King Juan Carlos I showed "sympathy" for the coup plotters. That was the impression that the then-German ambassador to Madrid, Lothar Lahn, transmitted to the authorities of his country in a cable message. He based the view on a meeting with the Spanish monarch just a month after Spain's 23-F - the attempted military coup of 23rd February, 1981, exactly forty years ago. In that meeting, the Spanish head of state "showed neither revulsion nor indignation" with the coup plotters, but rather "understanding, when not sympathy." His words were almost of "apology" to the military rebels, believing that they only "wanted the best." This document was made public in 2012 after being declassified by the German foreign ministry.
There are also intelligence reports from those days of 1981 from the other side of the Atlantic. The CIA saw the military operation launched on 23rd February as having been viable: "Last week's coup attempt was much closer to succeeding than the government wants to admit." And it rowed in the other direction with respect to the monarch: "Ultra-conservative officers believe the king has betrayed the army. This feeling is shared across the different police and military bodies, and many of their officers may have divided loyalties."
The 1980s were turbulent years politically, economically and militarily in Spain, and several coup attempts and conspiracies got underway. The most visible was that of lieutenant colonel Antonio Tejero, of the Civil Guard, on February 23rd, 1981, when he led a company of the Spanish paramilitary force into Parliament - the Congress of Deputies in Madrid. Four decades have passed since then, but there are still many shadowy areas, especially about the role of Juan Carlos I, who is defined as the great hero of the moment according to the official account. The reality, however, is that there are alternative narratives that question his aura of national saviour and even denounce his ambiguity and complicity in the affair. It doesn't help that many of the documents from that event are still classified. Nor that the court's full judgement on the coup plotters is kept secret. ElNacional.cat has consulted several of the historians who have dug as deeply as they could get.
Four decades have passed since then, but there are still many shadowy areas, especially about the role of Juan Carlos I
It had been just five over years since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco. The major institutional changes of Spain's Democratic Transition had already occurred. But discontent was spreading among the armed forces, who were still the military of the dictatorship. The background noise came from the constant attacks by the Basque terror group ETA, which had set the army as a target. And the last straw for the patience of the military was the passing of the Statutes of Autonomy for the Basque Country and Catalonia, both in December 1979. It was that period that saw the beginning of the moves, the meetings and the plans to provoke a coup d'etat that would stop the devolution of self-government to the "regions". In all these movements there is one prominent figure, general Alfonso Armada, who also serves to explain the role of the king Juan Carlos on the day of the 23-F. It was no coincidence that Armada had become secretary of the royal house.
It’s not only that Armada was one of the leaders of the 23-F. There was also a plan, very elaborately devised, which was baptized as the Armada solution, which involved military but also civilian figures. The aim was to install the general as leader of a government of national unity, which would include members of all parties, and technocrats. This executive would work along four basic lines: the "re-directing" of the autonomous regions, the fight against terrorism, economic rectification and constitutional reform to limit Title VIII of the 1978 Constitution, precisely the part which deal with the development of regional autonomy. To achieve this, contacts and complicities were established with the high political and economic spheres and even the king. All of them, including the monarch, shared an animosity towards the then prime minister Adolfo Suárez.
Historian Roberto Muñoz, author of the book El 23-F y los otros golpes de la Transición (The 23-F and the other coups of the Transition), published by Sword, 2021, has had access to the full court summary - through his family being friends with Tejero’s lawyer. In a conversation with ElNacional.cat, he explains that the Armada solution included two variants. The first, the "constitutional" variant, had the knowledge of the king. It consisted of the general reaching the Spanish prime ministerial position by legal means, through the mechanism of the no-confidence motion. The second, the "pseudo-constitutional" variant, was to "take advantage" of an exceptional situation that would force the formation of a government of national concentration under a new PM. This was the one used on 23-F.
The king had an "excellent" relationship with general Armada, and they both shared an animosity for Adolfo Suárez
Armada had even come to elaborate the composition of his hypothetical government of concentration. Some of the most prominent names were Felipe González as vice president, Manuel Fraga as defence minister, Jordi Solé Tura in the labour portfolio, general José Antonio Saénz de Santamaría as minister for the autonomous communities and regions and the journalist Luis Maria Ansón as minister of information, in addition to business leaders from the Spanish employers' association. The "pseudo-constitutional" route even provided for the transfer of Tejero to a country without an extradition treaty with Spain and an economically-guaranteed future.
An unexpected event, however, frustrated the path of the no-confidence motion: Adolfo Suárez resigned on January 29th. That turned everything upside down. Less than a month later, the coup of 23-F took place. At half past six in the evening, Lieutenant Colonel Tejero burst into the Congress of Deputies with 200 armed men shouting "Nobody move!". Milans del Bosch took tanks out onto the streets of Valencia. The Brunete, the army's largest armored division, did the same in Madrid. And general Alfonso Armada warmed up in the wings. Meanwhile, what was going on that night at the Zarzuela royal palace? What role did the king play before finally delivering his early morning message? Was he aware of the plans?
