Opinion: Juan Carlos, a once admirable king in tatters | Opinion | DW | 04.08.2020
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Opinion: Juan Carlos, a once admirable king in tatters

Juan Carlos should have had a place of honor in Spain's history for his achievements as a young king. But after a string of scandals, his departure into exile is ignominious, says Gabriel Gonzalez.

I admit it: Juan Carlos was once one of my heroes. But that was a long time ago now.

I was 17, living in Germany, and just starting to become interested in politics when the then still young King Juan Carlos appeared on TV screens. It was February 23, 1981, when part of the Spanish armed forces and the police attempted a coup against the still young democracy. Tanks drove through the streets, the parliament was occupied by the forces behind the coup and the government was crippled.

Read more: Has Spain's former king Juan Carlos I fled to the Dominican Republic?

Then, this young king, whom everyone had underestimated up to now, appeared before a camera in the uniform of the commander-in-chief of the Spanish armed forces and ordered the soldiers to return to their barracks immediately. The coup attempt collapsed before the next morning. Juan Carlos had saved Spanish democracy.

A central figure of change

The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain confronted many eastern and southeastern European countries with the question of how to transit from an authoritarian system to a democracy in a peaceful, orderly fashion. Much attention was directed toward Madrid at the time: Spain had long been seen as a model of successful transition, and Juan Carlos was the central figure in this process.

A headshot photograph of Gabriel Gonzalez

DW's Gabriel Gonzalez

Why am I recounting all the old heroic deeds of Juan Carlos? Because in view of current events and his royal misconduct, they tend to be pushed into the background. And because this discrepancy between a glorious past and the self-inflicted fall from grace highlights just how tragic this departure into exile is. How could someone who began his career as monarch so brilliantly as a young, courageous head of state and shaper and defender of Spanish democracy fall so deep in the course of the years? "Human, all too human," Friedrich Nietzsche would perhaps have said. "Great material for my next royal tragedy," William Shakespeare would probably have murmured.

The inglorious departure of Juan Carlos, which can and should be seen as a flight from Spanish justice, is, of course, just what critics of the monarchy were waiting for. That is quite normal and right: No king should be above the law — and no US presidents either, but that is by the by. Juan Carlos would have done better to explain himself to a Spanish court in Spain. That should go without saying in a modern constitutional monarchy.

Feeling of impunity

At some stage, Juan Carlos began acting as though he could do anything he wanted with complete impunity: bawl out Latin American presidents (Hugo Chavez, 2007), go on safaris and have trophy photos taken of himself next to elephants he had royally shot (2012), and indulge in a series of sexual escapades that were borne stoically by his wife, Queen Sofia. And now there is the current corruption scandal in which he is alleged to be involved.

Read more: Spain's ex-king Juan Carlos leaves country amid suspicions of bribery from Saudi Arabia

Juan Carlos made an ever-sorrier impression. Like Don Quixote in Miguel Cervantes' masterpiece, he was long past his best and was noticed only for the embarrassing things he did. He no longer understood the world and no longer was able or willing to fulfill its changed demands regarding a monarchy (if such a thing was even still wanted).

His own fault

In one of the last photos of him taken in Spain, Juan Carlos is seen sitting sad and alone in the passenger seat of his car. His gaze is fixed on nothing. Is he realizing that he has squandered his honorable place in the history books? And that he has himself to blame for it? I admit that it makes me somehow a bit sorry for him. But his fall from grace is the result solely of his own mistakes. For me personally, what remains is the sad realization that aging heroes almost never cut a good figure.

Watch video 02:00

Spain's former king Juan Carlos leaves country amid corruption allegations