Peter Booker


Owing to his keen interest in history, Peter Booker conducted his own research into the Portuguese dictator, António de Oliviera Salazar, who was in power for 40 years, from 1928 to 1968. He presented his findings to a gathering organised by the Friends of the São Brás Museum on 29 April.


Booker introduced his subject by saying that during the course of his conversations with a number of Portuguese, he failed to find any one who had a bad to say word about Salazar. Most of his respondents stated that Salazar had brought stability to Portugal, and their only negative comment was that he had stayed in power for too long. Subsequent comments from the audience wondered how this could be universally true, as there were victims and refugees from the regime.


Unrespectable, a dictator, and a fascist – Booker posited that these were the titles given to Salazar, but given by outsiders.


In 1889 Salazar was born in Vimiero, near Viseu, the only son of five children. He was born poor and died poor. A seminary education lead not to the priesthood, but to the study of law yet he became a professor of economics at Coimbra. He was elected in 1921 to the national assembly but so dismayed at what he discovered when he got to Lisbon, he left in disgust after just one day.


Portugal was rapidly tumbling into economic chaos for by 1923 inflation stood at 1.720 per cent. He was invited to become the Minister of Finance but the authorities would not accept the conditions he sought to impose. He bided his time until he was again asked in 1928 and in desperation this time his conditions were accepted. These instituted fiscal control as well as veto power over all government spending, thereby putting the finance ministry in control of all government operations. The strictures meant that within one year the economy showed significant progress with the outcome that Salazar was considered a strongman, but with the concomitant result that he gained extensive powers.


Within four years, Salazar became prime minister in 1932 and stayed in post until he was forced to resign in 1968 following a stroke he suffered. His longevity in office was a radical turn-around from what had preceded as there had been frequent changes of government leaders. Salazar was the seventh head of state since the 1926 coup d’etat. He lost little time in instituting his programmes introducing his Estada Novo in 1933, the same year in which censorship was enforced. The União Nacional became the sole legitimate political party ensuring his grip on power. Gatherings of more than three people were outlawed; any such grouping ran the risk of having their clothes sprayed on exit with blue ink so participants would be known. This also had the effect of ruining the garments. He established youth groups, similar to the Hitler Youth, and a secret police force. By 1936 concentration camps at Tarrafal and Peniche were opened, operating until 1954. 


Mr. Booker argued that Salazar’s regime was moderate compared to Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini. While neighbouring Spain descended into civil war, Salazar supported Franco’s new republic, eventually signing a non-aggression pact with Spain. Franco and Salazar shared similarities, but were not close; rather they both recognised that they needed to stick together.


In 1944 Salazar leased the airbase in the Azores to the USA and in 1946 Portugal’s application to join the United Nations received American support against an irate Russia which argued that Portugal was hardly a democracy only paying lip service to a party political system. For example Norton de Matos ‘withdrew’ his opposition candidacy the day before the 1946 election. In 1949 Portugal joined NATO with the support of the US again who needed an ally when it came to voting on issues. 


His years in power were not without threat both internal and external, but Salazar survived them all. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1946 pictured next to a rotten apple. The article referred to him as the ‘dean of dictators’ in an edition swiftly banned in Portugal. The 1958 elections saw the anti-Salazar candidate Delgado stand and probably win. In any dictatorship it is ‘who counts the votes, wins.’ Delgado sensibly went into exile until lured to a meeting in Badajoz in 1965 where he was shot along with a hapless aide. 


Salazar was deeply committed to keeping all Portuguese colonies under the flag although the whispers of independence were beginning to be heard and some overseas possessions were even annexed forcibly by the Indian army. In Angola, the population had been forced to grow cotton which created famine in the country and the discontent eventually crescendoed into war in 1961. Portuguese soldiers found they also needed to fight insurgent movements in Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea throughout nearly all of the 60’s and until the Carnation Revolution in 1974. 


The media contest searching for the top ten greatest Portuguese had been won in 2007 by Salazar, the only vote he ever won despite all his years in power. In summary, Mr. Booker said that Salazar had brought political and economic stability to the country, had avoided civil war and involvement in World War II (he had sent troops to Flanders in the World War I). Less favourably, the African colonies had been kept subservient and Portugal had become embroiled in war with them, lack of freedom also dominated the mainland including censorship, disappearances and deaths in the concentration camps, many Portuguese emigrated, and social polarity continued with one per cent of the population owning 75 per cent of the country’s wealth. High value was placed on strong Catholic family ties rather than individualism; indeed most people lived and died in the communities into which they were born, always near family partly due to restrictions on travel. Education to primary level only was the norm for the populace; Salazar appears to have been of the school that for the people one should give bread and football, but not education. Salazar had no answer to the starving of populations of African colonies despite his agreed budgetary and financial skills yet he allowed tourism and foreign investment in Portugal realising their long term benefits but fearful that along with the revenues would come new ideas on individual freedoms unshackled by the state apparatus.


The troubled 1960s witnessed war on too many fronts to hold popular opinion at home. In search of a winning formula Salazar successfully invited the Pope to Fatima creating a popular wave albeit short lived.


In 1968, after suffering a stroke having fallen and struck his head by attempting to sit in a chair that had been moved he never understood that he was not actually in charge anymore. 


Salazar was certainly an interesting and complex human being. He never married, he died leaving the equivalent of three thousand pounds in the bank, he seldom left the country and then only to Spain, he took his holidays in nearby Estoril and still went to work in the mornings, he stood firm and directed troops under attack in Lisbon during an armed uprising against the Government in 1932, he allowed the refueling of German U Boats in Portuguese ports during World War II yet retained the historic alliances with Britain, and ultimately he was a master of political maneuvering. 


‘There was less crime under Salazar’ the cry goes up, but at what price? Is years in power were not without threat.