Controlling Violence in Wartime? Power Centralization and Economization of Republican Violence in the Spanish Civil War

José Luis Ledesma, Contemporary History, University of Zaragoza

Research Grant, 2009, 2010

The goal of this HGF grant was to provide a richer picture of the violence against civilians in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). More specifically, it proposed examining the violence of the second principal phase of the war in the Republican-held territories, once the first six months had passed. My previous research on the first months of the conflict had revealed a significant relationship between power atomization and the intensity of the violence. The fact that the Republican state recovered the instruments of power—among them the judiciary—certainly implied a strong decrease of violence starting in the autumn of 1936.

Violence was in effect put under a certain official control, but this process was not simple, uncontested, or unidirectional.

The HFG grant allowed me to extend my research beyond those first months of the war. Existing literature highlighted that the previous uncontrolled violence was simply put under control and even quashed by the Republican central power during the second phase of the conflict. On the basis of qualitative research and a comparative perspective, my research did not support a narrowly schematic version of such an account. Violence was in effect put under a certain official control, but this process was not simple, uncontested, or unidirectional. It was a long, arduous, and sometimes contradictory process that included continuities with the previous phase and new repressive practices sponsored by state mechanisms. The state was not the only actor involved in this process, its role was not always univocal, and by controlling violence, it did not merely intend to reduce the number of massacres, but also to marginalize and remove other political actors from spaces of power. Similarly, the progressive control of coercive instruments was hardly the only factor that led to the decrease in violence. Instead of being a mere function of state control, what led to a decrease of violence that took place on the Republican side was a process of economization of violence in which not only the state, but also other actors, factors, and logics were involved.

These findings may be important because they tell us that the mere state reconstruction is less important than previously thought in accounting for, and reducing violence in, civil war and revolution contexts. This study is a contribution on issues such as the implications of dispersed or centralized power in mass violence; the circumstances under which states decide, and are able to control, minimize, or maximize violence; and the impact of political discourses and competition among different actors for the use of violence in modern war violence.

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