In the last decades, the Nazi German expression Festung Europa - Fortress Europe - has been repurposed as a shorthand for the anti-migration policies and inhuman border controls sponsored by the European Union (EU). This new meaning has become so familiar that Fortress Europe immediately evokes the Schengen Information System and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, usually referred to as Frontex, instead of the fortifications that the Nazis once projected to keep Allied troops out of continental Europe.
However effective as a progressive slogan, it is somewhat unsettling how easily left-wing academics and activists have adopted the Nazi expression. This unease stems from the original mythical substratum at its core: a territory can fortify itself and turn its back to the world, isolating itself from its threats and impacts. Whenever expressed, this idea never fails to arouse positive affect. There is always something childishly reassuring about fortresses and the fairy tale knights, pillow forts, and sandcastles they evoke. Boundedness, opacity, and isolation from unpredictability, unknown harms, and the harsh natural environment: all these prospects can become attractive in an Era characterized by climate change-induced disasters, the depredations of international financial capitalism, and the misery caused by mass surveillance.
When made pervasive, even if, paradoxically, by being reiterated in progressive criticisms of mainstream EU politics, the affect aroused by Fortress Europe can become part of more complex emotions, from feelings of reassurance and gratefulness to feelings of shame, guilt, and outrage for the underserved privilege. Right-wing populist discourses can also mold it into anger, resentment, and frustration towards the elites who fail to deliver impossible promises or against the external and internal others who are scapegoated for this failure. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Europeanist right-wing populists across Europe are flirting with the concept.
In other words, while Fortress Europe may still fail to fully capture the imagination of nationalist far-right populists, at odds with the transnationalism and residual cosmopolitanism it entails, the afterlife of the myth as part of left-wing criticisms still contributes to emotionally validating a world ordered along borders between in and out-groups. Similar tropes used to criticize post-Brexit policies and Trump’s right-wing populist takeover of the GOP have perhaps the same perverse effect, lending visual concreteness and a certain affective appeal to the very abstractions they denounce.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos | Monument of the Discoveries - Windrose - Map of the World | Belém, Lisbon
In this essay, I want to tentatively explore if something similar might be happening in the Portuguese context with the way decolonial and progressive critiques of the nefarious legacies of the Portuguese Empire, from systemic racism to ecological collapse, are unwittingly reiterating elements drawn from the Salazarist myth of Orgulhosamente sós [Proudly alone]. As the myth of Fortress Europe, this myth was first mobilized by a totalitarian regime when it faced international hostility towards its racist and genocidal politics. However, in Proudly alone's case, the Third Portuguese Empire’s borders were the imaginary lines Salazar and his ideologues described as impervious to external influences and threats.
Despite the expression only being coined by Salazar in 1965, elements of this political myth already circulated in the 1950s, when the Portuguese regime became increasingly isolated in the Cold War context. The myth portrayed Portugal as the last European empire to keep its integrity heroically and single-handedly amidst the sweeping decolonizing tide, projecting this imagined integrity and isolation into the longue durée of Portuguese imperialism (c. 1415 – 1975). As it provided the script for official historiography and acts of memorialization, it gave rise to an emotionally charged but utterly ahistorical rendering of Portuguese history as an isolated and self-contained historical process. It thus reified a recently imagined White nation as a concrete historical agent and framed centuries of violent but haphazard expansion as the accomplishment of a political project centrally planned by prescient elites. This tendency culminated with the inauguration of the current version of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos in 1960, a powerful architectonical rendition of this myth.
Can the decolonial deconstruction of the Proudly alone myth and the tactical mobilization of its elements to criticize social injustice have perverse effects? With ‘decolonial deconstruction,’ I refer to the rearrangement and revaluation of aspects of this myth to condemn and denounce current states of affairs instead of praising Portuguese colonial resilience. These can be, amongst others, the historical unity of the Portuguese nation, its constitutive Whiteness, the existence of a longstanding imperial project, the imperial borders fixated during the 1945 – 1975 interval, or the notion that major historical processes such as the Atlantic trade in enslaved persons occurred within the framework of a single empire. By the tactical mobilization of these elements, I mean their rhetorical use in progressive arguments favoring restitution, reparation, and compensation for past wrongs and ongoing injustices.
