, or at least the artefacts taken and protected somewhere awaiting a time when they can be returned for display. This is also clean and there’s a new banner which has a picture of the cemetery’s statue, together with a series of six red stars that appear to rush out of the background. Under those images are the words:

Lavdi Dëshmorëve të Lushnjës

meaning

Glory to Lushnje’s Martyrs

taking the national slogan and applying it to the locality.

The only other exhibits in the room are four display boards which contain the photographs and details of 216 partisans. From information gained from the town’s Historical Museum only 184 of these died during the National Liberation War. I assume that the remaining 32 were Partisans who survived the war but were added to the list when they eventually died. I must admit I didn’t realise this at the time of my visit so don’t know if any of those have been interred in the Martyrs’ Cemetery.

The Cemetery

As I’ve said the area looks clean, bright and cared for. The very nature of the stone used, light coloured sandstone (I think) and marble facing means that, on a sunny day, the cemetery takes on the character of a respectful place to remember the dead.

However, there’s a problem when studying Albanian lapidars. There was a constant changing, improvement, introduction of new concepts throughout the 1970s and 80s. That was OK as all the documentation was kept in different archives. However, after 1990 one of the most important locations for storing this information was in the locale of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists. This archive was just destroyed. This means trying to get information about the past is very difficult.

(I always think that the destruction of this building and all it contained to have been an instructive education on the aims of the reactionary forces whose hatred was directed then, and subsequently – either through mindless vandalism or sheer neglect – at the public representations of the Socialist system. If they, or even the rest of the population in general, would use such venom against the present system of corruption then the country might start to go forward in a meaningful manner.)

Lushnjë Martyrs' Cemetery

Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery

Looking at the present monument there’s a number of things that don’t look right. Behind the present statue there’s a huge concrete wall, faced with marble tiles, separating the cemetery from the surrounding countryside with its evergreen oaks on the hillside. This wall curves around, in a protective manner, the rest of the area. It was constructed for a purpose. Yet nowadays there’s nothing there, it’s just a blank space. Well, not quite.

On the left there’s a large area which is indented slightly from the general plane. At the moment this is painted a bright red, almost certainly from the same can which have been used to highlight the stars. But this just goes to indicate that something is not quite right. A close look at the area shows that under the paint there’s a rough concrete facing. The paint is not obscuring anything it just accentuates the fact that something is missing. Was it a mosaic? That would make sense. This part looks like a cinema screen and such an image would be logical in this position. If not, what?

On the right hand side everything is flat but there are indications that some sort of slogan, statement, call to arms would have been there originally. There are the holes that are the result of fixing metal letters to the wall. There’s also the shadow of letters, whether from the removed metal – which always leaves some sort of stain as the metal weathers – or a later addition to fill a spot with of an image no longer considered ‘politically correct’. The fact that the palm trees, still in existence, in front of this wall indicates that this area was also an important part of the whole monumental arrangement, now lost to posterity.

So, now to the unique statue that, fortunately, does still exist. The statue is dated 1984 and is made of bronze.

The Statue

This female Partisan fighter is a link with past ideas of presenting the Liberation fighters (from the late 1960s and early 70s) but also introduces concepts that take a qualitative leap to something new and more progressive and is one of the latest to have been installed. The death of Enver Hoxha in April 1985 seems, to all intents and purposes, to have signalled the end of Albania’s ‘Cultural Revolution’. This change in direction had serious consequences just over five years later.

Lushnjë Martyrs' Cemetery - statue

Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery – statue

She is about twice life-size, on a low plinth in the centre of the plateau at the top of the cemetery so that she looks down on the tombs below. As she’s on a low plinth it’s possible to appreciate the detail of the figure.

The links with the past are in the fact that she is in a full Partisan uniform, from head to toe, and she also displays all the aspects of a member of the Communist Party of Albania (later called the Party of Labour). On her head she wears a soft cap with her substantial head of hair spilling out at the sides and the back, over her neck. There’s a very obvious star fixed at the front. There’s a scarf tied around her neck and she’s dressed as if it were summer during the conflict, wearing a shirt that has the sleeves rolled up so that they end at her elbows. She is wearing the baggy, loose trousers of the Partisan, the bottoms of the legs tucked into long, woollen socks and on her feet a contemporary walking shoe.

This wearing of trousers must have caused a stir at the time. Before the invasion of the Italian Fascist forces in April 1939 the vast majority of women would have been wearing the clothing that Albanian women had been wearing for generations. This would have been challenged by the growing industrialisation, in such places as Durrës , where, for example, the Tobacco Factory would have provided employment for women, but would still not have been normal, especially in the countryside. The example of the 68 Girls from Fier leaving secretly at night to join the Partisans and the murder of young Liri Gero would, initially, have been a shock to many in such a traditional society, even in times of war.

As in virtually all such depictions she is armed, quite heavily. She has a bandolier diagonally across her chest, running down from her left shoulder, with eight ammunition pouches, each containing six bullets. Around her waist she wears seven such pouches. These are all to provide ready ammunition to her bolt-action rifle which is hanging behind her by way of a thick leather strap that rests on her left shoulder, close to the bandolier. She grips the end of the butt in her left hand, a pose not seen before.

