by Laura Hamilton
Last month marks the 32nd anniversary of 23F, the failed military coup in Spain, which threatened to challenge the state’s transition to democracy.
On the 23rd February 1981, the military governors in the various regions around Spain planned a coup d’etat. Although Franco had nominated the King as his successor, military leaders, led by General Milans del Bosch, were not happy with the changes that were taking place as Spain transitioned from a repressive dictatorship to a fully-fledged democracy.
The coup began when Antonio Tejero stormed congress with the Guardia Civil (Spanish military police) and held the Parliament hostage. This was meant to be the signal to mobilise the rest of the country. However, they were hesitant and it was only in Valencia that tanks rolled in the streets.
My parents were living in Spain at the time, having moved to Madrid only a month earlier. Having come from England, where a military coup is an unfamiliar concept, they weren’t really sure what was going on. My father was in a meeting, which was overrunning. One of his Spanish colleagues left to call his wife and tell her he would be late. Hurrying back in a few minutes later, he agitatedly informed the room “¡Hay un golpe!” (There’s a coup!) before all the Spaniards rushed home to check on their families.
Spain’s history is marred with coups – it was this lack of stability, which provoked the army to rise up under Franco. We recently discussed, in one of my classes, the way that your culture influences the way you view a situation. The Spaniards had grown up in a country that had been under 40 years of military dictatorship. Although the majority of the population supported the transition to democracy, the constant threat of a military takeover existed since a sizeable minority still believed that life under Franco was better: there were low crime rates; goods were cheap; ‘immoral’ behaviour wasn’t rife.
No one explained the seriousness to my father and his colleague, who were the only expats in the room, so they didn’t fully grasp the concept of what was going on. Instead, they decided to continue working, travelling across Madrid to another meeting. My father recalls how this meeting was located in the same building as the Spanish press and TV headquarters. On their arrival, they found that the whole area was closed off and the seriousness of the situation began to set in.
At the same time, my mother, in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, had no idea what was going on. She had no television or radio, since they were still in the process of being shipped across, and it was prior to the widespread use of the Internet or mobile phones. She first found out what was happening when my father’s colleague called, excitedly informing her “have you heard the news? There’s been a coup!” Having no way of contacting my father, she was worried, mainly because of the fear of the unknown. As aforementioned, if you do not have any experience of a situation, you have no idea what to expect or how to prepare.
The whole country was on tenterhooks and there was only one person who was able to change the situation – the King. Having been ‘trained’ and chosen by Franco, he was seen by the majority of Spaniards as Franco’s puppet. However, his actions on the night of 23rd February turned him into the nation’s saviour, affirming his leadership of the country. As Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, the military governors had sworn allegiance and loyalty to the King. It was this promise that he used to assert his authority and bring Spain back on the path to democracy. He appeared on the national television channel, TVE, throughout the night. Dressed in his military uniform, he broadcast the message that he did not support the coup and reaffirmed the need for democracy in Spain. It was this message that managed to convince the military governors to step down and not continue with their planned coup.
Spain’s future hung in the balance on that date. Yet, through the strong leadership of the head of state, he was able to save it and proceed with the transition that was taking place. There is a strong belief that, had the King supported it, the coup would have been successful and Spain would be a very different place today. Although Spain has recently been marred by many problems, there is no doubt that things would have been worse had the King not fully supported the path to democracy and used his leadership to save the country from returning to a military dictatorship.