Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

'Aristides de Sousa Mendes' Heroes in the Shadows by Brian Fleming

Humanitarian Action and Courage in the Second World War

Aristides de Sousa Mendes (19 July 1885 – 3 April 1954) became the Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux in 1938. Despite orders from António de Oliveira Salazar’s regime, he continued to issue visas and passports to refugees, including Jews, who were fleeing the Nazis. (Heroes in the Shadows, Amberley Publishing)

During the course of World War Two a number of diplomats in various parts of Europe used their positions to save thousands of individuals. Of these, Raoul Wallenberg is by far the most famous but there were others whose heroic deeds need to be better known. One interesting example is that of the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Under the dictator Salazar, Portugal, like its neighbour Spain, was determined not to become involved in WW2. Sousa Mendes, a lawyer by profession, served in his country’s diplomatic service and took up duty as Consul General in Bordeaux in 1938. The following year, Salazar, anxious not just to remain neutral but to be seen to be so, issued an instruction to his nation’s diplomats that visas were not to be issued to various categories of people. Essentially this covered all refugees who might be seeking access to Portugal. Exemptions could only be granted with sanction from the Foreign Ministry in Lisbon. It is clear that from the very start that Sousa Mendes was uncomfortable with this restrictive approach. He began to make exceptions without prior clearance and put forward, to the authorities, retrospective justification for his actions. The numbers involved were quite small but the situation changed radically in 1940 as French resistance to the Nazi invasion began to collapse. Millions fled south, many to avoid conflict but others, notably the Jews, had far more specific reasons to leave France. Hundreds approached the consulate in Bordeaux seeking assistance.

The pressure began to tell on the diplomat and he became indisposed in mid-June with what he described subsequently as a breakdown. Clearly he was in a very difficult situation caught between his instructions from Lisbon and his humanitarian instincts. Happily the latter proved decisive. For the next few weeks he began to issue visas to all who needed them. Obviously Salazar’s government could not tolerate such defiance and he was recalled, an instruction he complied with but not in any great hurry. Estimating the numbers he saved is difficult as visas often covered more than the individual holder but included family members such as children. Some have suggested that between him, and his colleague Emile Gissot in Toulouse who followed his lead, 20,000 were saved. Certainly a figure of 10,000 would constitute a conservative estimate. The noted Holocaust scholar, Professor Yehuda Bauer has described the role played by Sousa Mendes as perhaps the largest rescue operation by a single individual during that period. Subsequently the career of Aristides de Sousa Mendes was destroyed on the direct instructions of Salazar. Sadly he lived in relative poverty for the remainder of his life and his actions were airbrushed from history. Eventually the truth began to emerge and a campaign in the US by a group including the diplomat’s son, John Paul, bore fruit in 1986 when seventy members of congress wrote to the then Portuguese Prime Minister asking that the good name of Aristides de Sousa Mendes be restored. Two years later the Portuguese parliament unanimously adopted a motion striking out all charges against Sousa Mendes and marked the decision with a standing ovation. Further recognition has followed in Portugal and in Bordeaux where he made his wonderfully courageous decision.

Brian Fleming's new book Heroes in the Shadows: Humanitarian Action and Courage in the Second World War is available for purchase now.