Everything for Portugal: the Life of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar Part 1

By Christopher Woods (Rated PG for themes of war and violence)

Part One of Four

On May 28, 1926, cheering crowds welcomed a new government in Portugal. General Gomes da Costa had led the army and people from various political beliefs in a coup against the latest of a series of republican governments, which had ruled Portugal since 1910 and was never very stable (1). Two years later, General da Costa invited an economy professor from Coimbra to become Minister of Finance: Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. As soon as Salazar assumed his role, he devoted himself to working for the benefit of Portugal. His budgets were balanced, he paid off the debt Portugal owed to England, and he modernized Portugal’s infrastructure and military. On the global stage, he solidified his ties with Great Britain and Spain, while also struggling to keep Portugal and Spain out of World War Two. Portugal had not benefited from World War One, despite being on the winning side; Salazar would not again risk ruin in Iberia. After the war, he fought the entire United Nations for the integrity of the Portuguese Empire. While he failed to create a long-lasting government based on Catholic principles, he did reverse Portugal’s fate, and gave the country more hope than it had before.

Salazar’s Beginnings

         Salazar was not born great. He was born in the tiny village of Beira Alta, on April 28,  1889. His parents, although they were farmers, wanted Salazar to receive a good education. To this end, they sent him to the seminary, where he studied from 1900-1908. At the end of this time, he was ordained a subdeacon, but could not be ordained a priest until he was twenty-four even though he had completed all the necessary studies. His father’s employers noticed Salazar’s  intellect, and decided to give him the money to attend the university in Coimbra (2).

         At about the same time, Portugal transitioned from a kingdom to a republic. The king was   assassinated in 1908, and his son was forced to abdicate in 1910. For the next sixteen years, Portugal would suffer through eight different presidents, forty-four ministries, twenty-four minor revolts, one hundred fifty-eight general strikes, and countless assassinations and bombings (3). Under Teofilo Braga (President for two terms, October 1910-August 1911, and May-August 1915), the Republic strove to eradicate religion. Braga exiled bishops, closed Catholic schools, and banned monastic orders—but encouraged Protestant missions. This was not because Braga preferred any brand of Protestantism to Catholicism, but rather intended to make religion such a highly personal matter that it would eventually die without a community (4). In 1915, Afonso Costa, an anti-Catholic freemason, became president and continued Braga’s policies. The next year, imperial Germany declared war on Portugal for seizing German ships at Britain’s request. Costa sent an expeditionary force to the trenches in the Western Front, but it had an undistinguished record (5). When the war ended, Portugal’s promised portion of compensation never materialized. This only increased the general feeling of despair that was settling on the hearts of all Portuguese. Later in 1916, Portugal had a slight reprieve when Sidónio Pais formed a benevolent dictatorship, a type of triumvirate with Feliciano da Costa and Machado Santos. Pais eased persecution against the Catholic Church and fought energetically against social problems. He was charismatic, and it wasn’t long before the Portuguese gained a great love for their kind leader. But on December 14, 1918, Pais was murdered, and Portugal fell back into chaos (6). Citizens visited the main square in Lisbon and saw the bomb craters of the latest revolution, or worse, got caught up in one. The justice system was completely misnamed: it imprisoned political enemies of all kinds, Monarchists and Republicans and everyone else on the slightest pretext (7). The monarchy had been completely dismantled, and it seemed as though peace and order had broken apart with it.

Education and Early Influence

         In this context, in the midst of this horrible transformation, Salazar studied at Coimbra University. He never joined in the prevailing anticlerical sentiment—perhaps because he was a subdeacon himself. Neither did he join the Monarchists, the political party who clamored for the return of the king and who boasted the support of many Portuguese Catholics. In fact, Salazar never joined any political party. This is not to say he was not interested in politics. His studies—law, economics, administration—certainly seemed to lead straight to a political career. And even though he didn’t join the Monarchists, some may have thought he was sympathetic to them. Once, when the government decided to convert a church into a museum, Salazar joined those protesting, and wrote an essay on why the church should remain a church (8).

