The Anatomy of a Moment, by Javier Cercas
What exactly is a coup d’etat? It is a concept so foreign and inconceivable to us in the UK that we don’t even have a native word for it.
We often hear on the news that “the government of *insert country* has been overthrown/deposed/removed following a coup d’etat”, and often this is followed up with some colonel or upstart lieutenant in front of the cameras announcing that the constitution has been suspended and a curfew is now in place. Yet I have never understood what really goes on in one of these sagas – it is mystifying, and yet it surely can’t just simply “happen”, as if a coup were as commonplace as the passing of the clouds.
The idea of a coup d’etat to a liberal-minded person like me is absurd. Like many, I have a perhaps misplaced faith in the nature of democracy to take root, and once taken root, to enable that country to reap all the social, cultural and economic benefits of their new-found freedom. In the Anglo-Saxon world of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there has never been once any real threat to democratic civilian control that I can think of (although I have now come across the “Rum rebellion” in New South Wales).
It is a different story in Spain. Between 1874 and 1982, there were 7 coups or coup attempts. The most famous by far, is the 1981 coup attempt, commonly known as 23-F, although General Manuel Pavía bursting into the Parliament (Cortes) in 1874 on horseback must surely get points for style. 23-F is famous because it involved a seizure of the Cortes at gunpoint by a detachment of the Guardia Civil, which was captured on TV by parliamentary cameras. The most famous image is that of Lt-Colonel Antonio Tejero standing at the Speaker’s Rostrum of the Cortes (right).
Recently, there have been two important historical developments related to the actors 23-F: a fortnight ago, King Juan Carlos I abdicated in favour of his son, Prince Felipe, and in March this year Adolfo Suarez, the former Prime Minister, died.
By chance in the news following the former event I came across a book recommendation for Javier Cercas’s work, which looks in detail at the causes of 23-F and finally gave me a chance to understand what a coup d’etat actually entails.
Looking back on the events of 1981, it seems as though it was a triumph of the moral force of democracy and civil liberties. Cercas refers to this as a contaminating “unreality”: 30 years on, Tejero is harmless, and now comes across like some sort of silent-film villain, with mustache to boot. The nature of television alters the images indelibly associated with the coup; Cercas contends that it distorts them and to some extent trivialises and demeans the way we perceive the event.
Yet when examining the events of 23-F however, it is striking how in reality the coup so almost succeeded; were it not for the actions of Juan Carlos in swinging the weight of the monarchy against the coup, the coup would probably have been able to topple a democratically elected government, and no-one would have batted an eye-lid. You need only compare the experiences of Thailand at the moment to the situation of Spain in 1981 to see that if the Palace were on side with the coup, it would have happened.
So why was the coup so close to succeeding?
Events in Spain in 1980 and 1981 had been dire. The economy was in a funk, ETA was bombing the life out of the regime (there had been a number of high profile assassinations) and the Prime Minister, Adolfo Suarez, was no longer capable of governing. He had narrowly survived a no-confidence vote, but was despised by pretty much everyone else: by the parliament, by his party, by his ministers, by the army (who particularly hated him for legalising the Communist Party), by the people and the “chattering classes”, even by the King, who had appointed Suarez in the first place.
It seemed as though Suarez, who was unideological as a politician could get, who Cercas describes as a “pure politician”, one who thought that “without power there was no politics and without politics for him there was not the slightest possibility of fulfilment”, had run out steam. He had been a tool of the Francoist machine who had been appointed by the King to dismantle Francoism and instill democracy in Spain, and he had accomplished this task which had astonished everyone, including Suarez himself. Now that this was complete Suarez seem to have lost his vision for Spain and retreated to the Prime Minister’s residence in Moncloa to hide.
Meanwhile, discontent grew, and the King, along with the rest of the political class, would moan in private that if only Suarez could be replaced, perhaps by a national government of unity, maybe led by a soldier, then Spain would be able to resolve its problems. Meanwhile the Army, having ruled Spain with an iron fist under a strongly right-wing ideology, looked on for the right moment to collapse the whole democractic circus and return to the glory days of Francoism under God.
This swirling maelstrom of events, in the context of a fledging democracy, gives rise to that which Cercas dubbed “the placenta of the coup”.
III. The Coup
The actual mechanics of a coup d’etat are quite straightforward, because the key requirement of a coup (as the book makes evidently clear) is that power needs to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Spain, shakily transitioning towards a parliamentary model after 40 years of military dictatorship, still had a King who had been running the country since the death of Franco and an army that liked to decide policy, more than satisfied this criteria.
