** war and social upheaval: World War II -- Portugal

World War II: Portugal

Figure 1.--Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ruled Portugal as a dictator with Fascist trappings such as the Estado Novo and the Mocidade. He maintained a neutral policy, but there were strong pro-Axis support in the country. The Mocidade Portuguesa was a youth organization established as part of the Estado Novo. Membership was compulsory between the ages of 7-14 years of age. The wire service photograph caption read, "Portugal is man-power conscious, too: The report from London that a move is on foot in Fascist Spain for the annexation of Portugal -- with the blessing of the Rome-Berlin Axis -- recalls that Portugal has borrowed some of the ideas of the totalitarian nations already. One of them is the training of the very young for possibke military service. Here you see boy menbers of the Mocidade, corresponding to Italy's Balilla, marchingh in Lisbon during a recentb parade." The photograph was dated June 16, 1939. The year after this photograph was taken, the director of the Modicade was replaced with an individual more favorable to Britain and he changed the Fascist ethos of the organization.

Dr. Antonio de Oliver Salazar ruled Portugal as a dictator with Fascist trappings. He maintained a neutral policy, but there were strong pro-Axis support in the country. Portugal also had a historically special relationship with Britain that even preceded the Napoleonic Wars. Salazar's adoption of Fascist policies (political dictatorship, police state rule, bans on trade unions, strident anti-Communism, and corporatism social and economic policies) gave his regime a Fascist aura. He supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. As a result his regime was approved as sufficiently Fascist by Hitler and Mussolini. Portugal was of some importance to Germany in World War II. Portugal was the principal source of Wolfram ore which yielded tungsten. This was a critical material because tungsten-hardened steel alloys had many military applications in machine tools, armor plate, armor-piercing projectiles, and other uses. The Germans pioneered the use of tungsten. As a result of these and other NAZI purchases, the Salazar regime benefited from the War. Salazar insisted on payments in gold. Here accounts vary as to the extent to which the regime profited from the War. NAZI intelligence agents were active in Portugal as were British agents. Portugal's role is complex. Salazar also cooperated with the Allies, especially as the German military situation shifted. Salazar leased the British important bases in the Azores for naval campaign in the Atlantic. Of course given Anglo-American naval power, he had no real choice. He also permitted Jewish and other refugees to escape the NAZIs by both boat and air.

Portuguese Monarchy

The Portuguese royal line began in the early phase of the Reconquista (12th century). The Portugal of Prince Henry the Navigator was one of the leading lights of Europe and helped launch the great European voyages of discovery. Portugal became rich from the resulting trade and an expansive empire. The Inquisition and a series of ineffectual monarchs helped turn Portugal into a European backwater. Portugal in the 19th century was one of the poorest countries in Europe. The monarchy spent substantial sums but offered no real leadership in modernizing the country or reducing the influence of privileged landowners or a reactionary clergy. Support for a republic grew. King Carlos I and his brother were assassinated (February 1908) Manuel II became king. Manuel II became king.

Republic (1910)

King Manuel IIwas crowned (1908). The young monarch was unable to control the rising popular demand for a republic. A popular insurrection and finally an army revolt forced King Manuel II to abdicate. This was the end of the Portuguese monarchy which dated to the Reconquista. He went into exile in England. A Republic was proclaimed and a provisional government assumed power. Manoel de Arriaga assumed control of the Government. A new constitution was approved (1911). It was a liberal constitution which for the first time separated church and state. The new Government was decidedly anticlerical resulting in strained relations with the Vatican. This and other liberal reformers would also alienate conservative forces which would re-exert themselves after the War.

World War I (1914-18)

Portugal sided with its traditional ally the the British in World War I. The Portuguese Army even before the War began fought border skirmishes with German troops in East Africa. Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) bordered with German East Africa. German agents attempted to incite tribes in Angola which bordered on the German colony Southeast Africa (Namibia). The Royal Navy's command of the Seas, however, made German operations in Africa impossible. The Portuguese Parliament declared its support for the Allies (August 7, 1914). While supporting the Allies, Portugal did not actually enter the War for 2 years. The Portuguese government seize German ships in its harbors (February 1916). Germany responded with a declaration of war. After entering the war, Portugal contributed forces to the western Front. About 100,000 Portuguese troops fought in the War, both on the Western Front and in Mozambique.

The First Republic Overthrown

The First Republic after the War began far-reaching reforms to reshape Portuguese society. The Republic approved a liberal constitution with major reforms such as restrictions on the Catholic Church. This angered conservative elements including the Army. In addition Portugal made little economic progress. General Antonio Carmona conducted a military coup (1926). He became prime minister, but in effect had dictatorial powers. He was elected president for life in a plebiscite (1928). He turned power over to Finance Minister Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1932).

