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‘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

Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner

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