Book Reviews

The Myth of Antonio Salazar

The integralist right's foolish crush on the man who once ruled Portugal


Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused To Die, by Tom Gallagher, Hurst Publishers, 360 pages, $34.95

Antonio Salazar secured power by resigning. In 1929, when he was minister of finance in Portugal's military-led government, a minor scandal over regulating church bells divided the government's secular and religious factions. Salazar, a Catholic, resigned. The president sided with him, a reversal that led the prime minister and the minister of war to resign instead. Three years later, Salazar himself was prime minister. He ruled for the next 36 years.

So it was with Salazar. The reserved, academically minded dictator held power through a combination of ability, work, factional balance, repression, and ultimately military support.

Salazar was a nationalist, an "integralist," and a foe of liberalism, and he was prone to presenting himself as a defender of Western civilization. As those ideas come back into fashion, Salazar has seen a resurgence of interest. Into this vogue comes Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die, a quickly produced biography, enthusiastically covered in The American Conservative and First Things, about the man at the heart of an alleged "dictatorship without a dictator."

Tom Gallagher, a Scottish historian and political scientist, gives a largely even-handed if somewhat forgiving biography of Salazar. One of Gallagher's chief contributions is bringing many Portuguese-language secondary texts, from which he quotes extensively, into English.

Portugal was wildly unstable in the early 20th century, rotating through 45 governments from 1910 to 1926. Politically, it took its cues from France, splitting the country between anti-clerical urban republicans, Catholics, monarchists, and the army. In 1926, a military coup marked, Gallagher writes, "the end of over a century of a broadly liberal ascendancy."

Born into a peasant family, Salazar rose within the Catholic education system. At the University of Coimbra, he wrote two doctoral theses, earning him a chaired professorship in economics and finance. There, Gallagher writes, he joined a circle of "intellectuals from the upper and middle classes known as Integralists" who "offered a searching critique of parliamentary government. Their remedies were conservative and, indeed, authoritarian."  Salazar joined the cabinet in 1928, where he balanced the nation's books and stabilized the currency. These feats earned him a lifetime of political capital.

Salazar resisted mass politics in both their parliamentary and their totalitarian forms. Espousing an elite literary anti-liberalism that ran against the egalitarian tenor of the era—T.S. Eliot with teeth—he dismissed democracy as a "fiction" if "it believes that power emanates from the masses and that government ought to be the work of the masses and not of the elites." To establish his particular form of elite rule, Salazar neither maintained the constitution nor restored the monarchy nor kowtowed to the army once he was elevated to leadership. Instead, he created the Estado Novo, or New State, perhaps the first consciously post-liberal regime.

How "new" it was is "open to doubt," Gallagher remarks. It was "a modern, more complex, authoritarian extension of 19th-century managed politics under civilian, professorial leadership" that nevertheless contained "genuine innovations." The Estado Novo had a deliberative but not legislative assembly; political power lay with the prime minister. It was a "corporative state," based on the idea that class and social interests were complementary. The Estado Novo mandated tame unions while bringing representatives of "various functional interests drawn from agriculture, commerce, industry, the military, the church, the universities, and various ministries and municipal authorities" into an upper chamber.

Over time, Salazar favored elite interests over the needs of the peasants and working classes. Salazar's constitution enshrined some liberal rights, but it allowed considerable state repression and censorship.

In the 1930s, Salazar and his regime drew close to Italian fascists, creating a 40,000-strong youth movement, the Portuguese Legion. But he also warned in 1934 that fascism could create "essentially pagan" states that were "incompatible with the character of our Christian civilization" and could lead to "religious wars more terrible than those of the old." Fearing violence and instability, he eventually defanged the mass elements of the Estado Novo and the Portuguese far right.

Salazar supposedly claimed that he was not really a dictator. Gallagher acknowledges that he was but still compares Portuguese state violence favorably with that of postwar Italy. Salazar, he writes, lacked a "preoccupation" with "militarism, territorial expansion, revolutionising society or asserting ethnic supremacy." Gallagher also expends considerable ink arguing Salazar's record with refugee Jews is as creditable as other Portuguese figures known for saving Jewish lives.

