Portugal and fascism

Despite the fact that it was governed by an authoritarian right-wing regime for almost half of the 20th century, there is remarkably little evidence of active fascist movements in interwar Portugal. Some political movements did adapt some of the radical fascistic-type programmes popular in early-20th-century Europe, but they enjoyed limited popular support. This being said, however, there were exceptions. As an organised movement, the radical integralist group, Integralismo Lusitano, which was formed by students at the University of Coimbra in 1914, adopted and adapted many of the ideals being espoused in France by Charles Maurras’s Action Française. Yet, while the Integralists were only too willing to push a vision of a corporatist, integralist and authoritarian state, they did not advocate any of the more radical policies associated with fascism, nor indeed the racial doctrines of German Nazism. Created as a radical monarchist response to the recently created republic, the Integralists were basically nationalists, whose main goal was the regeneration of the Portuguese nation through the reestablishment of traditional forms of societal control. While their views were unquestionably elitist, insofar as they advocated the top-down reform of Portuguese society, they did not create any violent heroic myths of their own.

The continuing failure of the First Republic to legitimate itself created a set of social, economic, financial and political factors that were conducive to endemic instability within civil society. The decision of the republic’s leaders to engineer Portugal’s entry into the First World War on the side of the Allies was crucial in providing the catalyst that would tear Portugal apart in unforeseen ways. The decision to enter the war was, above all, a party political one, and it was taken against the wishes of both the Portuguese armed forces and the governments of Britain and France. The fact that it was common knowledge that Portugal’s entry into the war was not desired provided a fillip for anti-republican and anti-Republican Party forces. Far from uniting Portuguese society under the republic against a common external enemy, entry into the war created new divisions within Portuguese society that exacerbated existing ones. One of the major consequences, however, was the politicisation of the armed forces. With the partial exception of the navy, the Portuguese military had studiously avoided taking a position with respect to the nature of the political regime. From being neutral onlookers during the republicans’ overthrow of the monarchy in 1910, the military now became a major player. In effect, the politicians had somehow overlooked the fact that the Portuguese military was a top-heavy and elitist institution, with an officer corps that was drawn largely from the old aristocracy. While they may not have been willing to risk their positions to save a corrupt and generally disliked monarchy, they were similarly unwilling to risk their lives to fight in a war against an enemy they admired, on the side of the “great democracies” that they so distrusted.

Matters came to a head when the majority of the officer corps simply refused their orders to fight. The government backed down and allowed them to remain in Portugal, while hastily training a new republican officer corps to fight in their stead. This was to create new problems. In the meantime, however, the anti-republican officer corps was able to remain in Portugal, where they were to become a thorn in the side of a republican government that had now lost that part of the army upon which it could depend for its defence.  Political agitation within the army was not slow to spread, culminating in the attempted uprising led by Machado Santos in October 1916. Nevertheless, while the ideals that were gaining some popularity within the armed forces were undoubtedly authoritarian and right-wing, they were much more reactionary than radical: rather than promoting the ideals that were to become associated with 20th-century Italian Fascism or German National Socialism, they tended to call for the overthrow of the republic and the reestablishment of the monarchy.

In December 1917, Major Sidónio Pais took advantage of the Republican Party’s unpopularity and the absence of any forces capable of defending the government, to launch a coup against it. Sidónio’s coup was supported by a heterogeneous collection of groups that were discontent with the existing republican regime, ranging from Integralists to traditional monarchists, socialists, trade unionists and many more. The common enemy was the Republican Party, but there was no agreement on what type of regime should follow. While Sidónio adopted many of the characteristics that were to become associated with fascist leaders in the future (for example, the creation of a personality cult around him as the national saviour), these traits were developed as a reaction to his failure to create a unified movement that would be capable of promoting a new vision. Basically, he used his charismatic appeal to compensate for the lack of any real ideological movement. His attempt at creating a single party in his image, his adoption of populist policies (such as the programme of government-supported soup kitchens to feed the poor), the creation of a unicameral chamber and his support for corporatist and presidential solutions to the regime question – all failed to unite the Portuguese people. His continued advocacy of republicanism and his failure to take Portugal out of the war cost him his monarchist allies, who refused to join his single party. His failure to address any of the real social problems affecting the Portuguese working classes lost him the support of the working-class organisations that had manned the barricades with him. The disrespect he displayed to the leader of his party, Brito Camacho, lost him the sympathy of many republicans. In the end, devoid of any real ideas as to how to resolve the regime question, Sidónio stumbled from one crisis to the next until, in the course of an attempt to assuage a pro-monarchist military movement in the north of the country, he was assassinated by a pro-republican veteran of the First World War. Within one month of his death, the republicans were back in power in Lisbon and the south, while the monarchists controlled Porto and the north. Sidónio’s legacy was civil war.

