Fifty years ago, the most important and influential Portuguese politician of the 20th century died. From his first appearance in government, in April 1928, as the all-powerful finance minister of the ‘military dictatorship,’ until the summer of 1968, when he suffered a head trauma, António de Oliveira Salazar dominated the country’s political landscape. And, moreover, he continued to be a commanding figure after his death in 1970 — and even after the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974.

Salazar first controlled the Portuguese political scene for 40 years, between 1928 and 1968, directing or guiding all aspects of economic and social life. Then, after the coup d’état of April 25, 1974, he once again dominated the political scene — this time, by being ever-present in the rhetoric of the left-wing former opposition parties to whom the military had handed over power. The ‘new political masters’ that replaced the regime of the Estado Novo not only used ‘anti-Salazarism’ and ‘anti-fascism’ to gain legitimacy, they also obsessively sought to do everything contrary to what Salazar had done (or, hypothetically, would do).

Two of Salazar’s enemies — Afonso Costa, the Great Cacique of the ‘Democráticos,’ who had been in power before him, and Álvaro Cunhal, the long-time Communist leader who would later fight his rule — were both major players. But Salazar still held the leading role. Throughout most of the First Republic (1910-1926), the unpopularity of Afonso Costa and the ‘de facto dictatorship’ of his Partido Democrático, camouflaged by fraudulent elections, led to popular support for the military dictatorship and, later on, for Salazar. In turn, Cunhal and the Partido Comunista Português — both because of the ‘Communist threat’ and the weakness of the other opposition forces — provided justification for the Salazar regime, even reinforcing its longevity, in the name of ‘anti-Communism.’

Then, throughout the new post-revolutionary regime, Salazar was ‘kept alive’ in the constantly reiterated ‘anti-Salazarism’ of the new leaders. Even today, no self-respecting leftist academic or journalist can achieve advancement without pronouncing perpetual vows against ‘The Dictator’ and his ‘crimes’ — and trying to reduce the Estado Novo regime to sundry misdeeds allegedly leading to Portuguese ‘backwardness,’ a rejection of modernity, the State Security PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado), censorship, and the Tarrafal penal colony. This has been accompanied by narratives that seek to associate Salazar’s regime with the darkest chronicles of 20th century totalitarianism — from the Hitlerian death camps, to the Stalinist and Maoist gulags or the tenebrous Spanish Inquisitions of the past.

It was not so; but the victors usually write history. And the Left, with no political power for almost half a century, and with scarce achievements, ended up trying to legitimize itself through the dark legend about the former regime.

To be sure, Salazar was not a democrat; not least of all because the Portuguese democratic experience — from October 1910 to May 1926 — had been dominated by the Partido Democrático, led by Afonso Costa. Costa was an intelligent, authoritarian, manipulative politician who did not refrain from using the virulently anti-clerical and anti-monarchical secret society, Carbonária, and the ‘popular mob’ to “shatter the teeth of reactionaries.” After World War I, Costa left for Paris and was succeeded by António Maria da Silva, nicknamed “the engineer of revolutions.” Thus, like many of his generation — which included disillusioned republicans and groups of intellectuals who today might be considered ‘left-wing’ (like those involved with the magazine Seara Nova) — Salazar did not appreciate the so-called ‘benefits of democracy’ (or at least, the benefits of that Portuguese democracy).

Since only 7% of the people voted, Portuguese democracy at the turn of the century was a convenient regime for those in power. By paying close attention to electoral laws and to the geography of the constituencies, Afonso Costa manipulated elections to ensure that urban constituencies had greater representation than rural provinces, which were more conservative and Catholic. And because women were allegedly more susceptible to the influence of priests, he also resisted giving women the right to vote. Finally, when the democratic system still did not work in his favour, the ‘carbonaries’ and other ‘democratic forces’ would ‘correct’ it a posteriori, invading any polling station that seemed reluctant to vote ‘the right way.’

It was this democracy that the military coup of May 28, 1926, overthrew. Beginning in the northern city of Braga, the military insurrection was made of intermediate cadres, captains and lieutenants (in fact, the most senior of the ‘Braga rebels’ was Major Pereira Coutinho), who were then joined by civilians — such as those who took General Manuel Gomes da Costa to the North to put him in charge of the revolution. With countrywide supporters, ranging from integralist monarchists to trade unionists, the May 28 coup was largely welcomed.

Salazar appeared then as a finance ministry technocrat. He was prepared to join the government, and was known by the military from his published articles with theoretical and practical ‘recipes’ on how to deal with the problem of public debt. (The debt had been, since the civil war of 1828-1834 and throughout the entire constitutional period, a constant challenge in Portuguese political life.) Salazar quickly realized that the source of military power was not found among the generals but rather in the lower ranks of lieutenants, captains, and majors. It was they who, after May 28, in the military camp of Sacavém in the outskirts of Lisbon, decided the fate of the revolution’s leaders: Gomes da Costa, Commandant José Mendes Cabeçadas, and others. This was the reason why Salazar, as Minister of Finance, held conferences on the state of the nation addressing the hundreds of “officers of the Lisbon Military Garrison”— as if this were a perfectly normal choice of audience for a Minister of Finance.

