King Juan Carlos of Spain is abdicating in favor of his 45-year-old son, Crown Prince Felipe. For most of us this is just celebrity news; possibly of less import than when "Bewitched" switched Darrins (there's an obscure reference for you.) For me, however, it is different. I've always had a soft spot for Spanish history, Spanish culture, Spanish food, Spanish politics (although they are of the unrelievedly leftist variety) and especially for the King of Spain, finding him "una figura simpatica."
Juan Carlos came to the throne at a very difficult time in recent Spanish history which needs a little background to provide the context. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, in one of the great bait-and-switch events of all time, had risen against the Spanish Republic in 1936, labeling it, not completely inaccurately, communist. Franco put together a coalition of supporters that included an unlikely combination of fascists and monarchists united only in their hatred for the Republic and what they saw, again, not totally inaccurately, as the growing Sovietization of Spanish politics and life.
The ensuing three years of civil war killed hundreds of thousands and was in some ways a prelude to the even greater struggle that began in 1939. General Franco, a man whose political brilliance and intelligence has been ignored or unjustly ridiculed, managed to convince one side of his band that he would install a fascist state akin to the one in Italy, and the other side that he would restore a traditional monarchy. He, of course, had no interest, nope, none at all, in becoming head of state--no, no, I am just a simple soldier . . . .. Well, things happen. Through the clever use of patronage, bribery, threat of the firing squad, and his nearly rock-solid support from the Spanish military, he melded the two bands into a weird National Movement in which loyalty was to Franco. He basically said to them, "I am the only hope you have of getting anything. Besides, if I lose, the Reds will shoot you all."
What many of Franco's critics, especially European and American leftists, failed to appreciate was that Franco was not a fascist or much of a "right-winger" or even a monarchist. He was an "anti-noisist," as in "Stop that noise!" He detested politics and politicians, believed in hard work, discipline, and the military ethos of manly valor and devotion to duty and nation. Anything else, well, needed to stop making noise. As Bill Cosby once famously said about parents, "Kids don't realize that their parents aren't interested in justice. They want silence!"
The monarchists found Franco in no hurry to restore the monarchy, although he gave it lip service by declaring a "restitution" of the monarchy in 1947. It would be monarchy without a monarch. As the years wore on, he pressured Juan Carlos's father, the Count of Barcelona, into giving up his claim to the throne and passing it to Juan Carlos. Franco took the 29-year-old Juan Carlos, who was declared Prince of Spain, under his wing, making him swear loyalty to The Movement and to, well, you know who. Franco got the rubber stamp parliament to approve Juan Carlos as the heir to the throne, while Franco would remain, of course, as interim head of state until such time as the Prince of Spain was able to assume his duties as head-of state and King of Spain--in other words, when Franco no longer could rule.
Juan Carlos assumed the throne permanently, with opposition from die-hard fascists in The Movement, in 1975 when Franco passed from the scene. Franco must have begun spinning in his grave as the new King immediately let it be known that he favored the restoration of parliamentary democracy and a movement of Spain towards democratic Europe. Juan Carlos played a key role in reestablishing Spain as a modern political entity; he made clear that he would assume the role of a Constitutional Monarch with little to no real power. Juan Carlos, despite the US and European mass media portrayal of him as a dolt, proved a clever and savvy politician, and a very good friend of the United States.
He also proved to have considerable guts.
On February 23, 1981, elements of the paramilitary civil guard and some military, attempted a coup against the government. Lt. Col Antonio Tejero, with 150-200 civil guards and a few soldiers, burst into the parliament building, fired some shots into the ceiling, and held the building and the parliamentarians hostage for nearly a day. Tejero, apparently in a bid for glory, had jumped the gun by about 24 hours on a wider coup effort. The confusion his bid for glory created among the units that were going to revolt on February 24, gave Juan Carlos an opening to appear on television, in full military dress, and deliver a powerful speech in which he as King and commander-in-chief of the military and the national police forces ordered the military and police to support the government and not take part in any coup. There were some dicey hours there when nobody knew whether the King's orders would be obeyed. In the end, they were. So the man deserves some props for that alone.
Now, of course, the King made his mistakes. He likes the ladies, and he likes politically incorrect activities such as hunting. He combined the two proclivities in an unfortunate "private" elephant hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 with a "friend," a very attractive 40-something German "princess." Well, worthy of a Spanish or Italian comedy, he broke his hip, and had to be flown back at considerable expense and publicity to Madrid. The King's wife, Queen Sofia sister of the deposed King of Greece, had a fit, and left Spain to live off-and-on, but mostly on, in London where her brother also lives. Spaniards, suffering exorbitant unemployment rates, a sluggish economy, high taxes, etc., were not amused--nor were animal lovers who forced the King to resign from the board of the World Wildlife Federation. Polling in Spain now shows a marked lack of enthusiasm for the once-popular King and for the monarchy, an institution also wracked by some big financial scandals by family and friends of the King. Whether the abdication of Juan Carlos will save the monarchy as his actions in February 1981, saved parliamentary democracy, remains to be seen.
Juan Carlos you have lived a good and full life. Much luck to you.