Quoting the French political scientist Raymond Aron, Gallagher calls Salazar's regime "a traditional autocracy." He argues that Salazar tamed the radical right and "shrank from releasing popular energies," in stark contrast to Hitler and Mussolini, who "'politicize' or fanaticize them." The administrative dictatorship and repression of Salazar's regime "depoliticized" Portugal in, Gallagher implies, a positive way: "It was a rule-based authoritarian government rather than a party dictatorship where informal and extreme forms of violence could periodically be unleashed."

Portugal's independence was key to Salazar's decisions, particularly on foreign policy. His support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War derived from Salazar's fear of Spanish radicalism and its "threat to Portuguese sovereignty." Despite his devout Catholicism, Salazar's relationship with Rome remained cool, maintaining Portugal's official secularity and independence. Likewise, Gallagher details Salazar's tough negotiations with Portugal's old ally Britain and, more tetchily, with the United States and NATO.

For much of his reign, Salazar enjoyed spectacular P.R. overseas. In 1962, Life magazine called him "by far the world's best dictator" and the "greatest Portuguese since Prince Henry the Navigator." Such affinity was especially strong on the right. William F. Buckley, no stranger to Iberian authoritarians, published a full speech of Salazar's in an early issue of National Review. Portugal's post-dictatorship prime minister, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, once claimed that Salazar "would everywhere be considered a great statesman if only he had retired in the middle '50s."

Instead, the Estado Novo deteriorated into a bloated state characterized by inefficiency, nepotism, repression, and poor education. Internal critics condemned it. Commissions compiled massive public grievances and were summarily buried. One British diplomat noted in the early 1950s that "the rich were only moderately so"; the middle class, although growing, was "sustained not by agriculture or industry, but by the accumulation of war profits, the remittances of Portuguese citizens…and the produce of the African colonies"; and the poor "were miserable and destitute." Stable but stagnant, the Estado Novo left Portugal with what Gallagher calls "one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world."

Salazar insisted on maintaining Portugal's grip on its empire, without which he felt the country would be a fringe state. Fortified by "Lusotropicalism"—the idea that, by virtue of history and ethnic heritage, the Portuguese were suited to salutary colonial relations—Salazar defied African liberation movements and U.S.-led diplomatic pressure to let its colonies go.

Gallagher's book is weakest when it covers the colonial empire. Antonio Salazar never left Europe and barely traveled beyond Portugal. This biography follows suit: Gallagher dwells on the Salazar regime at its metropole, but it only grazes the enormous periphery of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Goa, and beyond, where—especially in the African colonies—widespread forced labor and staggeringly high rates of illiteracy belied the Lusotropical propaganda. Portugal's colonial subjects were part of the Salazarist regime, and their wars of independence were critical to that regime's collapse. Here they are regrettably relegated to the margins.

Above all, Salazarism was personalism. Salazar had no succession plan. His refusal to cultivate mass support or a political party put a time limit on his regime, which crumpled shortly after his death. For a dictator, he was exceptionally restrained and ascetic. Even so, he clung to power, taking oxycodone to deal with pressure and governing in his fantasies after a debilitating stroke removed him from power.

In our moment of polarization, some parts of the right feel tempted by the idea of the virtuous strongman. Salazar had more virtues than the typical strongman, but he is far from an appealing model. His repression flattened civil society. He may have suppressed violent political impulses, but in the process he funnelled the opposition into the underground Communist Party. Conservative bulwarks always falter, and the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the Estado Novo unleashed a surge of upheaval and attempted coups. Nowhere was this clearer than Portugal's colonial possessions, which rapidly achieved independence in the mid-1970s, generating a million Portuguese refugees. Angola and Mozambique both descended into brutal civil wars between rival rebel groups. Salazar's intransigence helped create the conditions for these bloodbaths.

Even a relatively restrained dictatorship is bad. And for every Salazar, there are dozens of Somozas, Batistas, Francos, and Mobutus. To the extent that Salazar is unlike other 20th century dictators, he was the exception that proves the rule.