Obviously, the civil war in 1919 hardened opinions on all sides of the political spectrum. The Integralists, who had become one of the most precocious political groups of the time, had been damaged by their collaboration with Sidónio. Their programme, which was still largely that of Action Française, called for the establishment of an absolute monarchy and of local corporatist-style representation. While this may have had something in common with the ideals being espoused by Mussolini in Italy, it is not sufficient grounds to claim that Integralism was fascist in nature. Nevertheless, there were elements within Integralism that did express their admiration for Italian Fascism. One leading Integralist, Rolão Preto (pictured), wrote a series of articles in 1922 in which he openly praised the political ideals of Mussolini. As the decade progressed, and as the political, financial, social and economic instability of the republic grew worse, more and more radical and reactionary grouplets of varying size and importance appeared. Some of these groups, such as the Cruzada Nun’Álvarez, were openly sympathetic to fascist ideology, and some, such as Homens Livre,  even had important political supporters. Nevertheless, these groups had very little, if any, influence at the political level, and even at the grass roots they were little more than small gangs of thugs, never amounting to a serious political force. Consequently, all of the attempts to overthrow the republic were made by conservative groups within the armed forces, and not by the fascistic groups. Following the successful coup of May 1926, the small radical movements were very quickly trampled underfoot by the military.

One slight exception to this general survey was the National Syndicalist Movement formed by Rolão Preto in 1929. Preto had left the Integralists because he believed that they had undermined their own position by supporting factions within the post-May 1926 military leadership, a leadership that very early on had shown itself to be republican. He had then become increasingly alarmed at the path the recently installed military dictatorship was following. He believed it was far too conservative, and that the appointment of the former Catholic Party deputy and university economics professor, António Salazar, as minister of finance with the power of veto over all aspects of government policy, meant that there would be little chance of any movement towards his preferred option of an absolute monarchy. The National Syndicalist Movement brought together radical students, disillusioned republicans, absolutist monarchists, nationalists and some trade unionists in a loose ideological movement. While its declared aim was to overthrow the regime and establish a corporate state, and while it did establish a blue-shirted militia organisation and institute a cult of personality around Preto, the real motivation driving the National Syndicalists was, undoubtedly, their common desire to rid Portugal of Salazar. He was the obstacle preventing the attainment of all their privately disparate goals. Salazar, however, was far too astute for them, and he simply banned the movement while offering its members positions within his regime and its party, the National Union. More than half of the movement accepted Salazar’s offer and moved into positions within the party and the many party and regime organisations. Preto and his deputy, Alberto de Monsaraz, were exiled to Spain. The National Syndicalist Movement ceased to exist.

After banning the only overtly fascist movement that Portugal had known, Salazar set about creating his own institutions, which were to adopt fascist-style rituals, rites and symbols, such as the Roman salute and the leadership principle. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the Portuguese regime created the Portuguese Legion, a volunteer corps that became known as Os Viriatos, many of the members of which went to Spain to fight alongside Franco’s insurgents, and the Portuguese Youth, which was loosely modelled on the Italian Balilla. These organisations were always kept at arm’s length from the regime: they were little more than window-dressing, with no political power and very limited influence. As soon as the Spanish Civil War was over, the use of fascist-style symbol and ritual was officially discouraged by the regime, which was increasingly protective of its pro-British orientation. By the time that the Second World War had broken out, Lisbon was quite clearly within the British sphere of influence. While Portugal remained neutral during the war, and while it did trade with Nazi Germany, Salazar’s intervention was crucial in securing Spanish neutrality and the protection of British shipping lanes. In an act that bordered on belligerency, Portugal offered use of the Azores archipelago first to the United Kingdom and then to the United States as a base for refuelling and resupply.

In the few tumultuous months immediately following the military overthrow of the dictatorship of Salazar’s successor, Marcelo Caetano, in 1974, there was a sudden appearance of extremist political groups, each with their own agenda and goals. While the majority of these groups were on the left of the political spectrum, there were one or two that continued to espouse ideals that bordered on the fascistic. These groups, however, were very rarely more than one- or two-man enterprises, and they disappeared almost as quickly as they had appeared. The restoration of democracy and the country’s promised accession to the European Community very quickly undermined the extremists, depriving them of a receptive audience.

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