The personality, motivations, and even accomplishments of Portuguese Dictator Antonio Salazar are still the subject of intense controversy and debate.
by B. Paul Hatcher
For Antonio Salazar’s apologists, his dictatorship was benign, less heavy-handed than his counterparts, and necessary in 1926 to secure the salvation of Portugal. It is true that the republic which followed the fall of the Braganza Dynasty was riddled with corruption and ineptitude, and that by 1926 Portugal was deeply in debt. It is also true that by 1930 Salazar had obtained the necessary power to reduce the size of government, fire corrupt and excess public bureaucrats, and effectively balance the budget, at least on paper. This was a feat that the Portuguese had not witnessed in generations, and by 1932, Antonio Salazar was named Prime Minister with the support of the government, the military, and the population.
To be sure, Salazar was quite instrumental in creating and propagating his own myth.
Salazar’s Peasant Upbringing
Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was born on April 29, 1889, at Santa Comba Dao, near Coimbra, Portugal, the son of hardworking religious parents of peasant class. An exceptional student with an indifference to athletics, he studied theology and took minor orders for the priesthood in 1908. Prior to ordination, he withdrew, preferring to study law and economics. He remained a devout Catholic, however, throughout his life. He obtained a bachelor’s degree at Coimbra University in November 1914, at the age of 25.
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On the record at least, Salazar had only one romantic attachment, that of his father’s employer’s daughter. He was refused her hand in marriage by her father, because as fate would have it, he was perceived by the girl’s father to be poor and lacking a future. The girl married someone else, and Salazar remained single throughout his life. According to legend, he took a vow of chastity. After he began his public life, Salazar explained his ascetic lifestyle as being in the best interests of the public welfare of Portugal; that is, that a family would be a distraction from his public duties.
In fact, Antonio Salazar had something of a family. He was a foster father to two young girls, Micas and Maria Antonia, and his sister Maria, who also never married, kept house for Salazar and managed his personal affairs.
Salazar obtained his doctorate in 1918 and became a teacher at Coimbra University, from which the new Portuguese government recruited him in 1926. In 1933, Salazar’s new constitution for Portugal was confirmed by a general Portuguese election, but despite the democratic guarantees Salazar’s application of his “Estado Novo” resulted in his own supreme dictatorial power. According to a source at the time: “Salazar began his adult life with the intention of becoming a priest of the church. But somehow he was deflected into administration and government. But he remained, in his single-minded devotion to what he thought was his task and his duty … a priest. He centered everything on himself—all politics, initiative, even thought, were frozen. He demanded and got complete unquestioning obedience and in return he promised the people of Portugal salvation.”
Protector or Tyrant?
Salazar’s apologists note that he balanced the budget and created a political and economic stability in Portugal not seen in over a century and a quarter. They say that, provided Portugal’s seven million people kept their mind off politics and on “football, fado, and Fatima,” life improved for the average Portuguese citizen and Portugal was kept safe from the Communist threat.
To his detractors, Antonio Salazar was a dictator cut from the same mold as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, and although his regime did not have a racial agenda or an agenda of territorial conquest, it did include a secret police force that had the power to arrest and hold suspected enemies of the state. According to dissident Henrique Galvao, “As dissidents and opportunists were being secretly apprehended by the PIDE (the police) and given prison terms of several months at least, it became obvious to the Portuguese that they could attain a minimum of tranquility only by a maximum of compliance and resignation.”