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Lisbon, July 2012
Image: DW/Ferro de Gouveia


Interview: Cornelia Rabitz / hw
November 29, 2012

With the outbreak of World War II, it became increasingly difficult for persecuted people to flee to other countries. Yet around 100,000 traveled through France and Spain to reach Portugal.


DW: Before the outbreak of the Second World War, relatively few refugees came to Portugal. But from 1940 - after the occupation of France - there was a mass wave of migration over the Pyrenees to Portugal. Why did they come to Portugal, a country then governed by the dictator Salazar?

Xose Manuel Nunez Seixas: Salazar was not a real fascist, more of a Catholic-authoritarian dictator whose goal was a corporative society. However, he did adopt some things from contemporary fascist regimes. But at the same time, he remained faithful to the traditional friendship with Great Britain. That made Portugal a relatively unique case in Europe. It didn't participate in the war and assisted the Allies as much as the Axis powers - above all, Germany. But from 1943 it became clear to Salazar that Germany would lose the war. And because of that he decided to cut Portugal's relationships with Germany and Italy and foster its traditional relationship with Great Britain.

How did the Salazar government handle immigrants from Germany and so many other European countries? Were there reprisals, for example through the secret police, the PVDE? Was there anti-Semitism?

There was no widespread anti-Semitism in Portugal, but the remains of a traditional, Catholic anti-Semitism. Most supporters of the Salazar regime weren't especially sympathetic to Jews. At the same time, they had no concrete understanding of what a Jew was, simply because they'd never seen a Jew in their lives. And it was exactly the same in Spain. Anti-Semitism played a certain rhetorical role.

Jews were always talked about in relation to communists, Freemasons and the liberals as posing a threat to the West. But there was no concrete anti-Semitism. The small number of Jews who lived in Portugal had Moroccan roots and were widely respected. The president of the Technical University of Lisbon was also a Jew. So, they weren't especially well loved but widely respected. European Jews, who came to Portugal gradually, were also tolerated because they only remained in the country on a temporary basis.

Émigrés who were suspected of being communists were in for a tough time. There was even a type of concentration camp on Cape Verde. Do we know anything about that today?

Historian Xose Manuel Nunez Seixas pictured in Portugal
Historian Xose Manuel Nunez Seixas pictured in PortugalImage: privat

Yes, there were a number of Jews who were imprisoned, not because they were Jews but because they were communists. The majority of communists imprisoned by the Salazar regime were deported to the camp. But one must say that, in comparison to Franco's Spain, where communists were not only deported but sometimes shot, the Jewish life was respected. In 1941, the right to reside in Portugal was denied to a number of Jewish refugees and they were deported back to Germany. But that involved individual cases.

Historical documents always report on how much the sleepy city of Lisbon was changed by the arrival of immigrants: foreign people, foreign languages, overflowing cafés. What was daily life like for the refugees in Lisbon?

It was a mixture of fascination and disappointment with the new country. Most refugees came from Germany, France or other relatively advanced countries and generally had a fairly high social status. Lisbon was a very beautiful but also unbelievably poor city. The Portuguese population suffered under the regime, the standard of living was significantly lower than that in central Europe. That's why many immigrants and refugees were shocked by the poverty in certain parts of the city, for example when children ran around barefoot and with little clothing. Or when the streets stank. Other witnesses describe that, in contrast, a few cafés - the International for example - had salons with a cosmopolitan clientele.

In Lisbon there was a spatial proximity between immigrants and refugees and Nazis in the area of the German embassy and German businesses located there. Even SS members were present. Did supporters of the Hitler regime also make their presence felt in Lisbon, maybe even acting against the immigrants?

Yes, of course! As a neutral capital, Lisbon was a center of espionage, just like Madrid and other metropolises. But above all, Lisbon was interesting because of its harbor, a strategically important harbor, from which ships set sail to the US. The Nazis were well aware that many Jews resided there. Aside from that, the National Socialists were interested in one thing above anything else: wolfram, an important metal used in the German armaments industry during the Second World War to build tank grenades. Like Spain, Portugal was supposed to deliver wolfram to the Wehrmacht. Lisbon was also a hive of British and American agents. Then there was the Portuguese secret police, the PVDE, a quite brutal police force who adopted many of their methods from the Gestapo. People dreaded the checks carried out by the secret police.

You said that the Portuguese population was poor. Nevertheless, was there help for the refugees, for the immigrants? How did people in the city react to the flood of immigrants?

Many of the refugees had their own resources which they needed to bribe the authorities in both Spain and Nazi-occupied France, for example. But a few international organizations were also operating in Lisbon, for example the Quakers and the International Red Cross. The Quakers had their headquarters in Lisbon and had been helping many Spanish republican refugees since the end of the 1930s.

A lot has been written about Lisbon as a city of exiles and a city full of tensions, as you have described it. There is an entire series of famous books such as Erich Maria Remarque's "The Night in Lisbon" and Antonio Tabucchi's "Pereira Maintains," among others. Why is this?

Lisbon was always more interesting for writers than for historians. The special atmosphere in the city inspired authors. I believe that many refugees were fascinated by something similar: this very bright, sunlit city, where it's always light. Naturally, it was a counterpoint to bitter, occupied Europe. It was also a very peaceful city, extremely calm, there wasn't a lot going on. The big contrast to that was the presence of a multi-national wave of refugees alongside the cafés, centers of espionage and suspicious places. That created a fascination with Lisbon that continues all the way to Wim Wenders and his famous film.

Xose Manuel Nunez Seixas is a professor of history at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and an expert on the history of Spain and Portugal.

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