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Paul Preston, Juan Carlos, a people's King.
on 27 January 2007
The publication of Paul Preston's authoritative biography of Francisco Franco in 1993 confirmed him as the leading British political historian of contemporary Spain. A decade later, his Juan Carlos. A people's King, has been greeted rather less enthusiastically in Spain, both by the academic community and the public at large. This may of course simply be due to the difference in subject matter: although the once discredited biographical genre has flourished spectacularly in recent years, Spanish readers, academic and otherwise, are still somewhat suspicious of a scholarly tome dedicated to someone who is both alive and influential. Furthermore, many possibly think it somewhat premature to attempt a definitive biography of a monarch born in 1938, particularly since the papers one would need to consult for the post-Franco period in the major Spanish archives are as yet unavailable. Finally, while very few serious historians -Juan Pablo Fusi being the obvious exception- have lived up to the daunting task of dealing with the former dictator, a number of competent biographies of Juan Carlos had already been published in recent years.
There may also be other, less reasonable explanations for the phenomenon observed above. During the Franco dictatorship, British (and North American) historians of modern Spain acquired an unassailable reputation for their dispassionate fairness and stylish readibilty, enabling Raymond Carr, Hugh Thomas, John Elliott and others to attain nothing short of cult status. More recently, however, some Spanish historians have come to resent the prestige and popularity enjoyed by these authors, which they tend to attribute to a somewhat childish knee-jerk admiration for all scholarship produced abroad, a view which, while partly justified, fails to explain why French, German or Italian historians of Spain are rarely regarded in the same light.
In spite of the above, some of the criticism levelled at Preston's biography of the Spanish monarch is not misplaced. Above all, his account of how Juan Carlos became King of Spain in November 1975, and of his role in the country's transition to democracy in subsequent years, does not add much to what was already known, a shortcoming largely attributable to the sources used. In an interview published shortly after the book appeared in Spanish in 2003, the author claimed not to have sought any contact with the king so as to prevent his legendary charm and bonhomie from undermining his independence of mind, but this did not stop him from speaking to many other prominent political figures, whom he quotes liberally as reliable sources. It is probably truer to say that, since the publication of José Luis de Vilallonga's book of interviews with the monarch in 1994, which has came to be regarded as the standard authorised biography in spite of its surprising inconsistencies and numerous inaccuracies, the Spanish royal household has been extremely reluctant to grant in-depth interviews to inquisitive academics, whatever their nationality (or prestige). Be this as it may, although Preston makes expert use of the limited material available from British archives, while at the same time milking the existing primary and secondary published sources with characteristic skill, the final product is rather more predictable than readers of some of his earlier work might have come to expect.
The book sets out to explain what the author regards as the two main mysteries in the life of Juan Carlos, one personal, the other political. The first concerns the "apparent equanimity" with which he accepted the fact that his father, Don Juan, "to all intents and purposes sold him into slavery", wrenching him away from his exiled family home in Portugal and sending him to live in Spain in 1948, amongst complete strangers, at the age of eleven. For much of his early life, Juan Carlos was a mere pawn in the political tug-of-war played out by Franco and Don Juan, who saw his son's presence in Spain as the best way of keeping his own chances of succeeding the dictator alive. Understandably, this resulted in a less than intimate relationship with his father, which deteriorated further when the eighteen-year old Juan Carlos accidentally killed his younger brother Alfonso while playing with a pistol. Incredibly, according to a friend of the dead infante quoted by Preston, Don Juan's first words to his elder son after this tragic event were: "Swear to me it wasn't deliberate!".
The other mystery is more political, namely "how a prince emanating from a family with considerable authoritarian traditions, obliged to function within `rules' invented by General Franco, and brought up to be the keystone of a complex plan for the continuity of the dictatorship should have committed himself to democracy". This is certainly the key question to raise, though it could be objected that while his father and grandfather both succumbed to authoritarian temptations (with dire consequences for King Alfonso XIII, who was forced into exile in 1931 after having subverted the constitution in 1923 by allowing General Primo de Rivera to take power after a bloodless coup), the Borbón dynasty was also part of Spain's not insignificant tradition of liberalism and parliamentary politics. However intuitively, Juan Carlos always knew that there was more to the monarchy than the defence of privilege: as he told The New York Times in early 1970, "I am Franco's heir, but I am Spain's heir as well".
