Thursday, February 24, 2011

The 23-F Coup in Spain

It was yesterday, February 23, in 1981 that His Majesty King Juan Carlos I firmly made Spain a constitutional monarchy. He had, of course, officially made Spain a democratic, constitutional monarchy already, overseeing the transition away from the authoritarian regime of General Francisco Franco (may he rest in peace) but it was not until the events of 23 February 1981 and immediately thereafter that it was certain that the changes would be permanent. In the absence of the imposing figure of the late generalissimo Spain had become slightly chaotic. The instability caused business to pull out, unemployment shot up and separatist rebels thought they then had a chance to achieve their nefarious ends and began causing all sorts of trouble. Many in the military were unhappy, seeing their previous pride of place being lost to a gaggle of squabbling politicians and the restrictions on opposition parties being lifted. Some decided that the time had come to use force to restore military rule and a real or apparent royal authoritarian state. They expected the King to side with them. To their surprise, he did not.

On 23 February Lt. Colonel Antonio Tejero with 200 men of the Civil Guard, all brandishing weapons, firing machine guns into the air, stormed into the Spanish Congress of Deputies while a new prime minister (Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo) was being elected. Long known for his opposition to the Basque separatists, Tejero held the deputies hostage and announced that the military was taking control of the government. In Valencia another army captain declared martial law and tanks were soon rolling down the streets. It was their hope that King Juan Carlos would take charge of this state of emergency to assume absolute power and rule Spain through the military ringleaders of the coup. On the contrary, however, the King was horrified by what had happened and immediately got in contact with senior military officers, trying to determine who could be trusted, get a handle on the situation and organize forces to put down the attempted rebellion. The problem was that so many in the military especially and to a lesser extent the public at large, assumed that the King would support the coup and that there was therefore nothing to be done.

To counter this, King Juan Carlos decided to make a public address to the nation. Purposely wearing his full uniform as captain-general of the Spanish armed forces, he broadcast by television his opposition to the coup and called on all sections of Spanish society to stand together to maintain law and order and uphold the new constitution of the Kingdom of Spain. His influence was certainly the deciding factor as most of the military, bound by their oath of loyalty to the King, sided with Juan Carlos I against the attempted coup. Units rallied to commanders loyal to the King, rebel forces were disarmed and the congress surrounded. The next day, 24 February, the ringleaders surrendered and the coup collapsed. All the hostages were released and no one had been killed or seriously injured. The result was a huge wave of popular support for King Juan Carlos and the projection of the monarchy as the guarantor of both stability and democracy in Spain. No matter what the political orientation of individuals, almost everyone became a monarchist at that point and support for the monarchy became mainstream and bi-partisan.

However, since that time, some have been rather critical of King Juan Carlos for his actions, embracing democracy and rejecting the opportunity to restore absolute power. Those holding this sentiment have been, in a way, reinforced by the decline in support for the Spanish monarchy as more time elapses and the public take their freedoms for granted. Today most Spaniards still support the King but the monarchy as a whole remains on less firm ground with many wondering if “Juan Carlos the First” will be “Juan Carlos the Only”. By nature I would be inclined to support the King maintaining final authority over the government and when even parties adamantly opposed to the very existence of Spain or the monarchy (such as separatists and communists etc) are legalized I can only be disgusted. Yet, in all fairness, I can also recognize that it would have been very difficult for the Spain of Franco to continue on under King Juan Carlos given the direction Western Europe was going. Likewise, the widespread popular opposition to the coup and the huge wave of support the King gained by opposing it shows how much the Spanish people wanted the democratic changes and greater freedoms that came out of the new constitution. If the King had instead stood against that, who can say if he or the monarchy would have long survived? Even the most authoritarian governments (as we are seeing now) must have some level of popular support no matter how un-democratic and dictatorial they may be. There is only so much any government can do to force people to do the right thing (if you see it as the right thing) and if all the decades of rule by Franco could not do it I cannot see King Juan Carlos being any more successful had he opposed the constitutional changes. It is simply unfortunate that since that time so many have used their new freedoms to make bad choices, morally and politically.

King Juan Carlos was, I think, doing what he felt was right and with the best of intentions. Whether it was the right decision can and will be argued but if it was King Juan Carlos I should be applauded for bringing freedom to his people, and defending that freedom. If it was the wrong decision the changes that opponents wish for will only be possible when the opinions and values of the public change. Effort should be put in to changing that rather than trying to change the form of government. I would like to see Spain reject socialism, return to their religious roots, take pride in the glorious history of the Kingdom of Spain and I would like it to happen while maintaining the Spanish monarchy. Viva Juan Carlos! Viva EspaƱa!


  1. The King did not only what he thought was right, but what was necessary. Had he sided with the Coup, he would be seen as a Dictator and pressured from without and within, and eventually forced form power, and today we’d have a Republic of Spain.

    Still, the moral decline as well as the general socialism which destroys the Spanish Economy and Culture got hold, but this is more because of integration into the broader European Culture that is emerging with the EU and the general global Culture, and the influence of Modernism.

    Still, Spain stands a chance at Restoration.

  2. That is pretty much my take as well. My emotions want me to want him back the coup but, upon reflection, I just don't see that working out well. There is also the fact that the King is a very friendly, gentle man and I don't think at all cut out for the job of being an autocrat. As we have seen before the historical record does not show kind-hearted autocrats being very successful.

  3. May I ask what you consider the qualities of a good absolute monarch?

  4. For the most part much the same as any other. However, they do have to have some iron in their backbone, they cannot be *too* tolerant and forgiving. Tsar Alexander III of Russia was a good example I think, not a cruel man but one hard enough that most revolutionaries knew not to mess with him.

  5. I an happy to say that still today in spain the monarchy is very popular despite there are many but insignificant republican demostrator (that are mostly comunist), but i hate to say that the president zapatero in my opinion is a pseudo-Bolshevik, that would like to abolish the monarchy in Spain but he cant do it because he depend of the king.
    But going to another notices i hate to say that i am very worried about bahrain because the monarchy is in risk to fall and i am also worried about libia who is in a civil war because khadafi, who is an enemy of the monarchy (he destroyed Libyan monarchy back to 1969)
    refuse to renounce to his charge of president of libya.

    Hi from Argentina.

  6. "The result was a huge wave of popular support for King Juan Carlos and the projection of the monarchy as the guarantor of both stability and democracy in Spain. No matter what the political orientation of individuals, almost everyone became a monarchist at that point and support for the monarchy became mainstream and bi-partisan." Indeed. I worry that as we're short-sighted and schools don't teach this. My historical class basically briefly covered Spanish civil war and then the teacher who I asked and he said "He hates monarchists" basically said, Franco was a fascist dictator, but then the republicans and the majority of the oppressed people who supported democracy fought against him in a revolution and against the king who supported Franco and led a coup against the republican regime and today the monarchy is still in charge. No mention whatsoever of this coup. I worry that as people forget the evil things of communism, especially Spanish people will forget that the king gave them the freedom and start abolishing it and we'll get another republic

    1. Doesn't sound like your history indoctrinator knows anything about recent Spanish history at all. Once Franco became a fascist dictator, no one fought against him, at least not successfully, he died peacefully in his bed after lingering quite a long time. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon and why the cause of monarchy in Spain is not 100% secure. The left uses the very freedom the King gave them to argue for overthrowing the monarchy whereas most of those who miss the Franco days have also turned against the monarchy for giving up power in the first place. It is another example, far too common unfortunately, of monarchs dooming themselves by being the "nice guy". There are many, many others.


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