Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945 Neill Lochery

Public Affairs, pp.306, 18.99

There are moments and places in history that one would have paid good money to avoid, and wartime Lisbon was one of them. For those rich enough to afford the Pan Am flying ‘Clipper’ to New York it at least offered a route of escape, but for those thousands of refugees from Nazi Europe left waiting for months or years before they could beg or borrow a passage to America or Palestine it was more likely to be just one last chance to savour old Europe at its unlovable, venal, extortionate and anti-Semitic best.

Not that there was anything narrowly discriminatory in Lisbon’s attitude to its refugees — the Cidade da Luz was as happy to relieve an Austrian monarchist of his money as a Zionist Jew — and war delivered opportunities by the bucket-load. ‘What the British … failed fully to understand’, as Neill Lochery puts it in his book, which is heavier on shadows than it is on light,

was that all sectors of Portuguese society wanted to make something out of the war.  It was not just the Portuguese state, the big banks, companies, the hotels and bed-and- breakfast-owners and police informers, but also individuals who saw an opportunity to reap some rewards.

Dealers in rare stones and currencies,  dealers in information and flesh, dockside prostitutes doing a sideline in espionage, peasants illicitly shipping tungsten over the border — there was something for everyone, and at the summit of it all stood the privately frugal and monkish ‘Dean of Dictators,’ Dr António de Oliveira Salazar.

Inline sub2


At the outbreak of war Salazar had only two objectives: to keep himself in power and to preserve the sovereign and territorial integrity of Portugal and her empire, and as far as he was concerned neutrality was essential to both. There was the small complication of an Anglo-Portuguese alliance that had lasted for over 500 years, but with Britain unable to guarantee Portugal’s safety and keen to keep the Iberian peninsula out of the war, Salazar was free to sell Portugal’s vital supplies of tungsten to either the Nazis or the Allies, with a more or less complete indifference as to which side won, so long as it left him and his regime intact.

It would be nice to be fair to Salazar —his country helpless to defend itself, Franco poised on his doorstep, the Allies eyeing the Azores, memories of Portugal’s miserable record in the first world war, the northern cities in range of German bombers — but as Forster said in defence of his A Passage to India, there are better things to be than ‘fair’.

It is certainly true that Salazar succeeded in all the strategic objectives he set himself, but a wartime trade surplus of $45 million and some 95 tons — over $100 million-worth — of looted Nazi gold in its banks tell their own unarguable story of the lengths that this most austerely cerebral of right-wing, communist-hating, Catholic dictators was prepared to go in defence of his Estado Novo.

The British Foreign Office reckoned that he was part peasant and part aloof scholastic, and the description would pretty well seem to fit the facts. Lochery claims that Salazar’s wartime record is still ‘misrepresented, misinterpreted or simply misunderstood’ — and yet all one can say at the end of a book that makes out the best possible case for him is long may it remain so.

This was an ugly regime, and Lochery’s Lisbon, under Salazar and his secret police, an ugly city. It is not just a city of shadows, as the title suggests, but of the shadows of shadows. It is a city obsessed with fears that never materialise, with kidnaps that never happen and plots that come to nothing; a city of Allied and Axis spies and their informers, feeding on false information in an endless and largely futile cycle of bribery, blackmail, rumour and counter-rumour: a city, in short, so morally bankrupt that even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor do not seem out of place. If Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund had had any sense they would have got themselves on the first plane back to Casablanca.   

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, History, Lisbon, War, War history