Coronations in post-war Europe have not generally been key events in fundamental political transformations. But forty-three years ago today, one country witnessed exactly such a coronation.
On 22 November 1975, Spain stood at a historical crossroads. Two days earlier, General Francisco Franco had died, having ruled the country for 36 years since his brutal victory in the Civil War of 1936-1939. Now, Franco’s political will was to be executed with the investiture of Juan Carlos, Prince of Spain, as king. 1
Unlike other monarchs in post-war Europe, Juan Carlos’s accession to the throne was determined not by long-running succession. His father was still alive, and would not renounce his claim to the throne until two years later. Instead, his coronation was based on the legislation of the Francoist state, specifically the 1947 Law of Succession to the Headship of State and 1967 Organic Law of the State.
It is not surprising, therefore, if Spain’s democratic opposition put little faith in the new king to bring about change in the country’s governance. In his 1969 Christmas message, Franco had told Spain’s citizens that ‘everything is all tied up’ (‘todo ha quedado atado y bien atado’) for the continuation of dictatorial government after his death.
Earlier that year, Juan Carlos had been officially named as Franco’s designated successor, swearing ‘in the name of God and on the holy gospels’ to uphold the laws of the Francoist state and to remain loyal to the principles of the Movimiento Nacional. He repeated this oath in 1975 as he assumed the headship of state. 2
Yet after nearly four decades of repressive military rule, change was in the air. In understandably guarded terms, ABC’s leading article of 22 November 1975 welcomed a monarch who would be ‘king of all Spaniards’ – in implicit contrast to Franco’s continued division of Spaniards into victors and vanquished throughout his long rule.
Without explicitly mentioning parliamentary democracy, ABC hoped that the new king would bring the institution ‘closer to what a modern monarchy is in today’s world’, and thus respond to ‘the aspirations of our nation, manifested in a healthy and fertile pluralism.’ 3
Juan Carlos’s first speech as king was itself a fine example of studied ambiguity. Perhaps conscious of his audience – the Francoist ‘parliament’ – the new monarch praised the Generalísimo as ‘an exceptional figure in history’ who ‘Spain will never forget’. Yet he also insisted that the day marked ‘a new stage in Spain’s history’, and that ‘a free and modern society requires the participation of everyone in its decision-making forums’.
In 2018 it seems like a statement of the obvious to say that ‘Spain must be a part of Europe, and Spaniards are Europeans’, but in 1975 this carried important connotations. To join the European Communities – as it eventually did in 1986 – Spain would have to adopt the liberal parliamentary politics of its neighbours. 4 Whether intentionally or not, the assertion flatly contradicted the notorious advertising slogan used by the dictatorship’s tourism ministry during the 1960s: ‘Spain is different’.
At first, political reform faltered under Carlos Arias Navarro, the Prime Minister Juan Carlos inherited from Franco. But the appointment of Adolfo Suárez as Prime Minister in July 1976 allowed the transition to democracy to get truly underway, and the first democratic elections for forty-one years were held on 15 June 1977. On 23 February 1981, the monarch’s public denunciation was a key factor in ending an attempted military coup, creating a democratic legitimacy for a reign which had initially been based on Francoist legislation.
We must not forget the role of ordinary Spaniards who mobilised in favour of democratic reform during the transition to democracy, including after the 1981 coup attempt. Nor should we overlook some of the long-term problems of Spain’s post-Franco democracy, especially around the ‘historical memory’ of the Civil War and subsequent repression. Yet it remains true that Juan Carlos’s accession as king is more obviously linked to fundamental political changes than any other coronation in post-war Europe.
Joel Baker is a second-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. His research is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, and examines changing conceptions of the role of the state in Spanish society during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930), focusing specifically on debates around housing and infrastructure policy. You can find him on Twitter at @joelrbaker.
- While the opening paragraph of this blog uses the word ‘coronation’, this is actually somewhat erroneous. Spanish monarchs are no longer literally crowned, but simply sworn in as head of state. ↩
- ‘Así se desarolló la proclamación del Rey’, La Vanguardia Española, 23 November 1975, p. 6, via http://hemeroteca.lavanguardia.com/preview/1975/11/23/pagina-6/34203183/pdf.html (accessed 18 November 2018). ↩
- ‘El Rey’, ABC, 22 November 1975, p. 3, via http://hemeroteca.abc.es/nav/Navigate.exe/hemeroteca/madrid/abc/1975/11/22/003.html (accessed 18 November 2018). ↩
- ‘Primer mensaje de Juan Carlos I’, La Vanguardia Española, 23 November 2018, p. 5, via http://hemeroteca.lavanguardia.com/preview/1975/11/23/pagina-5/34203182/pdf.html (accessed 18 November 2018). ↩