         As he studied, Salazar observed the Portuguese people. He saw the chaos the government had fallen into, and how the people failed to drag the government out of the chaos. The Portuguese people themselves, Salazar determined, had to change before Portugal as a whole could change (9). In an interview with Antonio Ferro in 1939, Salazar described the attitude of the Portuguese people:

“I think we can say, without excessive national partiality, that the good qualities of the Portuguese are greater than their defects…. The Portuguese are kindly, clever, long-suffering, mild, hospitable, hard-working, easily educated, cultured…. It is not difficult to specify them [the defects], since being for the most part superficial, they are quite obvious…. The Portuguese are excessively sentimental and have a horror of all discipline; they are individualists perhaps without noticing it, and lack continuity and tenacity in their actions. The very ease with which they grasp ideas without much effort induces them to deal superficially with all problems and to rely too much on the quickness of their apprehension. But subject to proper discipline and control there is nothing they cannot be taught to do” (10).

Salazar would spend his entire political career in an effort to improve the Portuguese people.

         Two papal encyclicals greatly influenced Salazar. The first was Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which, according to Kay, says that

“…private property was important to the fulfillment of human personality, and was also the best way to ensure a decent living for all, but it should be controlled as to its nature, extent, and use by the rulers of the state who had the care of the common good as their first and overriding obligation” (11).

Private property itself is a good thing, so long as the state ensures that the property is used well. The second encyclical was Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, which states that anything that could be done as well or better by subordinate bodies should not be done by the state (12). This was the main goal of Salazar’s corporative state, which he would design during his early years as prime minister. Corporations, reminiscent of medieval guilds, would take care of many aspects of the economy, while the government regulated them, ensuring that they did not abuse their power. Unfortunately, this did not happen exactly as planned.

         Gradually, Salazar became involved in more and more political affairs. He contributed to social studies journals, especially O Imparcial, which was run by his good friend Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira (13). (Later, Cerejeira would become Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, and would often remind Salazar of the spiritual side of his position as prime minister.) In May of 1914, Salazar delivered a speech claiming that democracy and Christianity were indeed compatible; but in order for the two to work together, the people must be properly instructed. The audience rioted—many Portuguese Catholics still longed for a return of the monarchy, and equated democracy with all the horrors of the poorly handled Republic. The papers, on the other hand, recognized Salazar’s intellect as being “one of the most powerful minds of the new generation” (14).

         Throughout this period, Salazar did not let his political actions get in the way of his studies. Later in 1914, he received his licentiate in law; in 1917, he became an assistant professor; and in 1918, he finally gained his doctorate. All the while, he lived very simply in an apartment with Cerejeira and a few other friends. He continued living in that apartment until he was chosen to be Minister of Finance in 1928 (15).

Early Political Career and Ideas

         In 1919, Coimbra University took steps to become more in line with the republican ideals. As one of these steps, the university suspended Salazar and three other professors, accusing them of influencing their students against the Republic. In response, Salazar wrote an essay called My Reply, which details many of his beliefs. He emphasized that he did not allow his personal political beliefs to influence how he taught. Rather, he taught his students to examine the facts, to constantly review their positions, to consider all new ideas, to intelligently—not blindly—accept or reject them. In short, Salazar taught his students to think for themselves, and not to follow any demagogue, Republican or Monarchist (16).

         In 1921, Salazar got his first taste of politics when he was elected to the Parliament of the Portuguese Republic. He only appeared in Parliament once. His impressions, which he wrote down a couple years later, point more toward a further refining of the idea of a corporate state: “Any political power which seeks to give itself expression by a true representation of genuine interests must be based on an organization, which is not exclusively political but social, of professions and classes.” The vast majority of the other members of the Parliament at the time were career politicians, intent on using their constituents to stay in power for personal profit. Salazar abhorred such men, and thought that their time was coming to an end: “We are drawing near to that moment in political and social evolution in which a political party based on the individual—citizen or elector—will no longer have sufficient reason for existence. Man in isolation is an abstraction, a fiction mainly created under the influence of the erroneous principles current during the last century” (17). Modern democracy hinges primarily on individual freedom. Salazar saw that when individuals concerned themselves with their own freedom, they turned inward, away from the rest of the community. Unable to bear the chaos that resulted from neglect of community, Salazar longed for family-based politics.

