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The Triumph of Democracy in Spain by Paul Preston (Methuen: $32; 274 pp.)

August 24, 1986|Peter Wyden | Wyden's narrative history, "The Passionate War," is available in Simon & Schuster/Touchstone paperback. and

Ihave been feeling profoundly sad for Spaniards since I spent time among them in the early 1980s researching my book on the forgotten, passionate and pointless conflict that erupted 50 years ago this summer, the Spanish Civil War.

They seemed so fierce, so depressed in their sunshiny tourist scenery; so backward, off anchor from the rest of Europe; so traumatized by all authority. Little wonder. From 1936 to 1975, they were subjects of Gen. Francisco Franco, a dictator so malevolent that Adolf Hitler said he'd rather suffer at his dentist than deal with this potbellied ally. And when I traveled among Franco's victims years after Spain had supposedly graduated to democratic status, the caudillo's odor still lingered.

Republican veterans of the civil war still did not fraternize with former Nationalist soldiers. Priests were too frightened to talk of long-ago persecutions. The government? What government? When I suggested that the concierge of my Barcelona hotel phone the post office for accurate postal rates (they seemed to vary wherever I went), he shrank away in horror. The post office? That was the government--the last place to trust!

Since my most recent trip, to my amazement, Spain elected (and lately re-elected) the moderate Socialist government of the telegenic young Felipe Gonzalez. The economy is inching toward stability. The military appears under control. The terrorism of ETA, the Basque separatist organization, remains a reminder of the old days. But, for the first time, Spain is acting as if it were part of the Western World, not careening about its own errant orbit.

In "The Triumph of Democracy in Spain," Paul Preston, a brilliant, energetic young British academic with superb credentials as a ranking historian of contemporary Spain, unreels the story of the baffling leap from the final medieval days of Franco to the computer age of Felipe Gonzalez.

The transition triggered enough conspiracies, assassinations, bombings, high and low treason, and other outbursts of desperation to populate several Italian operas. In his zeal to get the players straight, Prof. Preston becomes perhaps a bit too conscientious in flooding us with names and nuances. But the underlying threads that tugged this great metamorphosis into place do shine through the maze, including the (to me) unexpected liberalizing influence of the Catholic church, once a pillar of Spain's most reactionary Methuselahs.

The sidelights and its quixotic characters are marvelous. I liked Franco's son-in-law trying to beat up the dictator's physician for suggesting that the general was too ill to continue in office. But I left Preston's pages wanting to know more about one of my all-time favorite characters, Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero Molina of the Civil Guard.

You must remember Tejero from our nightly TV news. He was the fellow in the three-cornered Madman Muntz hat who, on Feb. 23, 1981, invaded the Cortes with a handful of military police and took the entire parliament hostage. Cervantes would not have dared invent such a lancer. Yet, as Preston shows, the attempted coup very nearly set off the occupation of Madrid by the Brunete Armored Division. Which meant that Tejero "came within an inch" of succeeding.

We get hints of why Tejero did it. He used to serve in the Basque country, saw his fellow-soldiers murdered in ETA bomb and sniper attacks, turned into a hysteric and became famous for embracing the bloody corpses of his slaughtered friends. But his plottings against the objects of his hate, all politicians, and his consequent decision to capture the Cortes intact demand a book of their own to celebrate his kinship with our own Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because that's where the money is.

Only in Spain. Yet at least now there is a vivid, authoritative record of the nation's dramatic turn to sanity. And maybe I needn't feel so sorry for the Spaniards any more.

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