Juan Carlos: errant but still admired

At the beginning of August this year Spaniards were astonished by the sudden departure into exile of their once revered former king, Juan Carlos. 

Three weeks later the BBC Radio 4 programme Crossing Continents broadcast an interview with Juan Carlos’ former lover Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.  The programme focused on the then king’s ill-fated Botswana hunting trip in 2012 and more recent allegations of financial impropriety.

Juan Carlos’ biographer and Professor of International History at the LSE Sir Paul Preston contributed to that programme, and in late September spoke to the Bulletin of Advanced Spanish about the errant former monarch.

BAS: Your 2004 biography Juan Carlos: a people’s king (and the updated Spanish version of 2012) are striking for the empathy you bring to the portrayal of Juan Carlos. Do you feel the same empathy for him now?

PP:  Yes.  I feel sorry for what he went through.  As a boy he was constantly moved between homes in different countries.  By the time the family settled in Portugal he was 10 and it was deemed his duty to go to Spain to be educated as Franco saw fit.  That led to a pretty awful childhood and adolescence.  

My first proper meeting with him was not long after the book came out.  I assumed I’d been summoned to the palace to have my head chopped off.  But instead, Juan Carlos said, ‘You’ve given me back my childhood.  Everything else written about me dwells on the privileges of being royal, but you’ve captured what I really went through.’  It was moving to hear that.

Juan Carlos I and Sir Paul at the Zarzuela Palace

Fifty years from now I think Juan Carlos will be remembered for the great achievements of the Transition.  The current difficulties will be a footnote.

BAS:  You reflect in the biography that Juan Carlos ‘could legitimately look back over his life and reflect that he deserved some reward for the sacrifices made’.  Can we take it that Juan Carlos shared this view – and that it may explain some of what has gone wrong?

PP: I’ve never put it to him directly, but yes – I think that is the case.  Juan Carlos sacrificed a lot and had to take risks.  After 1982 his role as the ‘fireman of democracy’ was no longer needed.  His role as a neutral head of state remained crucial, but he increasingly became Spain’s chief commercial ambassador.  Unfortunately, that led to him mixing with some dubious characters.

BAS: That’s when he lost the ‘abnegation and sense of duty’ to which the biography refers?

PP: In the 2012 edition I refer to it as el descanso del guerrero – the warrior’s repose.  There’s a parallel with our own Edward VII. 

Psychologists recognise that people who think of themselves as having had a deprived childhood develop addictive needs as adults.  Juan Carlos was born in exile and his family was poor compared to other European monarchies.  Money was a sensitive issue for him. 

In later life, on trade missions to the Middle East, he found himself alongside rulers who not only enjoyed mind-boggling wealth, but also valued the principle of solidarity among monarchs.  There are stories of him visiting the Gulf and mentioning that he was a bit short, whereupon a major gift would appear.  With people around him saying, ‘you deserve this, Spaniards owe you everything,’ it must have been very tempting, and he may have lost his moral compass. After a lifetime of sacrifice, with all this wealth available, he may have thought, ‘sod it, now it’s my turn’.

Bear in mind, though, that the specific claims concern a commission supposedly paid for the Medina-Mecca railway by the Saudi government.  Why on earth would the Saudi government have paid the commission?  In corruption cases of this sort it’s the contractor who bribes the host government official, not the host government bribing an intermediary.  What makes it even odder is that the ‘gift’ was paid in 2008, but the contract not signed until 2011.  So these remain unproven allegations rather than revelations.

BAS: The Spanish news media of the late 20th / early 21st century were gratingly obsequious to the royal family.  Did this generate an atmosphere of impunity that might have affected Juan Carlos?

PP: Yes.  You would need extreme strength of character not to be affected by that sort of adulation. There was a set of unspoken rules about what the press could say, the tone they had to take.  It was pretty slavishly adhered to until the start of this century, eroding only slightly in the decade up to 2010 (and even then the journalists who did reveal things were frowned upon). 

The whole thing went to hell in a bucket with the 2012 elephant scandal. 

BAS: Should we be feeling sorry for Queen Sofia? She has in her turn endured a degree of solitude and abandonment.

PP: Sofia is a serious and intelligent woman who was absolutely crucial for her inputs at key moments.  When they were first together they were in love – it wasn’t an arranged marriage – and it remained a pretty good relationship for two or three decades.  During that time he had lots of bits on the side, I’m pretty sure.  In the history of the Borbón monarchs, it’s in the DNA.  So it’s very likely that the philandering was the cause of the break-up. 