Salazar (1889-1968)

Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ruled Portugal as a dictator with Fascist trappings for 40 years (1932-68). He was of peasant stock. His father was a small free holder. He considered becoming a priest as a young man. He attended a seminary. He then studied at the University of Coimbra. Salazar religious convictions led him to a faction became involved with a political faction desiring to implement the social principles enunciated by Pope Leo XIII. After receiving a doctorate, Salazar taught political economy at the University of Coimbra. That is notable. He was an economics professor and would preside over one of the most backward economies in Europe. He was elected a deputy (1921), but was appalled by parliamentarian politics. After a military coup he was appointed Minister of Finance (1926). He helped put Portugal's chaotic finances on a form basis. This launched his political career. He was appointed premier by President (General) Ant�nio de Fragoso Carmona (1932). He seized power as dictator with the approval of a new constitution. He proved to be the longest ruling non-monarchical ruler in Europe. He established a Fascist-like dictatorship, but it is probably not quite accurate to describe as a Fascist. Perhaps the deepest beliefs he held were religious. Once in power his policies were a kind of fusion of Italian-style corporate Fascism and Catholicism. He created what he called the The Novo Estado--the New State with a new constitution (1933). The mismanagement of the 1920s contrasted with Salazar's competence in reorganizing the country's finances, even creating a budget surplus. He earned considerable support from the army, church, monarchists, upper middle classes, aristocrats and the right in general. Salazar's New State was in fact a return to 19th century authoritarianism. It was both anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarian. His economic principles are infused with the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and other Catholic theologians. Especially important wereRerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Salazar's New State was based traditional Roman Catholic principles--order, discipline, and authority. He rejected Marxist class struggle and rather saw a social structure based on harmony and common interests and values. This is not to say that Salazar did not have differences with the Church. He finally signed a Concordat with the Vatican (1940). This altered the anticlerical policies approved during the Republic years. The Roman Catholic Church was given exclusive control over religious instruction in the public schools. Harmony sounds positive, but harmony was achieved by the Army and security services suppressing dissent. Salazar's economic policies benefited the wealthy oligarchy, but Portugal continued to be one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Portuguese Fascism

Salazar's adoption of Fascist policies (political dictatorship, police state rule, bans on trade unions, strident anti-Communism, and corporatism social and economic policies) gave his regime a Fascist aura. As a result his regime was approved as sufficiently Fascist by Hitler and Mussolini. There were, however, important differences. Historians differ on whether Salazar should be considered as Fascist. Salazar saw the corner stone of the state as the family, the parish, and Christianity. This was a fundamental difference with Fascism which sought to replace both the family and religion with allegiance to the Fascist state. There was also none of the racist obsession that infused German NAZIs. The question of how to classify Salazar is difficult. He certainly admired Mussolini and Hitler in many respects, especially their strong leadership and anti-Communist policies. We see Fascist trappings like the Mocicade youth organization (figure 1). He found, however, the pagan, anti-Christian elements of NAZIism.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

Salazar supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War, although he conducted an official policy of neutrality. He was concerned about the left-ward drift of the Spanish Republic and the potential impact on Portugal. He eventually aided Franco's Nationalists after the Communists became dominant in the Republic. Salazar provided both troops and supplies. Eventually 20,000 Portuguese volunteers fought with the Nationalists. Salazar also helped NAZI Germany smuggle arms to Franco�s forces. He ordered the police to arrest supporters of the Popular Front government living in Portugal. He closed the border to make it impossible for Spanish Republicans to enter Portugal. Salazar also created a new militia to assist the police to ferret out dissidents and politically unreliable individuals in the schools and other governmental institutions. Salazar saw his policy toward Spain as helping to achieve his goal of stabilization as well as economic development. By the end of Civil War, Germany was Portugal�s second largest trading partner.

Outbreak of World War II

Salazar with considerable clarity objected to the appeasement policies of the Allies during the 1930s. Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland launching World War II (1939). Salazar protested the invasion of Catholic Poland diplomatically. Germany demonstrated Blitzkrieg and the strength of the Luftwaffe and Panzers. This was made possible by the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and the unwillingness of the Allies (British and French) to move beyond the protection of the Maginot Line. America remained neutral. One historian writing about Lisbon described it at the time of World War II as a 'beauty of a city' in decline from its glorious imperial past. He describes trams as rattling through the city and a rare European city when the lights did no go out over the next 5 years. [Lochery] Lisbon attracted both both Allied and Axis spies as well as refugees fleeing the NAZIs. Ships and planes maintained contact with both South and North America.


