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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Apart from him being responsible for the flag we also know his political allegiance, again, by the red scarf that’s around his neck.
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.
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.
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.
It’s true that the British did supply the Communists Partisans with war material during the War of Liberation