Why is such an assessment overdue? In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the perverse side of decolonization as an epistemic, curatorial, and artistic practice as opposed to the historical liberation of occupied territories or the ongoing political struggle to reclaim dispossessed lands and sovereignty. As Ekaterina Degot, David Riff, and Jan Sowa have remarked, in a world characterized by ‘new nationalisms, toxic patriotisms and systems of exclusion […] rooted in colonialism, slavery and class oppression,’ the ‘rhetorics of decolonization are now weaponized by autocratic regimes, just as they are normalized in the phantasmagoria of cultural practices.’ Case in point, in the final declaration of the Russia-Africa Summit recently held in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin has pledged to ‘contribute to the completion of the process of decolonisation of Africa’ and the ‘restitution of cultural artifacts taken away in the process of colonial plunder.’ This is amidst an ongoing Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and the revival of Cold War-style proxyism in Africa.
Nevertheless, however spectacular, this political instrumentalization of the restitution debate as a smokescreen for neocolonial practices differs from Emmanuel Macron’s only as far as Putin’s autocratic regime and its neocolonial appetites differ from those of Western democracies. According to French philosopher Nadia Yala Kisukidi, considering that Macron’s 2018 appeal for restitution happened ‘at the same time’ that France heightened its exploitation of francophone Africa, in this case, the internal checks and balances of democratic regimes account for little. In other words, symbolic decolonization is now part of Russia and the West’s realpolitik tool kit.
In the Portuguese case, the negative consequences that might result in recovering elements drawn from the Proudly alone myth to criticize systemic racism and current inequalities mostly play out in the cultural field. With this, I mean that ahistorical characterizations of the Portuguese Empire abound in the mediascape and social media scape, providing a decolonial afterlife to some of the elements of the myth. For instance, remarks by decolonial critics that Portugal was the last European empire to recognize the independence of its occupied territories or that it was ‘a country that gave new worlds to the world, but used force to change those worlds.’ Similar remarks conceal that some EU members currently occupy territories, such as Ceuta, Melilla, or Greenland. Moreover, by projecting Portugal as a unified nation well into the old regime (before the Liberal Revolution of 1820), they hide the complexity of its past.
The complex history of early modern colonization is impossible to understand without taking into consideration wider frames, capable of making intelligible the actions of the Catholic Church, continental dynasties such as the Habsburgs, and the very ramified, inter-imperial, and intercultural networks of merchants, manufacturers, and money lenders that made the expansion of the Iberian Crowns possible. This complexity is challenging to convey to the public, making it hard to inform political interventions. However, recovering the simplified elements of the Proudly alone myth, albeit with a negative inflection, poses the risk of giving concreteness to the same ahistorical abstractions that right-wing populist groups attach value to – the idea of Portugal as a bounded, homogeneous nation endowed with word-historical agency. These elements can become attractive when, because of the EU, few relevant economic and political decisions are made at the level of the Portuguese State, and the world feels increasingly chaotic due to climate change.
Furthermore, such a simplification constrains our political imagination, excluding several groups from the community of moral belonging with a claim over the Portuguese Commons (EU membership, constitutional rights, access to public services, social and physical security, etc.). For instance, when we consider the possibility of allowing the naturalization of descendants of the enslaved persons trafficked by the Portuguese, we must, by force, reckon that merchants bought and sold enslaved Africans from territories and to settlements that do not coincide with the former colonies of the Third Portuguese Empire, or with the previous jurisdictional limits of the Crown. They did so together with backers, profiteers, and enslavers of many nations, whose descendants are thus implicated and co-responsible for upholding restorative justice. We must, therefore, be open to the radical alterity and complexity of the past to do justice to the present and propose adequate measures in the future. This implies putting old myths to rest by refusing to use them as shorthand for present inequities.
João Figueiredo has a PhD in High Studies in History (Empire, politics, and post-colonialism) from the University of Coimbra (2016), a post-graduate diploma in Human Rights from the Faculty of Law of the University of Coimbra (2006), and a BA Hons in Anthropology from the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra (2005). His work focuses on Portuguese colonialism in Angola during the long 19th century from a historical and anthropological perspective. He has investigated the interactions between the Portuguese administration and local normative systems, especially the role that the materiality of writing and ethnographic objects played in those entanglements. He has taught and acted as a consultant at the University Jean Piaget Luanda (Angola, 2009) and worked as an anthropologist for the Lamego municipality (2016 - 2018). He has also translated to Portuguese a monograph about Mozambique (2018), and collaborated with the Educational Service of the Douro Museum (2017 - 2019). As an anti-racist scholar and activist, he has collaborated with the NGOs Djass – Association of Afrodescendents and SOS Racismo, contributing to the organization of events concerning the history of enslavement and dependency, critical museology, and the restitution of African objects and human remains. He is a member of the scientific comittee of the Memorial to the Enslaved of Lisbon.