Most of the Portuguese history books I’ve read dealt with older events and times in the country’s history- the 1755 earthquake, Henry the Navigator, the Templars, etc. This is the first modern history book I’ve found about Portugal. While many younger people may regard World War II as ancient history, let me assure you, in a history that goes back thousands of years, World War II is modern.
Neill Lochery’s book gives a fascinating look at António de Oliveira Salazar’s efforts to maintain neutrality during World War II while playing both the Allies and the Axis powers to the benefit of Portugal. Initially, Salazar’s insistence that Portugal remain neutral during the conflict was built around his fears that either Germany or Spain would invade his country, and that Great Britain, Portugal’s oldest ally, would not be able to help the country if an invasion did happen. His fears were valid; Spain actually had plans in place to invade Portugal, but never followed through with them.
Lisbon, as Portugal’s largest and most important city, was awash with Allied and German spies during the war, each side monitoring the other’s activities. Among the agents was a young British Intelligence agent named Ian Fleming, whose Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, drew heavily on his time in Portugal.
Additionally, Lisbon was crowded with refugees, many of them Jewish, who were fleeing Nazi persecution in their home countries. Several chapters describe the events of various organizations to help Jews escape the war through Lisbon.
While remaining militarily neutral, Salazar had no qualms about selling wolfram, also known as tungsten, to Nazi Germany. Because counterfeit currency was common, and the value of the currency fluctuated wildly, Salazar insisted that the wolfram be paid for with gold. By the end of the war, Portugal’s gold reserves increased from 63.4 tons at the beginning of the war to 356.5 tons near the end of 1945, much of it Nazi gold.
The story of wolfram and Nazi gold is the most fascinating part of the book for me. Much of the gold was taken by the Nazis from the occupied countries’ banks. Some also was obtained during the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews. While the Allies insisted that the neutral countries return the gold to the countries of origin after the war, Salazar negotiated an agreement where only 3 tons of an estimated 122 tons of Nazi gold was returned. It’s a fascinating story.
While the book focuses on Salazar, wolfram and Nazi gold, there are plenty of other side stories to keep you interested. One chapter covers the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s attempt to return to Great Britain from France, Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst’s similar escape from Burgundy, and the death of Hollywood star Leslie Howard, when the plane he was returning to Great Britain in was shot down by Nazi fighters.
It’s an interesting read, with plenty of the twists and turns associated with wars and spies. In this case, though, it’s not a James Bond novel, it’s history.
If you’re interested in reading Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945, you can purchase it from Amazon here.