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The King of All Spaniards

ISSUE:  Winter 2005

Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy. By Paul Preston. Norton. June 2004. $35

At 1:15 a.m. on the morning of February 24, 1981, King Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón saved Spain. In an act of surprising courage and unexpected conviction, the king, dressed in full military regalia, addressed the nation concerning the recent attempted coup d’état staged by a mustached buffoon named Antonio Tejero. Tejero, accompanied by a group of disgruntled (and heavily armed) Civil Guard troops, had stormed the Cortes on February 23rd—the act has become so infamous that Spaniards simply refer to it as “23-F”—and demanded a return to the military-run, reactionary policies of the recent past. The Parliament was in full session, and around the benches sat the entire leadership of Spain’s political parties, elected officials with constituencies of their own, and noted politicians whose names resonated through decades of resistance to Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (for example, Dolores Ibarruri, the firebrand Communist known as “La Pasionaria,” was an elected official). Tejero’s henchmen, with loaded guns, brought the government to a standstill. Spain listened in horror (radio broadcasts recorded the whole sordid affair), and feared the worst: a return to the repressive past. It was expected by many that Juan Carlos—educated in Franco’s Spain, untrained in statesmanship, known dismissively as “Juan Carlos the Brief” by opponents in the days following Franco’s death in 1975, and titular head of the armed forces—would side with the insurgents. They were wrong. In an astonishing act of bravery and commitment to modern democracy, Juan Carlos ordered the rebels to give up their guns, and stated: “The Crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the fatherland, cannot in any way tolerate actions or attitudes of persons who would seek to intervene by force in the democratic process outlined by the constitution voted by the Spanish people in a referendum.” This allowed Spain to return to normal, that is, to being the developing democratic, constitutional monarchy that had captured the world’s attention.

Who is this king? Paul Preston provides some answers in this authoritative biography.
By all rights, Juan (as he was known as a child) should never have reached the Spanish throne. When his grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, left Spain after elections swept in a Republican government in 1931, the first heir to the throne was Alfonso’s son Alfonso. But his health was poor, and the prospective line passed to the king’s second son, Jaime, a young man whose disabilities—he was deaf and dumb—made him likewise unsuitable for the task. Consequently, the crown-in-exile settled on Alfonso’s third son, Don Juan. But the eruption of the bitter civil war in 1936 and the subsequent victory in 1939 by Francisco Franco made a restoration of the Borbón monarchy tricky, to say the least. Franco, although ostensibly “holding” the throne for an eventual restoration, clearly had no intension of relinquishing power to a man he distrusted and at times despised. International diplomacy and maneuvering thereby swirled around the figure of Don Juan’s son, Juan Carlos, born in Rome in 1938, educated in Switzerland and Portugal in the postwar period, and sent to Spain in 1948 to be tutored by the ultraconservative teachers closely aligned to Franco (his father thought, rightly as it turned out, that this was the only hope the Borbón dynasty had of reclaiming the crown of Spain).

    The advantages to Franco [of having Juan Carlos in Spain] were obvious. Juan Carlos would be a hostage whose presence in Spain would create the impression of royal approval of Franco’s indefinite assumption of the role of regent. It would make it easier for the Allies to accept that things were hanging in Spain. Moreover, in Franco’s hands, the Prince would also be an instrument to control the activities of Don Juan and the entire political direction of any future monarchical restoration. (43)

The stories of Juan Carlos, his father Don Juan, and Franco are naturally tightly intertwined (Preston published a biography of Franco in 1993). At ten years of age, the prince, who had never set foot in Spain, was already a pawn in an international game of political chess. Tragedy and sadness accompanied his every move: in 1956, for example, he accidentally killed his younger brother Alfonso when a gun they were playing with misfired.

Franco prohibited Juan Carlos from using his rightful title, Príncipe de Asturias (equivalent to Prince of Wales, i.e., the heir apparent), and, as “winner” of the brutal civil war (1936–1939), declared it his right to name his successor. “Franco would hand over power only on his death or total incapacity and then only to a king who was committed to the unconditional maintenance of the dictatorship. It was clear that Franco saw the education of Juan Carlos as the preparation of precisely such a king” (80–81). Franco always called his mission a “Crusade,” reminding Spaniards of Christendom’s attempts to reconquer land from the “infidels,” updated now to include communists, socialists, Freemasons, and anyone else who opposed his dictatorship. While the dictator spent years toying with the succession (he cleverly inserted other possible pretenders into the mix), he finally named Juan Carlos successor in 1969, although he never turned over the reins of power to the prince and only allowed him to be called by the invented title “Príncipe de España.”