Salazar with the outbreak of war declared Portugal's neutrality. He adopted three principal policy goals. First, he was determined not to involve Portugal in the fighting. Second he sought to avoid being invaded by the Germans or Spanish. A Government in exile from the Azores had no appeal. He suggested an Iberian neutrality pact to Franco (1939). With the end of the Spanish Civil War, Portugal and Spain negotiated the Treaty of Friendship and Nonaggression (Iberian Pact). This pact committed the two countries to defend the Iberian Peninsula against any foreign power that attacked either country. The objective was to ensure Iberian neutrality. Third, he sought economic benefits as a result of the War. There were, however, strong pro-Axis support among conservative and Fascist elements in the country. Salazar here had some advantages over other neutral states. Unlike Sweden and Switzerland, Portugal was not surrounded by Axis countries and Axis occupied areas. In addition, Franco's Spain provided a buffer from NAZI-occupied France. As a neutral nation, Portugal served as a conduit for civilian exchanges of diplomats and others interned by the Americans and Allies with ye Axis countries. Japan occupied the Portuguese territory of East Timor next to the Dutch West Indies which thy had earlier seized (December 1942). Salazar declined, however, to declare war on Japan. The Japanese subsequently established a protectorate over Macau near Hong Kong , but retained the Portuguese administrative structure (1943).


Portugal had a historically special relationship with Britain that even preceded the Napoleonic Wars. King Edward III of England and King Ferdinand and Queen Eleanor of Portugal signed a treaty of 'perpetual friendships, unions [and] alliances'(1373) which was renewed and strengthened many times. It was at the time of World War II and still is the oldest active treaty in history. Britain's survival in the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940) provided some space for both Spain and Portugal to maintain their neutrality.

Operation Felix

Admiral Raeder was trying to convince Hitler to adopt a Mediterranean strategy rather than invade the Soviet Union--Operation Felix. He wanted to attack Gibraltar by moving troops into Spain, turning the Mediterranean into an Axis lake and then seizing the oil resources of Iraq. Britain had nothing in the area which could have opposed a major German offensive. The key moment of the War for Spain and Portugal came when Franco met with Hitler at Hendaye, a town on the French border (October 1940). NAZI diplomacy was attempting to bring both countries into the Axis and the war against Britain. Hitler's decision to strike east against the Soviet Union, meant that he would not force the issue on the Iberian Peninsula until after he had destroyed the Red Army in what he thought would be a short summer campaign in 1941.

Portuguese Raw Materials

Portugal was of some importance to Germany in World War II. Wolfram was one of several raw materials that NAZI planners had to consider in preparing for war. Oil was by far the most important, but wolfram was also important. It was a factor in NAZI policies toward Nationalist China before moving toward the Japanese. Portugal was the principal source of wolfram ore in Europe. The Germans were totally dependent on Portugal and Spain their wolfram supplies. Wolfram is the German term for tungsten. Tungsten has the highest melting point of all the elements and a very high density. This was a critical material because tungsten-hardened steel alloys had many military applications in machine tools, armor plate, armor-piercing projectiles, and other uses especially machining tools. This is why the limited supplies of tungsten were not used in German shells after the War progressed. The Germans had pioneered the use of tungsten which is why the chemical symbol is W. These shipments were conducted under thinly veiled secrecy and many were routed through Switzerland. And because Portugal was not occupied during the War, the Germans had to pay for the Wolfram and other material obtained from the Portuguese. The Allies also obtained Portuguese raw materials, primarily copper and chromium from Portugal's African colonies. The Allies did their best to outbid the Axis of all available tungsten stocks in Portugal. As a result the prices for Portuguese wolfram and profits for the miners soared. Salazar to maximize profits kept some available to ship to Germany every month. The exasperated Germans at one point seized a Portuguese ocean liner and evacuated the passengers into life boats. This commercial struggle for wolfram continued until Salazar concluded that the Allied victory was assured and that there was no possibility of German or Spanish invasion. Salazar did not immediately cut off all wolfram shipments to Germany because he was not pleased with the terms the Allies were offering. And the NAZIs were willing to pay in gold. Some Wolfram also came from Spanish mines, but only a fraction of Portuguese output. Armaments Minister Speer suggested Wolframite imports from Portugal being cut. He suggested using Uranium stocks to produce AP rounds. [Speer] Salazar finally under Allied threats and the D-Day landings ceased all shipments (June 1944).

