Hereditary monarchy is not exactly a growth industry in the 21st century. But those who imagine monarchy to be useless in a democratic age might consider the case of Spain (a stable democracy that has just gone through a royal transition, with King Juan Carlos abdicating in favor of his son and heir, Felipe). It’s an intriguing tale involving an unlikely cast of characters: President Richard M. Nixon; General Vernon Walters; and the Spanish Caudillo, Francisco Franco.
Nixon, it seems, was concerned about what would happen in Spain when Franco, dictator since the late 1930s, left the scene. So he sent General Walters, an accomplished linguist who served several presidents in back-channel diplomacy, to see Franco. The dictator received him and after the initial pleasantries, Franco said, “Your president wishes to know what will happen to Spain after my death. I will tell you. Spain will become a democracy, for three reasons. I restored the monarchy. I created the Spanish middle class. And I saved the honor of the Spanish army. Tell that to President Nixon.”
Francisco Franco remains one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. To some on the romantic Catholic right, Franco is the last crusader, the knight who successfully resisted the attempt by aggressive secularists and Stalinists to turn Spain into an Iberian imitation of the Soviet Union. To the North Atlantic left, Franco is a demonic figure who ruthlessly crushed the Spanish Republic and created a fascist regime that long outlasted its cousins in Germany and Italy. Those who understand that the Spanish Republicans perpetrated one of the most brutal persecutions of the Catholic Church in history must wrestle with the hard facts of Franco’s political repression in forming a judgment on his legacy. Those who deplore that repression would do well to acknowledge the savagery visited upon Spanish priests, nuns, and faithful laity, in making their judgment on Franco, his Nationalists, and their fight against the Spanish Republicans.
However those arguments are resolved, though, the interim verdict of history in the early 21st century has to be that Francisco Franco told Vernon Walters, not what he thought the American president wanted to hear, but the truth about Spain’s post-Franco future. Spain became a democracy under a constitutional monarch, Juan Carlos. And when the fragile Spanish democracy was threatened by unhappy military officers in 1981, it was King Juan Carlos who held things together, persuading the officers that the honorable thing to do was to support the new Spanish democratic order.
I’ve often thought that, if the Norwegian Nobel Committee had any sense, it would long ago have awarded Juan Carlos its Peace Prize. But like F. W. de Klerk in South Africa, Juan Carlos seems fated to be one of the unsung heroes of the democratic transitions of the late 20th century.
The Spanish Civil War was one of the most awful spectacles in a century replete with awfulness. Memories of depredation were long and wounds were deep—not least in the national psyche. And Spain, which was only cobbled together in something like its present form in the late 15th century, is naturally fractious. It’s hard to image who, or what, could have held Spain together in the late 1970s (while Portugal was flirting with communism) if it were not for Juan Carlos and the Spanish monarchy.
To revisit this is not to suggest that Juan Carlos was a saintly monarch in the Camelot mold; he wasn’t. It is simply to note that, in difficult democratic transitions (and they’re all difficult in some degree), national identity and unity must be embodied in someone or something. In the case of Spain’s democratic transition, that someone was Juan Carlos and that something was the Spanish monarchy.
And in the Spanish case, as in other more recent instances—King Baudouin in Belgium resisting the abortion license, Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg standing fast against euthanasia—the hereditary monarch also embodied, and defended, the moral principles that make democratic self-government possible.
Lessons to ponder, as we mark Independence Day in these United States.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This article was originally published on The Catholic Difference