The Political Economy of the Army in a Nonconsolidated Democracy: Spain (1931-1939)

by Alvaro La Parra-Perez (Weber State University)

The full article is published by the Economic History Review and is available for Early View at this link 

The Spanish Civil War (1936-9; henceforth, SCW) ended the Second Spanish Republic (1931-9), which is often considered Spain’s first democracy. Despite the hopes raised by the Republic – which enfranchised women and held free and fair elections, separated Church and state, and drafted and ambitious agrarian reform- , its end was not very different from many previous Spanish regimes: a military coup started the SCW which ultimately resulted in a dictatorship led by one of the rebel officers: Francisco Franco (1939/75).

In my article “For a Fistful of Pesetas? The Political Economy of the Army in a Non-Consolidated Democracy: The Second Spanish Republic and Civil War (1931-9)”, I open the “military black box” to understand the motivations driving officers’ behavior. In particular, the article explores how the redistribution of economic and professional rents during the Republic influenced officers’ likelihood of rebelling or remaining loyal to the republican government in 1936. By looking at (military) intra-elite conflict, I depart from the traditional assumption of an “elite single agent” that characterizes the neoclassical theory of the state (e.g. here, here, here, or here; also here).

The article uses a new data set with almost 12,000 active officers active in 1936 who belonged to the corps more directly involved in combat. Using the Spanish military yearbooks between 1931 and 1936, I traced officers’ individual professional trajectories and assessed the impact that republican military reforms in 1931-6 had on their careers. The side –loyal or rebel- chosen by each officer comes from Carlos Engel.

Figure 1. Extract from the 1936 military yearbook. Source: 1936 Military Yearbook published by the Spanish Minister of War:

The main military reforms during the Republic took place under Manuel Azaña’s term as Minister of the War (1931-3). Azaña was also the leader of the leftist coalition that ruled the Republic when some officers rebelled and the SCW began. Azaña’s reforms favored the professional and economic independence of the Air Force and harmed many officers’ careers when some promotions passed during Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923/30) were revised and cancelled. The system of military promotions was also revised and rendered more impersonal and meritocratic. Some historians also argue that the elimination of the highest rank in the army (Lieutenant General) worsened the professional prospects of many officers because vacancies for promotions became scarcer.

The results suggest that, at the margin, economic and professional considerations had a significant influence on officers’ choice of side during the SCW. The figure below shows the probit average marginal effects for the likelihood of rebelling among officers in republican-controlled areas. The main variables of interest are the ones under the “Rents” header. In general, those individuals or factions that improved their economic rents under Azaña’s reforms were less likely to rebel. For example, aviators were almost 20 percentage points less likely to rebel than the reference corps (artillerymen) and those officers with worse prospects after the rank of lieutenant general was eliminated were more likely to join the rebel ranks. Also, officers with faster careers (greater “change of position”) in the months before the SCW were less likely to rebel. The results also suggest that officers had a high discount rate for changes in their rank or position in the scale. Pre-1935 promotions are not significantly related to officers’ side during the SCW. Officers negatively affected by the revision of promotions in 1931/3 were more likely to rebel only at the 10 percent significance level (p-value=0.089).

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Figure 2. Probit average marginal effects for officers in republican-controlled areas with 95-percent confidence intervals. Source: see original article

To be clear, economic and professional interest were not the only elements explaining officers’ behavior. The article also finds evidence for the significance of other social and ideological factors. Take the case of hierarchical influences. Subordinates’ likelihood of rebelling in a given unit increased if their leader rebelled. Also, officers were less likely to rebel in those areas where the leftist parties that ruled in July 1936 had obtained better results in the elections held in February. Finally, members of the Assault Guard –a unit for which proven loyalty to the Republic was required- were more likely to remain loyal to the republican government.

The results are hardly surprising for an economist: people respond to incentives and officers – being people- were influenced at the margin by the impact that Azaña’s reforms had on their careers. This mechanism adds to the ideological explanations that have often dominated the narratives of the SCW, which tend to depict the army –more or less explicitly- as a monolithic agent aligned with conservative elites. As North, Wallis, and Weingast showed for other developing societies, intra-elite conflict and the redistribution of rents were an important factor in the dynamics (and ultimate fall) of the dominant coalition in Spain’s first democracy.


To contact the author:

Twitter: @AlvaroLaParra

Professional website:

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