Everything for Portugal: the Life of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar Part 3

By Christopher Woods (Rated PG for war and violence)

Part Three of Four

Surrounded by War

         Many critics, both during Salazar’s life and after his death, accused Salazar of being a fascist dictator. But there were significant differences between the Portuguese nationalism that Salazar encouraged and the German nationalism that Hitler manipulated. Portuguese nationalism was never aggressive; Salazar had no dreams of conquering Spain and uniting Iberia, let alone all of Europe. He merely wanted to continue the Portuguese legacy. Nor did Salazar proclaim the Portuguese legacy as the best legacy in the world. It was Portuguese and should last as long as the Portuguese themselves lasted (1). Other differences included a lack of charismatic leadership (Salazar disliked giving speeches, and never gave the stereotypical Roman salute, though his supporters often offered it), a lack of a single-party government (technically speaking, it was a no-party government), and no tendency towards totalitarianism (Salazar tolerated critics if they were merely angry, and listened to them if they offered suggestions) (2). The accusations were not entirely unfounded, however. Salazar centralized decision-making into a few hands (of which his own had the most power), and ensured the government had a clear hierarchy to enforce the decisions. Unfortunately, the lower classes did not immediately accept Salazar’s corporatism, seeing it as a variation of Communism. Salazar had no choice but to use the government to enforce the corporative ideas, which only made Portugal appear more fascist (3).

         In 1936, Spain, Portugal’s closest neighbor, dissolved into a civil war between the Republicans, led by Francisco Largo Caballero, and the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco. Salazar could not ignore Spain’s chaos, and if he simply sat by and watched, it might very well infect Portugal, as well. His options were to support the Republicans, balkanize Spain, or support Franco. Salazar dismissed the first idea; the Republicans were clearly Communist, receiving their propaganda, training, and equipment directly from the Soviet Union. He dismissed the second, as well; if each region of Spain was granted independence, then they would fall to infighting, and Portugal would lose a potential ally. The only option left, the only option that guaranteed a strong, united Spain favorable to Portugal, was to support Franco and the Nationalists. Hopefully, Salazar thought, Franco would be able to resist Hitler’s offers of alliance, while also preventing the Republicans from opening Iberia (4).

         As the war developed, various nations grew interested in the progress. France made an effort to covertly send the Republicans aid through Mexico, while Germany and Italy moved to aid the Nationalists. Great Britain, acting at the time as the world’s policeman, feared that the Spanish Civil War could very well escalate into a world war, and discouraged everyone from getting themselves involved. While Portugal’s hands were tied by her ancient alliance with Great Britain, Salazar did allow the Germans to send aid through Portugal. He also allowed Portuguese soldiers to cross the border and fight for the Nationalists, and gave Franco any Communists he caught trying to escape through Portugal. Great Britain noticed these actions, and expressed her worry that should the Nationalists win, Hitler would gain a valuable ally. Salazar assured them that a Communist victory would be far worse (5).

         Seeing how many nations were taking sides in Spain, France suggested everyone sign a non-intervention pact. France, Portugal, Russia, Germany, Italy would all have to cut their aid and simply watch as events played out. Salazar could not accept this. Should the Communists win, Portugal would be next on their list, and Salazar feared the results of such an invasion. Far better, he thought, to ensure that it never happened. To that end, he refused to sign any kind of non-intervention pact. Everyone except France refused as well, for their own reasons (6).

         September of 1936 proved Salazar’s concerns to be well-founded. The crews of two Portuguese warships locked up their officers and set sail for Spain to join the Republicans. As soon as Salazar learned of this, he ordered those warships to be destroyed. He also required all soldiers and public servants to repudiate Communism and all such ideas (7). He would not risk them becoming any more widespread than they already were.

         Great Britain watched as the Spanish Civil War edged closer and closer to a global conflict. In an effort to defuse the situation and end the war, Great Britain proposed that Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Russia work together with the few Spaniards who had stayed neutral to set up a Spanish government that wouldn’t side with anybody. All the nations concerned agreed to this proposal, but pointed out that the Spanish who weren’t neutral would object, and start another war against the coalition-formed government. The proposal would solve nothing, and so was dropped (8).

