THROUGHOUT his career General Franco left a trail of dupes who thought they had the measure of him, and lived to regret their folly. Don Juan de Borbon was perhaps unique in recognising that his defeat at Franco's hands might, in the end, have been in Spain's best interests.
The issue between Don Juan and Franco was who should succeed the dictator as king in a restored monarchy: Don Juan or his son Juan Carlos. Don Juan was the third son of Alfonso XIII, who left Spain in 1931 after republicans won the local elections. In 1933 Alfonso's eldest son married a Cuban renounced the throne (he died in a car crash five years later). Alfonso's second son Jaime was a deaf mute, who also renounced the succession. Thus when Alfonso died in 1941, apologising for taking so long about it, the path was clear for Juan to stake his claim.
Don Juan already had reason to suspect Franco's intentions. In 1936 he had crossed secretly into Spain to join the Nationalist forces, only to be bundled back into France by the rebels, who said they did not want to endanger the life of the heir to the throne. It soon became clear that Franco had no desire to give up his position as head of the Spanish state.
Franco enjoyed the exercise of supreme power too much. He was also aware that his supporters included the anti-royalist Falange movement, and Carlists who backed a rival branch of the Borbon dynasty. For both groups, the accession of one of Alfonso's sons would have been intolerable. Franco's compromise was to restore the monarchy in name in 1949, appoint himself head of state for life, and reserve the right to name his successor 'as King or Regent'.
Don Juan had moved with his family from Switzerland to Portugal in 1946 in order to be closer to the Spanish people. He was now faced with a dilemma which he never managed to resolve. Should he conclude that Franco intended to cling to power for as long as possible, and side with the liberal opponents of the regime? Or should he accept that the only way to restore the monarchy was through co- operation with Franco? His dilemma was made more acute because, while no liberal, he genuinely wished to heal the wounds of the civil war, and deplored Franco's persecution of his opponents.
For his part, Franco's attitude towards Don Juan was a mixture of contempt and condescension. 'Don Juan is a good man, a gentleman and a patriot,' he once said, 'only he suffers the natural vacillations of one who lives in the wilderness.'
When Franco suggested in 1949 that the pretender's two sons should be educated in Spain, Don Juan went into an agony of indecision. After several weeks he capitulated, and the 10-year-old Juan Carlos and his younger brother Alfonso took the train from Lisbon to Madrid.
This set the pattern for the Caudillo's dealings with the pretender until Franco's death in 1975. Don Juan knew that to sever ties with Franco would destroy his own chances of restoration. Equally, by putting Juan Carlos under Franco's tutelage, he knew that he was increasing the chance that Franco would name the younger Borbon as his successor.
That is what Franco eventually did in July 1969, after Juan Carlos agreed to swear an oath of loyalty to the dictator and his Movimiento Nacional. When told of his son's decision, Don Juan affected disdain. He let it be known that on the day Juan Carlos took the oath he would be at sea in his yacht. But he could not resist anchoring that afternoon at a little village on the Portuguese coast, to watch the proceedings on television in a fishermen's bar. When his son finished speaking his only comment was 'Nicely read, Juanito, nicely read'.
There is no doubt that Don Juan was bitterly disappointed by his rejection. Back at his home in Estoril, he issued a statement pointing out that he had not been consulted and the freely expressed opinion of the Spanish people had not been sought. In Franco's final years he increased his contacts with the democratic opposition, and in June 1975, just before the dictator died, he was banned from Spain after attacking the regime at a dinner in Barcelona.
Yet the breach with Juan Carlos rapidly healed, once Don Juan was satisfied that his son was committed to establishing democracy. On 14 May 1977, at the Zarzuela palace in Madrid, Don Juan formally renounced his rights to the throne, bowed to his son, and passed into history with the enigmatic words 'Majesty. Spain. Above all.'
Don Juan always claimed that he took up the monarchist cause out of a sense of obligation. Unlike many royal pretenders this was probably true. His happiest days were spent before the war as a naval officer, serving first with the Spanish navy, and after 1931 at the Royal Naval College in England. By temperament, he was a Spanish gentleman, hunting, sailing and in later years - like General Franco - working hard to improve his golf handicap.
Even his private life, however, was clouded by misfortune. His second son Alfonso was killed at the age of 14, while he and Juan Carlos were playing with a loaded gun - a tragedy that has never been properly explained. Don Juan's last public appearance was at a ceremony in October 1992, attended by the entire royal family, when Alfonso's remains were finally reburied at the Escorial monastery near Madrid.