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The Development of Modern Spain: An Economic History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Author(s):Tortella, Gabriel
Reviewer(s):Zamagni, Vera

Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Gabriel Tortella, The Development of Modern Spain: An Economic History of

the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge: Harvard University

Press, 2000. xvi + 528 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-00094-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Vera Zamagni, Department of Economic Science,

University of Bologna (Italy).

This monograph by Gabriel Tortella (professor of economic history at the

Universidad Alcal? de Henares, Madrid, Spain) was vastly appreciated by all

those who could read it in Spanish. Its translation into English is very

welcome. Its publication adds to the collection of volumes that present case

studies of countries which have succeeded in making the transition to modern

economies, but which have never attracted enough attention by international

scholars and readers because of the absence of a good account in English. The

book achieves the goal of presenting the peculiarities of Spanish economic

history with an approach that is inspired by the more quantitative and

analytical standard that prevails in contemporary economic history, while at

the same time remaining readable for those who have only a basic knowledge of

economics. No one could have succeeded better than Gabriel Tortella in keeping

this difficult equilibrium between rigor and readability. His vast research

into Spanish economic history, his systematic collaboration with all the

leading economic historians of Spain, and his knowledge of international

comparisons make him the ideal author for such a work.

The book is not perfect, however. No work of general economic history can be

better than the basic research on which it has been constructed. Let me

address a couple of the weakest aspects of research in Spanish economic

history, which are mirrored in Tortella’s book. The first problem is

periodization. There is by now a consensus that economic history is best dealt

with systematically over rather long periods of time. The most important

decision for a general economic history is, therefore, to identify the

relevant turning points within which to arrange an analysis of the economy. I

think that a clear identification of such turning points is still missing in

Spanish economic history. Tortella takes the view of dividing up the time span

into nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but there are several contradictions

in this, that come out of the very arguments developed by the author. The

nineteenth century is hardly a coherent period and, with the exception of

agriculture, all other sectors present some interesting development only from

the middle of the century, continuing undisturbed into the twentieth century

at least up to World War I, if not into the 1920s. Tortella is quite aware of

this (see his pp. 231-34, but also p. 299 and passim), but is in no position

to fill in the gap. As for the twentieth century, the often drawn comparison

with Italy shows that a real discontinuity in Spain comes with the civil war

and its aftermath. Although Tortella recognizes this, he does not suggest a

more pertinent periodization, which would allow us to understand what was

really lost in the twenty years of Franco’s autarky. In countries that have

experienced a dictatorship during the industrialization period, it is

important to understand where and to what extent the dictatorship has produced

economic discontinuities, if any.

Another aspect that deserves more attention is the interconnection among

sectors: industry, trade, banking and state intervention must be analyzed in

separate chapters to obtain a systematic and coherent treatment, but their

interconnections must be made clear. What were the links among agriculture,

industry and trade? Was there any visible impact of industrialization on

trade? What were the relationships between banks and industry? What were the

impacts of government policies on the modernization of the country? The author

has tried his best to answer some of these questions, but because a coherent

periodization has not been established, the dispersion of events in each

sector prevents any clear treatment of interconnections among sectors.

Finally, it is always difficult to combine enough description with

interpretation. I think this is one of the strongest aspects of Tortella’s

book. He has gathered all the most interesting interpretative lines advanced

in his own research (see for instance the quite intriguing chapter eight on

the entrepreneurial factor that is directly taken from work he presented in

Milan some years ago) and in the research done by his colleagues and has given

a good account of them so that the reader can go to the original sources if

interested in greater depth.

This is a book that will rightly become the standard textbook on Spanish

economic history for sometime to come. I hope that increasing knowledge of the

experience of countries like Spain, Italy or, indeed, Ireland, will

definitively convince scholars who draw international comparisons of patterns

of growth that synchronic comparisons are certainly of use in determining the

timing of take off and the reasons for delays, but not in deciding the final

outcome of the process of modernization, while diachronic comparisons over a

sufficiently long span of time are more rewarding and suggestive.

Vera Zamagni is professor of Economic History at the University of Bologna

(Italy). Her latest publication in English is the chapter “Evolution of the

Economy,” in Patrick McCarthy, editor, Italy since 1945, Oxford

University Press, 2000, pp. 42-68.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII