Vol. 8 No. 19 · 6 November 1986
SIR: Mysterious deaths are always popular, and it is certainly exciting to be told by Jon Halliday (LRB, 9 October) that the cause of Mehmet Shehu’s death in December 1981 was the discovery by the Albanian historian Arben Puto, working in the Public Record Office, that FO papers based on SOE reports had described Shehu as a ‘pro-British element’. This information, passed on to Enver Hoxha but not included in Puto’s book, had been enough ‘to detonate lethal suspicion in a chronically suspicious mind’. ‘The timing,’ Mr Halliday insists, ‘is crucial. Puto’s book appeared in 1981. Shehu died in December 1981. In January 1982 Hoxha published his first denunciation of Shehu, citing some official British documents, with more to come later that year.’ But if dates are so important – and they are – it is not good enough to be fobbed off with such vague statements as ‘British wartime archives were (partially) opened in the 1970s (30 years after the events),’ and once one becomes more specific, quite a different picture emerges. It was in fact only the English version of Arben Puto’s book that appeared in 1981. A German edition had already been published in 1980, in which the foreword is dated April 1976.
In his introduction Puto explains that in response to pressure from historians (among other things) an announcement had been made in the House in 1971 to the effect that the 30-year rule would be waived for the FO documents on the Second World War, and that he and a colleague arrived in London in summer 1972 two months after this came into operation. Consequently they were allowed to see, and to a large extent to photocopy, material covering the years down to the end of 1944. This liberal treatment, unimaginable in Tirana, clearly amazed the pair, but Mr Puto shrugs it off as a device to attract tourists! A preliminary report of their findings appeared in Nëntori, No 12 (1972) and Nos 1, 2 and 3 (1973). It follows from this that if Mr Halliday is right in thinking that Puto passed information concerning Shehu culled from FO archives to Enver Hoxha, this must have happened by autumn 1972. In which case the question obtrudes itself: why, despite his ‘chronically suspicious mind’, and the ‘lethal detonation’ which these documents set off, did Hoxha sit on them and take no further action for another nine years? I am afraid that the timing of Shehu’s death is still unexplained.
SIR: Jon Halliday’s suggestion that Mehmet Shehu was eliminated on the basis of casual innuendos gleaned from diplomatic gossip does less than justice to the cold, coherent patience characteristic of Enver Hoxha. As his own memoirs make clear, at the end of the war the status of Hoxha in the Albanian Communist Party was greatly at risk, despite his sonorous titles, from internal party rivalries, from the prestigious Communists returned from exile, and from the hostility of a Tito preparing to incorporate Albania in the Yugoslav Federation. From then on, Hoxha’s strategy was the Stalinist one of subjecting all state power to that of the Party, and all Party power to that of its Secretary-General himself. The successive eliminations of Titoists, rival theorists, personal enemies and would-be autonomous military leaders, finally left, as a potential alternative focus of power, the police and foreign policy complex still in the hands of his old partner and rival, Mehmet Shehu. So long as Hoxha was unambiguously in a position to exercise direct overall authority, this situation could and probably had to be accepted. But for some years Hoxha had been suffering from what the postmortem account called ‘an insult to the brain’, which has been taken to refer to Parkinsonism. In this context, the move to destroy Shehu has all the marks of a pre-emptive strike hastily mounted against the only man who was able, and seemingly ready, to assert his right to the succession. This reading tends to be confirmed by the odd fact that Shehu was not denounced as a ‘spy’ for several months after his death: until, that is, the ramifications of his so-called conspiracy could be elucidated, and his likely collaborators rendered harmless. Whether, given his disabilities, the initiative was taken by Hoxha in person, or, presumably with his approval, by a group of protégés and associates who felt themselves under threat, is a matter to which Jon Halliday doesn’t address himself.
Vol. 8 No. 20 · 20 November 1986
SIR: I am grateful to Frank Walbank for his informative letter in the last issue about my article about Mehmet Shehu (Letters, 6 November). It is often hard to find out the truth about what happens in Albania, and even harder to have it confirmed authoritatively. I tried to present a hypothesis (‘What seems to have happened is …’), which is not invalidated by Mr Walbank’s information – most of which is available in the volume From the Annals of British Diplomacy by Arben Puto. It is known that Puto and a colleague visited the British archives in 1972. Mr Walbank’s key point is: ‘if Mr Puto passed information concerning Shehu culled from FO archives to Enver Hoxha, this must have happened by autumn 1972.’ This criticism would be valid only if it could be proven that the information about Shehu was discovered by the Albanian researchers in 1972. I do not believe this to be the case.
Mr Walbank’s argument is that the Albanian researchers published a ‘preliminary’ report in an Albanian magazine in 1972-73, and that the 1980 German edition of Puto’s book carries a preface dated 1976. The English-language edition, too, carries a preface dated 1976. But it also has an (undated) ‘Introduction’ which from internal evidence can’t be earlier than 1980. Furthermore, the preface to the 1981 English-language edition says that the book version is different from the 1972-3 magazine report. The fact that research is known to have been carried out in 1972, and that the 1981 volume carries a preface dated 1976, does not date the discovery of the information about Shehu. After as careful investigation as was possible, I was led to believe, and do still believe, that the Albanian research effort was not completed in 1972, that a subsequent visit was made to the British archives – which fits with the timing I suggested – and that this later research was crucial in unearthing information which led to the demise of Shehu.
If Mr Walbank were right, one would have to find an answer to one of the following questions: either a. how did the Albanian researchers dare to sit on the information about Shehu (if they discovered it in 1972)? or b. how could Hoxha not react to such information for a very long time (there is a big difference between nine years and a few months)? This conundrum poses more problems than my hypothesis. Further, although Mr Walbank is quite right to say that ‘an announcement had been made in the House to the effect that the 30-year rule would be waived for the FO documents on the Second World War,’ unwary readers should not take this to mean that all FO documents on World War Two were released in 1972. Many were withheld – and still are withheld – both within individual files released and as entire files. The files marked for release in 1972 contain many slips which record withholding – sometimes for 50 or even 75 years. It is also worth noting that some of the documentary evidence cited by Hoxha against Shehu comes, not from FO files, but from War Office files. Several former members of SOE in Albania told me of key documents concerning SOE and Albania which had failed to appear in the FO files in the PRO as of 1984-86.
As for Mr Hodgkinson’s letter in the same issue, I am sure our former intelligence operatives will enjoy being told that their reports qualify as ‘casual innuendo’ and ‘diplomatic gossip’. I have had my own doubts about the perspicacity of some British agents at times: nonetheless, I cannot believe that Hoxha would have thought the SOE reports were only ‘innuendo’ and ‘gossip’.
Mr Hodgkinson claims that I do ‘less than justice to the cold, coherent patience characteristic of Enver Hoxha’. I have never underestimated these features, as I think is amply demonstrated in the volume I recently edited, The Artful Albanian: The Memoirs of Enver Hoxha, in which I also cover in detail Hoxha’s successive eliminations of his rivals, real and alleged, and his accusations against Shehu, which I characterised as a fairy-tale. Mr Hodgkinson reproaches me for not addressing the question of whether the initiative to get rid of Shehu came from Hoxha in person or from protégés and associates. In my volume I do discuss the succession question, on which there must have been debate (in 1981 Hoxha was 73 and Shehu was 68). One reason I did not address this particular issue in my article is that I have absolutely no way of knowing the answer to the question, but the main reason is that it is not relevant to the main point I was trying to make: that there is one piece of important evidence in the puzzle which is available, on the record, and which had been largely ignored – namely, that British documents of the time spoke of Shehu as a possible pro-British element in an anti-Hoxha struggle. This much is certain. It is also certain that some of these documents came to the attention of the Albanian authorities and of Hoxha personally, as is manifest from his published writing. It is not certain when the Albanian authorities and Hoxha came to know about these documents. From the investigations I have been able to carry out, I do not believe it was in 1972, but that it was much later. And, in spite of Mr Hodgkinson’s emphasis on Hoxha’s patience, there is no case, to my knowledge, of Hoxha sitting on information which casts doubt on the allegiance of a top colleague for anything like nine years.
Vol. 8 No. 22 · 18 December 1986
SIR: In his reply to my letter Jon Halliday (Letters, 20 November) has shifted his ground. He now tells us he believes that there was a second, unattested, visit to the London PRO and that it was on that occasion that the evidence fatal to Shehu was discovered. Whether this visit was made by Arben Puto and his colleague or by someone else, he does not say. If it was made by someone else, Puto’s book, written long before, ceases to be relevant to Shehu’s death and we are in the realm of speculation. But clearly Halliday still thinks it is relevant, for he emphasises the fact that it differs from the Nëntori articles of 1972-3. Indeed it does – but only in correcting slight errors and adding references. Otherwise it claims to rest essentially (‘im wesentlichen’) on those articles. And it contains no archival material later than 1944. The German version, like the English, contains an introduction as well as the preface dated to 1976. That introduction Jon Halliday dates ‘on internal evidence’ to 1980, but he doesn’t indicate what that evidence is. Personally I should be very surprised if both the English and German editions are not direct translations of an Albanian original, for which the 1976 date was relevant.
No one will be surprised to learn that the PRO records on Albania are selective. But since we are concerned with what they contain, not what they omit, their shortcomings (for the historian) have no bearing oil the death of Mehmet Shehu. As regards this, Jon Halliday’s new formulation seems to me even more hypothetical and no more convincing than the old one.
Vol. 9 No. 1 · 8 January 1987
SIR: Frank Walbank’s second letter (Letters, 18 December 1986) only muddies the waters. He makes four points. First, that my claim that there was a visit to the PRO by one or more Albanian researchers after 1972, and, specifically, shortly before the death of Shehu in 1981, is ‘unattested’. Second, that by making this claim, I ‘shifted [my] ground’. Third, that I have failed to produce evidence for a claim about dating. Fourth, that, by refusing to accept his own speculative and unsubstantiated points, I remain ‘in the realm of speculation’.
First, I can only repeat what I wrote before: I was told, and believe, after checking as carefully as possible, that after the 1972 visit by Puto and a colleague, the Albanians did further research in the PRO shortly before Shehu’s death. Second: the claim that I have ‘shifted [my] ground’ by referring to the second Albanian visit to the PRO. Since when is providing additional information ‘shifting one’s ground’? Walbank goes on to claim that if this visit was made by someone other than Puto – which I never suggested – ‘Puto’s book, written long before [so says Walbank – but see below], ceases to be relevant to Shehu’s death and we are in the realm of speculation.’ He goes on to claim that ‘Halliday still thinks it [Puto’s book] is relevant, for he emphasises the fact that it differs from the Nëntori articles of 1972-3.’ This is a farrago. I only mentioned the 1972-3 articles in Nëntori (an Albanian magazine) because Walbank brought them up. They were not relevant to the central issue – and still aren’t. Much less did I ever ‘emphasise’ them: this is Walbank’s megalomania. I merely did him the courtesy of responding to his irrelevant references to these articles and to a German edition of Puto’s book.
This brings me to the third criticism. I said that from internal evidence the introduction to the English-language edition could not have been written before 1980. Walbank takes me to task for not giving evidence. If he had read the short ‘introduction’ he would know what it says. It ends with the words: ‘Several years have now passed, and on the basis of the 30-years rule, the documents of the years 1945, ’46, ’47 and ’48 have become available, while those of 1949 should become available this year.’ ‘This year’ must be 1980, since documents are released, in principle, on 1 January of the year after the 30 years have expired. (En passant, it should be noted that 1980-81 was a key period for Albanian research, since it was 30 years after the Anglo-American attempts to invade Albania and overthrow Hoxha.) The question of when the ‘introduction’ was written is not a minor quibble, since Walbank staked his original case explicitly on a claim that everything was available to the Albanian regime by 1972. I tried to show that since there was material subsequent to 1972 in the Puto volume, Walbank’s central argument collapses. In fact, it is Walbank who shifts his ground. In his first letter (Letters, 6 November 1986) he claims flatly that everything must have been discovered by 1972. Now, in his second letter, he suggests the date 1976 ‘was relevant’. Once again, he pointlessly drags in a German edition and old Albanian articles. All this is ridiculous. In my original article I did not base anything on, or even mention, a German edition of the book, or 1972-73 articles in Albanian. In fact, Walbank now has to acknowledge that it is he who has entered the realm of speculation, even on the material he has chosen to bring up. He writes: ‘Personally I should be very surprised if both the English and German editions [of Puto’s book] are not direct translations of an Albanian original, for which the 1976 date was relevant.’ What else can this mean except that he has not checked the different versions on which he is basing his argument?