There were three senior army officers who planned and executed the coup: Lt-Colonel Tejero (pictured above), General Armada and General Milans del Bosch. The historical record shows that the plot was entirely a military affair, as the army did not trust civilians and wasn’t planning to allow them much in the post coup world.
All three officers were in this for different reasons. Tejero, the ideologue, wanted an overthrow of the government and the King and a return to complete military rule. He wanted no civilians in charge and a return to hard-line Francoism. Milans del Bosch didn’t mind the King, but wanted a military government. Armada, who had been the King’s personal secretary for many years and was at heart a patrician aristocrat and monarchist snob, wanted a civilian government of unity led by a military person (who would most likely be him).
The plot was also relatively straightforward: Tejero would go to the Cortes on the day of the vote for a new Prime Minister (as Suarez had finally decided to resign) and capture all the delegates and ministers. This would provoke a power vacuum. Milans del Bosche would rebel against central control and order his tanks into the streets of Valencia on the pretext of keeping order until the crisis in the Cortes was resolved. Meanwhile, Armada would go to the Palace and subtly neutralise the King by giving him incorrect information. In addition, their allies would get the Madrid barracks out onto the streets and seize control of the city. Then, Armada would go to the Cortes as a knight in shining armour, relive Tejero and agree a government with him as Prime Minister.
The plan initially succeeded: Tejero took over the Cortes without difficulty. However, his dramatic intervention (with a hail of bullets) caused the coup to look less like a surgical intervention and more as a straightforward strike against democracy – although the military had seized control of the TV station, the whole takeover was broadcast live on the radio. Meanwhile, Milans del Bosche seized control of his region and imposed martial law.
The initial success faded rapidly, as key parts of the plan fell out. The station commander in Madrid (General Juste) was on the fence about the coup, and following inquiries to the Palace, he came out against it, preventing troops from seizing control of the city. However he managed to reveal implicitly to the Palace that Armada was part of the coup, which then led to Armada being blocked from coming to the King’s side.
The King’s strident objection to the coup undermined the coup and resulted in numerous telephone calls to the key military players: the Chiefs of Staff and the Regional Commanders. The Chair of the Chiefs was with the King, however, Armada was his Deputy and therefore his effectiveness was limited. Of the 12 regional commanders (apart from Milans Del Bosch), only two were explicitly loyal to the King from the outset (critically this included General Quintana Lacaci, the Commander for the Madrid region, who helped prevent troops from taking the capital), while the rest sat on the fence to see which way the wind was blowing. There were two countervailing forces for the Army: the fact that the King was in opposition, which was not what they had been told about the coup, and the fact that this was probably their best chance to sweep away the tawdry democratic experiment that has been irritating them for the past 6 years.
The situation seemed unclear. The coup had started at approximately 6:20pm on the 23rd February but was only definitively resolved the following morning. An attempt by the Head of the Guardia Civil to arrest Tejero for insubordination had resulted in that General almost being shot. Despite their senior commanders returning them to barracks, some troops from the Madrid station had been ordered out in secret by middle-ranking officers and had joined Tejero. The Security Services had set up a siege of the Cortes, and the King was anxiously weighing whether to send in Special Forces and risk a bloodbath.
What definitively made the coup collapse was an unexpected split between Armada and Tejero. Having been blocked from the Palace, Armada suggested by telephone to the King that he negotiate peace with Tejero in person and try to secure the release of the delegates: cover for him to install himself as Prime Minister. When he arrived at the Cortes, it seemed as though his plan was going to work; Tejero started to hand over power to Armada in accordance with the original design of the coup. Yet Armada made the mistake of his life when Tejero asked him what position Milans Del Bosch would hold in the new government. Armada, in one of history’s great unforced errors, instead of dodging the question replied that Milans Del Bosch would have no position, instead being promoted to Chair of the Joint Chiefs.
The penny dropped for Tejero: this was not to be the military junta he aspired to. It would have civilians in it, and socialists and – god forbid – even communists! He pulled Armada into a side room and the two rowed for over an hour. Eventually Tejero told Armada he was forbidden from seeing the Deputies and expelled him from the Cortes.
The pendulum swung against the coup when, at around 01:00 on the 24th, the King made a broadcast to the nation (having finally managed to persuade the troops blocking its broadcast to stand down) that condemned the coup and ensured the troops stayed at home. Over the next few hours, Tejero realised the coup was a failure and he surrended.
In the aftermath, over 20 officers were jailed, with the three senior plotters receiving long jail sentences, although these were only awarded after the longest criminal trial in Spanish history. In a jarring note, the sentences set by the military Court-Martial were perceived as excessively lenient and were massively increased in length on appeal to the civilian Supreme Court.
