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Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die

Tom Gallagher’s portrait of Portugal’s totalitarian leader illuminates 20th-century Europe

Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die
Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die
Author: Tom Gallagher
ISBN-13: 978-1787383883
Publisher: Hurst
Guideline Price: £25

In 1938, delegates at the Catholic Social Conference in Belfast heard that there were “only two states in Europe that furnish us with striking examples of what God demands. One is the Portugal of Dr Salazar and the other is Éire.” António de Oliveira Salazar’s 36-year dictatorship was often the object of admiration in Ireland; in 1940 the Irish Independent declared that it showed the world “what a small state can do when it is well-governed”.

The Scottish political scientist Tom Gallagher’s new biography of the dictator does not make direct comparisons with Ireland, but Irish readers may naturally draw them. When Salazar was born in the small town of Vimieiro in the Dão valley in 1889, Portugal and Ireland had roughly the same population, both mostly rural countries on the Atlantic fringe of Europe’s industrial age, beset by poverty and emigration.

After conservative military officers overthrew the country’s unstable first republic in 1926, Salazar – then an academic economist – emerged as what Gallagher calls “a political entrepreneur”. Liberal democracy, he believed, was undermining the traditional values and order of western society, and had to be replaced. He was, his spiritual adviser Fr Mateo Crawley-Boevey said, “a volcano of ambition” and upon elevation to cabinet ominously warned that “when the time comes for me to give orders, I shall expect [Portugal] to obey”.

Salazar skilfully manoeuvred his way to the top of the “national dictatorship” and established the Estado Novo (new state) in 1933. It was authoritarian and nationalist, and a new corporatist system, inspired by Pius XI’s Quadragesima Anno, aimed to create a Catholic Portuguese alternative to what Salazar saw as liberalism’s “excesses of individualism” and the “great heresy” of communism.


In reality, corruption proved “difficult to avoid”, and the regime was focused almost entirely on the austere and isolated dictator himself: “I am no one’s friend,” Salazar told his eventual successor Marcello Caetano; “I can have no friends.”

‘Tilted towards fascism’

In the mid-1930s, Gallagher argues, “Salazar tilted towards fascism from expediency, not from any real conviction”. Whether the dictator was “a fascist” or a reactionary nationalist “authoritarian” is perhaps semantic. Gallagher’s work on Portugal and other European dictatorships stretches back decades, but the book is held back by a lack of new research.

American individualism and anti-colonialism repulsed him, and he paranoidly wondered if the US planned to assassinate him

Gallagher insists that his biography is “not an apologia”, but his admiration for Salazar’s dedication and statecraft certainly shines through, and he tends to relativise the regime’s “obviously repressive side”. The “omniscient secret police”, the PIDE, “was perhaps never as fearsome as its detractors often claimed”; Salazar lacked the “taste for blood” of Franco and his “paternalistic and . . . racist” imperialism was not comparable to Hitler’s or Mussolini’s; the Estado Novo was “low-key and unobtrusive compared with the major European dictatorships”.

While it is important to emphasise what made Salazar distinctive, these are questionable choices of emphasis, and totalitarianism was hardly the only alternative for Portugal. The Ireland that admired Salazar also prioritised domestic stability, Catholic social order and a conservative commitment to preventing the future but still remained democratic. Gallagher argues that Salazar’s goal was the “depoliticisation” of a society he believed suffered from a national defect of “character” that made it too “immature” for self-determination.

When world war engulfed Europe, Salazar sought to preserve his country’s “vulnerable” interests by staying out of the conflict while not overly antagonising either the Nazi Reich or the British Empire. Neutrality made Lisbon a disembarkation point for refugees and a hub for Allied and Axis spies, and Gallagher argues that Salazar’s “deft handiwork” helped Portugal survive the war comparatively unscathed.

‘Guarantor of order’

When Hitler died, flags in Lisbon were flown at half-mast (a misleading Reuters report that the Irish delegation in the city had flown the swastika was censored from this newspaper). Gallagher notes that the Portuguese did not arouse the same ire in London that Éamon de Valera’s expressions of condolences did. Britain “instinctively felt that Salazar was a guarantor of order in an unpredictable country”.

Salazar’s imperialism, however, was out of favour with the postwar superpowers. American individualism and anti-colonialism repulsed him, and he paranoidly wondered if the US planned to assassinate him. In 1961, India seized Goa, an iconic outpost of Portugal’s so-called Age of Discoveries, where the colonial governor ignored Salazar’s order to “fight to the death”. The regime’s insistent slogan that “Portugal is not a small country” now relied on retaining Angola and Mozambique, something that became an “obsession” for Salazar.

Salazar has had a peculiar afterlife in Portugal, with persistent admiration for his dedication and patriotism among some nationalists and conservatives

The black populations of what the state called “Ultramar” were denied even basic rights, with an almost universal system of forced labour in Angola. An official report in 1947 by one-time Salazar loyalist Henrique Galvão detailed a system “worse than slavery” (the report was ignored). After rebellion erupted in Angola in 1961, Portugal poured resources into a war that would drag on for more than a decade and consume the state’s budget.

Over a million Portuguese emigrated in the 1960s and opposition grew. Communist opposition leaders escaped from political prison, some generals began to turn on the regime, and student unrest increased. “The world is raving mad,” Salazar said of the 1968 protests, “the masses stumble into anarchy.”

Head injury

That summer Salazar fell and sustained a serious head injury that left him in a coma. He was removed from office, but after he unexpectedly recovered consciousness, it is unclear whether anyone told him that he was no longer in power. He died in 1970, and the Estado Novo would collapse in the Carnation Revolution in 1974.

Salazar has had a peculiar afterlife in Portugal, with persistent admiration for his dedication and patriotism among some nationalists and conservatives, his regime’s legacy lingering through elitism, corruption and an unwillingness to confront the colonial past. But Gallagher’s own conservative political views too often intrude on his conclusions, his Euroscepticism leading him to dismiss post-Salazar Portugal as a “well-behaved child in the European Union” despite undeniable economic and social progress under democracy.

He is right, however, that the dictator “appears to embody” much of what many on the “liberal left” today oppose: he “presided over the most patriarchal regime” in Europe, and was its “most stubborn and implacable” colonial leader.

In the era of the rising alt-right, we must hope that Gallagher is wrong that there may again be “demand for national leaders of a not dissimilar stamp”.

Dr Christopher Kissane is an editorial fellow at History Workshop

Christopher Kissane

Dr Christopher Kissane, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a historian, writer and presenter of the Ireland's Edge podcast