23-F

Chase Madar

  • The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean
    Bloomsbury, 403 pp, £18.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 1 4088 0560 2

Many Spaniards today remember exactly where they were at 6.23 on the evening of 23 February 1981, when they saw, live on television, mutinous soldiers led by a colonel in a tricorn hat burst into the parliamentary chamber, firing pistols and submachine guns to announce the imminent arrival of a ‘competent military authority’ to take over from the faltering civilian government whose elected representatives, with three exceptions, dived under the benches for cover. Many also remember that millions of Spanish citizens rushed onto the streets to defend their fledgling democracy, in a show of democratic fervour which, with King Juan Carlos taking to the airwaves to denounce the golpe de estado, dealt a deathblow to the coup and clinched Spain’s transition from fascist backwardness to democratic modernity.

This version of ‘23-F’ often passes for the truth in Spain and tends to be recited on television on that date every year. But it is largely fictional, a congeries of half-truths, wishful revisionism and spurious folklore. In fact, the closed-circuit footage of the coup attempt was not broadcast until the following day, once the plot had already sputtered out for reasons that had nothing to do with any uprising by the Spanish people. These memories are simply part of the general embellishing, or novelería in the more evocative Spanish term, of the events of 23-F, and it is this ‘collective novel’ as much as the failed coup itself that is the subject of Javier Cercas’s scrupulously documented and artfully constructed historical essay.

The coup attempt did not come as a surprise. Nearly six years after the death of Franco, the euphoria of liberalisation had given way to social chaos, separatist violence and political torpor. With the economy in free-fall, unemployment soaring and violence between the Spanish state and Basque militants escalating (108 Spaniards were killed in 1980), discontent with the civilian government was rife, especially in the armed forces. The Falangist newspaper El Alcázar editorialised about the need for a coup to restore order. (As Cercas points out, the golpe de estado has been a ‘vernacular rite’ in Spain, with more than 50 having occurred over the past two centuries.) Nor was talk of the need for an extra-constitutional ‘touch on the rudder’ limited to the fascist margins (which were not, in fact, margins). The king had made dangerously ambiguous remarks about the civilian government that were interpreted by disgruntled officers as encouraging a military ‘adjustment’. Even the Socialists, poised to win a near absolute majority in the next election, talked about the therapeutic potential of a ‘surgical’ coup to stabilise the country, with some Communists and trade unionists chiming in.

The nation’s discontent was focused on the prime minister, the young Segovian Adolfo Suárez. He had been a surprise appointment as interim prime minister in 1976 and drew criticism from both the left and the centre for his Francoist background. (‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ one fascist dinosaur said to another in a cartoon of the time: ‘He’s called Adolfo.’) But this seeming provincial nobody had confounded his enemies by smoothly and swiftly dismantling vast tracts of the Francoist state and liberalising the political system, all under the old guard’s noses, a theoretically impossible feat accomplished with the utmost grace. In 1977, Suárez held (and won) the first free national elections in four decades, got an amnesty passed absolving both left and right from their wartime and postwar actions, and, most daringly, legalised the Communist Party, still viewed as satanic by many in the armed forces.

But by the summer of 1980, Suárez’s magic had run out, with his former backers undermining his every attempt at stabilisation. He had been deserted by the people, the Parliament, his own party, the Church, Washington and finally the king, leaving him exhausted and isolated and Madrid seething with plots. Two years before, a lieutenant colonel called Antonio Tejero had launched an abortive coup and been sentenced to seven months in prison, during which he began planning another attempt.

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