The Importance of Salazar’s Neutral Portugal in the Second World War

Why Salazar’s Estado Novo is an unsung hero during the Second World War.

António de Oliveira Salazar by Eduardo Malta, 1940

In the discussion of dictators, especially 20th century dictators, one name is seldom mentioned. António de Oliveira Salazar. A former economist, Salazar is unusual in the world of 20th century dictators, as he had no grand expansionist plan, nor heavy human rights abuses (barring the obvious repression of free speech as is common under all dictatorships throughout history), and similar to one Francisco Franco (dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975), he did not get involved in the Second World War. Despite the fact that Salazar’s Portugal was neutral, they were incredibly important to the allies and their contribution should be remembered.

Europe in the 1930’s

European countries and their passport covers of the 1930’s.

The 1930’s were a period of major turmoil throughout Europe. The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, the growth of Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists, and the dangerous leadership of Soviet Russia under Stalin created a very toxic and unstable landscape. All of these powers would end up embroiled in the worst war in human history at the tail end of the decade.

However, in the Iberian Peninsula, things were relatively contained. Spain ended the 1930’s ravaged by the Civil War which had occurred from 1936 to 1939, and Portugal had finally started to shake the “sick man of Europe” nickname inherited from the fallen Ottoman Empire after a period of relative success and stability under Salazar. As the world went to war in 1939, these 2 countries would stay neutral, but that’s not to say they didn’t contribute to the war effort in some regard (although I’m not covering Francoist Spain in this article).

Economist Turned Dictator

Salazar in 1940.

By far the world’s best dictator, he is also the greatest Portuguese since Prince Henry the Navigator

Life magazine, 29th July 1940

A strong catholic his whole life, António de Oliveira Salazar started his career in politics in 1921, but after seeing the complete chaos in the Portuguese government decided to return to academia. He would not forget that chaos, and blamed liberalism for the ill health of Portugal. 

After the coup d’état of 1926, Salazar was briefly the Minister of Finance, however after only 5 days and with his proposals ignored, he resigned his post. Due to the horrific and overbearing public debt that Portugal faced in this period, Salazar was regularly propositioned the post of Minister of Finance over the next 2 years, until finally accepting in 1928 because of the threat of a complete financial collapse.

In the space of a year, Salazar managed to balance the budget and stabilise the Portuguese currency. Over the next few years, Salazar worked hard, both in improving Portugal’s position financially and slowly building an image of a quiet, respectable and trustworthy man.

Finally, in 1932, Salazar was appointed Prime Minister of Portugal, and in the space of a few years managed to win over the majority of moderate politicians, whilst simultaneously quelling the rise of National Socialism and Fascism in Portugal.

A Tale of Two Allies

The longest alliance in international history

The oldest alliance in the world is between England (and later Great Britain) and Portugal, initially signed in 1373 and later ratified in 1386 through the Treaty of Windsor. This unbroken alliance is still active today and has regularly been relied upon by both countries throughout the last 600 or so years. So on the 1st of September 1939, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Portugal released a statement of neutrality, which Britain accepted without issue later on the 5th of September. But why didn’t Britain activate that treaty and request Portuguese support?

Francoist Spain. Hitler heavily supported Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and it is fair to predict that Spain would return the favour by entering the war in support of Nazi Germany, but Spain was in no position for a large scale war so soon. The country was heavily ravaged by the Civil War, and their support would have weakened the country even further. However, if Salazar and Portugal had declared support for the Allies, then its commonly accepted that Spain would have no choice but to enter as an Axis “power”. Due to this fact, the neutrality of Portugal was important in keeping all of the Iberian Penninsula out of the war.

Why was Portugal important then?

Salazar and Franco.
Keeping Spain out of the war

Salazar’s Portugal and her neutrality was more important than most give credit. The Iberian peninsula and her surrounding islands were of great strategic value to both the Allies and Axis, and so both countries being dragged into the war could have put those locations in serious jeopardy for the Allies. If Portugal had declared for the allies, then Spain would have no doubt pledged herself to Nazi Germany, with Spain providing the perfect launch pad into North Africa. This would have been disastrous for the Allied war effort, and the North African campaign would have certainly been a lot harder, if not unwinnable for them had this happened.

[The Portuguese Government was] far more difficult to deal with as an ally during the First War than the infinitely better Government of Salazar was as a neutral in the Second.

Sir George Rendell, British Diplomat

Keeping the peninsula out of the war, without a doubt, saved millions of lives and a potential Nazi victory in North Africa. It’s strategic importance to the Allies as a neutral country was immeasurable due to its islands, such as the Azores, which provided instrumental to the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic (allowing a small air base for Allied convoys, reconnaissance missions, and meteorological flights.)

The Escape Route

Lisbon became one of the most important and sought after ports in all of Europe. It provided an escape route to thousands up to potentially a million refugees from all across Europe. From celebrities to commoners to royalty, Lisbon was the place to get to. Lisbon also was a major hub for espionage, with spies for both the Allies and Axis at work (like my personal favourite Juan Pujol García, who operated in Lisbon from 1940-42, but more on him another time). These Allied spy operations in Portugal proved instrumental and regularly helped to waste Nazi Germany’s time, money and resources.

The Legacy of Neutral Portugal

In 2007, Salazar was voted as the “Greatest Portuguese ever”. I doubt many liberal democracies would vote for a former dictator as their countries greatest ever person, yet Salazar is clearly still held in high regard. Not in the least for his part in navigating the frankly horrific waters on the Second World War, and his incredibly impressive feat of remaining neutral and ignoring insane amounts of pressure from both the Allies and the Axis during this period. Not only that, but he helped to turn around Portugal from a failing nation state into a core member of the greater European community.

Salazar was, undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable men in the history of Portugal and possessed a quality that remarkable men not always have: the right intention.

António José Saraiva, Portuguese literary historian and a fierce lifelong political opponent of Salazar.

The exception of many 20th century dictators, Salazar saved millions of lives in the 1940’s. With no commitment to war in the Iberian peninsula, up to a million refugees could escape, and civilians in both Spain and Portugal weren’t forced to needlessly die. Lisbon turned into one of the most important cities in Europe, for both Allies and lesser the Axis, and there is no doubt that the nearby islands such as the Azores proved decisive in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Further Reading:

Thank you for reading my article! I hope you enjoyed it and learnt something I find interesting about the Second World War. This article is not meant to be an academic piece, and is merely for entertainment and a way for me to learn more myself. Below I have compiled some places where you can learn more about this fascinating period, and get a level of analysis that I am simply not qualified to provide.