Spain — A Look Back

Here on Iconic Photos, we have seen many photos taken in modern Spain. The country loomed large in the twentieth century mythos and imagination — starting with a disastrous Civil War that drew in many public intellectuals of the day and now seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War.

In the 1930s, Catalonia attempted two declarations of autonomy, claiming itself a state within a federal structure. This, along with rising socialism, communism, and anarchism,  gave cause to the rightwing reactionaries and finally an all-out Civil War. As it took place as picture magazines are getting popular, the Spanish Civil War was covered by photojournalists and yellow journalists alike. The most famous images of the war were by Robert Capa and by Dora Maar, of her lover Picasso painting Guernica.

Post-civil war Spain was a hodgepodge of repressions and idiosyncrasies. The Castilian Spanish was declared the sole official language, with all foreign films (and films originally made in local regional tongues) were force-dubbed. Castilian names were the only ones allowed. Even the names of football clubs were changed into Castilian versions.

Deference to the Catholic Church was extreme; after all, Franco had ruled Spain as “Caudillo by the grace of God” as his coins proclaimed. civil marriage and divorce were made illegal and the Church was given power to censor any writing or speech it objected. Cleavages and legs in photos were covered up, James Bond novels lost its sex scenes, and over 4,000 songs were banned, mostly for hilarious reasons. The country’s main scientific body, CSIC, was left in the hands of Opus Dei. The leading primary school history textbook, Yo soy español opened with the retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Generalissimo himself was an odd patriarch in a medieval mold. A mummified right arm of St Teresa of Avila always traveled with him. The state media mentioned him in the same veneration as Augustus Caesar or Napoleon, and many towns changed or added to their names ‘Franco’. He embraced a Austrian con-man who insisted that petrol could be made from water and a secret herbal extract, and strove for years to ban the tomato-pelting festival in Valencia.

On his ugly deathbed, Franco was already an anachronism, but his rule was widely seen as the sole unifier of the fissiporous Spanish nation. The experts worried that old hatreds and new violence would flare up. (Indeed in the elections of 1977, Spain voted along socio-geographical lines almost identical to the elections of 1936). The improbable transition was completed by two figures: King Juan Carlos — Franco’s designated successor and Adolfo Suárez. Four months after Franco’s death, the king signaled that the old order was ending by speaking banned Catalan language. He also engineered centrist Suárez to become Prime Minister. Suárez, Franco’s director-general of state broadcasting, succeeded in ridding the government of the last members of the old regime and forcing through a democratic constitution.

It is this constitution, confirmed in a second referendum in December 1978, that is now in question as the Catalans move towards independence. Under it, the powers of the Church were rolled back: there was to be no official religion, although Catholicism was acknowledged as a ‘social fact’, and rights of autonomy were granted for the country’s historic regions, but under a proviso in the Article II, which outlined “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards.”

It was an exceedingly delicate and dangerous operation, for the threat of a new civil war loomed throughout. A series of bloody bombings by the Basque separatists marred the transition. Economic malaise was high and with Catalonia, the Basque region, Galicia and Andalucia all seeking separatism,  Suárez — now on his fifth coalition government — was pushed out by his own party in January 1981.

The next month, as the national assembly, or Cortes, convened to appoint Suárez’s successor, a Civil Guard colonel staged a coup attempt. Another general requested the king to dissolve the Cortes and install a military government. Juan Carlos, who had been carefully maneuvered to play a modest role within the Francoist dictatorship, firmly stood his ground and refused. The coup petered out, giving the Cortes an opportunity to cut the military budget and pass a bill legalizing divorce.


Suárez made a duke and a Grandee of Spain; in 2008 when Juan Carlos visited Suárez to invest him with the highest honor of the Spanish monarchy, the Order of the Golden Fleece, Suárez was already amidst Alzheimer’s disease. He could no longer remember that he had been prime minister. A poignant photo of Suárez with the king’s arm wrapped around him, taken by his son Adolfo Suárez Illana, was reproduced in all Spanish media and later awarded the paper El País‘s Ortega y Gasset Award. The photo had been an idea floated by singer Julio Iglesias to Illana, who passed it on to the king. The palace proposed to send a photographer, but Illana declined, taking it himself.