         In the spring of 1937, Franco and the Nationalists had gained a clear advantage. Great Britain continued advocating for non-intervention and an armistice, but at this point, Salazar thought they were simply trying to buy the Republicans more time. Relations between Portugal and Great Britain worsened, and Great Britain first started calling Portugal fascist and unrepresentative. For his part, Salazar continued trying to persuade the British that a Nationalist victory would truly be the preferable outcome. When Salazar sent a special agent to Salamanca, the Nationalist capital, on November 20, 1937, Great Britain nearly panicked, thinking that through such an action, Salazar was recognizing the Nationalist government as the legitimate Spanish government. At that time, Salazar reassured the British, but on April 28, 1938, he did officially recognize the Nationalists as Spain. The Republicans were no longer in control of a majority of the county, but the Nationalists brought order and stability (9).

         Even as the relationship between Portugal and Great Britain deteriorated, the relationship between Portugal and Spain grew stronger. Salazar’s special agent, Dr. Pedro Theotónio Pereira, became the ambassador to Spain, and Franco sent his own older brother, Don Nicholás, as ambassador to Portugal. Both Salazar and Franco realized that the threat of a world war still loomed large, and that as things currently stood, Great Britain would call on Portugal, and Germany would recruit Spain. Both Salazar and Franco didn’t want this outcome, and so pushed for an Iberian Pact, that would unite their countries in a firm friendship, no matter what happened in the rest of the world. On March 17, 1939, the two leaders—one could say Iberian brothers—signed the Iberian Pact. Great Britain finally relented and recognized Franco’s government as legitimate. But Franco also signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, and Salazar felt slightly betrayed that Franco would feel so comfortable with Hitler. Great Britain at once seized the opportunity to berate Salazar for supporting Franco all along, but Salazar held his ground, and defended Franco despite his own misgivings. When Germany eventually invaded Poland, Spain and Portugal both declared official neutrality. Salazar was vindicated—for the moment (10).

         Even in the first years of World War Two, Salazar saw no good outcome. A German victory would be disastrous for everyone, and Great Britain could not win alone. On the other hand, an unconditional German surrender would only benefit the Soviet Union, giving them even more territory in Europe (11). The Baltic countries were out of the war right from the start, and even if the Western countries made an effort to revive them after Germany’s defeat, the Communists would easily overrun them again. As regarded Portugal, Salazar was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Napoleonic Wars and World War One. In the first, Portugal had become a battleground, and the country never fully recovered until Salazar himself finally set things to rights. In the second, Portugal had sent an expeditionary force to the Western Front, which was promptly decimated. Germany never bothered Portuguese Africa, being far more concerned by the British and French in the area. Portugal lost a large portion of her army, and even though she was among the victors, never received her share of the victory profits. Salazar devoted himself to a study of Portuguese diplomacy during World War One, so as to know more clearly what not to do. He also regarded himself as the only one capable of making competent decisions that would keep Portugal out of the war, and so persuaded President Carmona to appoint him not only Prime Minister, but also Foreign Minister and War Minister. Portuguese ambassadors no longer had any power to act on their own volition, but merely collected information which was relayed to Salazar. Salazar then decided what the best action was and instructed his ambassadors accordingly (12). While Salazar kept a firm control over what happened, it often took time to give instructions, and in that time, the situation might have changed.

