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Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45 by Neill Lochery

While travelling in Portugal and was about to visit Estoril after a week in Lisbon, I found a recommendation on a travel blog for Neill Lochery’s book Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45. Historian Neill Lochery is a specialist on Portuguese history, it is well researched, and makes for exciting reading. We are talking about spies, diplomacy, refugees and businesses, where Lisbon was a hub at the time. It was the only way out of Europe for those who needed and wanted to leave.


"Lisbon had a pivotal role in the history of World War II, though not a gun was fired there. The only European city in which both the Allies and the Axis power operated openly, it was temporary home to much of Europe’s exiled royalty, over one million refugees seeking passage to the U.S., and a host of spies, secret police, captains of industry, bankers, prominent Jews, writers and artists, escaped POWs, and black marketeers. An operations officer writing in 1944 described the daily scene at Lisbon’s airport as being like the movie Casablanca, times twenty.”


As you can imagine from the introduction above, this is an exciting part of, not only Portuguese, but European history. Estoril today is a quiet place. The famous Estoril Casino looks a little bit run down, but might be elegant on the inside. “The interior of the casino bore a resemblance to the gambling room in Rick’s Café in the film Casablanca, but on a grander scale. Among those who played at its tables during the war was a young British intelligence officer, Ian Fleming, who took inspiration from both the casino and the hotel for his future James Bond books.”


“… Lisbon became affectionately knows as “Casablanca II.” The real-life version had all the ingredients of the fictional storyline: broken romances; desperate refugees trying to obtain the correct paperwork and selling the family jewels to finance their onward passage; a thriving black market as supply dictated that the prices of diamonds and other rare stones fell to record low levels; cafés and hotel bars full of refugees and spies scattered across the city center and along Lisbon’s coastline resorts.“ Lochery guides us through the Allies' and Axis' powers and their diplomatic efforts and spy games.


It was the time of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who had come to power in 1932, and left only in 1968. He was a workaholic, had several minister post at the same time, and spent the war time years trying to keep neutrality for Portugal, as well as keeping up businesses. One of the most important commodities at the time, the wolfram, or tungsten, was eagerly sought after, especially by the Axis. That is how Portugal got hold of an immense amount of gold, of which, it is believed, there might still be some hidden in banks in Portugal.


For those interested, Lochery’s book has much more to tell. Not all refugees were lucky enough to have money and many tragedies happened. Politics, allies vs axis, diplomacy, economy and, in the end, the people who tried to do something. Sometimes successfully, other times not.


If you are interested in Portugal you can read The Content Reader Newsletter where I have several articles on our trip around the north western part of the country.

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