While Salazar solved the problems of the finance ministry — which, under a dictatorship, with every penny of public revenue and expenditure under control, may not have been so difficult to solve — he also laid the doctrinal foundations for a political-institutional alternative to multiparty democracy.

What foundations were these? Salazar’s intellectual and doctrinal formation was linked to the French and Vatican versions of ‘social Catholicism.’ It was linked to the experience of a Church persecuted and martyred by the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and hounded by the Jacobin and Masonic anti-clericalism at the end of the 19th. This was a Church that had responded — from Rome — with advocacy for the “Christian democracy” (which was more Christian than democratic) of the so-called “social Popes” (e.g. Leo XIII, Pius XI, etc.), and which had opposed both the savage capitalism of the 19th century as well as it socialist-materialist alternative.

Salazar’s thinking was also based on Maurrasism, on the organic nationalism of Action Française, and on the sociologists who pioneered the ‘psychology of the crowds’ and mass society of the Industrial Revolution (people like Gustave Le Bon). Portugal’s experiences during the end of the monarchy (1910) and the First Republic, as well as Salazar’s close reading of 19th century Portuguese history — in the light of, for example, the writings of Alexandre Herculano and of the informal group of 19th century intellectuals that gathered under the name Os Vencidos da Vida (Life’s Vanquished) — were also important intellectual influences.

Bolshevik revolutionaries firing on the Tzar’s police during the early days of the March Revolution (1917).

And then there was the international situation: the first confrontations of what Ernst Nolte would later call the “European Civil War,” with the Bolshevik Revolution — which was both internationalist and anti-Christian — causing fear and reaction throughout Europe. As Marx had predicted, the spectre of socialist revolution hovered over the continent — and provoked various reactions. In Italy, Mussolini had mobilized former combatants from the middle classes, negotiated with the king and traditional forces, and established an undemocratic social democracy called Fascism. In economic terms, it was a kind of compromise between liberal capitalism and communist socialism. In other countries, in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, strongmen triumphed and monarchies were militarized. As real as the Communist danger was, it was also instrumentalized.

Salazar thought that liberal democracy, which could work in England, would not work in Portugal. Nor was he enthusiastic about the style and revolutionary rhetoric of fascism either, with its defence of violence as inherent in the construction of the ideal state. For him, force should lie with the military, with whom he was agreeing to govern.

Salazar — who once said that “the State should be strong so as not to have to be violent” — was the ethical and aesthetic antipodes of the popular image of the fascist leader, in uniform and jackboots. And while Mussolini (along with Nietzsche) spoke of “living dangerously,” Salazar spoke of “living normally.” At root was a profound Augustinian anthropological pessimism that was only ever temporarily suspended when time came for him to speak of the history of Portugal and its most heroic moments (which basically came down to “the golden century of discoveries and conquest overseas”).

Between 1890 and 1930 — that is, from the beginning of the reign of Dom Carlos I to the 1933 Constitution — the country had been dominated by politics, whether in parliament or on the streets, and left with no time or money for public works. Portugal went through the humiliation of the British Ultimatum of 1890 (which forced the Portuguese military’s retreat from certain contested areas); saw the last outbreak of the bubonic plague in Europe, in Porto, in 1899; and went through the commissarial dictatorship of João Franco (1907-08), to which the ‘Lisbon Regicide’ of Don Carlos I and his heir-apparent, Luís Felipe, had put an end. Subsequently, on October 5, 1910, António Machado Santos, with 400 revolutionaries, toppled the monarchic government of António Teixeira de Sousa. In addition, there were the tragic, pathetic episodes of the First Republic, including the ill-prepared World War I interventions in Flanders and Africa, the short-lived reform attempts of Sidónio Pais (promptly assassinated), the perennial political party confusions, a low-intensity civil war (i.e. the short-lived monarchical revolution of 1919 in northern Portugal), and general disorder and counter-revolutionary attempts that endured for ten years after May 28.

Traditional Portuguese tiles (azulejos): “Let us give the nation optimism, joy, courage, faith in its destinies; let us restore its strong soul to the warmth of the great ideals and take as our motto this unshakeable certainty: Portugal can be, if we want, a great and prosperous nation.” Image courtesy of Joseolgon under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

The Estado Novo inherited the deep ‘backwardness’ in which Portugal was plunged; it did not cause it. It began to tackle the challenges of infrastructure and public works — from roads to dams, schools, high schools, and the restoration of monuments.

