Portugal plays each side against the other in World War II
Neill Lochery's new book "Lisbon" chronicles Portugal's pivotal role in World War II.
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[Koestler, a journalist, added that Lisbon was "the last open gate of a concentration camp extending over the greater part of the Continent's surface."]Skip to next paragraph
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Q: How easy was it to get out of Lisbon to a place like America?
A: It was very difficult. The leader of Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, saw the refugees as a hugely complicating factor. He's trying to maintain Portugal’s neutrality, and feared a German invasion of Portugal. The Portuguese also feared a proxy invasion by Spain, particularly during 1940 and 1941.
He had to juggle a lot of balls in the air. There was a hugely important complicating factor in the question of tungsten, a rare ore that’s mined in the northeast of Portugal and is absolutely vital to arms industries. Without tungsten, it's impossible to produce weapons. So you can see where this is going.
This was the key issue between the allies, the Germans and the Portuguese in the war: Would Portugal supply the Germans with tungsten? Salazar refused to stop selling to Germany.
Q: You write about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, who turned out to be a Schindler-like character who saved lives at risk to himself. What's his story?
A: Against the wishes of Salazar, he granted visas in May and June 1940 to a number of people specifically of Jewish origin to travel though Portugal. This in effect helped create the refugee crisis in Portugal, but also got a lot of Jews out of France.
We hear numbers talking about 30,000 people, but I think we're talking about a couple thousand.
Salazar was furious at him for doing this, and it caused an enormous amount of trouble for Portugal. He was recalled back to Lisbon, he was essentially put on trial and disciplined. Salazar basically killed his career.
Now, he's regarded as a hero.
Q: Do you think he's a hero?
A: I don’t think any major single character in the book is completely a hero or completely a villain. Just when you’re about to paint someone as an evil character, you see something that intrigues you and you think, well…
Q: Salazar, the Portuguese leader, comes across as an unusual sort of character -- a savvy dictator. What do you make of him?
A: He had a good war. He made an enormous amount of money for Portugal through the selling of tungsten.
He demanded the Germans pay in gold. It became very clear very quickly that the Germans were not using their own gold, that it had been stolen from central banks of Holland, Belgium and France and, from 1943, that Germans were using gold stolen from victims of the Holocaust.
There were 400 tons of gold, worth around $20 billion-plus in today's dollars.