Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die by Tom Gallagher - review by David Gelber

David Gelber

Economist & Autocrat

Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die


Hurst 350pp £25

What is a fascist? Once upon a time the question was easy to answer: telltale signs included a love of uniforms, a propensity to speechify interminably and a proclivity for having critics done away with. Now things are more complicated. Is Donald Trump a fascist in a Bergdorf Goodman suit? Many commentators have recently suggested so. How about Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, who every night irons the captain’s shoulder boards he took off three decades ago?

The question lies at the heart of Tom Gallagher’s new life of António Salazar, leader of Portugal from 1932 to 1968. Since the period of his rule so nearly matches that of Franco’s in neighbouring Spain, and because he shared with his Spanish counterpart a distrust of democracy, a terror of communism and an unshakeable belief that his destiny and his country’s were conjoined, many have sentenced Salazar to the same circle of hell as Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Since Salazar’s death in 1970, Gallagher notes with uncanny timing, his statues have suffered the same fate as those of other unspeakables: decapitation and demolition.

Gallagher believes that Salazar has been unfairly categorised. He may have been a despot, but his despotism was more in the mould of Frederick the Great’s than Franco’s or Hitler’s. Gallagher marshals a good deal of evidence – some of it aesthetic – to support his argument. No peaked cap or brown tunic was to be found in Salazar’s wardrobe; from his arrival on the political stage in the 1920s to his forced retirement following a disabling stroke in 1968, he only ever appeared in a suit, tie and, in defiance of changing fashions, waistcoat. Mass parades held no appeal for him: Gallagher cites the remarkable fact that in 1938 Salazar reduced the number of military bands in Portugal from twenty-three to eight. Rallies, ceremonies and public speeches were to be left to Portugal’s president, an office that Salazar refused to assume, despite the urgings of sycophantic colleagues (Heraclitus-like, he told his propaganda chief, ‘These good people who cheer me one day, moved by the excitement of the occasion, may rise in rebellion the next day for equally passing reason’). Gallagher notes that for a couple of years in the late 1930s, Salazar was wont to greet his ministers with a fascist-style salute, but it was a limp imitation of the Italian version, adopted, he says, out of expediency at a time when Mussolini and Hitler were in the ascendant. Anyone looking to Salazar to lead the kind of national rebirth promised by his counterparts in Italy and Germany would have been disappointed by the vision he set out in an interview in 1934. Portugal indeed had a glorious and heroic past, he declared. But what the country needed now was ‘less brilliance and more staying power’.

Furthermore, Gallagher explains, Salazar had no appetite for territorial expansion and no belief in the rejuvenating power of war. He withheld his blessing from Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and looked on aghast as Hitler overran France. In the summer of 1939, when most of Europe was fitting gas masks and sharpening bayonets, Salazar was putting the finishing touches to an exhibition to mark the eight hundredth anniversary of Portugal’s independence. He piloted a middle course through the Second World War, never breaching the country’s neutrality, though he leaned slightly towards the Allied cause.

One thing Salazar did have in common with the fascist leaders was a modest upbringing. He was born in 1889 into a peasant family in the north of Portugal. He was educated first at a Catholic seminary, where his precocious intelligence earned him the patronage of prominent churchmen. From there, he progressed to the University of Coimbra, at the time the largely illiterate country’s only real institute of higher education. Simply by joining the five-hundred-strong student body, Salazar had vaulted into Portugal’s elite. Before the age of thirty, he had completed two theses and been appointed professor of economics.

Salazar’s academic activities unavoidably drew him towards questions of policy, but even before his election to a university chair, he had thrust himself into the political fray. In October 1910, the month he arrived in Coimbra, the Portuguese monarchy was overthrown. During the tumultuous decade that followed, successive republican governments strove to secularise Church assets. Salazar, who owed his social elevation – and perhaps also his austere personality, his sexual repression and his deeply pessimistic view of humanity – to the Church, leapt to its defence. His support for such a politically unsound cause temporarily thwarted his progress in the late 1910s. In conservative circles, however, he was polishing his reputation. When, in 1926, the army forcibly dissolved the unhappy first republic and assumed power, the celebrated economics professor was summoned to Lisbon to practise what he lectured. He lasted a fortnight as finance minister, finding the realities of negotiating actual budgets uncongenial, but returned to the office in 1928.

Over the next four years, Salazar used his position as finance minister to make himself the indispensable ratchet of government. Gallagher doesn’t quite explain how he managed this, beyond catch-all statements about balancing the books and stabilising the currency. Recent history offers ample evidence that cutting government expenditure is no straight route to success, and few of Salazar’s equivalents elsewhere survived the Great Depression by pursuing such a path. Whatever the method, when in 1932 the prime minister’s office fell vacant for the seventh time in six years, the ‘dictator of finance’, as Salazar had become known, was the last figure of any repute still standing. He became the first civilian to serve as prime minister since the fall of the first republic.

Portugal had already bid farewell to democracy before Salazar came to power. Gallagher makes it clear that he did not mourn its passing. Yet the economics professor was also too punctilious to let authority remain in the hands of wilful generals. In 1933, he drew up a new constitution that concentrated power in a council of ministers, chaired by him. The Estado Novo (‘New State’) was born.

Although in name there might have been parallels between the Estado Novo and the Nazi ‘New Order’, Gallagher is keen to show that Salazar’s constitution protected basic civil rights and that the prime minister was personally scrupulous in his adherence to the law. Nevertheless, all political parties were disbanded or subsumed into the newly formed National Union. Unhelpful elements, including communists and the leadership of the far-right National Syndicalists, were imprisoned or exiled, and the secret police was quick to stifle organised opposition. Gallagher rightly points to the similarities between Salazar’s regime and the authoritarian rule of Engelbert Dollfuss in another overwhelmingly Catholic country, Austria. For Salazar, however, even spiritual concerns had to be subordinated to the stiff logic of economics. The hard business of government could only be done by unsentimental experts.

In his introduction, Gallagher admits that he has written this book without consulting Salazar’s personal papers. At times it shows. The chapters on Salazar’s domestic rule after 1945 are characterised by the kind of colourlessness that descended on the Estado Novo in the last two decades of his dictatorship, and there is little sense of how he dealt with his ministers. Gallagher does not shed new light on Salazar’s role in perhaps the most notorious act of his rule, the assassination of the opposition leader Humberto Delgado in 1965, taking at face value his denials. More revealing is his account of Salazar’s dealings with foreign powers, for which other sources are available. He captures well the mixture of irritation and bewilderment that the rise of the USA induced in him after 1945 and the success with which he withstood American demands to relinquish Portugal’s colonies in Africa by constantly intoning on the dangers of a communist takeover if he were to withdraw. He explores effectively the complexities of Salazar’s dealings with Franco, whose victory in the Spanish Civil War he welcomed yet whose leadership style and public displays of virility left him cold. And there is a touch of pathos in his account of the lonely final years of Salazar, ensconced in his modest apartment with just his long-serving housekeeper for companionship.

Gallagher shows that what really set Salazar apart from the fascist rulers was his attitude to modernity. Hitler and Mussolini embraced new technology and the latest racial and social theories. By contrast, Salazar throughout his life manifested the true reactionary’s horror of change. In 1966, the year of The Beatles’ Revolver and the first unmanned mission to the moon, he could be found lamenting the Reformation and the French Revolution. When oil was discovered in the colony of Angola the following year, his response was, ‘Oh what a pity.’ If nothing else, Gallagher has demonstrated how injudicious labelling can conceal the essence of things.

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