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When The Song Rings Out, We March: Remembering Portugal's Remarkable, Bloodless Carnation Revolution

By Petr Knava | Pajiba Storytellers | April 26, 2017 |

By Petr Knava | Pajiba Storytellers | April 26, 2017 |

The song crackled from the radios, and revolution followed.

In the dark and deserted hours of April 25th, 1974, twenty minutes after the stroke of midnight, Portuguese station Rádio Renascença began to broadcast ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’ by banned folk singer Zeca Afonso. The low-ranking, leftist members of the military who made up the Movimento das Forças Armadas (or ‘MFA’, ‘Armed Forces Movement’) knew what this meant: It was the pre-arranged signal; the uprising had begun, and nothing could be allowed to stop it. The MFA’s coup would progress steadily throughout the night; as the sun rose hours later thousands of Portuguese civilians would gradually leave their homes to join their uniformed countrymen. So it came to be that on that day in April, scores of men, women, and children marched alongside soldiers in the streets, scarlet carnations borne aloft alongside rifles and bayonets, and before the day was out the longest lasting dictatorship in Europe would be brought to an end by one of the most remarkable popular uprisings of the 20th century, with nary a drop of blood spilled.

But let’s back up a minute here.

Like many of its European neighbours, Portugal in the early 20th century was in a state of flux. The relatively democratic if somewhat chaotic First Portuguese Republic that had lasted from the end of the century’s first decade was brought to an end on May 1926 by a coup d’état that ushered in a regime bent on oppressive, corporatist, military rule. Eventually terming itself the Estado Novo (‘New State’) in 1933 the regime would, under the leadership of António de Oliveira Salazar, cast a dark authoritarian shadow over the country for decades to come.

Following his assumption of power, Salazar — dictator, despot, and disbeliever in democracy — would use the structures of the Estado Novo to gradually expand the reach of his iron hand. Like Franco in neighbouring Spain, Salazar studiously kept his country neutral in the unimaginably bloody conflagration that engulfed the continent and the world in the early years of his rule. After the war, thanks to the relatively modest (and somewhat coerced) levels of aid that his regime gave to the Allies near the tail end of the conflict, Salazar’s Portugal was included in the large, calculated embrace that came from across the ocean, the United States’ Marshall Plan. Despite its brazenly authoritarian character, the country was to also be welcomed onto the founding committee of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949; this while Salazar’s secret police roamed the land and civil liberties were trampled upon — the other NATO-founding states being naturally willing to overlook the Portuguese government’s repressive nature thanks to its formal opposition to the spread of Communism (that evergreen trump card of Dastardly Deeds).

Salazar’s Portugal would be a state ruled along anti-leftist, traditionalist Catholic, and imperialist lines. Following the Second World War, the many nations of Europe who had previously spent centuries bringing much of the rest of the world under their colonial yoke had slowly and reluctantly started to dismantle the travesty that was their web of colonialism (formal colonialism that is; the more subtle and invisible neo-colonialism centred around capital and trade that replaced it remaining very much alive and capable of keeping great swathes of the world on its knees to this day). Portugal, however, was not keen on even making overtures to the much-belated decolonisation cause, with Salazar himself personally intent on holding the just and right empire together by whatever means necessary.

But at the same time as Soviet influence and anti-colonialist sentiment was increasingly gaining traction during the onward march of 20th century, so too there was heard a rumble from across the water as the peoples of Portugal’s Indian and African colonies began to shake with a righteous fury that could not be contained indefinitely. Rebelling against their masters with unyielding spirit they made sure that the price of foreign control would be felt not only on their native ground but also back on their oppressor’s soil, and slowly the material expenditure required to maintain the colonial grip — as well as the nature of the grip itself — began to lead to a turning of the tide. Popular opinion gradually transforming, segments of the army quietly stewing in defiance, Salazar would eventually find his imperial tenacity turning around to bite him. Except not exactly. Rather it would be his Estado Novo feeling the bite in his stead, for — as is so often the case in the grand sweep of history — the man himself would never have to reckon directly with the horrors that he had brought. No, António de Oliveira Salazar, authoritarian ruler and master of Portugal, would instead be brought to his end by a cerebral hemorrhage following a fall at his summer house in 1968 — the best part of a decade before the sounds of ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’ would ring out from the radios of Portugal and his regime was finally forced from power.

The Carnation Revolution, begun by the leftist soldiers of the Movimento das Forças Armadas and swelled and brought to completion by the ordinary citizens who left the safety of their homes to march with them underneath a curious April sky in 1974, was one of the most remarkable moments of the 20th century. Virtually bloodless, it succeeded in forcing out of power an illegitimate ruling elite that had held a nation in its grip for decades, and it managed to do so, when all was said and done, within a matter of hours. In what is an example of one of those fantastically twisted kinks of history, there were elements within the MFA who never intended for their coup to spill over into a populist, civilian uprising. Indeed within a few years rifts would develop between the ruling factions that would lead to a continuous period of friction, highlighting split motivations and counter-movements. But for a brief period on that April day 43 years ago, as a people’s tide rose almost as a force of nature, something magical could be seen happening on the streets of Portugal.

All that was needed first was the sign. For when the song rang out, that’s when they marched.

h/t. to Sandra (and her continuous playing (and singing) of the above) for inspiring me to write this


Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.