hen we talk about the European dictatorships of the twentieth century, it has almost become a cliché to refer to Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. But Western Europe has seen another dictatorship that, while not having the same impact as the other three, has largely affected the evolution of Portugal.
Born in 1889 in rural Portugal to a relatively wealthy family, the young Salazar attended the Catholic seminary and flirted with the idea of joining the clergy, but he changed his mind and pursued his law at the University of Coimbra. His involvement in politics was born from the conceptions strongly imbued with Catholicism, in the context of the anti-clerical current promoted by the First Portuguese Republic (1910–1926). He officially entered politics in the early 1920s among the Catholic Party, but at first, devoted himself more to his career as a law professor.
A “better” Dictator?
António de Oliveira Salazar was the Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968. He is the founder of what he called the “New State”, an authoritarian right-wing regime that ruled the country until 1974. The regime opposed not only communism and socialism but also liberalism. The “New State” was based on conservative, nationalist, and, last but not least, clerical principles. Salazar was to build an empire out of Portugal that would be a true source of civilization and stability for possessions in Africa and Asia.
After the 1926 coup that ended the first republic, he entered the government as finance minister during the regime called the Ditadura Nacional (National Dictatorship), initiated by President Carmona in 1928. In 1932 he became prime minister and having the image of an honest and very efficient minister, he enjoyed the support of both the president and of many political factions, of which the Catholic conservatives were the most loyal to him.
The “New State”
The very term chosen for the name of the new regime refers to the basic principles of the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. Like fascism, Nazism or communism, Salazar’s conception was based on the idea of total change, of building a new state and, implicitly, of the new man, to promote a series of values considered absolute.
In 1933, Salazar introduced a new constitution that gave him much broader powers, allowing him to establish an authoritarian and anti-parliamentary regime. Although right-wing, his regime differs from the German or Italian one in its lack of charismatic leadership, expansionist principle, one-party structure, and some moderation in the use of violence.
A very important place in the theory on which the New State was based was occupied by Salazar’s Catholic traditionalism. They believed in the need to control the country’s economic modernization in order to defend the country’s religious and rural values.
One of the many criticisms of his regime is that he did not pay any attention to education. At the time, Portugal was a country with a very low level of literacy, and the government took too few steps to improve it.
As in any authoritarian regime, a significant role was played by the secret police called PVDE (Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado). Founded in 1933 on the German model of the Gestapo, it later became PIDE (Polícia Internacional), and was the main force by which political prisoners were sent (communists, people involved in liberation movements in African colonies, etc.).
Relations with Europe
Despite similarities to the Third Reich, the greatest of which was contempt for communism. Portugal’s relations with Germany were weakened. Both Salazar and the Portuguese public did not trust Hitler. During the war, the country remained neutral, but based on an old alliance with England, it was forced to provide aid to Britain, so it allowed the Allies to set up military bases in the Azores.
After the war, Salazar’s Portugal was invited to sign the Treaty of Washington, being the only founding member of NATO with an undemocratic regime. This is explained by the strategic interests of NATO that needed the Azores in the possession of Portugal.
For Salazar’s regime, the overseas empire was an integral part of national identity, hence the strong opposition to decolonization. This rigidity brought him much criticism from Western countries and was one of the major cracks in the New State system.
However, Salazar’s death in 1968 did not bring an end to his regime, which continued until 1974 under Marcelo Caetano, one of his most loyal acolytes. However, strong international pressure and internal instability led to the collapse of the New State, which ended in what became known as the “Carnation Revolution.”