A Fascist, a Communist and a Righteous Gentile
by Norman Berdichevsky (March 2016)
When Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s authoritarian ruler since 1932 finally was unable to rule effectively and his regime subsequently deposed by a military coup in 1974 (“The Carnation Revolution”), there was universal agreement that he left Portugal the poorest and most backward nation in Western Europe. Reporters on the scene in Lisbon reported signs of jubilation equaling V-E Day in London or Paris.
How is it possible then that when a Portuguese television program ran a survey in 2007 and staged write-in vote for “The Greatest Portuguese” amidst remarks from media commentators and letters to the editor that Vasco de Gama or Magellan, or the great poets Luis de Camões and Fernando Pessoa, the great fado star Amalia Rodrigues or one or another famous king would be the certain winner, it was however, none other than Salazar, never even mentioned in the original list of candidates! Many voters cited his dedication, competence, austerity and integrity as worthy of their vote.
Even discounting many voters who may have been registering a “tongue-in-cheek protest vote” of sarcasm to express disappointment with the unfulfilled promises of the Carnation Revolution, it was also a poignant reflection that many Portuguese did indeed value his enormous contributions to stabilizing the chaotic aftermath of the Republican Revolution in 1910. The Republic has been described as “continual anarchy, government corruption, rioting and pillage, assassinations, arbitrary imprisonment and religious persecution”. It had had eight Presidents, 44 cabinet reorganizations and 21 revolutions until Salazar.
During his forty years in power, the highest estimate of fatalities among political prisoners amounted to no more than sixty, an inconsequential number compared to any other dictatorial European regime of the 20th century. The TV special featured individual documentaries advocating the top ten candidates. The final vote took place on 25 March 2007, Salazar was the winner with 41% of the write-in votes. Nevertheless, in second place was Alvaro Cunhal (19.1%) – the general secretary of the Portuguese Communist Party (1961-1992) and a life-long opponent of the Salazar regime!
Among the also-rans were the famous expected navigators of the Age of Discovery, poets, writers and kings but the unexpected third place finisher was a testament to the conscience of the nation, one traditionally considered a bastion of antisemitism, Aristides de Sousa Mendes (13.1%), a career diplomat demoted by Salazar. Sousa Mendes is remembered with great honor as one of the “Righteous Gentiles” by the State of Israel!
Spain and Portugal During World War II
In 1940 (the 300th anniversary of Portugal’s regaining its independence from Spain), a leading Spanish magazine wrote (threatened?) that: “it was God’s will that the two countries be reunited again.” This anecdotal incident reflected much of Spanish anxiety over Portuguese “neutrality” and possible cooperation with the British. Salazar had to walk a narrow tightrope to preserve Portuguese neutrality.
In April 1941, President Roosevelt declared that the Portuguese possession of the Azores lay in the “Western Hemisphere,” implying that they came under the protection of the American “Monroe Doctrine.” Their significance for the American and British navies in combating the German U-boat threat was essential. Franco maintained a strict neutrality, and even permitted thousands of Spanish volunteers to serve with the German Army in a special “Blue Division” to fight communist Russia (5,000 were killed and missing in combat on the Eastern Front).
The Portuguese under the crafty Salazar however, knew where their most vital interests lay and by June 1943 the British formally invoked their ancient alliance with Portugal, requesting the use of airfields on the islands. Portugal agreed. Salazar was convinced that just as Portugal had entered World War I to ensure that its overseas empire would remain intact at the Versailles Peace Conference, it was essential that Portugal secure a place among the victorious Allies in the second World War (see NER April, 2015, “Portugal’s Attempts at Jewish Reparations and the Fig Leaf of Lusotropicalism“) . Following the war, Portugal was an honored ally – a founding member of NATO in 1949 – whereas Spain under Franco remained a pariah state for another decade and was not even admitted to the United Nations until 1955.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, A Righteous Gentile
Along with the noble Swedish ambassador to Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg, another diplomat of much lesser rank, the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux at the time of the German conquest of France in June 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, deserves to be regarded as a truly “Righteous Gentile.” An austere career diplomat, and devout Catholic, he was struck by the awful human tragedy engulfing so many refugees, among whom were many Jews trapped in France, and he took it wholly upon himself in contradiction to strict orders, to use his office to help all of them.