In any case, all this is irrelevant. What I said was: in 1981 the Albanians published a well-researched account of British machinations in Albania during the war (up to the end of 1944); just after this volume appeared, Premier Mehmet Shehu was reported to have committed suicide (December 1981); shortly after that, Hoxha denounced him as a multiple agent – and cited documents from the PRO showing that Shehu had been picked out by the British as a possible leader of an anti-Hoxha movement; some of these documents, which were genuine, while not demonstrating that Shehu was a British agent, seemed to me enough to detonate serious suspicion in the mind of a man like Enver Hoxha. I said it was most unlikely that the Albanian leadership could not have acted promptly on these documents. I suggested a link between the discovery of these documents and the demise of Shehu. This hypothesis was strengthened by the information that Puto, the author of the original book, had returned to the PRO shortly before Shehu’s demise. Walbank writes: ‘No one will be surprised to learn that the PRO records on Albania are selective.’ This really is shifting his ground. I made this point only because Walbank cited (with no disclaimer) a British government statement that ‘the FO documents’ on the Second World War were made available in 1972. The clear implication of his argument was that all the SOE and other material on Shehu must have been available to Puto in 1972. But, as I pointed out, this supposition is unsubstantiated, and I thought it necessary to alert readers to the fact that by no means all FO documents, much less all SOE documents, were available in 1972. It is a bit much for Walbank to try to portray my clarification of his misleading remark as a banality.
To resume my main thesis. There is some evidence in the PRO which seems to me to be relevant to the death of Mehmet Shehu (documents listing Shehu among ‘pro-British elements’ and as a possible leader of an anti-Hoxha movement). In 1981 the Albanians publish, in English, Puto’s volume based on PRO records. In December 1981 Shehu dies, allegedly having committed suicide. In 1982 Hoxha reveals some information from the PRO about Shehu.
Walbank’s references to a German edition of Puto and early articles in Albanian are irrelevant both to my original hypothesis and to the key point – which is that Shehu hit the skids not in 1972 but much later. Mr Walbank fails utterly to answer my point that there is no evidence whatsoever for, and overwhelming evidence against, the possibility that Hoxha would sit inactive on information like that in the SOE reports. It is inconceivable that Hoxha would allow himself to describe Shehu as ‘a glorious leader’, as he does in a text published in December 1979 (With Stalin, first edition, page 96) while having in his possession SOE documents suggesting Shehu might be a good man to overthrow him. (The 1979 edition of With Stalin was, of course, later withdrawn and a second edition published in 1982, minus the praise for Shehu.)
I can only say again that I do not know what went on in Tirana. My hypothesis at least had the merit of relying on verifiable facts: we know the Albanians found some stuff on Shehu in the PRO; we know they used it; we know Hoxha was ultra-suspicious. Mr Walbank would have us believe that Hoxha sat on the PRO information for nine years while lauding Shehu. I just do not believe this is possible and, further, from the way the Albanians quoted the PRO material, it is impossible to believe that it did not play a role in the Hoxha-Shehu rupture and Shehu’s demise in 1981. Mr Walbank’s second letter is irrelevant.