On Suárez’s death in 2014, the Economist wrote, “the burly king with his arm round the shoulder of his diminutive first prime minister, in shirtsleeves. The two men were walking away from the camera as if to say, job done. As indeed it was.” Their work is now being transformed by Catalonia’s move towards independence. Catalonia, which contains a fifth of Spain’s economy and a quarter of its exports, has strong economic reasons for going it alone (and legitimate historical reasons), but recent weeks have shown that it risks awaking Spain’s past demons.



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23-F Coup

(continued from yesterday)

After Franco’s death, the prognoses for Spain were exceptionally dim: the experts were almost unanimous in their predictions of old hatreds and new violence flaring up. During his four decade long dictatorship, Franco did very little to resolve ethnic, geographic, political, and social divisions that once led to the bloody Civil War, and many declared these divisions unreconcilable.

But this tumultuous transition was masterfully helmed by two unlikely figures: the first was the Bourbon Prince Juan Carlos — Franco’s designated successor. Four months after Franco’s death, he created a sensation by speaking Catalan, which Franco had repressed; within eight months he had engineered the selection of centrist Adolfo Suárez as Prime Minister. Suárez, who had been Franco’s director-general of state broadcasting, was the second of this unlikely duo which led Spain towards democracy. In a surgical coup, Suarez succeeded in ridding himself of the last members of the regime and forcing through a democratic constitution. It was an exceedingly delicate and dangerous operation, for the threat of a new civil war dangled continually over the country.

The constitution was ratified in 1978, but there was one more test to come. After a series of bloody bombings by the Basque separatists, so-called ultras in the military launched a coup in 1981. On 23 February 1981, Col. Antonio Tejero entered the lower house of the Spanish Parliament, with 200 Guardia Civil and soldiers and held the depuities present hostage for some 22 hours. When it came down to it, Juan Carlos, who had been carefully maneuvered to play a modest role within the Francoist dictatorship, firmly stood his ground.

Within half an hour of the Guardia Civil’s attack, both the conspirators and the king were telephoning the country’s military leaders. The coup leaders were asking for the military’s support ”in the name of the king”. Juan Carlos insisted that he was on the other side, informed general after general that his name was being used in vain, and told to accept no orders unless they came from the chiefs of the general staff. He encountered hesitations and evasions, but Juan Carlos’ career in the military won them over. The military remembered the occasion when, with Franco on his death bed, Juan Carlos had flown to the rebellious Spanish Sahara to show solidarity with troops. As David Gilmour wrote in “The Transformation of Spain”, “They may have been dismayed, and perhaps surprised, that the king refused to back [the coup], but they accepted his decision. …. The king’s role . . . won him the respect and adulation of millions of people who had always considered themselves republicans.”

The coup was lost over the news media. The conspirators failed to seize key media outlets in Madrid; although the difficulty of getting cameras to the palace from the military-controlled television station delayed him, early next morning, eight hours after the first shots, the king finally appeared on television, in uniform as the Captain General of the Armed Forces, the highest Spanish military rank, declaring: “The crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes attempting to interrupt the democratic process.” Without the king’s support, the last coup attempt in Western Europe simply petered out. The man once disparagingly dismissed as a king who would be known as Juan Carlos the Brief, almost singlehandedly rallied a reluctant military to the side of constitutional order. Four days later, 3 million people marched in cities throughout Spain in support of democracy, chanting “¡Viva el Rey!”

In a fitting end, Tejero signed a surrender — known as the “Bonnet Pact”, as it was signed on the bonnet of a police Land Rover. Thirty-three people were eventually tried for taking part in the February 23 uprising, although the extent of the plot is still unclear and many civilian plotters possibly went uncharged. Most importantly, the identity of Tejero’s superior whose reinforcements he had been waiting for, remains unanswered.

The above picture which won the year’s World Press Photo Award was taken literally in the heat of the moment. On 23rd February, photographer Manuel Perez Barriopedro was covering a tedious afternoon inside the parliament. Halfway through the proceedings (video), Guardia Civil burst into the chamber. Barriopedro took eleven frames, before removing his film to hide it from approaching Guardia Civil. Around 10 pm, when the journalists were released, Barriopedro smuggled the film out in his shoe. After midnight, when the first editions of the Spanish press appeared, the photo was across all the front pages; a few hours later, it would be on the world’s front pages too.