BAS: And the break-up left him more vulnerable to other influences than if they’d stayed together?

PP:  Yes, that’s plausible. 

BAS: In describing Juan Carlos’ early tours around Spain in the 1960s, you quote him as saying that he found ‘no widespread monarchical spirit’ in the country.  With opinion polls now suggesting that public support for the monarchy is waning, do you think that’s still the case?

PP: Under the dictatorship there were sections of the army and the aristocracy that supported Franco in the mistaken belief that he intended to restore the monarchy.  However, he didn’t do so: instead, he created a new monarchy.  To use the Spanish phrase, no hubo una restauración, hubo una instauración.

When Franco died in 1975 Juan Carlos had only the most tenuous right to be on the throne, having been nominated as Franco’s successor through the 1947 Ley de Sucesión.  Franco broke the royal line of succession: Juan Carlos’ father Don Juan was the legitimate heir to the throne, but Franco effectively induced Juan Carlos to betray his father.  Juan Carlos was persuaded that his father was never going to become king, and realised that the only way to get his family back on the throne was to become king himself. 

Juan Carlos’ appointment of Suárez as prime minister and the ensuing reforms of the late 1970s built confidence in the monarchy.  In 1977, when Don Juan renounced his claim to the throne, Juan Carlos became the legitimate heir rather than just Franco’s nominee.  Juancarlismo became the monarchy’s greatest asset, enabling Juan Carlos to extinguish golpismo and put down the 1981 coup attempt.

BAS: Do you think that Felipe and Leticia are committed to perpetuating the monarchy, or would they be ready to accept a referendum on it?

PP: If you’re actually a member of a royal family, there seems to be a notion that your first duty is not to the country, but to the dynasty – keeping your family on the throne.  This became an obsession for Don Juan, and later for Juan Carlos himself. 

Felipe and Leticia are certainly committed to perpetuating the monarchy.  And Felipe has been at pains to insulate the Crown from the allegations involving his sister and father.  It may even be the case that the decision to go into exile was not made by Juan Carlos.

The question of a referendum is immensely complex.  The Constitution is based on a monarchy.  It’s not impossible that a party campaigning on a ‘monarchy or republic’ referendum could win an election by a big enough majority to change the Constitution, but it would be a very difficult process.  If those circumstances came about, Felipe would have little choice but to accept both the referendum and its result.  We’re into futurology here….  I’ve no idea if it will happen, or if it happened what the result would be.  However, given how conflictive Spanish politics are… can you imagine who would be president of the third republic?  The possibilities for conflict are endless. 

That said, Felipe stirred trouble with his address after the Catalonia referendum in 2017.  I couldn’t believe it.  It was hardline centralism, pure Rajoy-speak.  I can understand that a king doesn’t want to see his country broken up, but there has to be a degree of give and take – some nod to finding a negotiated way out.

BAS: The Spanish have memorable cognomens for many of their monarchs: Sancho el Gordo, Ordoño el Malo, Felipe el Hermoso, Juana la Loca…  Have you ever considered what Juan Carlos’ might be?       

PP: I’ve just published a history of corruption in Spain, going back to the stereotypes of Spaniards in past centuries, as far back as the picaresque, and it’s striking how people who are considered sharp – able to get money and women by whatever means – are admired, at least by men. 

So I’d suggest Juan Carlos el Listo: a term that his admirers can interpret as ‘clever’ or ‘intelligent’.  His detractors may read into it something closer to ‘wily’ or ‘deceptive’.

BAS:  Might there be a revised edition of your Juan Carlos biography?

PP: Yes, if my publisher were to ask.  Until then, I’m keeping busy dismantling the library of the LSE’s Cañada Blanch Centre [for Contemporary Spanish Studies] – finding homes for 9,000 books on contemporary Spain and the Spanish Civil War before it closes at the end of the year.  Most will go to the main LSE library, but it’s still rather heart-breaking to split up a collection acquired over 26 years.  There’ll still be a Cañada Blanch programme at the LSE, but focused on la actualidad rather than my period of history.

Sir Paul was speaking to BAS senior editor Robin Wallis.

Sir Paul has published widely on the Spanish Civil War, the Franco regime and its atrocities, the transition to democracy, and, most recently, A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain 1874-2018 (London: William Collins, 2020). 

Juan Carlos: a people’s king (HarperCollins) was published in 2004, and updated in Spanish as Juan Carlos: el rey de un pueblo (Editorial Debate 2012).  Copies were routinely presented to Juan Carlos’ official visitors during the last decade of his reign.