THE MASSACRE OF ATOCHA – PAUL PRESTON

October 19, 2017

When Franco died on 20 November 1975, it was in the context of a rising popular clamour for democracy but those opposed to change were immensely strong. The armed forces, the paramilitary Civil Guard, the Armed Police and 100,000 Falangists with gun licences were determined to see that Franco’s chosen successor, Prince Juan Carlos, would maintain the dictatorship.

As King, Juan Carlos knew that his survival on the throne required democratisation but also that reform risked bloodshed. Deeply distrusted by the left, his first task was to neutralise the army and so he kept on Franco’s last prime minister, Carlos Arias Navarro.

Slow progress towards reform saw mass demonstrations in favour of amnesty for political prisoners and large- scale industrial strikes spread during the first months of 1976. In fact, Juan Carlos’s caution reflected the military’s deep hostility to change. The big leap forward came on 30 July 1976 when the silver-tongued Adolfo Suárez, head of Spain’s single party, the Movimiento, became prime minister. The hopes of the Partido Comunista that working-class militancy could defeat the Francoist establishment were misplaced and Santiago Carrillo, the party’s leader, gradually accepted the need for negotiation between government and opposition. His relationship with Suárez would be crucial.

Suárez introduced a political amnesty and promised a referendum on political reform and elections before 30 June 1977. In parallel, Carrillo brought the PCE back to the surface, challenging the cabinet either to tolerate his party’s existence or else to reveal its true colours by reverting to repressive action. Suárez was walking a tight-rope. Any reform had to be steered past the Army and the Francoist establishment and at the same time exposed to the suspicious scrutiny of the opposition. Nevertheless, by November 1976, he had introduced a political reform law promising elections which was to be put to a referendum.

To de-stabilize Suárez’s government, an allegedly marxist-leninist group, GRAPO, either infiltrated or manipulated by the hard right and elements of the police, began first a bombing campaign. Then, just before the referendum, they kidnapped Antonio María de Oriol, president of the Council of State, on 11 December 1976. The massive vote in favour of change on 15 December suggested that the operation had failed. Then, on 24 January 1977, they seized a prominent General, Emilio Villaescusa Quilis, prompting a concerted right-wing campaign against the reform process.

On the same day as the kidnapping of Villaescusa, ultra terrorists murdered five people, four of whom were Communist labour lawyers, in an office in the Atocha district of Madrid. The PCE refused to be provoked and issued appeals for serenity. At the victims’ funeral, the Party organised a gigantic display of silent solidarity. Both Suárez and the King himself, who flew over the march in a helicopter, were deeply impressed by the demonstration of Communist strength and discipline. The Atocha massacre and the subsequent Communist restraint accelerated progress to democracy. A joint government-opposition declaration denouncing terrorism and calling for national support for the government reinforced Suárez’s popular backing and permitted progress towards election in June 1977.

Paul Preston, CBE, is an English historian and Hispanist, biographer of Franco, specialist in Spanish history, in particular, the Spanish Civil War. He is the winner of multiple awards for his books on the Spanish Civil War.

7 Days in January post-screen Q&A with Paul Preston