This improvised printing press was used covertly to produce anti-fascist literature during the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Portugal under dictatorship and the long struggle for freedom and democracy are the themes behind a compelling and thought-provoking permanent exhibition at the Museu do Aljube - Resistência e Liberdade (usually shortened to Museu do Aljube), sited near Lisbon’s Castelo neighborhood.
This free-to-enter museum, housed within the former Aljube prison facility, stands as a poignant reminder of a dark and sinister chapter in the country’s history.
But its real sense of purpose is acknowledging the bravery and determination shown by those opposed to the dictatorial regime – and the enormous risks involved in doing so.
The former Aljube prison building, now the Museu do Aljube - Resistência e Liberdade — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The Museu do Aljube is set over four floors, and the exhibition is arranged chronologically. A visit commences on Floor 1. Here, the building’s foundations reveal earlier archaeological excavations, and an interesting display of artifacts dating from the Roman period up to the late 15th century can be admired.
But it’s on the floor above that the exhibition proper begins.
Greeting visitors is a screen of grainy, flickering newsreel documenting the world between the wars and, more specifically, the burgeoning spread of fascism across Europe. These are volatile times and, in Portugal, political turmoil cultivates the ascent of one Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar.
Newsreel that documents the war years in Europe introduces visitors to the Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Appointed prime minister in 1932, Salazar grabs absolute power in 1933 and creates the so-called Estado Novo, or "New State." His authoritarian stranglehold and rightwing leanings are heavily inspired by Italian fascism.
Supported by the military, Salazar consolidates his iron grip by dismantling the multi-party Parliamentary system and free trade unionism. Censorship of the press is widespread, and a secret police force, the PIDE (modeled after Germany’s feared Gestapo) is formed.
Portugal is under a leaden cloud of dictatorship!
Among the fascinating collection of exhibits are examples of documents, newspapers and flyers produced by the underground press — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Resistance is swift, manifested through civil revolt, strikes and, importantly, a thriving underground press.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition is the display of anti-fascist posters, flyers and publications exhibited on Floor 2, produced by a dedicated circle of writers and intellectuals resolutely opposed to Salazar and his one-party doctrine.
The suppressed Portuguese Communist Party, in particular, developed an effective clandestine political opposition through the written word, and amongst the exhibits are examples of homemade printing presses, ink rollers and other paraphernalia associated with the covert production of newspapers and periodicals.
The penalties for voicing dissent were severe. The dictatorship employed a system of summary “justice” to try its distractors, and prison awaited those unlucky enough to be caught or, as was sometimes the case, denounced.
Aljube was a jail for such people.
Tucked away in a darkened corner on Floor 2 is the exhibition’s most unsettling display. Out of the shadows appears a series of three-part mugshots, prison portraits of those arrested by PIDE officers. The faces of these hapless detainees, which number both men and women, are bathed in an eerie crimson glow, their blank expressions drawn in fear and bewilderment.
You can’t help but feel for these poor souls, and you’re left wondering what befell their fate.
One of the most unsettling exhibits is the gallery of prisoner portraits set under an eerie crimson glow — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Soon after capture, prisoners were subjected to prolonged physical and psychological abuse and interrogated relentlessly in an attempt to discover the political networks they operated in and any friends and colleagues they socialized with.
Whether or not they succumbed to this terrifying intimidation, more misery awaited those rounded up. The final exhibit on Floor 2 is a row of cells, measuring just 2x1 meters, poorly ventilated and bereft of natural light – the end of the road for many.
Conditions were dreadful, and anyone incarcerated could expect lengthy spells in solitary confinement, punctuated by further sessions of beatings and humiliation.
After interrogation, Aljube inmates were imprisoned in tiny, windowless cells measuring just 2x1 meters — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Floor 3 of the Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade is dedicated to the anti-colonial struggle and the so-called Carnation Revolution.
Salazar’s Estado Novo effectively collapses in 1968 after the aging dictator suffers a brain hemorrhage. He dies in 1970.
Freed from the shackles of dictatorship, Portugal turns its attention to the increasingly fruitless and prohibitively expensive upkeep of its colonies in Africa and other far-flung corners of the globe. Wars against the independence movements take their toll.
This period, dubbed the "overseas problem," is examined in detail and illustrated with a series of revealing documents and excellent photojournalism.
This photograph, taken in Lisbon's Chiado neighborhood in 1974 at the height of the so-called Carnation Revolution, is one of several iconic images on display at Museu do Aljube — Photo courtesy of Museu do Aljube
The concluding display recalls the county’s largely bloodless coup on April 25, 1974: the Carnation Revolution. The date is forever etched in the Portuguese psyche, as democracy is restored and thousands of political prisoners freed. A year later, Portugal’s first open election takes place.
Appropriately, an installation of carnations illuminates the room with a bright, celebratory glow.
After such an absorbing and often moving experience, visitors in need of a little respite should head up to the Museu do Aljube’s top-floor café, where refreshments and light snacks are served with glorious views of the cathedral and Lisbon’s downtown district.
The panorama mirrors the Portugal of today: safe, friendly and free.
The red carnation became a symbol of Portugal's peaceful transition to democracy after decades of rightwing authoritarian rule — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt