On February 23, 1981, a video camera hanging in the Spanish Cortes recorded thirty-five minutes of a coup attempt that has come to be known as 23-F. It was not the first, or even the last, golpe de estado plotted during Spain’s transition to democracy, but it was the most cinematic. At around six in the evening, in the middle of a vote to anoint a new prime minister, Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero, armed with a pistol and accompanied by 150 civil guardsmen, stormed the chamber and held its 350 parliamentarians hostage. In the confusion of the moment shots were fired into the ceiling, and nearly everyone dove for cover. Everyone, that is, except for three people, who refused to budge even as the bullets whizzed past. They were outgoing Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez; his deputy prime minister, Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado; and the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo.
Unbeknownst to those present, the camera continued to roll, capturing the moment of curious, if inspired, resistance. When armed guardsmen later led the three men from the chamber, it looked as though they would be taken outside and shot. This did not happen. Although Suárez, Gutiérrez Mellado and Carrillo had every reason to expect that the events would take a violent turn, the golpistas had envisioned a “soft coup.” But the errant shots left a different impression, and as it was the recorded impression, it became the defining image of 23-F: a burst of gunfire, tiers of abandoned benches and the three unperturbed heroes of the moment.
The events pay a certain price for their cinematic flair. To see Tejero stride into the Cortes, with his tiny pistol and tricorne hat, is almost to be convinced that the coup was a mad plot hatched by a lunatic. It seemed a work of folly, but it had sprung from a political culture of irresponsible (yet ultimately irresistible) opportunism characteristic of the later years of the Transition. The plot that day was more coordinated than it appeared on the video fragment recorded in the Cortes. There was a declaration of martial law in Valencia, and preparations for the same in Madrid. Coupled with the takeover of Parliament, the military maneuvers were meant to back King Juan Carlos into a corner, while his former secretary and lifelong confidant, now golpista, Gen. Alfonso Armada, posed as an interlocutor in good faith and then offered up his candidacy as prime minister, ostensibly to assuage the military and forestall disaster. Just six years after Franco’s death and two since the ratification of a new constitution, it was an odd proposition tailored to a country in transition. The coup was an overthrow of a democratically elected government that nonetheless could flourish only with the approval of the king, who at the time embodied Francoist Spain in decline and democratic Spain in ascendance. His power was singular because its incarnation was double.
In the early morning of February 24, seven hours after the assault on the Cortes, King Juan Carlos appeared in uniform as commander of the armed forces to deliver an instantly iconic speech on national television; in it, he denounced the coup and effectively quashed it. Later that morning, in yet another moment memorialized on film, the hostages walked out of the Cortes unharmed.
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In his newly translated nonfiction book about the coup, The Anatomy of a Moment, published in Spain in 2009, the decorated Spanish novelist Javier Cercas is right to speak of “unreal images.” He means this in a couple of senses. The recorded images of 23-F are almost fantastical, certainly overripe. The footage, Cercas writes, could easily be “a scene from a cliché-ridden Spanish film fresh from the hackneyed brain of a mediocre imitator of Luis García Berlanga.” (Berlanga, who died last year at 89, made films that needled the Franco regime and the Catholic Church while outwitting government censors.) Once the events of the day became a “scene” captured on camera and relayed by television broadcast, Cercas suggests, they may well have ceased being real, becoming instead mere projections, part of the flittering unreality of television, which “contaminates everything it touches.”