Shanghai’s and Lisbon’s War in the Shadows: a comparative perspective?

During 1937-1941, “island Shanghai,” momentarily neutral like wartime Casablanca or Lisbon, was a haven for spies, intelligence agents, and provocateurs.’[1]


In the book The Shanghai Badlands: Wartime terrorism and Urban Crime, 1937-1941, Frederic Wakeman combines disparate narratives about crime and terrorism in Shanghai and attempts to present an account that not only demonstrates the ambiguity of Chinese resistance and collaboration, but that also helps to emphasise the chaotic nature of the Shanghai badlands and settlement from 1937 to 1941[2]. However, although a successful book, Wakeman’s work remains contained within its own body of sources and does not engage with any secondary works. Although this is unsurprising given the nature of Wakeman’s research, there are a number of other cities such as Casablanca and Lisbon that had similar wartime experiences to Shanghai that arguably warrant comparison. This has been studied in Neill Lochery’s Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, a work which in many ways is remarkably similar to Wakeman’s in its use of sources, anecdotal nature and in its demonstration of Lisbon as a fundamentally complex and chaotic space[3]. Like Wakeman, Lochery used a vast amount of primary sources when conducting his research, including António De Oliveira Salazar’s (The Portuguese dictator from 1932 to 1968) official correspondence and the PIDE (Portuguese Secret police) archives[4]. However, unlike Wakeman, Lochery also attempted to used additional sources from the external forces acting in Lisbon, including British Foreign office correspondences and documents on the various intelligence agencies operating in Lisbon, arguably giving a fuller perspective to the activities than Wakeman’s work[5].


During the Second world war, Lisbon was the only European city in which Allies and Axis openly operated simultaneously. However, unlike Shanghai, barely a shot was fired in Lisbon. The city itself remained a space in which Allies and Axis powers vied for control whilst Portugal itself strove to maintain its neutrality. Lisbon also had its fair share of unusual activities, including a foiled German plot to kidnap the Duke and Duchess of Windsor[6]. Both Allied and German operatives were dispersed throughout the city, including a young Ian Fleming[7]. However their activities were predominantly non-violent and these agents were in turn monitored by the PIDE. This three-way relationship over the contested space of Lisbon is arguably not dissimilar to the relationship between Chinese, Japanese and Westerners found in Shanghai[8]. Although both cities received a large contingent of refugees, the numbers heading to Lisbon were incredibly marginal in comparison to the volume who fled to Shanghai during the war[9]. Furthermore, as a result of the harsh dictatorship of Salazar Lisbon remained tightly controlled and thus crime remained largely at its usual levels during this period. Despite this resistance and collaboration was still prevalent in wartime Lisbon, with numerous officers on the Portuguese side repeatedly changing sides to help either the Axis or Allies based on offers from the respective sides[10].


Unlike Shanghai, Lisbon and Portugal ultimately emerged from the war much wealthier than it had been at the wars instigation. Despite this, the cities ultimately faced very similar problems. However, whereas in Shanghai, ‘[it became] increasingly difficult to distinguish crime from conspiracy as the two converged to pulverize whatever shreds remained of Shanghai’s civic society’, for the Portuguese the war of subterfuge ‘represented as great an existential challenge [to the Portuguese] as it was a literal battle for [what] their lives would be’[11]. This was a battle that the Portuguese were able to successfully navigate, through subterfuge, double-crossing and scheming[12]. The volume of refugees, relative power of each political force and the volume of crime and methods used undoubtedly played a large role in the differences between Shanghai and Lisbon; two neutral cities which operated under ostensibly similar circumstances. It is arguably Salazar’s control over the political situation and the city itself that enabled it to avoid a similar fate to Shanghai, although further research would undoubtedly reveal additional factors that would also have led to differences within the cities themselves.



[1] Frederic Wakeman, Shanghai Badlands: Wartime Terrorism and Urban Crime, 1937-1941, First Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p10.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Neill Lochery’s Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, (New York, 2012), p.

[4] Ibid, pp237-238.

[5] Ibid, pp237-238.

[6] Ibid, pp54-59.

[7] Ibid, p137.

[8] Wakeman, Shanghai, p10.

[9] Lochery, Lisbon, p44; Wakeman, Shanghai, p7.

[10] Lochery, Lisbon, p44.

[11] Lochery, Lisbon, p4; Wakeman, Shanghai, p110.

[12] Lochery, Lisbon, p227-231.

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