His family background had an aristocratic lineage. His father, José de Sousa Mendes, was a judge on the Coimbra Court of Appeals; a brother, César, served as Foreign Minister in 1932, in the early days of Salazar’s regime and a younger brother, Jose Paulo, became a naval officer. Sousa Mendes began the consular officer career that would take him and his family around the world. Early in his career, he served in Zanzibar, Brazil, Spain, the United States, and Belgium.
In August, 1919, while posted in Brazil, he was “temporarily suspended by the Foreign Ministry, which regarded him as hostile to the republican regime.” He returned home to Portugal in 1920 and in 1921, was assigned to the Portuguese consulate in San Francisco where two of his children were born. In view of his family background, patriotism, conservative views, and his diplomatic service, he was highly regarded by Salazar.
Consul in Bordeaux
Sousa Mendes provided many refugee families with Portuguese documents to legally enter Portugal and transit Spain from France. He did this knowing that he would be severely punished, and doubted that his documents would be honored by Spanish officials. Portugal was obligated by the ancient Treaty of Windsor with Great Britain to provide assistance in wartime, but as in World War I, it was not applicable since neither country had been directly attacked by an aggressor. Salazar had signed the much more demanding “Pacto Ibérico” treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Spain’s Generalissimo Franco in March 1939.
The clever Portuguese dictator knew that he was most vulnerable to a German-supported Spanish attack if suspected of treachery or if Spain decided to realize its age-old ambition to annex Portugal. He therefore played for time and demonstrated pro-Axis sympathies by shipping supplies, especially wolfram, crucial for German war industry and much needed foodstuffs to Spain. He expressly forbade his diplomats to grant transit visas to “Jews expelled from countries of their nationality” and “stateless persons,” as well as all “those who cannot safely return to the countries from whence they came.”
He reinforced this with another directive (Dispatch 14) on May 17, 1940, that “Under NO circumstances” was any visa to be issued unless previously authorized from Lisbon on a case-by-case basis. This was a reserve safety clause for the dictator, who knew that he might find it advantageous to let a few prominent individuals escape to America to win goodwill there. However, he never expected a third-rate minor diplomat to open the floodgates, or that the Spanish authorities would accept this wave of refugee traffic.
Sousa Mendes personally intervened at the border when Spanish guards questioned the authenticity of the visas at the towns of Bayonne, Hendaye, and Irun. Approximately 30,000 refugees, among them 10,000 Jews, directly owed their lives to the Portuguese consul who was recalled and declared insane, the official explanation later reported in the Spanish and Portuguese press.
Both his daughter Isabel and her husband tried to dissuade Sousa Mendes of his errant behavior and what they considered a mistake that would ruin his career. He did not listen to them and instead began to work intensively granting the visas, explaining that “I would rather stand with God and against man than with man and against God.” With the help of his wife and sons Pedro Nuno and José Antonio, his secretary José Seabra, and a few other volunteers including a refugee rabbi, he mobilized efforts to produce and sign thousands of visas in an “assembly-line” fashion.
Salazar demanded a full scale enquiry after the removal of Sousa Mendes from his post and that “appropriate punishment” be meted out, but before a decision could be taken, Life magazine featured a headline story on July 29, 1940 calling Salazar “The Greatest Portuguese since Henry the Navigator!” The naïve Life reporters could not accept the story that a minor Portuguese consular official had acted on his own conscience. They were unaware of the press reports of insanity or the charges to be filed against him so they concluded that this magnificent act of humanity must have been the work of Portugal’s leader, Salazar.
