One Good Man Among the Few Good Men

Peter Kingdon Booker


What do the following names have in common: Varian Fry, George Duckwitz, Feng Shan Ho, Carl Lutz, Chiune Sugihara, Jan Zwartendijk, Henrik Slawik, Nicholas Winton, Ángel Sanz Briz, Giorgio Perlasca, Raoul Wallenberg? The men owning these names deserve to be honoured alongside Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and for the same reasons. Those of us who share the sentiment of Professor Charles Boxer cannot fail to admire them. Boxer said, “I like action. Moral courage is much less common than intelligence.” None of those mentioned above failed in their moral courage.


Raoul Wallenberg for example is famous for his work in Budapest in saving over 30 000 Hungarian Jews by the simple expedient of giving them Swedish passports, even while these people were in the trains preparing to take them to Auschwitz; he carried on even when being shot at, and in 1945 disappeared into the Soviet Union. The Soviets said he had died of a heart attack in 1947; other prisoners said he had been executed by the Soviets and others still said that they had seen him even in the 60s. In 1981 he became the third person to be named an honorary citizen of the United States, after Winston Churchill and Marquis de Lafayette.


When first I began to give lectures on Portuguese heroes of the 20th Century, I had only scant information on Sousa Mendes with which to back up his claim to heroism. Only this month, I have been fortunate to come across a relatively recent book, “A good man in evil times” by José-Alain Fralon.


Aristides de Sousa Mendes avoided the fate of Wallenberg but endured one which in many ways might be thought similar. Sacked and forgotten, he existed in deeper and deeper poverty, amazed that his Christian actions should have caused him to be spurned by those in charge in Salazar´s Portugal. Even after the fall of the Estado Novo, there remained officials who held that his acts of disobedience were enough for the new democratic state to continue to shun his memory.


Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was born soon after midnight on 19 July 1885, the second of twins. His elder brother César had been born about an hour earlier on 18 July. César was serious and obedient while Aristides was outgoing, generous and impulsive. They were born in Cabanas de Viriato in the Beira Alta and their father, José de Sousa Mendes, was an Appeal Court Judge in Coimbra. The family was rich by regional standards, and might be defined as gentry. Aristides´ mother was from a noble line connected with Álvaro Vaz de Almada, the only non-royal Portuguese to be awarded the English Order of the Garter. He was also created Earl of Avranches as a reward for his bravery fighting for the English king at Avranches in Normandy. This name was converted by Portuguese pronunciation to Abranches.


António de Oliveira Salazar, born four years later and some 20 kilometres away from Cabanas de Viriato, was not blessed with such a rich heritage, but he was schooled in the advantages of careful bookkeeping.


After taking their law degrees at Coimbra, the twins joined the diplomatic corps. Aristides´ first posting in April 1910 was to British Guiana as second consul. He had married in 1909 his first cousin Angelina de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches. They were to have fourteen children, many of them born in foreign parts. On their holidays at their “palace” at Passal in Cabanas de Viriato, the family would display the flags of the different countries where the children had been born. Portugal, Zanzibar, Brazil, USA, Spain, Belgium and France were all represented on the staircase flagstaff. Their family holidays in the 20s and 30s at Passal were idyllic even for the villagers who shared in the good times at Aristides´ table and in his kitchen. Aristides comes over as a proud and enthusiastic father of his large family, and he often deputed one or other of his children to attend diplomatic functions when he found that he was unable to go himself.


César was briefly a minister under Salazar, and learned early to keep his deepest beliefs well hidden, unlike his twin who wrote to César in 1933 about Salazar, “A plague on him, and may his name be uttered with contempt if he should ever become the cause of our collective disgrace.” On another occasion he said of Salazar, “We talked for an hour. He was amiable and cordial. I got the feeling that even if he wants to know things, he has no power of decision. He is very frightened and has no intention of allowing himself to become the victim of a murder attempt. May God protect him.” These two snippets display Aristides´ unworldly assessment of Salazar and are hardly consistent.


In 1938, Aristides asked for a posting to either China or to Japan as head of delegation. The government appointed him to Bordeaux as consul, where he arrived on 29 September. It may be that this minor aristocrat saw this posting as a demotion, or at least as the denial of a deserved promotion. It is certainly the case that Aristides felt no compunction in asking his twin brother for money (it is not clear whether in loan form or donation) to meet the expenses of some flight of fancy or to help support his large family.