Part of the great European crisis was, of course, the Spanish Civil War, with the radical totalitarianism of the allies of both sides: Mussolini and Hitler alongside Franco and the rebel military; Stalin, the Communist International, and the International Brigades alongside the government of the Frente Popular. Salazar supported Franco but remained independent from the broader objectives of his allies in Spain. Thus, during the Second World War, in order to hobble Spain and prevent the war from reaching the Iberian Peninsula (as Hitler wanted — and as opponents of the regimes in Lisbon and Madrid also wanted in the hope of drawing them into the war and eventually overthrowing them with the help of the Allies), Salazar (close to the Allies) working in tight complicity with Franco (close to the Axis powers) were able to keep the neutrality of the Luso-Spanish Peninsula.

During the post-war period, at the very beginnings of the Cold War, the British and the North Americans tolerated the authoritarianism of Salazar and Franco. This was especially the case since the Anglo-Americans were acutely aware, particularly from the dispatches of their respective ambassadors, that the opposition in Portugal and Spain was — or soon would be — dominated by the Communists. The Estado Novo did not remain isolated. It joined NATO and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and — until the decolonization process and the African Wars — maintained relations with all countries except those of the Communist Bloc.

President Truman at his desk in the Oval Office, flanked by European dignitaries — including Portugal’s Ambassador, Pedro Teotónio Pereira — signing the document creating the North Atlantic Treaty on August 24, 1949. Image courtesy of Abbie Rowe/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

But everything comes at a price. And since the regimes of the Peninsula had become rather exotic in a Europe that was increasingly divided between the one-party socialist states of the Soviet Bloc and the Western democracies, survival had become more problematic, particularly under international pressure. This is where the overbearing weight of Álvaro Cunhal’s Communists in the opposition became a critical factor in helping Salazar’s continuity, with the existence of his regime increasingly accepted by NATO countries as the ‘lesser of two evils.’

Meanwhile, the regime was losing the cultural battle. A good conservative as well as an anthropological pessimist, Salazar commanded alone. He had no political ministers, and even when he did have members of government with strong political convictions, they did not last long. In a Europe where the Left had already begun to dominate literature, cinema, journalism, and the arts — and where the post-war intellectual Right in France and Italy had been almost entirely eradicated, both physically and morally — the doctrinal and ideological bases of the regime fell into disuse and even began to look increasingly ‘eccentric’ in the eyes of the world. What is now called ‘cultural Marxism’ was then called ‘the intellectual dictatorship of the Left,’ which, for some iconic local observers, coexisted with “the political dictatorship of the Right.”

Salazar (third from left) and advisers reviewing a model of the Ponte de Santa Clara in Coimbra.

The dynamics of the second national industrialization — in a country which had already begun to develop, reaching the highest economic growth in its history in the final decade of the regime — contrasted with a progressive and accelerated political twilight. This was apparent in the loss of cultural power, the overthrow of the universities, and the ongoing Gramscian battle in the academy, and in the opinion and literary pages of the newspapers.

The 1958 presidential elections, which saw General Humberto Delgado, a dissident from the radical right wing of the Estado Novo, appear as an opposition candidate, were a symptom (and a signal to Salazar) of the radical changes that the country, the world, and even the Church had undergone.

It was the war in Africa, beginning in Angola in 1961, that would give the regime a final impetus, at first evoking the image of a kind of ‘sacred alliance’ to defend the empire — particularly after the bloody attacks by the UPA-FNLA (União dos Povos de Angola – Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola / Union of the Peoples of Angola – National Front for the Liberation of Angola) guerrilla movements in northern Angola.

Once again, despite some initial hostility, NATO allies (with the U.S. at the helm) considered the alternatives and opted for a ‘collaborative neutrality’ with Lisbon. In this way, the 1961-1974 Portuguese Colonial War in Africa (also known as the Guerra do Ultramar) — which would be the origin of the military rupture that culminated in 1974 with the end of the Estado Novo regime — would also be for Salazar the reason for the continuity of his regime.

But by having conceived, designed, and built the Estado Novo — and by essentially governing alone — Salazar ended up creating a tailor-made system and institutions that only worked with him at the head. In the process, he lost the new generations. Along with the 20th century history of the country, the outcome of his actions can thus serve as a lesson about the price paid for having providential and exceptional men who seek to protect their fellow citizens and their ordinary lives in a paternalistic way.

Once in power, the old opposition parties (both democratic and undemocratic, socialists and communists) ended up turning the 20th century into “the century of Salazar.” They used a dead man and a vanished regime to legitimize themselves in the present, blaming Salazar for all of the country’s evils — past, present, and future. And whether we look at today’s Communist or democratic opposition, or at the progressive liberals, or the members of the Bloco de Esquerda (‘Left Bloc’ formed in 1999 by a mix of Trotskyists, Maoists, LGBT, and ultra-leftist bourgeois), we are still struck by old hatreds that have not been extinguished and grudges that never fade. In doing so, however, they ensure that Salazar remains ‘alive’ well into the 21st century — 50 years after his death and just a few years before the centenary of his ascension to power.