The simple reality of the situation demanded a cover-up from the Portuguese and Spanish officials, who could not admit to such incompetence and risk losing the good will earned by Portugal. Sousa Mendes was removed from office and declared guilty of “professional incapacity,” but the entire matter was handled with the utmost tact so as not to ruin the good press the country had received in the United States. It was also a kind of insurance for Salazar that Spain could not threaten Portugal in the future and use its “German” card, since Portugal could then retaliate with both American and British support. So, although he never forgave Sousa Mendes, he did not close the Portuguese border for the remainder of the war and Lisbon became the chief embarkation point to the new world for refugees who managed to flee Nazi-occupied Europe.
Sousa Mendes’ Defense
In his response to the charges, Sousa Mendes replied on August 12, 1940:
“It was indeed my aim to save all those people whose suffering was indescribable: some had lost their spouses, others had no news of missing children, others had seen their loved ones succumb to the German bombings which occurred every day and did not spare the terrified refugees…. There was another aspect that should not be overlooked: the fate of many people if they fell into the hands of the enemy…. eminent people of many countries with whom we have always been on excellent terms: statesmen, ambassadors and ministers, generals and other high officers, professors, men of letters, … officers from armies of countries that had been occupied, Austrians, Czechs and Poles, who would be shot as rebels; there were also many Belgians, Dutch, French, Luxembourgers and even English… Many were Jews who were already persecuted and sought to escape the horror of further persecution. …When I left Bayonne I was applauded by hundreds of people, and through me, it was Portugal that was being honored.”
On October 19, 1940, the verdict was handed down: “Disobeying higher orders during service.” The disciplinary board proposed a dismissal but Salazar rejected this recommendation and imposed his own sentence: “I sentence Consul First Class, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, to a penalty of one year of inactivity with the right to one half of his rank’s pay, being obliged subsequently to be retired” and that all files in the case be sealed, obviously wishing that he whole story be swept under the carpet. A more serious punishment would have attracted unwanted attention.
Franco Responds in Kind so as Not to Lose Face
Franco did not personally whip up anti-Semitism or employ anti-Semitic themes in his campaign to seize power and topple the republic (see NER September, 2008, “Franco, Fascism and the Falange“). Embarrassed by the favorable American press received by Salazar in June 1940, Franco made it Spanish policy to accept all refugees who legally entered Spain and even gave special attention to Jews of Spanish-Portuguese descent (the “Sephardim”). He also realized that it could conceivably be in Spain’s interest to maintain a decent and humanitarian respect for the refugees and he was determined not to play “second fiddle” to Salazar. Although neither had intended to aid Jewish refugees, the inherent sense of rivalry between the two countries inadvertently came into play as a result of a sensationalist story of humanitarian interest in the American press.
The Final Chapter
Sousa Mendes died in poverty on April 3, 1954, owing money and still in disgrace with his government. The Israeli Holocaust authority Yad Vashem had begun to recognize Holocaust rescuers as “Righteous Among the Nations” and in 1966, Sousa Mendes was among the earliest to be so named, thanks in large part to the efforts of daughter Joana. However, Salazar was still in power, and reluctant to have the case made public. His representatives denied the existence of Directive 14. In 1987, the Portuguese government began to rehabilitate Sousa Mendes’ memory and granted him a posthumous Order of Liberty medal, one of that country’s highest honors. A year later, the Portuguese parliament officially dismissed all charges, restoring Sousa Mendes to the diplomatic corps posthumously by unanimous vote and honoring him with a standing ovation. He was also promoted to the rank of Ministro Plenipotenciário and awarded the Cross of Merit.
U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, Edward Rowell, presented copies of the congressional resolution from the previous year to Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, one of the sons who had helped his father in the assembly line at Bordeaux, and in 1994, former President Mario Soares dedicated a bust of Sousa Mendes along with a commemorative plaque at the address at which the consulate at Bordeaux had been housed. In 1995, Portugal held a week-long National Homage to Sousa Mendes, culminating with an event paying tribute to him in a 2000-seat Lisbon theater that was filled to capacity. A commemorative stamp was issued to mark the occasion and the Portuguese President Mário Soares declared Sousa Mendes to be “Portugal’s greatest hero of the twentieth century.”
Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.
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