Friday, June 27, 2008

Interesting People: Aristedes de Sousa Mendes

Some of my interests in history have come from odd questions for which I was never given a satisfactory answer in my formal studies. For instance, "why is so little attention paid to the largest land empire in human history?" (though that appears to be changing be changing).

Another is "how did Francisco Franco pull it off?" Really, this weak-voiced man emerges from a savage civil war to enjoy 34 years of rule and a natural death. Franco was a fascist (sorta), yet never joined in World War II and would come to receive significant American support during the Cold War. Among recent reads was this biography, Franco: A Concise Biography, which I mention mainly to urge you not to read it. It focuses on a lot of second-guessing and long-distance psychoanalysis of the man to the detriment of describing his career and accomplishments. It might be a good third or fourth read, but not an introduction.

The most interesting thing to me about Franco is his relationship with Hitler and Nazi Germany. Here was a man who gained power to some extent thanks to support from Germany, and especially Italy, during the Spanish Civil War. In response, he stiff-arms Hitler at the height of his power by remaining out of the war. He drags his feet, prevaricates, makes excuses, but above all stubbornly stays put. Clearly, he tilted in Hitler's favor, but never went the whole way. I find this especially amazing considering that Hitler got so much of what he wanted from everyone as long as possible: the Soviets supported him until he invaded the country, the Japanese threw in with this bunch of racists, the British and French turned over Austria and the Czechs...even America was less than aggressive in confronting the mongrel. Yet somehow, this watery, insecure bully said "no" when nearly anyone else had said yes.

Thus, my enthusiastic recommendation for the book Franco and Hitler, a comprehensive and engaging look at the relationship between Nazi Germany and the fascist Falange of Spain from genesis through victory to ultimate defeat. It's really a fascinating story, and I urge people to check it out. Short answer to the question above: Spain couldn't economically or militarily expect success if it entered the war, and he knew it deep down; Hitler also knew it, and had enough to do bailing out Italy that he didn't need Spain as well.

Anyway, it is in this book that I came across Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. Remember Aristedes? This is a post about Aristedes (Get it?). I think there is a strong urge to find heroism in bleakness, which explains the staying power of the stories of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. It was reading this book that I learned of this third man, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. Similar to Schindler and Wallenberg, Sousa Mendes saved thousands of lives in all likelihood -- many of them Jews -- by following his conscience rather than his orders.

Sousa Mendes was a minor noble in Portugal, a nation that observed strict neutrality throughout the war, though increasingly tilted toward the Allies (the Portuguese government also had some of the clearest-eyed observations and analysis of the war in situ). Sousa Mendes was the diplomatic chief of post in Bordeaux, France when the Nazis invaded, and his response was to immediately start issuing transit visas for safe passage out of the war zone for refugees. Franco had closed the French-Spanish border, but was allowing entrance of people with a right to be in Spain, or to be in Portugal. Sousa Mendes wrote these visas guaranteeing entry into Portugal (and thus Spain) in defiance of orders from his superiors and by war's end he had issued over 20,000 visas that entitled the bearers to reach Portugal. Though Premier Antonio Salazar was pro-Hitler, fascist Portugal never enacted government policies meant to slaughter Jewish residents. Sousa Mendes had taken the decision to issue visas for Jews, no questions asked, in direct defiance to an order from Salazar that no visas be issued to Jewish refugees. Eventually, Sousa Mendes even we authorized others to issue these visas in his name. There were stretches of 48 hours where personnel signed and stamped visas before a crowd outside the consulate. (Also rescued by Sosusa Mendes' act was the scion of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, whom Hitler had marked for death.)

Sousa Mendes didn't just issue papers...he made sure that they were respected. When the Portuguese consul in Bayonne, France (on the Spanish border) refused to vouch for these visas in contact to Spanish border agencies, Sousa Mendes went down there to personally change their policy. He also guided refugees to a border post without telephone contact, as they would be unaware of orders countermanding Sousa Mendes' visas. He literally lifted the gate to freedom for a crowd of refugees, and was stopped only when a higher official arrived on the spot and declared him mentally incompetent. Though Spain did not cover itself with glory during the war, at the least they did not expel any Jewish residents to feed Hitler's demands.

Unlike Wallenberg and too many others, Sousa Mendes escaped with his life. Upon his recall back to Portugal, though, he was forced out of the diplomatic service. His children were harassed, and two emigrated to the United States and fought in the army. Disabled by a 1945 stroke, and ignored by a government that decreed he be shown no charity, Sousa Mendes died poor. At his death, the only property still owned by the family was the burial plot in which he was interred.

Thankfully, he is starting to receive the recognition due for his heroism and his role in saving so many. The Portuguese government restored the mansion in which he once lived and returned it to his family last year. The only straw upon which to hold in the gale of hatred that is the Holocuast is that many people did do the right thing, regardless of cost.

I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love. -- Aristedes de Sousa Mendes

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