         Staying neutral was a tricky game, especially when the world was so tense. Salazar determined that Portugal would refuse every offer Great Britain made to get them to join the war, unless Great Britain couched it in the terms of the ancient alliance formed between Great Britain and Portugal in 1386. Not that that would have made the decision any more palatable to Salazar; but Salazar was Portuguese, and to the Portuguese, alliances were a matter of honor (13). But he also feared the affect the war would have on the Portuguese people as a whole, so he censored the papers so as not to offend any belligerent countries, for fear they would declare war. The plan backfired, however, when the monarchist paper accused the national paper of germanophilia. Salazar also utilized secret police and learned from them worrying rumors. Great Britain might be planning to coup Salazar, either through World War One veterans partial to democracy, or by helping Dom Duarte—the legitimate pretender to the Portuguese throne—regain his rightful position in exchange for Portugal’s aid in the war. In general, the Portuguese people as a whole were greatly alarmed by the tension, and demanded Salazar to show himself and explain things, or at least give them a few words of comfort. Never a man for speeches, Salazar said very little, and made sure that what he did say could not be construed to be pro-Allies or pro-Axis. Consequently, it was construed as both. Lisbon became a pamphlet battleground, as German propaganda began infiltrating Portuguese media. The propaganda declared that democracies were the enemy of the Novo Estado, primarily because the Novo Estado was not a democracy. Although Salazar used the censorship to block Communist propaganda, he was afraid to do the same against the Nazi propaganda, for fear that Germany would declare war (14).

         The year 1940 should have been a year of wonderful celebration in Portugal. It was the eight hundredth anniversary of the birth of Portugal in 1140, the three hundredth anniversary of Portugal’s restoration of independence in 1640, and Salazar had just signed a concordat with the Catholic Church, returning to it many freedoms it had lost during the years of the chaotic Republic. But the war overshadowed all this. How could the Portuguese celebrate where they had been when they had no idea where they were going (15)?

         Salazar spent a great deal of his time studying Germany’s proposed New Order. Some documents suggest that he favored the idea on account of how often he discussed it with the German ambassador. Nothing could be further from the truth. What he learned disturbed him. All of Europe would be consolidated, and production would be distributed between all areas of Europe. The smaller countries would lose their self-determination, as the larger countries took center stage. By September of 1941, Salazar was convinced that the New Order would only allow industrial nations to exploit agricultural nations (16). Naturally, Salazar was unable to favor such a plan. Portugal herself was an agricultural nation and would become one of the first victims of the New Order if Germany won the war.

         Like many of the neutral nations in Europe, Portugal was swarming with refugees. The secret police did their best to keep track of them but did not arrest them. Mercifully, Salazar housed them in tourist hotels (which were largely empty). He never rounded them up into refugee camps. Even if he wanted them to leave and stop taxing Portugal’s resources, Salazar was determined to treat the refugees well (17). When France capitulated in June of 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, wrote thousands of visas for the refugees desperate to escape. This action was of his own volition, and when Salazar learned of it, he requested Mendes to stop. Accepting these refugees was the same as inviting Germany to invade, as Salazar saw it. Mendes refused to listen, and Salazar eventually dismissed him from his post. As for the refugees, they were for a while stuck on the border between Spain and Portugal. Spain refused them, on the grounds that they were heading to Portugal; Portugal refused them, on the grounds that their visas were invalid. Finally, Salazar relented, and accepted the refugees. No matter how dangerous it was, he realized that he could not leave them as a hoard of will-o’-the-wisps. Mendes was put on trial, and defended his actions in humanitarian, historical, and practical concerns. Despite this, Salazar still prevented Mendes from having any political post in the future. Once again, Salazar justified his decision with the threat of a German invasion. He wanted to help the refugees but feared German reprisal (18).

         Even within the different departments of the Novo Estado, people were swayed by both sides of the war. Great Britain continued giving its official support for Salazar and the Novo Estado, but the Portuguese secret police preferred Germany. In 1942, they discovered and disbanded a British organization that would have performed a great deal of sabotage in the event that Germany subjugated Portugal. Although Great Britain was surely displeased by this, it did not hinder British-Portuguese cooperation. On the contrary, Great Britain gave Portugal a great deal of aid in improving the military and counter-espionage (19).

         As the war continued, Salazar used the censorship to exclude propaganda of all kinds from Portuguese newspapers, and so strive to preserve neutrality. Too often, the propagandists would find loopholes in the censorship, and the incendiary words would reach the Portuguese public. Salazar prevented the government from being swayed by the whims of the people and clung stubbornly to his policy of neutrality. Because of conditions around the world, however, the standard of living in Portugal declined, as did support for the Novo Estado (20).

