Salazar: Portugal’s Great Dictator

A contemporary of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini, Salazar is remembered by some of his compatriots as the greatest figure in the nation’s history. Why?

António de Oliveira Salazar, c.1960.Fifty years have elapsed since the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar left office. Unlike most of the authoritarian rulers who rose to power during the interwar years, Salazar departed peacefully, laid low by a stroke. When he died in 1970, he was granted a lavish state funeral.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, Salazar’s Portugal had become a byword for repression and backwardness. His regime was finally toppled in a coup carried out in 1974, 48 years after the one that ushered him into power. Sections of the army had become radicalised by Portugal’s grim determination to retain its sprawling colonial empire, parts of which had risen in revolt. A democratic system came into being, Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, living standards rose and horizons broadened.

It came as a shock, therefore, when, in 2007, viewers of the TV series Great Portuguese – having been asked to vote for the greatest figure in Portuguese history – chose Salazar. He received 41 per cent of the 159,245 votes cast, beating the nation’s more illustrious monarchs and even the great explorers of the age of discovery.

The result was met with indignation, but it did not signify a rebirth of the far right; along with its Iberian neighbour Spain, Portugal is the only mainland Western European country where that current has failed to break through into mainstream politics. Instead, it was a recognition that, though antediluvian and reactionary, Salazar recovered a semblance of stability for a nation that endured anarchy during the early decades of the 20th century. Though he rarely travelled, he was more than a match for the leaders of both the Allied and Axis powers who tried to drag neutral Portugal into the Second World War and he gave an often overlooked country a stronger sense of identity.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, admitted in 2017 that she based the contentious character Salazar Slytherin on the former dictator, which has, no doubt, further influenced popular memory of him. But Salazar retains a grudging respect among some Portuguese, especially in light of the patchy record of his democratic successors. The last decade has been marked by economic crisis; Portugal has been hit hard by the contraction of the Eurozone. The political class in Lisbon is widely seen as mediocre and self-seeking. State incapacity is reflected in the poor performance of the education system. Corruption scandals abound: José Sócrates, prime minister from 2005 to 2011, was charged with tax evasion, forgery and embezzlement in 2017.

Rise to power

It was much worse political disorder that paved Salazar’s pathway to power in the late 1920s. Portugal’s monarchy had been overthrown in 1910 and an anti-clerical republic installed. But the violence and financial instability that followed threw urban middle-class radicals onto the defensive. As most Portuguese tired of the venal and disorderly parliamentary regime, a conservative backlash gathered pace.

Naval officers are applauded on the streets of Lisbon during the revolution of 1910.

Salazar was a 37-year-old economics professor at the University of Coimbra when the military took over in 1926. Born into a family of rural smallholders in the centre of Portugal, education had been his pathway to professional success, as it had been for many talented figures in rural southern Europe at this time. After a brief stint as the new regime’s finance minister, he took up the post again in 1928 and was given sweeping powers that earned him the reputation of a financial dictator. He stabilised the country’s finances without applying for a foreign loan and, as a result, some came to regard him as something of a miracle-worker, an image stressed in government propaganda as the military slowly retreated to the sidelines. From 1930 he became the regime’s leading figure and his authority was formalised in 1932 when he was appointed prime minister. He proclaimed an Estado Novo (New State) and in 1933 a new constitution was adopted. The republic was retained, but a Catholic, rural-tinged nationalism was at the heart of this new national revolution.

Salazar was its custodian. He repressed supporters of the liberal republic and members of Portugal’s growing Communist Party. Middle-class opponents were removed from posts in academia, the military and the civil service, while Communist Party members were imprisoned on the Cape Verde islands, in a camp that remained open until 1954. He argued that such force was indispensable for his regime’s consolidation. He claimed, however, that his Estado Novo was not a copy or an extension of the major fascist dictatorships. There was to be a limited role for politics. A submissive populace was preferred to one in a state of permanent mobilisation. There was to be no party state. A restricted electorate, bans on opposition candidates standing and vote-rigging ensured that there were elections, but ones without choice.

Historical anomaly

Salazar’s political movement was low-key. He preferred to exercise power behind the scenes, more of a mandarin than a messianic figure according to Eugenio d’Ors, a Spanish conservative intellectual of the Franco period. He ‘abominates the dramatic’, the British foreign secretary Austen Chamberlain wrote in the 1930s. Salazar avoided public displays and crowds and tried to project the image of a responsible intellectual working behind the scenes for the common good, an image that has to some extent endured. Salazar would claim that wielding power was a duty not a right, though he was clearly comfortable in the role of dictator. A friend, Fr Mateo Crawley-Boevey, a Catholic priest who was resident in Portugal when Salazar seized power, observed in 1928:

He doesn’t mislead me. Because behind that cold exterior, there is an inexhaustible ambition. He is a volcano of ambitions.