Aristides had already been disciplined for some minor inefficiency about the transfer of money into a consulate account; now as the war began in September 1939, he decided to leave his post unofficially in order to take his children back to Cabanas de Viriato. He returned to Bordeaux with Angelina in time to receive from the Foreign Ministry the infamous Circular No 14. The most important paragraphs of this circular are as follows: passports and visas were to be refused to (a) aliens of undefined, contested or contentious nationality, stateless persons, Russians and holders of Nansen passports (League of Nations papers); (b) aliens who had no valid reason for entering Portugal, or who might have difficulty in returning to their country of origin; (c) Jews expelled from their country of origin and stripped of their nationality. All queries were to be put to the Foreign Ministry in Lisbon before action.


The Portuguese consul, nearly 55 years old, with 14 children, who had never opposed his government, who had serious financial problems, who relied completely on his salary, and who was hoping for promotion, suddenly began to disobey. On 27 November and on 6 December 1939, he telegraphed Lisbon for permission to grant visas to an Austrian national with his family. Sousa Mendes had already issued the visas. On 2 February 1940, a Spanish republican asked for a Lisbon visa so that he could take a ship from Lisbon to Nicaragua. When he had no reply from Lisbon, in this case too Sousa Mendes issued the visa. When the Spaniard arrived in Lisbon on 12 March, his visa was honoured but the Foreign Ministry sent a reprimand to Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux. And so it went on. He issued Portuguese passports to a Portuguese woman and her young, male, Belgian companion. Visas to Polish refugees on 29 May.


From 20 May onwards Bordeaux became a magnet for thousands fleeing the advance of the German armies. With the fall of Paris on 13-14 June, Bordeaux once again became the capital of France. César de Sousa Mendes, Aristides´ nephew, arrived in Bordeaux at this time. He recalled how the streets around the Portuguese consulate were thronged with refugees, as was the staircase and the offices of the consulate and even Sousa Mendes´ private apartments. Aristides was in bed, suffering agonies of indecision. He had already had instructions in reply to a telegram sent to the Portuguese Foreign Ministry – enforce Circular 14. On 13 June the Foreign Ministry had refused Sousa Mendes´ request for permission to grant visas to some 30 people.


On 16 June, Sousa Mendes arose from his bed and announced, “From now on I´m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions.” His conscience had overruled his orders. From this point until the day he set out to return with Angelina to Portugal, 8 July 1940, Sousa Mendes performed superhuman feats to issue visas and passports to the destitute. He ignored consulate staff and some of his children who knew that he was imperilling his – and their – future. France asked for an armistice on 17-18 June and there was now a race against time to issue visas before the German armies arrived. Among the refugees was Archduke Otto von Habsburg with his family – he had made no secret of his animosity to Hitler. He and the nineteen members of his entourage obtained visas from Sousa Mendes and when the Germans asked Salazar to extradite them, although Salazar did not hasten to agree he asked Habsburg to leave Lisbon as soon as possible. A professor from the Sorbonne, Charles Oulmont, turned up in Bordeaux. He had also criticized Hitler in print and was gravely at risk. He asked for a Portuguese visa in return for gold – he had four sacks of it. Sousa Mendes refused the offer, and issued the visa anyway.


On 20 June, Sousa Mendes made his way to Hendaye at the same time as the Portuguese Foreign Ministry began to crack down by sending an official from the staff of the Paris Embassy to Bordeaux to investigate the irregularities. Sousa Mendes was aiming to help some of the thousands of refugees who besieged the Portuguese consulates at Toulouse, Hendaye and Bayonne. Starting in Bayonne, on arrival he ordered the consul to issue as many visas as might be needed.


The Portuguese Ambassador to Spain, Pedro Teotónio Pereira, was an intimate member of Salazar´s closest circle. He had communicated Spain´s dissatisfaction with the increased number of visas being issued. Salazar was furious because his protection of Portuguese neutrality depended on a united Iberian front and he could not afford to upset General Franco. On the morning of 21 June, the Portuguese Foreign Ministry ordered Lisbon official Armando Lopo Simeão to Bayonne and Bordeaux to investigate the causes of these complaints. Pereira himself arrived in Bayonne on 22 June and immediately began to enforce the provisions of Circular 14. The exceptions were British and American nationals; French nationals who were gente limpa (ie not Jewish); and famous Belgians (not a large category).


