General Francisco Franco had dominated Spain since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. His fiercely nationalist and ultra-Catholic regime worked tirelessly to uphold Spain’s internal cohesion. As well as Marxists, Jews and Freemasons, his dictatorship aspired to crush the autonomous identity of regions like Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country. Franco’s death in November 1975 triggered a stunning transformation in Spain.
The change was immediate. Juan Carlos de Borbón, Franco’s designated heir, was proclaimed king. The new head of state was the grandson of Spain’s last monarch and not an apparatchik of the Francoist regime. Nevertheless, Franco bequeathed him the task of sustaining the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement).
Franco is buried in the Valley of the Fallen, his memorial to the Spanish Civil War © Agencia EFE / Getty Images
It soon became apparent that Juan Carlos had no intention of preserving Francoism. His first prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, was tasked with dismantling the Francoist state by working within its legal framework. The aim was the birth of a liberal democracy from the ashes of one of the 20th century’s most autocratic regimes.
In 1977, Spain held its first elections since before the Civil War. This extraordinary feat was all the more remarkable in light of the legalisation of the Spanish socialist party – the PSOE – and the Communist Party. The following year, 91.81 per cent of Spaniards confirmed the abolition of the Francoist state by endorsing a new democratic constitution in a referendum.
However, this new order was beset with difficulties. Many Spaniards equated democratisation with prosperity. Rampant unemployment, economic stagnation and a lack of significant material improvement fuelled social tensions. By early 1979, strikes had become a tedious feature of everyday life. The political consensus that existed after Franco’s demise also began to unravel. Terrorism, waged by the Basque separatist group, ETA, claimed its greatest body count between 1979 and 1980.
Juan Carlos proclaiming the new constitution in December 1978 as his son looks on © Agency EFE / Getty Images
To army officers drilled in decades of Francoist ideology, all this upheaval only strengthened their contempt for liberal democracy. They were prime targets in ETA’s bloody campaign – not least because the army had been a nursery for the Francoist state’s ministries.
Throughout the transition to democracy, it was left largely unmolested by the tide of reform. Several military conspiracies against democratisation were foiled during the late 1970s. The most notable of these was Operation Galaxia in 1978, named for the Cafetería Galaxia in Madrid where its architects had plotted a coup aimed at restoring the Francoist system. One of its ringleaders, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, was convicted in 1980 and sentenced to just seven months in prison.
For Spaniards, 23 February 1981 is a date seared on the collective memory. Remembered simply as the “23-F”, it marked the tensest 18 hours in recent Spanish history. That evening in Madrid, the lower house of the Cortes (parliament) was voting to elect Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as the new prime minister. The proceedings were being broadcast live via television and radio. Suddenly, 200 insurgents armed with submachine guns from the Guardia Civil, a paramilitary police force, invaded the chamber. Their leader was none other than Antonio Tejero.
Seizing the speaker’s rostrum, Tejero ordered those present to lie down. The deputy prime minister, Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, himself a general, demanded the rebels withdraw at once. As Mellado and his colleagues scuffled with the insurgents, Tejero fired his gun into the air. A deafening volley of shots from his co-conspirators forced the horrified politicians to take cover under their desks. Cameras transmitted these shocking images to viewers across the country.
Gutiérrez Mellado scuffling with the insurgents © Agencia EFE / Getty Images
Soon after, key deputies like former prime minister Suárez, the opposition leader, Felipe González Márquez and the Communist Party leader, Santiago Carrillo, were isolated from the other hostages. Meanwhile, Captain General Jaime Milans del Bosch pledged his support to the coup and deployed tanks on the streets of Valencia, urging generals all over Spain to follow suit.
The coup’s leaders sought to legitimise their actions by falsely claiming the Crown’s support. But at 01:14 on 24 February, Juan Carlos himself put paid to this disinformation. In a televised address, the King, clothed in the uniform of the Commander-in-Chief, denounced the coup, asserted the Crown’s role as “the symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation”, and vowed to protect the democratic constitution backed by the Spanish people in 1978.
Juan Carlos addresses the Spanish people in the early hours of 24 February 1981
Juan Carlos’s intervention rescued Spain’s fledgling democracy. By dawn, Milans del Bosch had been arrested, while Tejero eventually surrendered at midday. Nobody had been seriously harmed.
Over the course of that evening, Juan Carlos had convened secretaries from the outgoing Suárez government at his residence, the Palace of Zarzuela. His chief priority was to maintain the semblance of orderly civic governance. The King even insisted his 13-year-old son and heir, Prince Felipe (now King Felipe VI), remain by his side as he tackled the crisis. No doubt this was a formative experience for the young royal.
Indeed, the ordeal had been a baptism of fire for democratic Spain itself. The PSOE’s landslide victory in the 1982 general election marked the first time in Spanish history that one elected government replaced another with no major section of society challenging its legitimacy. Yet as late as 1985, a plot involving senior army officers to assassinate Juan Carlos reached an advanced stage of planning before it was thwarted.
Spain’s accession to NATO in 1982, as well as a series of reforms conducted by the PSOE government, eventually brought the army to heel. Nowadays, Spanish troops are prominent in UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Nonetheless, the haunting images of the 23-F remain a powerful reminder of what’s been achieved since Franco’s death and, disturbingly, of what might have been.