The King of a Kingdom That Had No King

WILLIAM PFAFF

April 12, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- Don Juan de Borbon, father of Spain's King Juan Carlos, was buried last week in El Escorial, near Madrid. The occasion was one which gave evidence of the healing power of historical time.

Don Juan was the son of Alfonso XIII, the constitutional monarch who went into exile in 1931, after having collaborated with Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, the dictator put in power in a bloodless military revolt in 1923. The dictatorship was not a success.

The constitutional regime it replaced had been little more successful. The monarchy had been attacked as corrupt and unrepresentative ever since what in Spanish history is known as ''the Disaster,'' the Spanish-American war of 1898, when the United States attacked Spain's overseas empire and seized Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Alfonso made way for an unstable republic, which eight years later collapsed under the attack of the military rebellion led by Francisco Franco. Franco was called a Fascist at the time, but in fact distanced himself from the existing Spanish Fascist Party and presided over its eventual marginalization. He was a conservative, or even a reactionary.

Franco believed in stability, order, morality, Catholicism and monarchy. He loathed the modern world of socialism, consumerism and moral libertarianism. Spain today is a society he would have loathed. Yet he, more than any other individual, made it possible.

Don Juan never collaborated with Franco. In exile in Portugal, he considered himself and the monarchy alternatives to Franco and Francoism. He hoped that after World War II the Allies would install him as constitutional monarch. Franco instead kept Spain out of World War II and later, in 1953, entered into a bases agreement with the United States. It was a compromise with the country which, culturally, represented all that Franco despised. However, it released Spain from its isolation.

At the same time a younger, technocratic generation began the modern economic reform of Spain, a process which produced rapid economic development and culminated in democratic Spain's admission to the European Community in 1977.

Franco and Don Juan met and Don Juan eventually agreed that his son, Juan Carlos, could complete his education in Spain. In 1969, Franco made Juan Carlos his successor, restoring the monarchy. And, of course, it was Juan Carlos who presided over the remarkably successful transition from dictatorship to modern democracy.

The Communist and Socialist parties were legalized and the latter became the country's governing party. The young officials who had managed Spain under Franco rapidly revealed themselves as Spanish equivalents of Christian Democrats and liberals elsewhere in Europe.

The irony in which all this culminated was the attempted coup of 1981. Officers of the para-military police made hostages of the cabinet and deputies in the lower house of parliament. Juan Carlos imposed his authority over the military and obtained the rebels' bloodless surrender.

It was a serious, but ultimately farcical, re-enactment of Franco's own military coup of 1936-39, but this time, the man Franco himself had made king disarmed the rebellion and preserved democracy.

The most striking thing about this series of events is that the failures of the monarchy and republic in the 1930s were accompanied by the most passionate hatreds and eventually by the bloodthirsty murders and pillage of the civil war, when left and right, anarchists and clericals, committed on one another atrocities comparable to those of Yugoslavia today.

That is all over. Some combination of good sense and vision on the part of Don Juan, Franco and Juan Carlos -- and also of the post-civil war generation of political party leaders -- turned defeated, demoralized, divided Spain into the Spain of today.

The process took more than 60 years. But it demonstrates, contrary to what people say about Yugoslavia, that hatreds are never eternal, and that with principles it is possible to salvage decency from what seems the most hopeless of situations.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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