Refugees: The Escape Hatch of Europe

Portugal during World War II has been called the 'escape hatch of Europe'. More than a million refugees passed through Portugal. [lochery] After the fall of France (June 1940), there were few ways to escape from NAZI dominated Europe. The Danes and Norwegians had nearby Sweden, but there were few other escape routes, only the dangerous route through Vichy France and across the Pyrenees to Spain and Portugal. In Lisbon on could board ships to safely. Portugal's tranquil capital became a bustling caldron of diplomats, refuges, smugglers, and spies. A mix of aristocrats, businessmen, celebrities, Jews, government officials, soldiers, and ordinary citizens hunted by the NAZIs desperately tried to reach Lisbon. [Weber] It was of course the destination of the characters in the famed film, 'Casablanca'. Royalty was among that mix, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They played golf with banker Ricardo Espirito Santo. The British Government had to order than home. In the meantime the NAZIS were cooking up a plot to kidnap him--Operation Willi. [Lochery] Other notable refugees were Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, and Arthur Koestler. American oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian (Mr. Five Percent) set up shop in the Hotel Aviz buying Henry Rothchild's renowned art collection. The United States and the European Axis exchanged diplomats through Lisbon. (The exchange with the Japanese when through the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.) In Portugal they could obtain food and medical care while they arranged for transit to safe harbors, America and other other locations. Relief workers operated in Portugal. Safety in Portugal came with an edge. There was every possibility that the NAZI blitzkrieg might cross the Pyrenees. In fact, the German Operation Felix was designed to seize Gibraltar. Only Spanish neutrality protected Portugal and Spain was at first strongly oriented toward the Axis as Germany and Italy had played a major role in the Nationalist victory. Movie goers will know that the plane that Rick put Ilsa on to escape from Vichy Casablanca was headed to Lisbon and then on to America. One author notes that 'Casablanca' did not begin to capture what went on at the Lisbon airport. The reality of the scene at the Lisbon airport with often desperate refugees, spies and smugglers vying for seats on the small number of flights was 'Casablanca' magnified 'twenty times'. [Lochery]

Intelligence Operations

Portugal was neutral during World War II. The country had a history of close relations with Britain, but there was strong Fascist sympathies in the Salazar Estado Novo government. And the Government had to be concerned after the fall of France (June 1940) with placating the Germans. There was considerable support within the Portuguese intelligence services for the NAZIs. The Germans were concerned about Portugal. It was near Gibraltar, had a long Atlantic coast which could support U-boat operations and had vital possessions (Madeira and the Azores). The country had, however, a very small, poorly equipped Army. There was a possibility of a Spanish and/or German invasion. Portugal as a neutral country carried out commerce with both the Germans and British a well as other neutral countries like the United States (before America entered the War). The country was especially important as vital source of tungsten for the German war effort. Unlike Spain, there does not appear to have been recruitment of workers for the Germans. Because of the this commerce the country became a hot bed of spies. It provided a way of inserting intelligence agents or supporting spy networks in both Allied and Axis countries as well as in neutral countries, primarily Latin American countries. It is unclear to what extent the Salazar Government was aware of these efforts, but clearly elements in the Government were aware if not supported such efforts. The Germans attempted to recruit wireless operators on Portuguese merchant and fishing vessels to report Allied ship traffic. The Portuguese fishing fleet had a centuries old tradition of operating on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. This of course was astride the vital convoys routes between North America and Britain.

Assistance to the Allies

Portugal's role in World War II is complex. Salazar cooperated with the Axis, but he also cooperated with the Allies, especially as the German military situation shifted making it safe to do so. The Azores were of immense importance in the Battle of the Atlantic. Interestingly, Hitler was very interested in these island and the Spanish Canaries. Admiral Raeder had to explain to him that while Germany could probably seize he islands that they could not be held because the Royal Navy commanded the seas. Salazar eventually leased the British important bases in the Azores (Terceira) Island to the British for naval campaign in the Atlantic (1943). This is also the same time that Portugal ended wolfram shipments because of German reverses in the war. Even so the negotiations were difficult. Salazar played his cards very close to the vest. The Americans and British resorted to good cop / bad cop tactics. The British stressed their ancient alliance. The Americans threatened to invade. Salazar finally agreed to allow the Allies to operate airfields on the Azores as part of the Battle of the Atlantic. Up until then only Allied ships could dock under the excuse of the ages old English-Portugese friendship pact. America was also granted facilities. Of course given Anglo-American naval power, he had no real choice. In addition, Salazar realized after Britain survived (1940) that Portugal's joining the Axis in the war would not only have exposed the country to the Royal Navy, but meant that the British and Later the Americans would have seized their overseas colonies.