         Even in Spain, there were a few who disapproved of Salazar. Serrano Suñez, the Spanish Interior Minister and one of the leaders of the Falange (Spain’s predominant political party), told Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, that Portugal had no right to exist. While this remark did not overly worry Salazar, the Blue Division concerned him much more. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Franco sent a division of volunteers, known as the Blue Division. Salazar resented this deeply, seeing it as a betrayal of the Iberian Pact. Although Salazar was perfectly willing to fight the Communists in Portugal, he did not want the Soviet Union to collapse only to be replace by the Axis. And if Spain grew too comfortable fighting alongside Germany, Salazar feared she would take Germany’s side when Hitler turned his attention to Iberia. He directed his ambassador, Pereira, to tell Suñez about the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps during World War One, drawing parallels between it and the Blue Division. Both were sent, Pereira argued, by misguided governments for poor reasons against the wishes of the people. If Spain continued in this route, she could expect a crisis at home, just as Portugal had experienced. From February 11 to 13, 1941, Salazar, Franco, and Suñez met in Seville to discuss the war and other matters that affected their nations. During this meeting, Salazar expressed his hope that nobody would win the war. If somebody won, then that country would become a superpower, and smaller countries like Portugal would lose their sovereignty. If, however, the war was fought to a draw, then all the large nations would be more concerned about each other than about trying to dominate lesser countries. During these talks, Suñez’s attitude toward Salazar completely changed. The three of them agreed to bind Portugal and Spain even more closely together economically and militarily, to prevent either one from relying too much on the Axis or the Allies (21).

         But Germany was not the only potential enemy. On May 6, 1941, in separate speeches, both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Senator Claude Pepper mentioned the strategic benefits of the Azores, a chain of islands in the Atlantic that belonged to Portugal. Salazar at once assumed that this was the first forebodings of an invasion and sent a protest. President Roosevelt promised that the United States would not invade the Azores, but would protect them, along with Brazil. Nonetheless, Salazar was distrustful of such protection, and stated quite clearly that he had no need of it. The issue was dropped until 1943, when both the United States and Great Britain began again to pressure Salazar into giving them the Azores, one way or the other. Although some of the Allied generals and politicians (Winston Churchill among them) wanted to simply occupy the Azores, others insisted that negotiation was the better way. Salazar forced the negotiations to last an incredibly long time, always delaying decisions and requesting more in return for allowing use of the Azores. Frustrated by Salazar’s constant dodging, Churchill again pushed the idea of simply occupying the Azores. The Portuguese garrison would be unable to put up any kind of fight, and the Allies would be able to use the Azores considerably sooner. However, there were many in the British Foreign Office who opposed such action, saying that it would be far more profitable to maintain good relations with Portugal, rather than driving her into the arms of the Axis. Churchill relented, although he had invasion plans drawn up. Thankfully, he never had to use them. After two months of negotiations, Salazar finally allowed the Allies limited use of the Azores, beginning October 8, 1943. In return, Portugal was allowed to continue trade with Germany, and Great Britain would allow Portugal to buy more current military equipment (22). The trade with both Germany and Great Britain ensured Portugal’s continued neutrality.

         Relations between Portugal and Great Britain remained tense. Salazar still feared invasion from Germany, judging Great Britain to be incapable of protecting Portugal, as she had promised. On the other hand, the Portuguese ambassador to Great Britain, Armindo Monteiro, judged Great Britain to have the advantage over Germany. Monteiro would often write to Salazar, telling him how his actions blackened Portugal’s reputation in Great Britain. Many British saw Salazar as a fascist, who was unwilling to join the Allies because of secret sympathies with Germany, and all the evil the Nazis represented. As Salazar read Monteiro’s letters, however, he was struck with the distinct feeling that Monteiro was not so much writing for Salazar as he was for future historians. With this in mind, when Salazar replied, he did so using the margins and back of Monteiro’s own letter. When the historians read Monteiro’s letter, they would have Salazar’s reply, as well (23).

