- - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

LISBON: WAR IN THE SHADOWS OF THE CITY OF LIGHT, 1939-45
By Neill Lochery
Public Affairs, $27.99, 305 pages, illustrated

As this vivid account of the key role the Portuguese capital played during World War II tells us, when the traditional European “City of Light” - Paris - lay extinguished under the dark cloud of Nazi occupation, Lisbon’s lights burned bright. When, one after another, most of Europe’s lamps went out, as they had a generation earlier in another world war, to be replaced by somber blackout, Lisbon’s bright street lighting and neon signs struck visitors as surreal.

Not that there weren’t shadows and dark dealings in them, as British author Neill Lochery points out in his absorbing tale of how the global conflict managed to enrich and enhance Portugal on the geopolitical and economic stage as many of its fellow European states fell victim to the conflagration.

Portugal was unique among the neutral nations in World War II in actually being a formal ally of Great Britain, dating back, Mr. Lochery informs us, to “the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373, the oldest extant alliance in the world which the government claimed it had no wish to refrain from confirming at so grave a moment,” but which it claimed did not oblige Portugal “to abandon its position of neutrality in the present emergency.” This slippery but skillful doublespeak reflected the tightrope Portugal’s dictator, Antonio Salazar, was determined to walk across.

This least known of mid-20th-century European fascist leaders was as committed to his repressive new order at home - called the Estado Novo or New State - as were his confreres Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco. But his focus abroad was entirely defensive, committed to staying neutral, terrified of invasion by either side. At times, invasion was a very real possibility, particularly from Franco, possibly in conjunction with the other two.

Mr. Lochery’s detailed account of Salazar’s success in alternately placating, playing off and submitting to each side is at the heart of the book’s narrative. It is not always a pretty tale. Salazar’s supplying Nazi Germany with the tungsten crucial to its war machine netted Portugal a large amount of gold of unsavory provenance, some of it possibly having come from the fillings extracted at Auschwitz.

But the country’s strategic importance in wartime, which led Britain, and to a lesser extent, the United States, to treat Salazar with kid gloves, continued sufficiently into the Cold War era for Portugal to be permitted to retain most of those gold bars with their sinister swastikas. It was better for him to supply Germany with tungsten than be invaded to get it, along with a lot of valuable Atlantic coast.

Mr. Lochery’s thesis and the evidence he amasses to support it are convincing and, for the most part, well-put. The only drawback in his otherwise enjoyable text is his overuse of certain images and leitmotivs. At a certain point, one begins to feel that if one reads one more time about those blazing lights or the thriving resorts, hotels and casinos with their mixture of glamour and desperation or reads another reiteration of how poor Portugal enriched itself in the first half of the 1940s, the urge to scream will be irresistible.

But then one of those marvelous points of insight emerges that the author has discovered in his copious research. After describing the grand Hotel Palacio in the resort town of Estoril, adjacent to Lisbon, with its ballroom and casino packed with spies from both sides, he notes that “an American who passed through the doors of the hotel said that it reminded him of the Mayo Clinic, because you could see on the faces of its guests that something was troubling them.”

Quotes like this scattered throughout the book evoke the very special atmosphere that prevailed in wartime Lisbon. The maelstrom of global conflict swirled around it, impinging upon it, chilling, often threatening and endangering but for the most part benefiting one of the luckier nations on the European continent in that awful time.

Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.