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.


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Land reform and agrarian conflict in 1930s Spain

Jordi Domènech (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) and Francisco Herreros (Institute of Policies and Public Goods, Spanish Higher Scientific Council)

Government intervention in land markets is always fraught with potential problems. Intervention generates clearly demarcated groups of winners and losers as land is the main asset owned by households in predominantly agrarian contexts. Consequently, intervention can lead to large, generally welfare-reducing changes in the behaviour of the main groups affected by reform, and to policies being poorly targeted towards potential beneficiaries.

In this paper (available here), we analyse the impact of tenancy reform in the early 1930s on Spanish land markets. Adapting general laws to local and regional variation in land tenure patterns and heterogeneity in rural contracts was one of the problems of agricultural policies in 1930s Spain. In the case of Catalonia in the 1930s, the interest of the case lies in the adaptation of a centralized tenancy reform, aimed at fixed-rent contracts, to sharecropping contracts that were predominant in Catalan agriculture. This was more typically the case of sharecropping contracts on vineyards, the case of customary sharecropping contract (rabassa morta), subject to various legal changes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is considered that the 1930s culminated a period of conflicts between the so called rabassaires (sharecroppers under rabassa morta contracts) and owners of land.

The divisions between owners of land and tenants was one of the central cleavages of Catalonia in the 20th century. This was so even in an area that had seen substantial industrialization. In the early 1920s, work started on a Catalan law of rural contracts, aimed especially at sharecroppers. A law, passed on the 21st March 1934, allowed the re-negotiation of existing rural contracts and prohibited the eviction of tenants who had been less than 6 years under the same contract. More importantly, it opened the door to forced sales of land to long-term tenants. Such legislative changes posed a threat to the status quo and the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled the law was unconstitutional.

The comparative literature on the impacts of land reforms argues that land reform, in this case tenancy reform, can in fact change agrarian structures. When property rights are threatened, landowners react by selling land or interrupting existing tenancy contracts, mechanizing and hiring labourers. Agrarian structure is therefore endogenous to existing threats to property rights. The extent of insecurity in property rights in 1930s Catalonia can be seen in the wave of litigation over sharecropping contracts. Over 30,000 contracts were revised in the courts in late 1931 and 1932 which provoked satirical cartoons (Figure 01).

Figure 1. Revisions and the share of the harvest. Source: L’Esquella de la Torratxa, 2nd August 1932, p. 11.
Translation: The rabaissaire question: Peasant: You sweat by coming here to claim your part of the harvest, you would be sweating more if you were to grow it by yourself.

The first wave of petitions to revise contracts led overwhelmingly to most petitions being nullified by the courts. This was most pronounced in the Spanish Supreme Court which ruled against the sharecropper in most of the around 30,000 petitions of contract revision. Nonetheless, sharecroppers were protected by the Catalan autonomous government. The political context in which the Catalan government operated became even more charged in October 1934. That month, with signs that the Centre-Right government was moving towards more reactionary positions, the Generalitat participated in a rebellion orchestrated by the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and Left Republicans. It is in this context of suspension of civil liberties that landowners now had a freer hand to evict unruly peasants. The fact that some sharecroppers did not surrender their harvest meant they could be evicted straight away according to the new rules set by the new military governor of Catalonia.

We use the number of cases of completed and initiated tenant evictions from October 1934 to around mid -1935 as the main dependent variable in the paper. Data were collected from a report produced by the main Catalan tenant union, Unió de Rabassaires (Rabassaires’ Union), published in late 1935 to publicize and denounce tenant evictions or attempts of evicting tenants.

Combining the spatial analysis of eviction cases with individual information on evictors and evicted, we can be reasonably confident about several facts around evictions and terminated contracts in 1930s Catalonia. Our data show that that rabassa morta legacies were not the main determinant of evictions. About 6 per cent of terminated contracts were open ended rabassa morta contracts (arbitrarily set at 150 years in the graph). About 12 per cent of evictions were linked to contracts longer than 50 years, which were probably oral contracts (since Spanish legislation had given a maximum of 50 years). Figure 2 gives the contracts lengths of terminated and threatened contracts.

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Figure 2. Histogram of contract lengths. Source: Own elaboration from Unió de Rabassaires, Els desnonaments rústics.

The spatial distribution of evictions is also consistent with the lack of historical legacies of conflict. Evictions were not more common in historical rabassa morta areas, nor were they typical of areas with a larger share of land planted with vines.

Our study provides a substantial revision of claims by unions or historians about very high levels of conflict in the Catalan countryside during the Second Republic. In many cases, there had a long process of adaptation and fine-tuning of contractual forms to crops and soil and climatic conditions which increased the costs of altering existing institutional arrangements.

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