Monday, February 16, 2009

A Royal Whitewash

Taking advantage of a quiet weekend here in Germany I’ve made good use of Spanish television’s web page and watched the programmes they showed last week about the failed military coup on the 23rd February 1981 – normally referred to in Spain simply as 23-F. They produced a two part drama on these events, entitled “23-F El día más dificil del Rey”, which portrays the sequence of events almost entirely from within the royal household. The version offered by this drama is of a king battling to regain control of the situation in the name of the constitution and democracy. In the meantime we get treated to tender domestic scenes in which almost the only thing lacking is Juan Carlos rolling up his sleeves and doing the washing up whilst barking orders on which general should be phoned next.

The drama is of course largely fiction created within a structure of real events. We don’t really know what went on inside the royal household on that long night when armed civil guards took the whole Spanish parliament hostage. I have always thought that the king took a long time to make up his mind about where he stood, although the version we were offered last week has no such doubts about his commitment to the cause of freedom. Whatever the truth is, it seems clear he made bad choices of associates as one of the people behind the coup was a long standing friend of the monarch. Taking the interpretation of events with a pinch of salt, the programme still manages to put across some feeling of the tension as the success of the coup attempt depended on whether the troops based near Madrid would leave their barracks or not.

The real problem is that it shows the royal family as almost being the main victims of the attempted takeover, including some amazingly sympathetic references to Sofia’s brother Constantine whose commitment to democracy has never been doubted; he didn’t like it. Had the coup succeeded the worst that would have happened to the Bourbon family is that they would have been shipped off to a gilded exile. We are not offered any insights into how the rest of the population put up with the tension of realizing that they could be about to lurch back into another dictatorship. Imagine the feelings of those who saw the tanks rolling down the streets of Valencia. For many Spaniards the outcome would have been much harsher; quite possibly similar to the events that occurred a few years before in Chile.

If you just want a more straightforward account of events then I recommend the reshown Informe Semanal documentary which was made in the immediate aftermath of the coup’s failure. This includes great footage from inside the parliament itself and gives a much broader picture of what was going on. There is a priceless interview with Manuel Fraga who apparently showed a defiant attitude towards his captors; once it became clear that the coup was going to fail!


Troy said...

From what I understand, the King himself waited quite a while to see exactly which way the wind was blowing. After he realized that the majority actually did want the fledgling democracy with him as irremovable head of state to continue, only then did he strap on the military outfit and order the army back to base.

Really, we could give him the benefit of the doubt though. I mean, sure we could swallow the version that he 'gave' democracy to the Spanish people, but at what cost? At the cost of having to support him and all his minions in the lap of Mallorcan summer luxury that they enjoy. Not such a bad deal for 'ol JC...Look like a democrat and eat caviar at someone else's cost.

Lavengro in Spain said...

The way I have heard it is that the King and his advisers (not surprisingly) knew perfectly well what was in the wind with the Guardia Civil, and that they deliberately let it run so that they could find out precisely who was involved and how much.

Just like Cecil and the Gunpowder Plot.

Graeme said...

@Troy The man's got a family to feed - and look at the size of it!

@Lavengro in Spain: The problem with that theory is that the coup came very close to succeeding, if the armoured division near Madrid had been fully mobilised that could have been it. A bit of a risky trap to set that allows a couple of hundred heavily armed civil guards to kidnap the entire parliament.

Nobody will be very surprised to learn that pseudo historian Pio Moa thinks it was all a PSOE plot. Well to some extent its suprising that he doesn't think the PSOE organised it jointly with ETA.

Lavengro said...


Yes, it is a theory and I have no evidence to back it up, but I do think it is perfectly plausible.

The situation may have gone further than was expected, but a risk had to be taken. The alternative risk was to nip it in the bud, and only get a few low-level people and leaving the ringleaders to continue fomenting treason for another occasion, thereby achieving nothing and maybe losing something if they went further underground after their warning. As things worked out, it was the event that sealed Spain's transition to democracy.

There is nothing implausible about the idea that a huge risk was taken -- and it came off!

Lavengro said...

PS There is, however, considerable evidence that Cecil at least knew in advance of the Gunpowder Plot (and even that he incited it) and that he did what I suggest Juan Carlos did on F-23.

