Wars and city sizes

New research into the Spanish Civil War, to be presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society, shows how wars can have asymmetric, but short-lived, effects on city sizes.

City population sizes are affected by major events of different kinds, with wars among the most prominent. The few existing studies on the demographic effect of wars – for the most part, inter-state wars – reach ambiguous conclusions. To what extent do wars have transitory, or more permanent, effects on the distribution of populations? Models based on economic theory can provide support for either outcome, so more evidence is needed.

The main conclusions of a new study by Rafael González-Val and Javier Silvestre are that the effects on city sizes of a major civil war – the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 – were short-lived and asymmetric. Overall, the war did not have a significant effect on city growth. However, the war had significant and negative effects on the sizes of cities that belonged to the (ultimately) losing side throughout most of the war, albeit lasting just over a decade (11-12 years).

The authors take the provincial capital city as the main spatial unit of analysis. Such cities were traditionally the most important centres of political, economic, and military power. Hence, during the war, the control of provincial capitals was a key objective in the military strategy of the two sides.

The authors study the changing effects of the war “shock” using a new, long-term, annual dataset, covering more than a century of population data, which extends the scope of the research and allows the authors to use different methods to check the overall findings. The number of observations totals 5,439 (49 capital cities or provinces × 111 years). The results continue to hold up when the statistical approach is applied to an alternative – and broader – spatial unit of analysis, the province, which thereby encompasses the entire Spanish territory and population.

The study underlines the importance of distinguishing between winning and losing sides when analysing war shocks. Here, the authors take advantage of the spatial variation in the timing of the war, as the cities were taken by the rebel – and ultimately winning – side in different years. The argument is that those cities that aligned themselves with the rebel camp from the very beginning of the war were less affected. Different urban growth patterns are in fact found in the aftermath of the war, but not in the pre-war period.

The Spanish Civil War was not exceptional in its level of material destruction. In comparison with other wars, its effects on population are noteworthy. The authors argue that the post-war spatial distribution of population was altered via mortality (including political repression) and migration patterns, but the differences observed between the two sides ultimately proved temporary.

The authors argue that the lack of long-term effects of the war on city population sizes may be best explained by ‘locational fundamentals’. According to this approach, long-standing fundamental characteristics – for example, natural resource endowments or geographical advantages – influence both early settlements and the later evolution of city population sizes. As a result, even major shocks may have only temporary effects, provided they do not alter the fundamental characteristics of (in this case) cities or provinces.


Rafael González-Val

Universidad de Zaragoza, Facultad de Economía y Empresa, Departamento de Análisis Económico. Gran Vía 2, 50005 Zaragoza, Spain.

Institut d’Economia de Barcelona (IEB), Facultat d’Economia i Empresa. John Maynard Keynes, 1-11, 08034, Barcelona, Spain.

Phone number: (+34) 976762409

Email: rafaelg@unizar.es

ORCID: 0000-0002-2023-5726

Javier Silvestre

Universidad de Zaragoza & IEDIS, Facultad de Economía y Empresa, Gran Vía 2, 50005 Zaragoza, Spain.

Phone number: (+34) 976762693

Email: javisil@unizar.es

ORCID: 0000-0003-0716-4713

Notes to Editors:

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