Back to Index

SPAIN: King Juan Carlos and the failed 1981 coup



Paul Preston, the author of a monumental biography of King Juan Carlos of Spain, rejects the rumor that the King was involved in the 1981 failed coup: "It is rather tedious to have to answer this conspiracy theory stuff. Those who insist on the King s guilt should at least tell us why he opposed the coup. The extent to which the success or failure of the coup had been in the hands of Juan Carlos was underlined a few days afterwards when the new Minister of Defence, Alberto Oliart, called in the Captains-General to hear their versions of what happened on 23-24 February. The first to see him was Guillermo Quintana Lacaci. The Captain-General of Madrid said Ministro, antes de sentarme te tengo que decir que soy franquista, que adoro la memoria del general Franco, he sido ocho años coronel de su regimiento de guardia, llevo esta medalla militar que gané en Rusia, hice la Guerra Civil, por tanto ya te puedes figurar como pienso. Pero el Caudillo me dio orden de obedecer a su sucesor y el Rey me ordenó parar el golpe del 23-F y lo paré; si me hubiera ordenado asaltar las Cortes, las asalto. (Minister, before sitting down, I must tell you that I am a Francoist, that I adore the memory of General Franco. For eight years I was a colonel in his personal guard. I fought in the Civil War. So you can well imagine my way of thinking. But the Caudillo gave me the order to obey his successor, and the King ordered me to stop the coup on 23 February. If he had ordered me to assault the Cortes, I would have done so. )

Obviously, I go into it in great detail in the book and could, I suppose, send you the relevant sections in English but it would be very long. For the moment, I append a short summary.

By the way, I had no contact with the King during the writing of the book because I wanted to maintain total independence. The profusion of photographs was the work of the publishers and derives from photographic agencies. Subsequent to the book s publication in Spain, the King invited me to discuss it with him.

Summary: By 1980, opinion polls were turning against Adolfo Suárez. The key to this decline was the popular feeling of desgobierno, of not being governed at all. He was overwhelmed by the ongoing and interrelated problems of ETA terrorism, the military attitude to politics and the break-up of his party, the UCD. Juan Carlos was deeply sensitive to military feeling and was fully aware of the widespread popular discontent with the government s performance. The president of Catalonia Josep Tarradellas reflected the general anxieties when he suggested in the summer that what was necessary was un golpe de timón ( a touch on the rudder ). The military situation was worsening by the day.

General Armada increasingly had concluded that the solution to what he, and other generals, regarded as an intolerable situation was a non-violent substitution of UCD by a government of national salvation under his own presidency. In mid-November and again on 10 January 1981, Armada visited the Captain-General of the Valencia military region, Jaime Milans del Bosch and told him that el Rey está preocupado por la situación de España ( the King is worried about the situation in Spain ) which was taken by Milans as a royal invitation to take action against ETA. Faced with military sedition, terrorism and a government party seething with conspiracy, on 27 January, Suárez told the King of his decision to resign and announced it in a television broadcast on 29 January. Juan Carlos began his initial consultations with political leaders, and, on 31 January, Emilio Romero suggested that the King consider la vía de un hombre ajeno y políticamente bendecido ( the solution of someone completely different yet politically blessed ) and went on to suggest the name of General Armada.Juan Carlos did not take Emilio Romero's hint, a clear indication that he was not behind Armada s schemes. On Friday 6 February 1981, he had dinner with Armada. The general spoke about Tarradellas s remark about the need for un golpe de timón , the article by Emilio Romero and the desirability of a coalition headed by a general. Juan Carlos reminded Armada that the royal duty was simply to hear, and then act on, the recommendations of the various leaders of the parliamentary parties.

On Tuesday 10 February, the King informed the President of the Cortes, Landelino Lavilla, of his decision to invite Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo to form a government. Despite the hopes of Armada and the later accusations of the military conspirators, the King had been meticulous in his respect for the Constitution despite the fact that it would have been easy enough to broach the possibility of a coalition government. This suggests that, with the resignation of Suárez and his replacement by Calvo Sotelo, the King believed that situation had received the golpe de timón that it required. After all, Suárez was no longer there to be the target of ultra hostility, UCD squabbling was likely now to diminish and there would be in the Moncloa a more conservative prime minister.

During the Tejerazo (the attempted coup byTejero), the nation was relieved when Juan Carlos appeared on television at 1.15 a.m. on 24 February. Given the hectic nature of what was going on, the delay was not as surprising or as sinister as had been subsequently claimed. There have been suggestions that La Zarzuela (the royal palace) was waiting to see the outcome of Armada s visit to the Cortes. In fact, the King made the decisive broadcast before Armada had returned. Moreover, Juan Carlos's declaration made it clear that he had taken the crucial measure three hours earlier when he had ordered the Captains-General to obey the JUJEM.[Junta de Jefes de Estado Mayor- Committee Chiefs of General Staff]. It is interesting to note that the golpistas insisted, during the coup and later during their trial, that they were acting on the orders of the King, yet took absolutely no notice of the real orders of the King given both individually to them and during the broadcast.

The military conspirators believed, on the basis of what they had been told by Armada, that Juan Carlos was behind the solución Armada. There is no doubt that, if the King had been involved, the coup would have succeeded. However, even leaving aside the obvious counter-argument about the role of the King in dismantling the coup of 23 February, there is another equally powerful reason for dismissing these accusations. The first ten days of February had given Juan Carlos the perfect opportunity to set up the solución Armada. The bulk of the politicians consulted by the King would have supported the idea of a coalition government. If that is what the King had wanted, he could have secured his objective without the risks and ignominy of a military coup"

RH: We are deeply indebted to Paul for his reply. What he says about his relationship with King Juan Carlos is interesting. In one posting I expressed amusement that a British historian came to the Hoover Institution to write a book about Kerensky, who had an office there.. Hoover at the time had Kerensky's archives, which were later acquired by another library, I said to him "I suppose you interviewed Kerensky at length". He replied "No. I wanted to write an objective biography". He never met Kerensky. This is a strange comment on the historian's craft. In retrospect I can understand it. Kerensky would have fed him a line which the historical record would not support. Morover, the historian would have been accused of being a propagandist for Kerensky. I do not know if Kerensky made any comments on the book when it appeared. It would be interesting to see what he said. I will try to follow through on this. I wonder if the King made any precise comments on Paul's book. Obviously others involved must have.

Ronald Hilton - 7/21/03


Webmaster