Vol. 9 No. 2 · 22 January 1987
SIR: I am sorry that the discussion of Mehmet Shehu’s death has become lengthy and acrimonious. Jon Halliday’s summary in your last issue of what he originally said obscures the point which caused me to intervene in the first place. Anyone who cares to refer to the original article (LRB, 9 October 1986) will see that it refers only to a single Albanian visit to London, that it states that on this visit Puto’s researches ‘got past the file containing the most damning evidence about Britain’s hopes for Shehu’ (November 1944 on Halliday’s showing), and that it reveals no knowledge of any earlier publication of the material in Puto’s book than the English edition of 1981. The purpose of my first letter was simply to point out that the existence of Albanian articles from 1972-3, a German edition of 1980 and (as I later surmised) an Albanian edition perhaps in 1976, the date appended to the German introduction, considerably reduces the significance of the English publication of the documents of 1939-44 in 1981 as a pointer to Shehu’s death later that year. It was only in reply to my letter that Mr Halliday brought in the ‘second visit’. If that is not shifting ground I don’t know what is.
As Mr Halliday now presents his case, we have to assume a. that what he originally called ‘the most damning evidence against Shehu’ was withheld by the FO in the 1972 release, or b. that it was there all the time, but Puto and Co failed to spot it, or c. that more evidence damning to Shehu was contained in the records of 1945 onwards and released between 1972 and 1980. Both a. and b. are possible but strike me as highly unlikely. As regards c, since Mr Halliday has worked in the PRO and I have not, he can perhaps tell us what this was.
I certainly would not exclude a second visit around 1980 – though this remains hypothetical. Its occurrence is certainly not proved by the mention of the release of documents covering 1945-1949 in the English introduction to Puto, for that apparently says nothing more than could be deduced from the 30 years release rule. If documents later than December 1944 are included in the English volume (despite its title), can Mr Halliday tell us what they are and so settle that at least? So far, in spite of his repeated claim that there is ‘post-1972 material’ in the Puto volume, he has not done so. Meanwhile, nothing is gained by deriding arguments as ‘ridiculous’, a ‘farrago’ or ‘irrelevant’, nor do I understand in what strange way I can be the victim of ‘megalomania’.
Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987
SIR: I hesitate to inflict another letter on the tormenting question of Mehmet Shehu’s untimely end: but Jon Halliday’s zeal (Letters, 8 January) does outrun scholarship in expressing disbelief that a Balkan leader would sit on compromising evidence against a rival for as long as nine years. In this case, though, the interval may have been as long as forty years. As a youth, Shehu attended the American Technical School in Tirana. This had begun to develop the liberal-minded and technologically literate professional generation that Albania so needed, and which could have made a Communist takeover both irrelevant and highly improbable. Shehu entered into the spirit of this institution, as witness by the lengthy poem he wrote – in English – in the school magazine Laboremus of January 1931. Its title was ‘What matter?’ and it began:
What sect you be
What matter if only
Your heart is free
Of hate and boast,
and so forth. It mentioned Mohammed and Christ as mentors but not Karl Marx, of whom the poet had then probably never heard. The head of the school was the late Harry Fultz, who later worked on Albanian operations with the US Office of Strategic Services.
Inevitably, Hoxha’s propaganda came to present the Technical School as having been a catchment area for ‘espionage’ for capitalism: and thereby any former student could be vilified at need as a public enemy to be disposed of. It is probably true to say that all former scholars are now either in exile or in the next world.
Shehu later served in the Spanish Civil War, and as a result was the only Albanian with a substantial grasp of, and experience of, modern warfare. It was he who led the final battles of liberation against the retreating German troops; and he had therefore the opportunity and the prestige to build for himself a seemingly secure power-base in post-war Albania. By the end of the Seventies, given Hoxha’s age and the nature of his illness, the question of the succession came sharply on the agenda; and with it the rivalry of the groups of lieutenants around the two men, and above all that of their politically ambitious wives – Nexhumÿe Hoxha, who has lately been pronouncing on ideological issues, and Fiqrÿe Shehu, who is now serving a 25-year prison sentence. One side or the other decided that the time had come for a pre-emptive strike. The real mystery, though, is not why Shehu was disposed of in 1981, but how he managed to survive from 1944.