IV. The Book
I’ve probably got carried away in writing this review by overly explaining the content of this book, but frankly I find this event in history so intriguing. It has everything needed for a great film: drama, rebellion, guns, compelling personalities, personal conflicts, impressive settings. Yet in the Anglo-sphere, you are unlikely to have come across this subject in a way that you might not have done for say, the Storming of the Bastille.
Cercas writes in the introduction the book that his original aim was to write the book as a fictional story covering the events of 23-F. However, after two discarded drafts, he opted for a non-fiction approach, written in a style quite different to others I have seen.
Textually, he writes long, vivid sentences, with plenty of subclauses. With a deft application of the colon and semi-colon, some of these sentences extend for over a page. An example would be this almost stream-of-conciousness passage describing Suarez living out his old age:
“It was just then, at perhaps the darkest moment of his life, that the inevitable arrived, the longed-for moment of public recognition, the opportunity for all to show their gratitude for the sacrifice of his honour and his conscience for the country, the humiliating national din of compassion, he was the great man cut down by misfortune who no longer bothered anyone, was no longer able to overshadow anyone, who was never going to return to politics and could be used by this side and that and converted into the perfect paladin of concord, into the unbeaten ace of reconciliation, into the immaculate enabler of democratic change, into a living statue suitable for hiding behind and cleansing consciences and securing shaky institutions and shamelessly exhibiting the satisfaction of the country with its immediate past and, in Wagnerian scenes of gratitude for the fallen leader, homages, awards, honorific distinctions began to rain down on him, he recovered the King’s friendship, the confidence of the Prime Ministers who followed him, popular favour, he achieved everything he’d wanted and anticipated although it was all a little false and forced and hurried and most of all late, because by then he was going or had gone and could barely contemplate his final collapse without understanding it too well and begging everyone who crossed his path to pray for his wife and for his daughter , as if his soul had got definitively lost in a labyrinth of self-pitying contrition and tormented meditations on the guilty fruits of egomania and he had become definitively transformed into the old repentant sinner prince of a novel by Dostoevsky.”
Structurally, the book does not tell the story chronologically: it uses the device of the TV footage of Tejero’s entrance in the Cortes to examine events; narrating the picture, pausing, and then examining the subjects that arise: the stories of Suarez, his Deputy Gutierrez Mellado, Santiago Carrillo (the communist part leader), the King, Armada, and so on.
There are some incisive moments, and some of my favourite quotations are those relating to Santiago Carrillo. Carillo’s background was of the domineering General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, the only real opposition during Franco’s rule. Carillo’s seminal contribution to the Spanish democratic transition was to moderate the Party, initiating reforms that would make Blair’s “Clause IV moment” look utterly trivial and committing the Party to democracy.
Cercas succintly describes Carillo’s thinking as such:
“There was nothing more abject than practising an ethic that sought only to be right and that obliges people to spend time discussing the errors of an unjust and enslaved past with the aim of taking moral and material advantage of other people’s confession of guilt, instead of devoting themselves to constructing a just and free future.”
“Carrillo renounced [potential recriminations against Francoists], and not only because he lacked the strength to achieve it, but also because he understood that often the most noble ideals of men are incompatible with each other and trying to impose at that moment in Spain the absolute triumph of justice was to risk provoking the absolute defeat of liberty, turning absolute justice into the worst injustice.”
The parable of this book, if there is one, must be that for a democratic society to succeed, it cannot only function through the letter of the law or a constitution, but must be done through the cooperation of the elite of society (this may be succour for my Marxist friends to demand a vanguard of the proletariat). It seems that democracy cannot survive without the ‘spirit of the law’, the conventions and customs, being fully integrated into the habits of the well-to-do elite, both the actually powerful and also the chattering middle classes. An examination of any society where this condition is not fulfilled, tends to reveal that such societies either descend into civil war or authoritarian rule.
It is striking that if the King, or the commanders in Madrid, or any of the other regional commanders in Spain had supported the coup, or even if Armada had not been so pompous towards Tejero, it would likely have succeeded. In the face of potential tyranny, the trade unions, civil society and the general public of Spain did not spill into the streets at the abrogation of democratic rule; instead they boarded up their shutters and hid in their homes, potentially frightened by the prospect of the last civil war repeating itself.
I can only count myself lucky once more that I live in a country where our Army Generals do not have designs on the Ministries of Whitehall, or the Queen does not want to overturn laws she dislikes, nor do the editors of the broadsheets think that armed rebellion is the way to remove a Prime Minister you don’t like.