In the meantime, Sousa Mendes was signing visas in Hendaye, sometimes on passports, sometimes on identity cards and sometimes on any paper that was to hand. On 23 June Salazar sent a telegram stripping Sousa Mendes of his office but because he was in Hendaye, Sousa Mendes was unaware of this change and continued to issue visas. He was in Bordeaux again on 26 June, where Simeão had prevented the issuing of any more visas but Sousa Mendes was soon back at Hendaye, still issuing visas. He even led a column of motor vehicles over a little used border crossing. He told the Spanish border guards, “I´m the Portuguese consul. These people are with me. They all have regular visas, as you can check for yourselves, so would you be so kind as to let them through?” The ruse succeeded because this remote post had no telephone. Back in Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes had no official capacity yet still continued to issue Portuguese passports.


In the week between his decision to disobey and the time he was stripped of his office, Sousa Mendes had ensured the survival of around 30 000 refugees. Not bad for a week´s work. But it does not take long to ruin a reputation and a career.


Aristides and Angelina left France on 8 July 1940 and arrived in Cabanas de Viriato on 10 July to learn that disciplinary proceedings against him were already afoot. Sousa Mendes on a number of occasions wrote to ask for a meeting with Salazar and never received a reply. After a lengthy process, he heard on 19 October that he had been judged unsuitable for the office of consul and recommended for demotion. It may be that the head of the Foreign Ministry, the Count Tovar, was discreetly trying to defuse the situation by ensuring that Sousa Mendes would at least have a job. But Salazar was having none of that. On 30 October, Salazar himself increased the penalty. He decreed that Sousa Mendes receive half pay for a year and then be forcibly retired. And as far as Salazar was concerned, that was the end of the case. Sousa Mendes appealed against Salazar´s decision but in vain. He began to receive food aid at the Jewish soup kitchen and a small monthly allowance from the Jewish community. I find no written or documentary support for the oft quoted remark attributed to Salazar, “And all those people that he helped? Where are they now that he needs them?”


Aristides never worked again. His twin, César, and others made representations on his behalf to government officials and even to Salazar but without result. His son Sebastião, working in the US, wrote the book Flight through Hell in which he kept alive the story of Sousa Mendes´ defiance. Aristides and Tata Gigi lived in extreme poverty in Lisbon, until Angelina died of a stroke on 16 August 1948. Aristides then moved back to Cabanas de Viriato with the Frenchwoman who had borne their bastard daughter in October 1940; they married on 16 October 1949. Although Andrée and Aristides were clearly devoted to each other, the people of the village never liked her and blamed her for the gradual run down of the house. While they lived there, much of the furniture in the house was sold off to provide for their living expenses. After a series of strokes Sousa Mendes himself died on 3 April 1954.


The fight to restore his reputation continued and the Israelis at the Yad Vashem Centre in Jerusalem honoured him in 1961 and again in 1967. His case was investigated at the request of Ernesto Melo Antunes, Foreign Minister in 1976. At the same time the secretary-general of Portugal´s Foreign Ministry was warning that to rehabilitate Sousa Mendes who had disobeyed would discredit all those who had obeyed. Otto von Habsburg wrote in 1986 to Sousa Mendes´ grandson, “ I would like to tell you once more in writing how eternally grateful I am to your grandfather. He was a great gentleman, a man of admirable courage and integrity who obeyed his principles at the expense of personal interest. At a time when so many were cowards, he was a veritable hero of the West; you can be proud of your grandfather.” Mário Soares, President of the Republic, honoured him in 1987, and the Chamber of Deputies followed suit in 1988. Only in 1996, a statue to Sousa Mendes was unveiled in the city of Bordeaux.


It is easy for us in our historical remoteness to underestimate the value of Sousa Mendes´ work, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that the anti-semitism of the 30s was alive and well in the western democracies at the beginning of the war. A very senior American official apparently told Otto von Habsburg in Washington, “There are enough Jews here already. Let Hitler keep the rest.” I believe that the attitude of the British government in 1940 was not dissimilar.


I call this piece “One good man among the few good men” but I have been surprised at the number of diplomats who during the War performed acts of moral courage similar to those of Sousa Mendes. It seems that they were motivated by similar feelings. These feelings told them that they should not follow orders if their own consciences disagreed. At the Nuremberg war crimes trials the following principle was used: it is not a defence against conviction for a crime to show that you were ordered to commit that crime, if you yourself knew the order to be wrongful. Many Nazis were convicted by use of this principle. On the other hand, many junior diplomats such as Sousa Mendes had refused to accept the decisions of higher authority because they knew these decisions to be inhumane. They were at the forefront of a change in legal thought.


When asked why he risked his career to save other people, the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara quoted an old samurai saying, "Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge." This might be a memorial to Sousa Mendes himself.