Troy said...

...Sealed the way for the parliamentary monarchy that left Juan Carlos sitting pretty of course.

It's ridiculous to think that JC didn't know that this was coming and didn't just sit and wait until he saw which way the wind was blowing.

To suggest that they purposely let it go on so long in order to catch the bigwigs is in my view a bit apologetic really, revisionism at best.

Whatever the case, we're stuck with him for the time being, as IU and some of the nationalists seem to be the only ones who can see that indeed the emperor's new clothes for what they are.

Lavengro said...


I make suggestions that might explain the known facts, while admitting that other explanations are possible.

You make unsupported assertions that demonstrate your unbending commitment to your irrational beliefs (sic) and your unwillingness to consider other points of view.

Graeme said...

Order! Order! I don't want to have to send the tanks out. We don't know what happened over in El Pardo that night and sadly the version presented last week by Spanish TV doesn't help. I can't say your theory is impossible Lavengro, but I don't buy it - in a situation where you don't know who is on your side anyway it's very difficult to lay a trap for the conspirators and to let it go to the very edge of succeeding just to get all the names doesn't sound convincing - after all it would have been much easier just to infiltrate someone into the plot. Add to that the ambiguity of the King's position and his friendships. The Bourbons don't have a great history of being on the side of progress and the idea that he sprung a trap to catch out the golpistas doesn't ring true to me.

Tom said...

Didn't watch the program but we'll download it this week.

Regarding how normal citizens were affected: we know Communist Party membes who were (understandably) completely terrified by the coup attempt. They followed pre-agreed plans to hide out in the woods and prepare to oppose the military dictatorship.

Apparently it took a week before anyone got word to them that things had worked out OK.

Troy said...

Easy Lavengro, didn't mean to insult nor offend.

I merely wished to point out that risking an entire democracy in order to catch the bad guys would be pushing the edge a little too far, wouldn't it?

As for my irrational beliefs, well I suppose they are my particular cross to bear (please excuse the pun).

Lavengro said...

Juan Carlos was the Head of State and Commander in Chief of a country that had a history of military involvement in politics; I find it impossible to believe that he did not have his private sources of information in the military who told him that something was afoot – in other words the idea that he was just as surprised as anyone else when things started moving on 23-F is a non-starter. Now, I don’t say that he knew the details of what was planned, or of when it would happen, but I am certain that by the middle of February 1981 he knew that unrest in the military had reached a level where something was going to blow up soon.

At that point he had three choices. Firstly, he could have purged the military of the suspected plotters. That would have revealed his hand while certainly not lancing the boil; the ringleaders (or most of them anyway) would have been untouched and would just have continued their plotting. Secondly, he could have decided to support the plotters. That that would have opposed him to a large part of the military that wanted to join NATO so as to have a bigger field on which to play and who knew that democracy was sine qua non for membership. And the King only had to look at what had happened to his wife’s family in Greece to see what happens to kings who get mixed up in military governments; the Bourbons may not be on the side of progress but they are on the side of staying in power. Thirdly, he could let it run and flush the whole lot out. Whether or not that was his intention it is what happened.

It is important, though, to realise that it was not a choice between risk and certainty. The obvious risk of the third option had to be balanced against the risk that the first option would drive the plotters deeper underground and make them more difficult to control in the future; certainly, it would not have been the end of the affair and a later coup would certainly have been attempted. And when you say, Graeme, that if the Madrid armoured division had mobilised that would have been it – perhaps the King already had private intelligence that it wouldn’t be fully mobilised!

Graeme said...

Well let's start at the end Lavengro, the armoured division near Madrid was partially mobilised and only late interventions prevented the whole lot rolling out - if you were setting a trap you just let the plotters give the order, arrest them and cancel it. That's not quite what happened. In the end a lot of the reasons you cite in favour of your theory could also be used in favour of the theory that the king wanted to see which way the wind was blowing before deciding where he stood - it's just a question of how benevolent you want to be in the interpretation of events. I still think that letting a dangerous person like Tejero take control over the entire government and parliament doesn't fit with the idea of springing a trap - assuming of course that those responsible for the trap are at all interested in the wellbeing of the entire national political hierarchy.