At some point in Casablanca, after a conversation about the refugees who’re trying to reach Lisbon, Rick goes “What’s in Lisbon?” and Renault answers “the Clipper to America”. This book is about what was happening in that city during that time and why so many people where trying to reach it.

In WW2 Portugal was in a unique and complex situation: it was a neutral country with a large colonial territory and little international influence, it was under a dictatorship that was sympathetic to Hitler’s fight against communism, it had close diplomatic and commercial ties to Britain, was surrounded by Nazi-friendly Spain and was also the main and safest port in Europe to cross to the United States.

During those years, Lisbon was a city of refugees, espionage and counter-espionage, negotiations, corruption, scheming, smuggling and counterfeiting. Portugal went from a poor and peripheral country in Europe’s tail to a player of strategic importance in the war theater.

I’d recommend Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light to anyone with an interest in WW2. Lochery focuses on how Salazar (the Portuguese dictator) out-maneuvered both sides but also paints a compelling picture of the daily life of a city with a fascinating double(or triple)-life. He also maintains a good balance between the macro-history and the personal stories of the locals and refugees who were passing by.

It’s a book especially interesting to Portuguese (and Lisboners like me) who would like to know more about a time often over-looked in our history classes. I come from a very left-wing family who tends to villainize Salazar without mercy, but in this occasion I must give him some credit. He played a risky and cunning game during WW2 and achieved his goals: maintain neutrality, independence, territorial integrity and get rich by negotiating with both sides.

Commemoration of the Allied victory in front of Lisbon’s British embassy

He kept the Axis happy by selling them precious wolfram (my grandparents worked in one of the mines) and the Allies happy by helping to persuade Franco to remain neutral. He allowed many Jews and other refugees to leave Europe through Lisbon, and Jewish relief organizations to work freely in the capital, but the Portuguese secret police was pressured on both sides to hand over people and occasionally gave-in.

The balance of the country hanged by a thread, yet Salazar played the game like the best of them until the end of the War. It was probably the height of his career and, as Lochery also thinks, when he should have counted his blessings, implemented democracy, released the colonies, returned the Nazi gold, and retired to write his memoirs quietly. Instead, he tightened his regime, stagnated the country and eventually entered a colonial War that only ended with the Carnation Revolution of ’74.

Interesting facts I didn’t know before Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light:

  • Salazar was considered by many to be the handsomest European dictator.
  • Portugal was one of the only countries to keep its Nazi-gold, most likely through a deal with the US, that in return kept their military base in the Azores Islands until this day.
  • Leslie Howard (Ashley in Gone with the Wind) died in a flight from Lisbon to the UK. Supposedly because the Germans though Churchill was on that plane.
  • Spain was on the brink of invading Portugal during the War. The British, and later the Americans, were on the brink of invading the strategic Azores.
  • During the pre-War negotiations, British Prime-Minister Chamberlain offered Hitler the Portuguese colony of Angola without consulting Lisbon.
  • Portugal was one of two countries that offered official condolences upon the death of Hitler. The other country was (also neutral) Ireland.

Salazar, posing.

I’ve only started reading about Portuguese history as seen from foreign eyes in the last 10 years or so. Until then most of what I knew had the official sugar-coat of history classes – the golden period of Discoveries, owning half the world, the brave struggles to gain and maintain independence from Spain, the honor to have the Guinness record for the longest standing alliance between two countries with England.

And then I started travelling, talking to people from different backgrounds, reading in other languages (books like this one), and entered a hard process of reality-adjustment that’s still ongoing today. It’s almost like being re-programmed with the growing pains and resistance that come with it.

I remember meeting for the first time an Indian at a party in the US and her saying, after I mentioned I was Portuguese, that we had done some horrible things in her region during the Discovery period. Wait – WHAT?! But… but… we were “nice” colonizers! Look at what Spain did in the Americas! We opened trade! We brought civilization and globalization! We discovered you!

Like I said, it’s a hard process, but an enriching one. Sometimes people and events I put on a pedestal crumble, and sometimes, someone like Dictator Salazar is shown in a different light. Still, he saved Portuguese lives by keeping us neutral, hurrah for him, but was it the brave and honorable thing to do while other nations fought? He prevented Spain from invading, but also ensured that most of the population was illiterate and compliant. “Orgulhosamente sós“, or “Proudly alone“, was his motto, which reflected his taste for economic and cultural isolation.

There’s nothing like travelling and reading to put everything into a healthy perspective and force you to confront those pesky grey areas. In Brussels, city of expats, I’ve had many interesting conversations with people from other countries who are going through the same process of building and re-building old dogmas.

Have you had any similar experiences?