Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy

By Paul Preston. Norton. 614 pp. $35 A few pages into this biography of Spain's constitutional monarch, Juan Carlos I, one learns that the king's mother declared upon his birth, "He is as ugly as sin." Most contemporary biographers would likely tease out of this comment a telling theme that came to define the Spanish king's life -- for example, that Juan Carlos, who grew up to be quite handsome, has indeed defied many expectations. But readers of biographies of Princess Diana and John Adams, beware: This book, written by one of the most energetic and respected historians of modern Spain, does not seek out salacious details or purport to tell the essence of the man. This is really a history of modern Spanish politics, the dictatorial years of Francisco Franco and the surprisingly central role the king played in bringing about Spain's peaceful transition to democracy.

In fact, the political nature of this biography is surprising, given how its subject remains a fairly anodyne figure in contemporary Spain. No tabloid has grown rich on steamy gossip or sordid rumors about the king's private life. Even his recently married son, once the most eligible of royal bachelors, has rarely received much more than amused and supportive coverage of his love affairs. Preston's goal is to explain why, given Juan Carlos's inoffensive image (he was once even called king of the Republicans), he remains one of the most politically influential monarchs in Europe. This result could not easily have been predicted, and the author suggests that the trajectory that led Juan Carlos through the difficult years of the Franco regime and culminated with his stewardship of Spain's peaceful transition to democracy merits serious political study.

At his most psychological, Preston focuses on the personal sacrifices that were forced on Juan Carlos from a young age but which primed him for the sacrifices that his later political life demanded. This willingness for self-sacrifice largely resulted from a lack of fatherly affection and the subjugation of Juan Carlos's life to the political feuds between his father, Don Juan de Borbon, the heir to the Spanish throne, and Francisco Franco.

In 1947, eight years after the end of the Civil War, Franco decided to name himself regent of the Spanish monarchy with the right to select his successor. He came to see the young Juan Carlos as a potentially more pliable heir-apparent than his father, who, as a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, seemed too linked in the Francoist imagination to English liberalism. Franco pushed Don Juan to have the boy educated and reared in Spain practically at the generalissimo's side. Over half the book is devoted to the poker match between Don Juan, in exile in Portugal but assuming he would succeed Franco, and Franco himself, ensconced with the son in Spain, grooming the child in his own image. Franco held most of the cards, and he finally declared the 31-year-old Juan Carlos -- not Don Juan -- his successor in 1969.

Much of the future king's public persona became known, at least until Franco's death in 1975, through the dour and stiff public appearances he made at the dictator's side. Even Franco's more radical, anti-monarchical coalition members took to calling the young Juan Carlos the "idiot king" based on his appearance.

The book in many ways works to correct this image, portraying an active Juan Carlos engaging with foreign leaders, skillfully arranging secretly and under his own counsel for a future democratic transition. Juan Carlos has reportedly thanked the author for "giving me back my life." The ins and outs of the process covered here in great detail might not fascinate those uninterested in Spain under the Franco regime or its democratic transition. But, as with most of Preston's work, his eye for the winning detail makes his subjects quite human and enlivens the world of political maneuvering into something other than dry history. We learn, for example, of Juan Carlos's pet monkey, which he kept with him while an Air Force cadet, making sure that the animal was always in uniform. We learn of Juan Carlos's girlfriends and of affairs that both Franco and Don Juan intervened to stop. Preston attempts a definitive discussion of one of the most peculiar, least discussed and assuredly most painful events in Juan Carlos's life, his accidental and fatal shooting of his younger brother, Alfonso, in 1956.

Yet the real action comes in the final chapters, which are devoted to the peaceful transition to democracy that Juan Carlos helped broker. Because of the laws of succession that Franco engineered, the king was head of state, the same title Franco held, but the monarch would not have the legal powers or the cowering allegiance of loyal followers that the dictator possessed. Even worse, the king was not certain he had the popular mandate to initiate what he thought had to be a slow, reconciliatory transition to a multi-party constitutional monarchy. He spent most of his time placating the Socialist and Communist parties, which wanted a rapid transition or even a republic, and a Francoist older guard, who were at best hesitant about any change. As Preston suggests, the king succeeded because of his willingness to sacrifice his own position, trained as he was by a life that had always been circumscribed by political tactic and stratagem. His most important act was to direct power from his office as head of state toward those of the prime minister and parliament.

Juan Carlos places the king far more at the center of Spain's peaceful transition to democracy than he is usually positioned. Yet Preston leaves one wondering from where Juan Carlos's democratic leanings emerged. There were no clear signs growing up; even his father came to his liberalism seemingly in reaction to Franco. We see Juan Carlos's familial love for the caudillo but no clear reasons why his politics drifted so far away. Given this approach, perhaps it is not a surprise that Preston did not interview the king for the book. But after presenting Juan Carlos as a wily politician, and after explaining elsewhere that he did not want the king's charm to influence him, Preston might have delved more into the psychology of his democratic bent. *

Joshua Goode, who teaches history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is completing a study of Spanish notions of race in the 19th and 20th centuries.

King Juan Carlos of Spain