It’s impossible to over-state the importance and relevance of such imagery. Having been born in a society where all women, but especially the young, were treated as second class citizens (or not even citizens at all) this young woman is making a statement that goes far beyond that of the feminist movement in the west from the 1960s onwards (with all its difficult and contentious history). By leaving home and actually fighting in a vicious war against a vicious enemy, by taking up arms and risking her life, by living and fighting amongst men unknown by her family, many of them ‘strangers’, she was challenging long-standing taboos, by wearing ‘men’s clothing’ and therefore being indistinguishable from her male comrades, by assuming positions of command and responsibility, by fighting for a cause that was greater than her own parochial and familial concerns but for all those who were poor and oppressed, she was, as were all the other women, literally ‘turning the world upside-down’.

It has to be remembered that by the time of victory at the end of November 1944 the women in the Albanian Partisan army had constituted around 16% of the total armed forces – and the majority of them were in combat roles and not just in ancillary and support roles. They were not given liberation they had fought for it, had suffered as much and had worked as hard as their male comrades. This accounts for their appearance in so many Albanian lapidars.

Compare this with war memorials in the west. On the monument I consider to be one of the finest in Britain, the Cenotaph on St George’s Plateau in the centre of Liverpool, ALL the fighters are male and the only depictions of a woman is as a sad, weak mourner, really a victim of war, without any ability to have a direct effect on the outcome of the conflict. This is a representation of the situation after the First World War but in the capitalist west this situation wasn’t significantly different twenty plus years later when the world went to war against Fascism.

But the Lushnjë Partisan says much more. Her stance is very different. Normally the Partisans are shown standing to attention or with a raised fist in the revolutionary salute. Here she is half kneeling with her left knee on the ground whilst her right foot is on the ground. This is to provide a platform for the other unique aspect of this statue. I said that she is a lone, female partisan, but she is not alone. Her bent right leg provides a space upon which a very young boy is standing.

This idea appears nowhere else, to the best of my knowledge. Here the Partisan takes on the role of ‘Mother Albania’. Not just a symbolic role as is the huge statue in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana. This ‘Mother Albania’ has given birth to the opportunity of a new future. By her actions and self-sacrifice the independent country has a chance it never had before. But that future is not guaranteed, the outcome not certain and the road a difficult one to follow.

It is the young boy, really little more than a toddler, who is taking that road. She is there to support him, as she is in the statue with her strong right hand gripping the boy just under his right armpit, as he takes his first, tentative steps. The fact that she is also dressed as a soldier and is fully armed indicates that this Mother Albania is prepared to fight to support this construction of a new society. I also believe that the connection between her weapon and the child provides another indication of this willingness, and necessity, to use force to create something new. This idea is also present in the statue of the Partisan and Child in Borovë as well as in the monumental mosaic in Bestrovë.

He is dressed in toddlers clothes, a light t-shirt, with an open shirt above that, and flimsy shorts. His right foot is firmly placed on the Partisan’s thigh but he is in the act of attempting to step forward with his left leg. His foot is a few inches above the thigh and his left arm is slightly outstretched as if getting his balance. His whole demeanour is tentative, lacking certainty, unsure whether to go ahead or not. He’s focused, looking straight ahead (as is the Partisan) so he knows where he wants to go, the uncertainty comes from not knowing how exactly to get there. Already he knows that the road towards Socialism has its twists and turns.

Bouquet of poppies and grain

Bouquet of poppies and grain

He is Albania, a young socialist nation, even though that socialism was 40 years old at the time of the casting of the bronze. We know he’s Albania because in his fully raised hand he holds a bouquet of poppies – the national flower of the country. He’s also Lushnjë as together with the flowers he holds two ears of grain. At the time of Socialism the town was in the centre of one of the grain-growing regions of the country. The first collective farm was established in Krutja, only a few kilometres to the south, and the whole area is criss-crossed with irrigation systems, allowing the fertile grounds of the coast to be used productively by the construction of huge systems of irrigation bringing water from the mountains – many parts of which have just been allowed to decay and rot as well as the collective land of all the people being privatised and divided into almost feudal strips. You can also appreciate the importance of agriculture in the area by the imagery on the huge monument, ‘Toke Jonë – Our Land’, in the centre of town.

Within six years of this statue being created the people of Albania decided that they no longer wanted to take that difficult road.

The statue is generally in a good condition. However there appears to be a quick and ready repair on the right hip, just below the ammunition belt, and something that looks like a small calibre bullet hole on her right thigh.

The Sculptor

We know the sculptor as he placed his name on the bronze plinth before casting. His name was Maksim S Bushi. He was born in 1948 and trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tirana, where he now works as an instructor as well as being a teacher in his home town of Lushnjë. He made a bust of Abraham Lincoln in 2004 and it now sits in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois in the United States. He has also supposed to have created other busts and sculptures throughout the country but I haven’t come across them myself. However, he surely hasn’t created anything as masterful as his allegory in the Lushnjë Martyrs’s Cemetery.

Location:

The cemetery can be found at the far end of Shetitorja e Palmave, about 1 kilometre from the centre, on the northern edge of the town.

GPS:

40.948445

19.69575802

DMS:

40° 56′ 54.4020” N

19° 41′ 44.7289” E

Altitude:

34.5 m