         In 1924, Salazar wrote an article contrasting the peace of the world with the peace of Christ. The peace of the world is merely external and thought to be captured by power; the peace of Christ on the other hand is internal and obtained only through obedience. Salazar thought that the Communists and socialists had achieved their goal, but it had not brought Christ’s peace. This was because the Communists urged the laborers to revolt against those who expected their obedience: the inventors, the organizers, the directors. Production needed these people just as much as it needed the laborers to run smoothly. Continuing in this vein, Salazar pointed out that order, justice, beauty, and science—while they are not material wealth—nevertheless increase man’s power over nature, and thus make production both more abundant and of higher quality (18). While it could certainly be argued that the Communists had order (of a kind) and science, they were decidedly lacking justice and beauty.

Salazar also laid down another principle, one that would greatly aid him in his first years as Minister of Finance. Not only are there two different kinds of peace, but there are two different kinds of wealth. The first satisfies immediate needs, and never brings lasting peace, similar to the peace of the world. The second kind of wealth is put toward the future, and secures the chances for a family, or a community, to continue. As a man must obey his lawful leaders to gain peace, so must he save some of his wealth and invest it in the future, if he wants to help his family survive (19).

         The chaos of the Portuguese Republic led Salazar to another conclusion—a conclusion that refutes all those who might accuse him of being a power-hungry dictator. To capture and exercise power is to risk destroying production and the solid bases of social stability. It intensifies, rather than diminishes, the conflict. Never would it bring peace and happiness, but only strife and misery (20). How could a man who believes such a thing proceed to go against such convictions and become the very thing he despised? Salazar wrote that Christianity champions obedience over revolt, renunciation over ambition, love over hate, continuing, 

These are the bases of our social revolution…. Not to aspire to power as to a right, but to accept it as a duty; to regard the state as God’s minister for the good of the community, and to obey wholeheartedly whoever is invested with authority; not to forget, if one is in a position of authority, in the name of Whose justice one issues commands; not to forget, if one obeys, the sacred virtue of him who commands…. Thus power is freed from the greed of ambition, from hampering obstacles, from dangerous revolutions. Thus authority free, and the subject respected. Thus human law is ennobled by justice, power held in check by the law of God and bounded by the rights of conscience. Thus order is assured by the obedience of souls. (21)”

         Before any further social revolution, Salazar insisted, there must be a spiritual revolution. The Republic had ravaged Portugal’s Catholic population, driving many people out of the Church for fear of their lives. Salazar taught that men’s souls had to be reformed by Christian obedience, renunciation, and love. These moral concepts must dominate the material aspects of life. Once this was accomplished, then the peace of Christ would be compatible with almost any government, monarchy or democracy (22). Such a spiritual reformation would allow a constitution to be based on immutable principles, rather than the will of the people. The will of the people could be swayed, as the Republic had proved far too many times, and anything based on something so full of change as the will of the people was intrinsically unstable (23).


1.    Antonio Ferro, Salazar: Portugal and Her Leader, Faber & Faber Ltd, © 1939 p. 111
2.    Hugh Kay, Salazar and Modern Portugal, Hawthorn Books, Inc., © 1970 pp. 9-11
3.    FCC Egerton, Salazar: Rebuilder of Portugal, Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., © 1943 p. 102
4.    Kay, p. 27
5.    Ibid, p. 29
6.    Ibid, pp. 29-30
7.    Kay, pp. 28-29
8.    Ibid, p. 21
9.    Ibid
10.  Ferro, pp. 65-66
11.  Kay, p. 22
12.  Ibid
13.  Kay, p. 23
14.  Ibid, p. 24
15.  Ibid
16.  Egerton, pp. 106-107
17.  Ibid, p. 108
18.  Egerton, p. 110
19.  Ibid, p. 111
20.  Ibid
21.  Egerton, p. 111
22.  Ibid, pp. 111-112
23.  Kay, p. 3

2 thoughts on “Everything for Portugal: the Life of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar Part 1

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s