Juan Carlos was educated in the various military academies, by private tutors, and at the Universidad Complutense. Throughout his painful childhood and youth, he kept his council, played the role of obedient child (but of whom? Franco? Don Juan?), and slowly prepared himself for what he knew would be a monstrously difficult task, moving the country from dictatorship to democracy, if he ever inherited the throne. His dilemma was clear: to reserve any possibility of inheriting the throne he needed not only to appear to be Franco’s “child” but to go against the legitimate, but obviously impossible, claim of his father. Franco and Don Juan loathed each other, and both fought bitterly to inculcate Juan Carlos with their individual views. On the outcome of this fierce struggle hinged the future of Spain.

Juan Carlos married Princess Sofía of Greece in 1962 and took up residence in the Zarzuela Palace in the outskirts of Madrid in 1963. Franco lived next door and kept a close watch on the young couple (telephone lines were bugged, visitors reported, and letters intercepted). But Juan Carlos’s shrewd association with the Franco regime kept everyone off balance and led wags to assume that he was a ringer for Francoist policies. When Juan Carlos swore loyalty to the policies of Franco’s Falangist “movimiento” in 1969, Don Juan felt bitterly betrayed. Yet it was not a betrayal. Juan Carlos understood, perhaps better than anyone else, that in order to bring the Borbón monarchy back to Spain he needed to appear to be pliable and consenting to Franco’s policies. He had already voiced to his intimate friends his desire to move toward openness and democracy once Franco was out of the picture, and he had also already begun clandestine meetings and secret overtures to opposition leaders. It was a delicate and dangerous dance. Franco had installed as his prime minister his loyal sidekick, Admiral Juan Carrero Blanco, whose fierce conservatism and contacts with the military could be counted on to keep the prince in line. Juan Carlos knew the danger of moving too fast toward democracy. “He made it clear that he was apprehensive about a future clash between his plans and the reactionary instincts of Carrero Blanco” (258). When the Basque terrorist group ETA assassinated Carrero Blanco in 1973, they inadvertently opened the way toward an easier transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Juan Carlos’s address to the Parliament on November 22, 1975 (two days after Franco’s death), made it abundantly clear that a new era was to be ushered in and that he, now as King of Spain, would be a leading figure in ushering in change. Nothing was simple about the process. As Preston notes, “It is impossible to exaggerate the pressures faced by Juan Carlos at the beginning of his reign. There was much hope and good will, both inside and outside Spain, but the obstacles awaiting his efforts to democratize the country were enormous” (323). Tensions remained high between Don Juan and Juan Carlos, since although Juan Carlos had been officially designated King of Spain, Don Juan did not formally abdicate in favor of his son until May 1977. This step mattered because now Juan Carlos could claim to be the true dynastic Borbón heir rather than Franco’s handpicked successor. A referendum in June 1977 finally brought a fully elected, democratic and representative Cortes back into being. Whereas Franco had fanned the flames of sectarian hatred in order to prop up his dictatorship, Juan Carlos’s claim to be the king of all Spaniards in a democratically elected country defused the victors-versus-vanquished mentality of the Franco years. If the elections diminished his actual power, they increased his national and international respect, as well as his responsibilities. When the Constitution of December 1978 was ratified (by more than 90% of the country), the king might have thought he could rest easy and enjoy the fruits of an aristocratic lifestyle, but assassination attempts, terrorism, separatist pressures from the Basque Country and Catalonia, constant threats of uprising from the reactionary wing of the military, inflation, unemployment, and high crime rates in Spain militated against such comforts. The king knew he needed to be shrewd, discreet, elegant, and open. He managed to cajole, maneuver, and persuade the armed forces to support democracy, but he could only do so much.

Enter Tejero and his band of buffoons on 23-F. Sadly, Tejero was not an isolated, renegade soldier, but rather the public figure of a cabal of nasty, reactionary, and powerful military figures. The rebels thought they could count on the king. After all, he was one of them, educated in the military academies, trained and tutored under Franco. “If the King had been prepared to abandon the constitution, there is little doubt that the Captains-General would happily have brought their troops out into the streets. In that sense, only he stood between democracy and its destruction” (474–75). But the king—strong, committed to democratic reform, deeply patriotic, and intelligent—refused to return to the dark chapters of Spain’s recent past. The systematic dismantling of the Francoist government machinery which took place between the years from 1975 to 1978 (when a referendum on the new constitution garnered 90% support) or, alternately, to 1982 (when the opposition Socialist government was voted into power) is now simply known as “The Transition.”

We realize, after reading this absorbing book, that Juan Carlos’s dramatic “saving” of Spain was merely the final step in the road to democracy that he had so carefully and skillfully walked for most of his life. He saw what he had to do, and he did it. He became king, and has served as King of all Spaniards.


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