Portugal’s Dictatorship: Salazar’s Estado Novo

Written By Lara Silva

If you have Portuguese ancestors or have traveled to the country many times, it’s almost impossible never to have heard of Salazar. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was a Portuguese dictator that was the President of the Council of Ministers of the Estado Novo (1933 – 1974), an authoritarian regime in Portugal. 

This fascist regime lasted over four decades and had a large impact on the country. It symbolizes four decades of unfreedom, oppression, and inequality. Only on April 25, 1974, this regime fell, bringing about the transition to democracy and the end of the Portuguese Colonial War in Africa. 

Let’s take a look at the history of Portugal’s dictatorship, led mostly by Salazar. 

Key Facts about Salazar’s Estado Novo

  • The Estado Novo (1933 – 1974) was one of the longest authoritarian regimes in 20th-century Europe. 
  • Developed by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the President of the Council of Ministers, the Estado Novo was inspired by autocratic, authoritarian, and fascist ideologies. It was nationalist in nature and defended Portugal’s traditional Catholicism. 
  • The Estado Novo was opposed to communism, socialism, syndicalism, anarchism, liberalism, and anti-colonialism. 
  • The Estado Novo promoted Portugal as pluricontinental nation in its colonialism, naming Angola, Mozambique, and other colonies as extensions of Portugal. Salazar believed Portugal brought these colonies “stability” and “civilization,” a highly imperialist notion. 
  • Voting was not a universal right, and elections were manipulated
  • Salazar looked up to Mussolini and Hitler, declaring three days of national mourning after Hitler’s death.
  • The Estado Novo had PIDE, its police, from 1945 to 1969 that was responsible for oppressing any opposition to the regime. This included kidnapping, torturing, and murdering many suspected of promoting communist or left-leaning sentiments. 
  • In 1968, Marcelo Caetano replaced Salazar as prime minister as he had become old and ill. Although there was less press censorship and independent labor unions were allowed, the regime remained authoritarian and unfree. 
  • Salazar believed he was still in charge until his death in 1970.
  • Portugal’s GDP grew from 1950 to 1970 at an average annual rate of 5.7%.
  • However, by the end of the regime, Portugal still had the lowest per capita income and the lowest literacy rate in Western Europe.

Oppression & Censorship in the Portuguese Dictatorship 

The International and State Defense Police, known as PIDE, was the Portuguese security agency during the Estado Novo. PIDE had the power to detain and arrest anyone who was thought to be plotting against the state and focused on political and social issues such as political opposition and revolutionary movements.

PIDE tortured and assassinated many political activists, anarchists, communists, workers, intellectuals, and more, numbers we do not know to this day.

The Portuguese people had no freedom of speech. At any corner, any dinner party, any supermarket, a member of PIDE, the secret police could be listening. Saying the wrong thing to what seemed a friendly face could leave you in prison, tortured, or murdered.

As Portuguese people from that time say, “As paredes têm ouvidos” (the walls have ears). Censorship of the media was also in place, requesting books, controlling newspapers, censoring music, art, and much more.

The Portuguese Colonial War

The Estado Novo promoted Portugal as pluricontinental nation through lusotropicalism. This is the false belief that the Portuguese were “better” colonizers than other Europeans. The colonies abroad were seen as an extension of Portugal, without the right to self-determination.

Also known as the Angolan, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambican War of Independence, the Portuguese Colonial War was a conflict fought between Portugal’s military and the emerging nationalist movements in Portugal’s African colonies between 1961 and 1974. 

The Portuguese Colonial War was inhumane, costly, and led to the loss of countless lives of both Portuguese and Africans. Portuguese men were forced to go to war. 

The war only ended with the Carnation Revolution. The end of the Estado Novo led to the end of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, with this being a major driving force for the revolution. 

Estado Novo and World War II

On September 1, 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, following the invasion of Poland, Salazar declared Portugal’s neutrality to the National Assembly.

This decision was based on ideological and economic motives. Salazar believed it gave the nation a chance to prosper economically in the sense that it could foster business opportunities with both sides and ultimately stimulate the economy. He maintained open trade with both the Allied and Axis camp throughout the war. 

Neutrality strongly boosted the Portuguese economy in four short years. It went from a 90 million dollar deficit in 1939 to a surplus of 68 million by 1943 due to its economic involvement with various nations during the war.

However, Portugal’s official “neutrality” stance is beyond questionable. The Estado Novo’s collaboration with Hitler’s Nazi Germany marks a dark time in Portuguese history, one that is too often left unmentioned.

In 1941, Salazar and the actual government of Portugal expressed public support for the nation of Germany. Moreover, it often exported wolfram to Germany and accepted Nazi gold in turn for other products. 