(this, as you might notice, is my first dual post. The idea behind these posts was threefold: (1) Inspired by Egypt, I wanted to make a post about a pro-US dictatorship’s transition to democracy. (2) I noticed the title “The King’s Speech” better fits Juan Carlos’ speech; (3) in a drunken boast, I asserted that I can write a better history textbook than any drivel that’s currently being sold just by focussing on iconic images and videos. These two posts may or may not accomplish what they set out to achieve, but I am at least happy now that I have written these down).

Agony and Death of General Franco

During his early years in power, Generalissimo Francisco Franco led Spain into a level of starvation and disease unknown since the Middle Ages. Some 200,000 people died of starvation in the years (1940-1944) ensuing Franco’s triumphal but false declaration on 31st December 1939 that the problems in Spain were over because, “huge amounts of gold have been found in Spain.” It wasn’t clear whether he actually believed these claims about gold discoveries but Franco was prone to such swindles: the Austrian Albert von Filek convinced the dictator that he could make petrol from water and a secret plant extract. He was allowed to build a factory on the River Jarama and for a long time, Franco believed that his own car was the first to run on this new fuel.

His longevity, however, eclipsed these early erraticism and brutality. He positioned himself as a staunch anti-Communist, and won vital support and aid from the United States; the fact that his three foreign visits were to Hitler, to Mussolini and to Salazar were quickly forgotten. Finally conceding that he knew nothing about economics, Franco transferred economic management to technocrats who led Spain into Años de Desarrollo, the years of development from 1961 to 1973, when the Spanish economy grew faster than any nation in Europe.

Although he more and more delegated power as his health deteriorated, the old dictator proved to be as vindictive as ever even in his final days. In 1975, when faced with a Communist movement, he issued a harsh ‘anti-terrorist’ law and ordered that their leaders be arrested. Three were sentenced to death. Fifteen European countries recalled their ambassadors, and there were demonstrations and attacks against the Spanish embassies in Europe. Mexico demanded Spain’s expulsion from the UN. Ignoring calls for clemency from the pope and many governments around the world, Franco went ahead with the execution.

On 1st October 1975 — 39th anniversary of his ascent to power — Franco made his last public appearance. On the balcony of the Palacio de Oriente in Madrid, he appeared, looking very frail, and having difficulty speaking. He veered into his usual cliches, blaming the problem in Spain to a leftist Masonic conspiracy of politicians, terrorists, and communists. More touching was his goodbye to the crowd, in tears and with both arms raised. From this moment on his health was in terminal decline; exposure to winds on the balcony induced pneumonia and then a heart attack. Intestinal haemorraging and three operations followed.

The Spanish radio began playing mournful music. Newspapers, which until recently had been enthusiastically reporting El Caudillo’s good health and rigorous physical activities, began running daily maps of Franco’s body, as though it were a war zone, with arrows pointing to vital organs and other positions under siege. The press offered capital sums for photographs of the dying dictator; his thirty-two physicians refused, but it later turned out that his son-in-law, the Marqués de Villaverde, took one snapshot after another. The Marqués still insists that he never intended to distribute those photos and that the photos, which finally appeared in La Revisita in 1984, were stolen from him.

In theatrical gesture rather out of keeping with a life of decisiveness and iron will, Franco died protractedly and chaotically. In the US, his death was erroneously announced by ABC, prompting many parodies. ‘How difficult it is to die,’ whispered Franco but the old dictator was being kept alive by life-support machines at the insistence of the Marqués de Villaverde, who was also the family doctor. It was only on 20th November 1975, after thirty-five days of struggling against death, that the dictator’s coterie allowed him to depart. (The mummified right arm of St Teresa of Avila which always travelled with him, was on his bedside table).

Almost half a million people filed past his body, and El Caudillo was buried at the Valle de los Caídos, Franco’s own monument to his victory in the Civil War. Millions of Spaniards watched the ceremony live on television, as the man who had ruled them for 40 years was lowered into the ground. Although it can be said that Franco’s Spain had already ceased to exist even while he was still alive, now the four-decade long national nightmare was finally over. The last obstacle to a modern, democratic Spain was gone, but its transition would be bumpy, as we shall see tomorrow.