- Salazar: A Political Biography by Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses
A few years ago, Oliveira Salazar was the winner of a popularity contest organized by Portuguese national television (RTP) and considered the "greatest Portuguese" in history. The popularity of the Portuguese dictator on this television show, however, does not match with the amount of scholarship dedicated to his life and to his role in Portuguese history. Until this book by Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses, a Portuguese historian at National University of Ireland at Maynooth, professional historians did not venture to produce a biography of Salazar. Meneses's book is, therefore, a courageous effort and a successful one. The book, as the author acknowledges, reflects the remarkable development, since the 1990s, of the historiography on Salazar's regime - the New State - that allowed us to have a deeper understanding of the politics, society, economy and even the culture of Salazar's Portugal. This scholarship, recognizes Meneses, helped him to contextualize the actions of the dictator in his own time and space.
In the eternal dilemma between structure and agency, the former seems to have the upper hand on Meneses's book, which is something positive. The author pays great attention to the larger contexts - domestic and international - in which Oliveira Salazar thought, decided, and acted throughout the decades. A mere look at the titles of the chapters reveals this concern. Only the first, "From Santa Comba Dão to São Bento," and the last, "Illness, Retirement, and Death" are organized around the personal life of Salazar. All other chapters evoke major international events or contexts such as "The New State in the Age of Totalitarianism," "The Spanish Civil War," "World War II," or "The Postwar World," [End Page 267] or relevant domestic circumstances, such as "A New Opposition" or "Portugal at War: The 1960s,"
Meneses does not dodge away from the ever-controversial debate on the nature of the political system created and maintained by Salazar. He highlights the theoretical difficulties in equating the New State with fascism, closely following the discussions in the fields of history and political science and stressing the "obstacles in twinning the New State with fascism" (162). Among them are "the lack of mass mobilization, the moderate nature of Portuguese nationalism, the careful and ultimately apolitical selection of the narrow elite who ran the country [. . .] the rejection of violence as a means of transforming society," the absence of a "strong party behind the leader." Above all, of course, stands Salazar himself, the only 20th century "great dictator" whose "public prominence rested on academic merit" (162-163).
Meneses prefers, therefore, to follow the interpretation of Portuguese historian Valentim Alexandre, who recently claimed the distinction between fascism, "ultramontanism" and the "various currents of the authoritarian and conservative right" was "very clear when it comes to principles" but could "easily dissolve in political practice" (165). This book seems to prove this assertion: although Meneses stresses the "Christian-Democratic" roots of Salazar's ideological formation, he quickly recognizes that "the subsequent history of the New State consists [. . .] of the pragmatic abandonment of all high-minded ideals, and of much of the Christian-Democratic political ideology that animated its founder" (87).
Although he refuses to label Salazar's regime as fascist, Meneses does not ignore the most dictatorial and aggressive features of the New State. Therefore he reminds the reader of how "power of the State was systematically reinforced" since the early inception of the regime and also of the "centralization of the decision-making power in a few hands" (87). When Salazar became leader of the government, in 1932, there was a gradual disappearance of cabinet meetings, replaced by "bilateral" meetings between him and the ministers. Information was "concentrated in his person" and the members of the government became "mere technicians" (102). The Constitution of 1933, an "instrument of Salazar's will" (108), created a real "dictatorship of the President of the Council of Ministers" (196) and also a "police state" (107), subjecting political and civil rights to "a number of conditions that were shamelessly exploited by the executive...