To this day, the Bank of Portugal receives a negative image for its Nazi collaboration, as Portugal knew the German payment in the form of gold was stolen from conquered nations and victims of the Holocaust.

Moreover, the Estado Novo did not want to help Jewish refugees. Salazar was against immigration, promoting nationalistic rhetoric. He believed foreigners would diminish the “national spirit” and even dismantled criminal networks responsible for falsifying passports for Jewish refugees.

Women’s Rights During the Estado Novo

Women’s rights were heavily restricted during the Estado Novo. Women were perceived as instrumental figures to the Estado Novo, forced to perpetuate social norms of “feminity” to maintain “family life.”

Article number 5 of the Constitution of 1933 stated that citizens were equal, “except for the woman, the differences resulting from her nature and the good of the family”. 

The country was predominantly roman catholic under dictator Salazar and his ideology surrounding women’s “nature” was rooted in messages repeated by the Catholic Church.

Women’s “nature” meant that women were expected to stay at home, take care of children, and, unfortunately, be silenced.

The only role of a woman was to be a dedicated wife and loving mother, a role that her family had trained her to play since childhood. The family was to be defended as an institution.

Financial abuse against women was institutionalized. The law allowed husbands to prohibit wives from working outside the home.

Women were not allowed to access certain professions (diplomat, military, etc.), and certain professions (like nursing) had limited rights, such as the right to marry.

Until 1969, a wife needed the consent of her husband to travel to another country. Contraceptives were only allowed for health reasons, and even so, the husband needed to give consent.

Abortion was illegal in all cases, with a prison sentence of up to 8 years.

Although women were technically allowed to vote in the 1933 constitutional referendum for the first time, they were not allowed to do so on the same terms as men. Men only needed to know how to read and write to vote, while women needed secondary education, which was extremely uncommon.

During the Portuguese Colonial War, African women were regularly raped for over a decade. Many academics now situate these acts “at the core of Portuguese colonial violence,” such as Garraio. 

When did Salazar die?

While the Estado Novo was still in place for four years after his death, Salazar died in 1970. In 1968, Salazar had a cerebral hemorrhage, which sources say was caused by a fall from a chair. Others say he fell in the bath.

A few weeks later, he went into a coma, forcing him to step down, unaware. After emerging from a one-month coma, his subordinates did not tell him he had been removed from power. He believed to be ruling in privacy until he died on July 27th, 1970.  

The Fall of the Estado Novo

Carnation Revolution

Freedom day, Carnation Revolution, 25th of April, all of these describe Portugal’s most important national holiday.

After over 40 years of fascism, on April 25th, 1974, a (peaceful) military coup led by leftist military officers known as the Carnation Revolution brought about freedom for the Portuguese. It led to a transition to democracy and the end of the Portuguese Colonial War in Africa.

Although this is not common knowledge, a lot of the planning for the Carnation Revolution was actually organized by military members stationed in African colonies such as Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau.

Organized by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) which translates to the Armed Forces Movement, a revolutionary civil resistance campaign composed of military officers. These were lower-ranking officers affiliated with the socialist and communist parties who sought to overthrow the fascist regime and end the colonial war.

The Carnation Revolution started with music on the radio. First, at 10:55 pm on the 24th of April, E Depois do Adeus by Paulo de Carvalho played on the radio. In the early hours of the 25th of April at 00:25, Grandola, Vila Morena by Jose Afonso played on Radio Renascenca.

This last song was the second sign to the Portuguese people that the revolution was starting and that revolutionaries should occupy the strategic points of the country. Within a few hours, the Estado Novo was overthrown.

Every year, the people of Portugal run to the streets to celebrate the 25 of April or Freedom Day!

From older people who lived during the Estado Novo, to younger people, this day is a yearly reminder of the value of democracy, the fight against fascism, and the end of Portuguese colonialism.

All over the country, people go out to sing, dance, eat, and march the streets with carnations in their hands. It’s common that florists will give out carnations for free.

The Aftermath of the Revolution

A few weeks after the Carnation Revolution, on May 16, 1974, the first provisional government of Portugal took office. This government had many political forces, from communists to liberal democrats.

However, this government later fell in July of 1974, and there were six other provisional governments until two years later when the first constitutional government was formed.

The current Constitution of Portugal was adopted in 1976 by the Constituent Assembly, which was elected on 25 April 1976, a year after the revolution.

With some 60% of seats occupied by the left after the election, the Assembly adopted a constitution that provided for a democratic parliamentary system with various political parties, elections, a parliament, and a prime minister.

The Portuguese constitution included ideological content, with references to socialism and restricting private business. In the 80s, there were constitutional revisions to remove some of these.

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