"In a personal capacity"
What happened on the night of 23-F at La Zarzuela? The historian Alfonso Pinilla, author of Golpe de timón: desde la dimisión de Suárez al 23-F (About face: from the resignation of Suárez to 23-F), explains that the evidence shows that on the night of 23-F the king was considering all the options. "He has all the possibilities on the table, including the possibility of the government of concentration that he had known about throughout 1980," says the University of Extremadura professor. General Armada, insistent, manages to enter the royal palace. And the story goes: "At midnight, when the situation is very complicated and Armada keeps telling him that it could become a bloodbath, the king gives the green light to Armada to propose the government of concentration." However, he warns: "Do it in your own personal capacity. The crown does not demand it”. Thus, he went to the Congress of Deputies, occupied by Tejero, to propose his solution. This version was also corroborated by Sabino Fernández Campo, secretary of the royal house, during the trial. Paradoxically, Pinilla adds, it is the opposition from the lieutenant colonel of the Civil Guard to a government which included socialists and communists that frustrates the plans.
It is still a mystery today whether the king knew what was going on or not. What is known is that on February 13th, ten days earlier, there was a meeting between Juan Carlos I and general Armada. In fact, at his trial, Armada asked the monarch if he could quote from part of that conversation in La Zarzuela. But the head of state banned it. What happened at that audience? After analyzing large amounts of documentation, Roberto Muñoz has his theory: “The hypothesis I propose is that Armada explained to the king that there were several operations underway and that he had a plan to re-direct them. And the king authorized him to return things to their proper paths in the event of a coup." The problem arises, according to the historian, when it is realised that Armada himself is behind the 23-F.
On the night of 23-F, the king gives the green light to general Armada to propose the government of concentration
During the trial there were conflicting versions. Milans del Bosch stated: “General Armada told me about the last interviews he had had with His Majesty the King. Of course I fully believed him. He explained to me how ready he was. He told me that he was completely sick of Mr Suárez, that he was determined to substitute him, that in conversations that lasted more than six hours, I think, I don't know if exactly five or six hours, with the king and queen, he discussed who could be eligible”.
Antonio Tejero declared that he had received the approval of Armada to act in the king's name. According to the lieutenant colonel, the general told him two days before: “You enter in the name of the king, for the crown and democracy. Democracy is very important… This is a national operation that has the support of His Majesty the King to strengthen the monarchy because it is damaged”.
Instead, Armada refused to admit, at least at the trial, that the king had any knowledge of the operation in progress. However, twenty years later, the general acknowledged that the King knew: “The king did not create 23-F. However, the king knew that there were a series of concerns, entanglements, conspiracies, if you want to call them that; he knew, he knew as I knew, or at least he had the same idea as me. Perhaps he didn't know all the details, because everything, everything, is never explained, but the king was generally informed."
The two historians agree on one well-researched fact: the good relationship that existed between the king and Armada, who became head of the prince's secretariat and then, after the death of Franco, secretary general of the royal house. He was one of its chief advisers. "Until February 23rd, 1981, the relationship between the two was very good, it was excellent," confirms Roberto Muñoz. And they both shared an animosity towards prime minister Adolfo Suárez. In the case of Juan Carlos I, "it was not so much a personal matter, but rather a political one," says the historian. "He was convinced that Suárez was leading Spain to ruin, because he had exhausted his ability to lead the process of political change," he said.
The construction of an official story
Contemporary History professor Alfonso Pinilla speaks of the "king of glass". And he explains his metaphor: "The Armada solution went through the crown in the same way as the sun's rays go through the glass of a window, without breaking it, without staining it." King Juan Carlos I is in the middle but leaves with clean hands: “Very late at night, he says something. He says, ‘Go there [to the Congress] if you can remedy the situation with your government of concentration under your arm. If you think this can be solved, offer yourself as prime minister." The royal house “lets it happen, but doesn't get involved, doesn't interfere; it simply gives the green light”.
Roberto Muñoz focuses on how an official version of events was constructed, different from the real one. "The serious problem is that there were many people who were in complicity with Armada so that he could become prime minister legally. And they take fright when they find out that he is behind the coup", explains the historian. Therefore, "an official version of the coup was created to cover up all the people who had supported the Armada solution." The support he had received, concludes Muñoz, was "total", from political to economic powers, including the US embassy and even the Vatican. The court's summary, according to the historian, is the amendment to this story that has been sold.
Forty years have gone by since the failed coup attempt of lieutenant colonel Tejero and general Armada. However, these are just a few of the elements in trying to discern what role was really played by the king, now king emeritus and a fugitive in the United Arab Emirates, in those events. General Armada had informed him of his plans. In 1980, the Spanish secret service had also sent both the Spanish government and the royal palace a report on the "ongoing operations" to overthrow Suárez. But in the role of the king there are many shadows. It remains a state secret.