         Portugal’s neutrality was a sore issue for both sides, as Portugal was Europe’s largest producer of tungsten. Tungsten was used to manufacture armor-piercing ammunition, and if either side could recruit Portugal, they would cut off a significant amount of tungsten for their enemy. Salazar knew how much the countries at war wanted tungsten and decided that tungsten could only be bought with escudos. Germany would sell goods to Portugal in exchange for escudos, which it would then use to buy tungsten. However, Great Britain blacklisted all the Portuguese business that had dealings with Germany, refusing to do business with them, and so Portugal became merely a component of Great Britain’s blockade, rather than the economically independent nation that Salazar wanted. Despite this, Germany continued buying, causing the price of tungsten to rise uncontrollably and threaten the rest of Portugal’s economy. Salazar took action to prevent destabilization of the economy, and signed a deal with Germany in January, 1942. Portugal would regularly sell tungsten to Germany, and Germany would not buy any tungsten outside of these appointed times. Germany would also sell more iron, ammonium sulfate, railway cars, and mining machinery to Portugal. Germany promised not to fire on Portuguese ships in the Atlantic, provided that they knew the cargo. As another effort to bring down the price of tungsten, Salazar established the Regulatory Commission for the Commercialization of Metals (CRCM). All Portuguese mining companies would sell their tungsten to the CRCM, which would then sell it to foreign countries. The CRCM fixed the price of tungsten at 150 escudos/kg, thus averting the threat to Portugal’s economy (24).

         Despite Portugal’s neutrality, Great Britain was irritated that Salazar insisted on selling tungsten to Germany. As Salazar saw it, the Soviets were getting the most out of the war and selling tungsten to Germany was the best way he had of fighting Communism. Also, as leader of an independent nation, Salazar knew he could trade with whomever he wished. However, Great Britain continued to berate Salazar for maintaining trade with Germany in particular, and Salazar finally caved. He told Great Britain that if she demanded Portugal to cease selling tungsten to Germany in the terms of their ancient alliance, then he would comply. Great Britain seized the chance, and trade with Germany ceased (25).

         While Salazar constantly struggled to overly favor neither Axis nor Allies, he also faced discontent at home. Marcelo Caetano, a renowned professor, claimed that the corporative state of the Novo Estado had no corporative spirit. Always willing to hear criticism, Salazar asked for clarification and examples. Caetano pointed out that the cost of living, food, and fuel had risen, as the latter two had to be imported from countries at war. And, as a final blow, the corporative state did not prevent corruption as much as Salazar had hoped. In an effort to improve the situation, some of Salazar’s advisors suggested he give regular radio talks and invest in other forms of propaganda as well. Salazar did so, but the quality of both talks and propaganda was not very good. Although Salazar could write, he was not much of a public speaker, and had no charisma (26).

         The Communists at once took advantage of the disgruntled Portuguese. They instigated three waves of strikes, in October of 1942, July of 1943, and May of 1944. Salazar responded to the strikes with arrests, but also raised wages and instituted a better rationing system. However, even the new rationing system was faulty, and the workers were only slightly less disgruntled than before (27).


1.  Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Salazar: A Political Biography, Enigma Books, © 2009, pp., p. 86
2.  Antonio Costa Pinto, Salazar’s Dictatorship and European Fascism, Columbia University Press, © 1995, p. 3
3.  De Meneses, p. 88
4.  Hugh Kay, Salazar and Modern Portugal, Hawthorn Books, Inc., © 1970, pp. 87-89
5.  Ibid, pp. 91-92
6.  Ibid, p. 93
7.  Ibid, p. 95
8.  Ibid, p. 103
9.  Ibid, pp. 111-116
10.  Ibid, pp. 117-120
11.  De Meneses, p. 223
12.  Ibid, pp. 226-227
13.  Ibid, pp. 228-229
14.  Ibid, pp. 229-232
15.  Ibid, p. 233
16.  Ibid, pp. 234-235
17.  Ibid, p. 237
18.  Ibid, pp. 237-240
19.  Ibid, pp. 241-242
20.  Ibid, pp. 249-252
21.  Ibid, pp. 257-263
22.  Ibid, pp. 266-288
23.  Ibid, pp. 289-300
24.  Ibid, pp. 304-308
25.  Ibid, pp. 314-316
26.  Ibid, pp. 319-321
27.  Ibid, pp. 321-328

One thought on “Everything for Portugal: the Life of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar Part 3

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