A very Spanish coup - storming of the parliament
King Juan Carlos, who this week announced his decision to abdicate the Spanish throne in favour of his son Crown Prince Felipe, has been widely praised for crushing a fascist coup in 1981. But the reality was a great deal more complex
By any yardstick the events which took place in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on the night of February 23/24, 1981 justify the description "dramatic". It began at 6.30pm when paramilitary police, headed by Lt Colonel Antonio Tejero, stormed the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, sprayed the ceiling of the chamber with bullets and took the assembled deputies hostage.
It was supposed to be the opening act of a military coup that would overthrow Spain's new democracy and return the country to the dictatorship it had endured for almost 40 years before the death of General Franco in 1975.
Instead, the young King Juan Carlos came to the rescue of democracy, giving a live television broadcast to the Spanish people. Wearing his uniform as the commander-in-chief, he ordered the rebels to lay down their arms. It stopped the rebels and democracy was saved.
But that was only part of the story. The reality was more complex. For a start it was not until 1.14am – almost seven hours after the storming – that the King made his broadcast. This delay makes it clear there was much more going on.
Juan Carlos became King of Spain in November 1975 as Franco's chosen heir. The old dictator had supervised every aspect of his education in the hope that Juan Carlos would perpetuate the dictatorship. Instead he moved to dismantle it as quickly as possible.
By July 1976 he had sacked Carlos Arias Navarro, the doddery prime minister he had inherited from Franco, and replaced him with the much younger Adolfo Suarez. Juan Carlos and Suarez were a formidable double act. The outlawed Communist Party was legalised by January 1977 and Spain held democratic elections, its first since 1936, in June 1977.
Moving Spain from dictatorship to democracy in the space of 19 months without triggering a renewal of the 1936-9 Civil War was a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got.
While Suarez was effective at transforming Spain from a dictatorship into a democracy, he was far less successful at governing one. By January 1981, with the Spanish economy in the doldrums and Basque separatist group ETA waging an assassination campaign against the military, Suarez was forced to resign. The parliament was meeting on February 23 to elect his successor when the rebels struck. But long before Tejero and his men stormed the Cortes there had been rumours that a military coup was being planned. It is also now clear that Tejero wasn't acting alone. The ringleader was General Alfonso Armada, the deputy commander of the Spanish army.
Armada had been one of the officers Franco entrusted with the task of supervising the education of Juan Carlos. He later served as military secretary of Juan Carlos's household. Even after Armada was promoted, he remained close to the king. Is it credible that Armada didn't let the king know of at least the outlines of the proposed coup?
Juan Carlos is the head of the house of Bourbon, one of Europe's more rackety dynasties. Four members of it had been deposed from the Spanish throne between 1808 and 1931.
Spain was without a monarch from 1931 to 1975. The recently-installed King Juan Carlos was acutely aware of the weakness of his position. Rather than antagonise the military he seems to have opted to wait and see.
It also seems as if the conspirators were divided, with some wanting a return to a Franco-style dictatorship with others preferring a "soft coup" which would "nudge" the civilian government in its direction.
What is indisputable is that the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez, elected the following year, pursued many of the policies favoured by the military.
In truth, transitions from dictatorship to democracy are usually messy affairs. Spain's was no exception. Juan Carlos may have attempted to hedge his bets in the run-up to the coup, but when the time came he made the right decision.
Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas is published by Bloomsbury.