These two mysteries are more intimately connected than is generally recognised. Given that Don Juan had not thought twice about sacrificing his son's happiness to the cause of the monarchy's restoration, there was more than a little poetic justice in the manner in which his son gradually shed his early status as his representative in order to become his major rival. As Preston underlines, there was a personal, as well as a political dimension to this evolution, which is best interpreted as a quest for greater autonomy and self-respect, and which was most evident in Juan Carlos's decision to remain in Spain against his father's wishes after marrying princess Sofía in 1962. The moment of truth finally came in July 1969, when, after more than a decade of vacillation, Franco decided to name Juan Carlos his successor, thereby shattering Don Juan's dreams. Although it was some time before the pretender forgave his son for accepting, the decision was fully in keeping with the somewhat ruthless dynastic logic which had inspired the former's behaviour from the outset. Furthermore, given Don Juan's intermittent protestations of loyalty to Franco and his Movimiento over the years, it was more than a little cynical of his advisers to accuse Juan Carlos of opportunism and disloyalty.
The question most often asked about Juan Carlos is when and how he became a democrat. It could be argued that, in spite of having attended the three military academies, and having completed his University education under the close scrutiny of regime apparatchiks, he could not have failed to notice the growing (and increasingly outspoken) demand for political change stirring in Spanish society. There is indeed evidence that, before swearing to uphold the fundamental laws of the regime in 1969, he first obtained guarantees from him mentor, Torcuato Fernández-Miranda, to the effect that this was compatible with a far-reaching transformation of the political system. More importantly, perhaps, in the course of the early 1970s Juan Carlos realised that the Organic Law of the State that defined the workings of the future Francoist Monarchy was in fact a gilded cage: far from inheriting the dictator's powers, he would have been the impotent figurehead of a system largely controlled by an unaccountable president of the government, working in tandem with an unelected president of the Cortes. This would have made him politically responsible for appointments and policies beyond his control, at a time when Spaniards were becoming increasingly resentful of their authoritarian rulers. In short, a Western-style parliamentary democracy was a more attractive alternative not only because it was a better and more popular system of government in its own right, but also because it (paradoxically) offered better prospects for Juan Carlos as monarch and for the Borbón family as a ruling dynasty.
Much, of course, was to depend on the king's ability to perform what the political scientist Giuseppe di Palma has described as the `forward legitimation' of the monarchy, by convincing those initially hostile to the institution that it could play a decisive role in sponsoring a peaceful transition to a fully democratic system of government, and remain compatible with it in future. The story of how Juan Carlos, assisted by Fernández-Miranda and Adolfo Suárez, his trusted prime minister, dismantled the regime they had inherited and paved the way for free elections to a constituent assembly in collaboration with the anti-Francoist opposition parties is well-know, but in Preston's prose it acquires the tempo of a compulsive thriller, particularly when it deals with the military intrigues leading to the attempted coup of February 1981. More importantly, the author proves beyond all reasonable doubt that, contrary to the hackneyed revisionist view, the king never wavered in his defence of democracy and the Constitution of 1978.
In sharp contrast to the meticulous narrative of the early chapters, the events of 1981-2002 deserve a mere thirty pages of this six-hundred page book. This is to be regretted, since British readers in particular might be curious to learn more about the monarch's efforts to add cohesion to a semi-federal system consisting of seventeen `nationalities and regions', his role as Spain's most effective international representative, and the royal family's remarkable ability to connect with ordinary citizens. King Juan Carlos may have paid a high personal price for the circumstances surrounding his upbringing, but Spain is undoubtedly all the better for it.
Published in the Times Literary Supplement by Charles Powell