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ARMY

‘Everybody freeze!’: How a failed coup 40 years ago reshaped Spain’s military

On February 23 2021, Spain marks 40 years since a failed coup attempt triggered a cultural revolution within the military, leading to its forced modernisation and social integration.

'Everybody freeze!': How a failed coup 40 years ago reshaped Spain's military
Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero during the army's failed coup in 1981. Photos: Screenshot, AFP

For many Spaniards, memories remain fresh of a cold February afternoon when Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero stormed parliament with around 200 Guardia Civil officers, pistol in hand, shouting “¡quieto todo el mundo! (everybody freeze!).

The attempted coup was staged by an extremist faction within the military that wanted to halt the nation's shift towards democracy after decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco (1939-1975).

But the plan went awry due to the decisive response of King Juan Carlos I, triggering a new era in which the armed forces abandoned their interventionist role and embraced new responsibilities in global peacemaking and civilian protection.

“We moved from the concept of institutions that wielded power to institutions that provided a public service of security and defence,” said Admiral Manuel Garat Carame, who has been a part of the armed forces since Franco's death in 1975.

But how did an army accustomed to serving in a dictatorship and enjoying political privileges manage that shift?

Joining NATO

Initially, military leaders decided to promote those known for embracing more democratic ideals rather than carrying out widespread purges.

“What could be changed was changed,” recalls Abel Hernandez, a journalist who covered the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

“It wasn't a complete break from the past” because that would have meant getting rid of “up to 90 percent of the military leaders”.

The biggest driving force for change at an operational level and in military culture was Spain's 1982 entry into NATO which opened the door for multiple peace missions with the United Nations and European Union.

Another milestone was the end of obligatory military service in the 1990s and professionalisation of the military, which was placed under civilian control.

In 2008, Spain appointed Carme Chacon as its first female defence minister, about 20 years after women were first allowed into the military.

Chacon ushered in “an important feminisation at all levels within the army,” says analyst Diego Crescente, although progress has been slow with women only accounting for 12.8 percent of military personnel today, official figures show.

The transformation has taken years also owing to huge pressure from the Basque separatist movement ETA, which murdered dozens of soldiers and officials during the transition.

“The army's biggest accomplishment was its enormous self-restraint,” says Crescente, co-author of a recent article in the Revista de Occidente journal called “Army and Society”.

A public service

Alongside its international commitments, the Spanish army has become more visible back home as well thanks to its involvement in civilian emergencies.

The largest to date has been Operation Balmis during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic when a record 189,000 troops were deployed for 98 days to build field hospitals, disinfect public buildings, and transport patients and medical equipment.

That boosted the military's image among Spaniards.

“Such circumstances make people's perception (of the army) much more positive,” Garat told AFP.

“One of the things the army does very well, because it is hierarchical and functions at times of extreme tension, is respond to emergency situations,” says Jaume Claret, a professor at the Open University of Catalonia.

But he said it was “questionable” whether the army should be systematically involved in civil protection duties.

From military to politics

As in other Western countries, several Spanish military figures have also made the leap into politics after retiring from active duty.

Some have gravitated towards the far-right Vox party, while others joined the Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and in one case a former chief of staff joined the radical leftwing Podemos.

The fact that Vox leader Santiago Abascal often dons a military green face mask with a Spanish flag is no coincidence. 

Last year, the military-political dimension hit the headlines after details were leaked from a Whatsapp group of retired officers who virulently criticised Spain's leftwing government and spoke of “shooting” 26 million Spaniards.

Although Defence Minister Margarita Robles denounced the authors as “not representing the armed forces at all”, some analysts point to an underlying unease with Spain's minority government which has sought to improve relations with Basque and Catalan separatists.

“Not that there is going to be any more sabre-rattling but there is a lot of unease with the current government,” Hernandez says.

“It is generating internal tension for military figures, as it is for many Spaniards, but more so” with the troops.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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