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Spain’s King Juan Carlos I, The Early Years

The fate of 20th Century Spain was molded in large part by two men:  long-time dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who seized power after Spain’s bloody Civil War; and King Juan Carlos, who was personally selected by Franco to succeed him. He came to power on November 22, 1975, at age 37, only two days after Franco’s death. Many Spaniards were initially wary of Juan Carlos and feared that he would be dictatorial, much like his mentor; others doubted his intelligence and ability to carry out the duties of his office. He had little support in Parliament. Yet, to the surprise of most, Juan Carlos not only proved to be capable, he is also credited with guiding Spain from a dictatorship to a democracy, and in so doing, limiting his own powers. In July 1976, just a few months after he assumed the throne,  Juan Carlos dismissed the Francoist prime minister who had blocked his attempts at reform.

Juan Carlos,, born to the Count of Barcelona, Infante Juan, and Princess Maria Mercedes of Bourbon in Rome in 1938, moved to Spain in 1948 for schooling at Franco’s behest and later married Princess Sofia of Greece in 1962, which was also arranged by Franco. The accomplishments of his early years in power were greatly tarnished in recent years after numerous scandals  involving him and close family members. On 2 June 2014, Juan Carlos announced that he would abdicate in favor of his son, Felipe.  Robert E. Barbour was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 1992;  Frank Oram was interviewed by Allen Hansen beginning in December 1990; and Oscar J. Olson, Jr. was interviewed by Raymond Ewing beginning in August  2004; John P. Leonard was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in February 2011.


Franco’s Heir and de facto Son

BARBOUR: King Juan Carlos…had been brought up in a Francoist mold. Franco had made him his heir and successor, and apparently really had great affection for him, and probably even was reciprocated. But there was always a question as to what the real role of the King would be, and nobody knew. There were indications, and there were signals that the succession would be a respectable one. And as I said, the last years of the Franco period, things that would have brought about a jail sentencing, were tolerated, were permitted. Fewer people were going to jail for political crimes, and once in jail they were not being badly treated.

ORAM: And I am confident Juan Carlos, who I knew as a teenager at that time in Madrid, was exposed to many, many things. He was not, as has been true of some royal heirs, restricted in a way, or indoctrinated in an essentially negative way. He wasn’t and this is a credit to his father, Don Juan, who stepped aside, as well as to Franco. Juan Carlos personally was encouraged to open up and be exposed to ideas and the people.

OLSON:  [He] had just been taken under Franco’s wing and was in school to begin his grooming as a future head of state. There was some disastrous flooding just inland from Barcelona, to the extent that the government in Madrid felt it had to take note of this. So I imagine some high official thought someone needed to make a visit to express sympathy, and why not Juan Carlos? He needed to start getting use to making such ceremonial visits. Juan Carlos was probably in his early 20’s.

We went to the airport as his special plane landed, at this time of devastation and sadness. Juan Carlos stepped off the plane in his double-breasted blazer with ascot tie looking like he was on his way to a polo match or ready for the tables at Monte Carlo. The costume and attitude did not appear appropriate to the occasion. We had already heard rumors that he was not too bright. I thought, “Oh, what a disaster this is going to be for Spain,” eventually having him as king. I could not have been more wrong, as Juan Carlos turned out to be the savior of Spanish democracy.

BARBOUR: [When Franco died] in 1976, maybe September, he was a very uncertain figure. He was, after all, Franco’s adopted son, and I don’t know whether that’s legal or not. Franco referred to him as his son, treated him as a son, treated him as his heir to be, but never institutionalized it. Sent him to all the military colleges, saw that he was properly married, really was as much if not more of a father than the King’s real father, the Count of Barcelona. So when Franco died the question was, will this pleasant, extremely agreeable, likeable, young man succeed? If so, to what degree? And in accordance with what were believed to be Franco’s intentions, the successor government tried to make the King a figurehead. And Franco at one point had said something like, “Yes, my heir will be tied hand and foot.” So the new government acted as though the King was to be the figurehead. He was King, he was never crowned, there was never a coronation….

He was invested as King. So there was a lot of doubt, but he had an adviser, another quasi-father figure, a diplomat who died some years ago, much older than he was. And one surmises, though I cannot document it, that he also had among his immediate team people who have never spoken out, not even the adviser that I just referred to, whose name I can’t remember, ambassador somebody or other, never wrote any memoirs, never talked about his role. So the extremely astute, and perceptive people who had a very clear objective that institutionalizing the King in the role that would lead Spain back to democracy.

ORAM: Well, there were signs, but then the figure of Franco was so dominant that a great deal was discounted and of course the question always was, “After Franco what?” Well, now we can see 30 years later that Franco actually prepared a transition into a modernized Spain. Not he alone, but the role of Juan Carlos as the young king, of course was vital too. But it was clearly a great transition and the whole question of ideas and information overcoming the years of suppression, censorship, etc., and the conflict between socialists and communists on the one side and the monarchists and conservatives on the other. All of that was part of the mix.

LEONARD: In 1978 Spain was less than two years from the death of General Franco, the long serving dictator. …Spain immediately began a process of changing very dramatically its government and making a transition to a democratic government. By the time I arrived in 1978 that process had been completed. Spain had new institutions, a revitalized parliament. The first post-Franco democratic Spanish government was in place. It was headed by Adolfo Suarez, a moderately conservative politician who had served for many years in Franco’s regime.

[In 1981 there was an] attempted coup d’état, that certainly was a low point. Fortunately the king of Spain, Juan Carlos, played a heroic role in putting down that rebellion which was backed primarily by officers in the Spanish Army and in the Guardia Civil. Once King Juan Carlos late in the evening went on television to tell the Spaniards that all was going to be well, people breathed a sigh of relief and the coup very quickly collapsed. Had it not been for King Juan Carlos, there is no telling what might have happened. Only he had the loyalty and influence within the Spanish military to cut the legs out from under that attempted coup.