Salazar sought to ground a national popular culture in the conservative values of family, community and faith. His regime explicitly rejected the liberal and secular inheritance of the French Revolution, which had permeated Portuguese life, at least in the cities, during the previous century. While nationalism was at the core of Salazar’s regime, it did not insist upon the superior qualities of a particular people. Antisemitism was not a feature of his rule: persecuted Jews who fled to Portugal during the Second World War were not mistreated, nor was the country’s small Jewish community. Instead, nationalism was seen as a tool to keep intact a society long prone to factionalism, as well as justification for the retention of an empire many times the size of Portugal. Tradition took precedence over modernity and conservative catholic values permeated the education system, though Salazar did not repeal all the anti-clerical legislation of the republican era. The church was to know its place and a Concordat with Rome was reached in 1940 only after arduous negotiations. In a delicate balancing act, he brought together monarchists, moderate republicans and the military. Each of these pillars of the regime was convinced that only with him in charge could their privileges be guaranteed.

Descent into extremism

In 1934, as war clouds gathered over Europe and its remaining democracies seemed defenceless, a book-length set of candid interviews with Salazar, conducted by his nimble propaganda chief Antonio Ferro, appeared. They portrayed Portugal’s new leader as a serious-minded technocrat who spoke with apparent candour about Europe’s descent into extremism and how Portugal had found its own path to recovery by balancing the budget and preventing parasitic, destructive political parties debauching national life. They were soon translated into numerous languages and attracted respectful notice in some European intellectual circles. Salazar’s form of government acquired the reputation of being a significant innovation rather than just another one-man Latin dictatorship.

Portugal was depicted as a benign autocracy under an aristocracy of experts. Like Salazar, they were drawn mainly from the university world. His warnings about communism – ‘the grand heresy of our age’ as he put it in 1934 – struck a chord. That year, he declared:

We must resist the impulse tending to the formation of what might be called the Totalitarian State. The state which would subordinate everything without exception to the idea of the nation or the race ... which would put itself forward as an omnipotent being ... would involve an absolutism worse than that which the liberal regimes succeeded to, for such a state would be essentially pagan, naturally incompatible with the temper of our Christian civilisation.

At the time, Salazar was on the verge of dissolving a homegrown fascist movement, the National Syndicalists, who enjoyed a strong following among younger members of the urban middle classes; some estimates claim its membership numbered around 30,000. After forcing its leader, Francisco Rolão Preto, into exile, Salazar offered a warning about movements that roused the masses through a personality cult, yet he managed to draw former National Syndicalist activists into his own orbit by giving his Estado Novo para-fascist features, which were largely dropped after 1945.

Aiding Franco

The first of a number of serious challenges, at home and abroad, arrived with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. If Spain’s Republican government had defeated its fascist adversaries, it is difficult to see how the anti-communist regime next door in Portugal could have long survived. From the start, Salazar was resolved to do all in his power, short of military intervention, to aid Franco. The Spanish dictator’s military victory in 1939 initiated an alliance. The two strongmen respected one another, though they met only on a few occasions. The widespread distrust of Spain by its smaller neighbour may have led Salazar to conclude that it was better to keep his distance from his fellow dictator.

Though his opposition to communism earned him a following in wider conservative circles, it was Salazar’s steely defence of Portuguese neutrality during the Second World War that earned him the grudging respect of foreign politicians and diplomats. In the 1930s his financial measures, diplomatic efforts and internal reforms had enabled Portugal to recover from a perilously weak position. Arguably, without his energy and single-mindedness the country would have had little chance of emerging from the world conflict intact. Its colonies were already being viewed as collateral in diplomatic exchanges of the 1930s between Britain and Germany. The splits in the political world between pro-Allied and pro-German factions could well have returned Portugal to the strife of the 1920s.

Lisbon became a wartime hub of espionage and intrigue, but Salazar was determined that his small country would not become the plaything of ruthless warring powers. He frustrated Nazis in Berlin, who wanted Spain to enter the war on the Axis side, by encouraging Franco’s own inclination towards neutrality. He infuriated Churchill by selling to the Germans, until late into the war, a precious mineral, wolfram, which was used for the manufacture of heavy arms. Portugal’s gold reserves more than quadrupled during the conflict. The 383 tons of gold bullion stored away in the Bank of Portugal is the world’s second largest gold reserve in relation to a country’s gross domestic product. Many Portuguese, especially those distrustful of politics, see his defence of national interests in this perilous international conflict as a rare occasion when a national leader refused to bow to the will of the great powers.

He negotiated with British politicians, such as Samuel Hoare and David Eccles, and later with the influential US diplomat George Kennan. In diaries and memoirs they wrote with respect and even admiration about his statecraft and devotion to the Portuguese national cause. By the end of the war, Salazar was more convinced than ever that, in a dangerous world, he was indispensable if his country was to be kept out of harm’s way.

