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Agriculture in the Age of Fascism: Authoritarian Technocracy and Rural Modernization, 1922-1945

Editor(s):Prieto, Lourenzo Fernández
Pan-Montojo, Juan
Cabo, Miguel
Reviewer(s):Iriarte-Goñi, Iñaki

Published by EH.Net (December 2015)

Lourenzo Fernández Prieto, Juan Pan-Montojo and Miguel Cabo, editors, Agriculture in the Age of Fascism: Authoritarian Technocracy and Rural Modernization, 1922-1945. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2014. 261 pp. €64 (paperback), ISBN: 978-2-503-55248-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Iñaki Iriarte-Goñi, Department of Applied Economics and Economic History, University of Zaragoza.

Rural history and agricultural history are disciplines which have flourished in Spain in recent decades. Within the general framework of the Spanish Society of Agrarian History (SEHA) many works concerning the economic, social, and political history of agriculture and rural areas have been published. Thus, is not a surprise that three Spanish scholars (Lourenzo Fernandez Prieto and Miguel Cobo from the University of Santiago de Compostela and Juan Pan-Montojo from the Autonomous University of Madrid) have promoted and edited this collection of essays devoted to the analysis of agriculture in different countries in the so called Age of Fascism.

In this volume, thirteen specialists (including the three editors) analyze agrarian policies and their results in eight different countries with fascist political regimes mainly during the interwar period. Those countries are, in order of appearance in the work, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Spain, Manchukuo state and Vichy France. In order to compare such different countries, the editors pose at the beginning a “fascist minimum” acting in the agrarian sphere. That is, they establish seven common features that, in their view, all the regimes considered sought with their agrarian policies. Those features are 1) strong ruralist ideological discourse with an alleged defense of peasantry and small land holders; 2) aggressive commercial policies trying to guarantee national self-sufficiency in food; 3) prevalence of state intervention to control agrarian markets; 4) preference for reforms that did not put into question land ownership and especially that did not disturb landed oligarchy; 5) application of corporate designs for social harmonization; 6) military discipline and hierarchy as institutional solutions also for agrarian policies; and 7) subordination of agriculture to the needs of other economic sectors, particularly armament.

Following this general scheme, in the different chapters one can verify some ideological links between different regimes. For instance, the idea of self-sufficiency in wheat proposed by Mussolini in the Bataglia del grano in 1925 was used also in the Campagnha do Trigo of the Estado Novo of Portugal from 1929 to 1933 and reinvented again in the Batalla del trigo of the Francoist regime in Spain after the Spanish Civil War at the end of the thirties. Or in a similar way, the idea of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) proposed by the Nazi Minister of Agriculture R.W. Darré at the beginning of the thirties as an expression of the union of peasant and land as the core of an indispensable foundation of the German State, was translated to Japanese and replicated as a part of the ruralist ideology in Manchukuo state some years later.

Of course similarities in the design of agrarian policies are combined with major differences affecting each country. Apart from the specific chronologies when fascist regimes flourished, the weight of the different economies and of the agricultural sector inside them also varied, both in terms of national GDP and population employed in the sector. Also the degree of modernization of the agricultural sector and rural institutions related to size of farms and land distribution could be very dissimilar. And of course, the implication of fascist regimes on war also differed. The importance of food for military expansion during World War II and the use of food (or its privation) as the “ultimate weapon of destruction” was usual, especially in the eastern front of Europe from 1941 on, as Gesine Gerhard points out in his chapter about Nazi Germany.

Differences were abundant, but the main proposal of the editors, shared by all the contributors, is that fascist regimes in the interwar period tried to implement a peculiar way to agrarian modernity, built against liberal and communist modernizing projects. That way was an authoritarian one in which the state was to promote technological change and control market integration. This, together with the union of peasantry and landed aristocracy in corporatist institutions, was supposed to overcome social conflict in rural areas and to promote agricultural modernization based mainly in technocracy. As Ernst Langthaler proposes for the case of Austria, the amalgam of modern and anti-modern elements and the contradictions between changes in the institutional matrix and bottlenecks in technological change probably thwarted actual agrarian modernization. But it was an irreversible step along the path toward a productivist food regime in post-war Europe.

Of course, as the editors state at the beginning, the emphasis on the modernizing character of fascism does not involve any attempt to rehabilitate it. Far from it, this sight tries to see fascist policies as a stage in the evolution of agricultural policies in the twentieth century and, apart from revealing interesting aspects for each country, also raises important questions for future research.

As happens in all collective books, the chapters are uneven in quality. Although all of them manage to draw the outlines of agrarian policies for their respective countries, some focus mainly on the ideological representation of the fascist discourse. More attention to the use of factors of production and to the level of productivity gains and its causes would have been desirable in some cases. Nevertheless, the overall assessment of the work has to be positive. We are dealing with an interesting book, useful not only for a better understanding of the agricultural policies of the interwar period but also for a deep knowledge of fascist ideology itself.

Iñaki Iriarte-Goñi is senior lecturer of Economic History in the University of Zaragoza. He specializes in agrarian history. His main lines of research are common land and property rights and the economic history of forest and forest products. Recent publications include “Not Only Subterranean Forests: Wood Consumption and Economic Development in Britain (1850–1938),” Ecological Economics, 2012 (with M.I. Ayuda) and “Commons and the Legacy of the Past: Regulation and Uses of Common Lands in Twentieth-Century Spain,” International Journal of the Commons, 2015 (with J.M. Lana)

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII