When Adolf Hitler killed himself in 1945, António Salazar, the dictator of Portugal, sent a message of condolence to the German embassy and ordered flags to be flown at half-mast.
The British press was outraged. Editorials fumed. How dare the head of Britain’s oldest ally behave like this? The British Foreign Office considered sending Salazar a stern warning. But Winston Churchill thought otherwise. After all, he reasoned to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, hadn’t Salazar allowed Britain to set up a base in the Azores when there was still a real possibility of German military action against Portugal itself? Salazar had kept Portugal neutral. He could fly flags at half mast for anyone he chose.
On the whole, Neill Lochery’s book endorses Churchill’s view. A little dry in places, and drawing extensively on declassified diplomatic correspondence, Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945 is as much an examination of Salazar’s diplomacy as it is an account of Portugal’s capital during World War II. Lochery knows Salazar’s regime was a kind of half-hearted fascism, with an extensive (but not very efficient) secret police. But Salazar – strait-laced, conservative and legalistic – had no stomach for fascist conquest and no desire to see Lisbon bombed by anybody’s air force.
Result? Scrupulously observed Portuguese neutrality, but also a policy of getting as much economic advantage as possible from anybody willing to trade. Including Nazis. Further result? A Portuguese capital swarming with both Allied and Axis diplomats and spies, and with refugees in transit. Some stories told here are well known.
Britain’s prize twit the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII) was wooed in Lisbon by Nazi agents, and counter-wooed by British ones who managed to shuffle him out of the way. Film star Leslie Howard’s plane took off from Lisbon and got shot down by the Luftwaffe, who probably thought it was carrying Churchill back from a North African conference. Arthur Koestler had a nervous breakdown in Lisbon while waiting for an exit visa.
Less well known is the story of the huge gold reserves Portugal built up in traded Nazi loot. In this matter, Portugal was almost as unscrupulous as Switzerland. Then there’s the story of the Portuguese diplomat who was fired for issuing too many transit visas to fleeing French Jews. At the time, Salazar was trying to not offend Hitler. Wartime Lisbon had some superficial glamour among the wealthy habitués of hotel and casino. But on balance, this story is a shabby and dispiriting one.
LISBON: WAR IN THE SHADOWS OF THE CITY OF LIGHT, 1939-1945, by Neill Lochery (Scribe $45).
Nicholas Reid is a writer, historian and poet, and blogs about books at Reid’s Reader.