Founding member

Portugal had declined to join the anti-Comintern pact formed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (which Spain joined) and it was reluctant to join the United Nations, though it succumbed in 1955. Portugal was more keen to join NATO; it became one of its founder members in 1949. The emerging Cold War between the newly strengthened Soviet Union and the Atlantic democracies meant that the fervently anti-communist Salazar was more than willing to cooperate in Western defence initiatives. A large base ceded to the US on the mid-Atlantic islands of the Azores underscored Portugal’s usefulness to Washington.

Salazar had his admirers among the Christian Democrat figures who helped to create what became the European Union after 1958, but by then his lustre had faded and his regime was seen as increasingly anachronistic. Democracy had recovered its dynamism and Portugal appeared a backwater. From 1959, even Franco was stimulating rapid economic growth by reducing state control of the economy and encouraging foreign investment. Spain became a global hub for mass tourism, which pushed the society in a liberal direction.

Banning Coca-Cola

Salazar had always been suspicious of the benefits of intensifying economic interaction, the term which has become known as globalisation. Coca-Cola, for example, was banned. Portugal’s geographical position on the fringes of Western Europe enabled Salazar, albeit with diminishing success, to shield the population from socio-economic changes and cultural shifts which were bound to raise expectations, even among a mainly rural population. Though Salazar emphasised his independence from special interest groups, it became increasingly clear that his economic policies favoured a range of dominant sectors in agriculture, commerce and industry. The wave of public works he had unveiled in the 1930s slackened during the second half of his rule, while his admirers rarely probed the continuation of Portugal’s poverty and low literacy rates. Having set limits on the actions of the state, loans were discouraged and investment was limited. Salazar himself died having little money and few possessions. In 1949, he had said: ‘I owe to Providence the grace to be poor ... I am an independent man.’

Salazar never worked out a coherent philosophy for this new age. He warned that an obsession with equality and increasing consumerism was creating a shallow culture in the West, in which important but less tangible human needs were being neglected, but his corporatist model for solving class conflict barely got off the ground. Increasingly, he relied on a narrow circle of confidants. Room for new talent only arose when the ageing leader faced a succession of crises. In 1958, the managed elections for the ceremonial presidency slipped out of his control. Humberto Delgado, a flamboyant general who had been a regime loyalist, opposed the official candidate. He gained support even in the conservative, church-minded north of Portugal. Forced into exile after winning over a quarter of the vote, he was later murdered by Salazar’s secret police after plotting to overthrow the regime.

A fallen Portuguese statue, Nova Lisboa, Angola, November 1975.

Yet the biggest crisis of Salazar’s premiership was the outbreak of fighting in Portugal’s African territories in 1961. A 13-year colonial war bled the country economically. A massive military force was bogged down in what was an unwinnable war.

Ultimately, it was the US which posed the biggest external threat to the continuation of Salazar’s rule, with the Kennedy regime barely bothering to conceal its desire to see him ousted. US policy-makers feared that mineral-rich Angola would fall into communist hands, but a coup plot hatched by senior officers failed in 1961. Salazar’s diminishing energies were concentrated on defying the winds of change in Africa, but he was unable to withstand the forces of globalisation. Emigration increased throughout the 1960s as Portuguese voted with their feet for a better life, mainly in France or the Benelux countries.

Anachronistic figure

Aged 79 in 1968, as the youth revolution swept across much of the Western world, Salazar was by now a thoroughly anachronistic figure. His political model, rooted in preserving a strong local sense of community and culture and centred on household, family and faith had failed to acquire permanence. Unable to develop an alternative to modern liberalism, it was no surprise when pent-up frustrations with Salazar’s rule burst out in a revolution that spent itself after 18 months in 1975.

Salazar’s funeral, Lisbon, July 1970.

Conservatives elsewhere, often alarmed by the problems mounting under a liberal political state, may have some respect for Salazar, but the authoritarian character of the regime disqualifies his New State from being any kind of model for contemporary right-wingers, who believe electoral democracy is their chief bulwark against progressive uniformity. Salazar disdained the ballot box, yet the legitimacy of national elections has become central for many opposed to a global order dominated by transnational economic forces.

Ironically, it is now often among progressives that key elements of Salazar’s autocratic worldview are to be found, amid increasing concerns about the volatility or ignorance of the masses and how they can easily be manipulated. These views have been vigorously expressed in the media following the election of Donald Trump as US president and the decision of a majority of British electors to vote to leave the EU, both in 2016. The case for election or referendum results being modified by judicial or bureaucratic interventions is heard increasingly. Experts qualified to manage complex problems are often seen as possessing the wisdom to restrain or override politicians chosen by unstable or fickle electorates.

The emergence of a virtuous strongman would still appear to enjoy most appeal on the political right. The ‘aristocracy of experts’, however, which Salazar made the cornerstone of his regime, has revived as a political concept even among those political circles which the Portuguese autocrat spent his life opposing.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is writing a biography of Salazar.

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