The Holocaust

Portugal was a major gateway to safety for Jews and Europeans who had opposed the NAZIs. Portugal itself had perhaps the smallest Jewish population in Europe at the time of World war II. The country had a Jewish population of about 380 people and 650 Jewish refugees, mostly from Central Europe. The Government granted these refugees "resident" status. Prime Minister Salazar was in a difficult position. Portugal was a traditional British ally. After the fall of France (June 1940), Portugal adopted a liberal visa policy allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to enter the country, however, those of Russian origin or birth because they might be Communists were excluded. Portugal came under increasing pressure from the NAZIs. Salazar has some breathing space because Franco refused to enter the War or allow German armies to transit Spain to seize Gibraltar. Even so, Salazar had to tread the Germans with care as he could not be sure that Germany might not invade Spain. Unlike Spain, Portugal did not close its border, but refugees had to get across the French-Spanish border which was closed. The danger posed by the NAZIs caused Salazar to issue more stringent immigration restrictions (late 1940). Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat in Vichy France, ignored Government directives and issued large numbers of visas allowing Jews in France to travel to Portugal. The Portuguese Government dismissed him as a result. Portugal as the War turned against Germany felt safe to begin granting more entry visas. The Government cooperated in various rescue efforts. The Government granted the visas with the condition that Portugal would be a transit point and that other countries would accept them. Portugal like other neutral countries attempted to save Hungarian Jews. An estimated 100,000 Jews and other refuges fleeing NAZI oppression managed to reach safety through Portugal. All the Jews who managed to reach Portugal survived the War.


Portugal under Salazar was a rare European country that had a very good war. He ran Portugal essentially as about would run a monastery. He was an ascetic and benefited little in a material sense from his rule. He directed Spain's war time policies from a sparsely furnished, unheated office. His sole concern was Portugal and its empire. One author reviewing British intelligence reports describes Salazar's governing approach. The Portuguese dictator had the 'shrewdness and parsimonious habits of the peasant' and 'the cold detached outlook of the scholastic churchman' but was also the most' physically beautiful of all the European dictators'. Even before the War began, he was a great admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and kept a portrait of him on his desk. As the war progressed, Mussolini disappointed him so the portrait was replaced with one of the Pope.

Gold Horde

The Salazar regime as a result of the NAZI and Allied purchases of raw materials benefited from the War, a rare Europeann country to do so. Salazar when the Germans proved incapable of providing needed trade items like coal, insisted on payment in gold. Here accounts vary as to the extent to which the regime profited from the War. Portuguese gold reserves reportedly increased six times. The gold payments became an issue because the Germans looted the gold reserves of the countries they conquered as well as stealing gold from civilians, especially the 6 million Jews they murdered. The Allies even before the War ended began demanding that Portugal turn over some of the NAZI gold. The United States eventually froze Portuguese assets in the U.S. to force compliance. It took 8 years of stressful negotiation, but Salazar eventually turned over a small amount of the estimated 400 tons of NAZI gold -- only 4 tons. [Lochery]


World War II histories are often critical of Salazar and Portugal for its Fascist trappings. It is absolutely true that Salzar was a dictator, but he was hardly the only dictator in Europe. And Potrugal was not the only country shipping raw materials to the NAZIs. In fact democratic Sweden was the most importannt supllier (at least until the NAZI invasion cut off Soviet shipments). Sweden provided the NAZIs the iron ore needed by the German steeel industry. There are two problems with many assessments of World War II Portugal. First, the comparison is with liberal democracies like Ameririca and Britain. The simple fact is that only a handful of couuntries come off well with such a comparison. Much of Europe was ruled by by either dictators or varirty of authoritarian regimes. Second, the Fascism was only one of the aggressive powers. There was also Soviet Russia. And Salazar did prevent a Communist seizure of power. Often not fully understood is that the Soviets were as brutal as the NAZIs, the only major difference was Hitler's Jewish mania.


Cohen, Roger. "The (Not So) Neutrals of World War II," The New York Times (January 26, 1997), Section 4, 14.

Lochery, Neil. Lisbon (Public Affairs), 306p.

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich.

Weber, Ronald. The Lisbon Route.

Wheeler, Douglas L. "The Price of Neutrality: Portugal, the Wolfram Question, and World War II," Luso-Brazilian Review Vol. 23, No. 1 (Summer, 1986), Published by: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 107-27.


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Created: February 15, 2004
Spell checked: 1:59 AM 10/4/2018
Last updated: 1:59 AM 10/4/2018