The Coal-based Rhine Economy. Development of an Industrial Region from Basel to Rotterdam, 1850-1950

Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany | November 25-27 2010

From the distant past to the present day, the Rhine region has been the central economic axis of Western Europe. The actual and eminent economic fact is the river itself, being the unchanging and hardly changeable natural condition that shapes the lives, habits, mentalities, and everyday routine of the Rhenish people. The changing structure of the Rhine economy thus must be understood as variations of a given opportunity in accordance with a peculiar path dependency. Since the Middle Ages, a river economy emerged along the Rhine that favoured the development of self-confident cities, long-distance trade, and the accumulation of great fortunes, and thus in turn enhanced the economic potential of the region in a co-evolutionary process.

The industrialization in the 19th century marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Rhine economy. The new production technologies spreading from Britain and later Belgium, and the following expansion of energy and material consumption, suddenly raised the value of the deposits of the Rhenish-Westphalian coal fields. In order to exploit the coal deposits of the Ruhr effectively, however, both an economical supply of ore and reasonable rates for the transport of the finished or semi-finished products were needed. The traditional division of labour between the Middle and Upper Rhine on the one hand and the Netherlands on the other hand was gradually complemented, and finally substituted, by the trade with coal, ore, and products of the heavy industry. Rotterdam became the seaport of the Ruhr, just as the Ruhr became the factual hinterland of Rotterdam. This division of labour became more differentiated by the emergence of an industrial cluster in the Rhineland and Westphalia, where mechanical engineering and chemical industries soon joined heavy industry. Yet the Netherlands and the Ruhr alone were not the only regions of the 19th-century coal-based Rhine economy. It stretched further, and included the Rhine-Main region, the Rhine-Neckar region, and the industrial cluster around Basel. Via the Rhine, fuel and by-products from coking, that served as raw materials for the chemical industry, arrived, and the river itself served as the necessary source of fresh water as well as a drain. Finished products were shipped back downstream. In addition, there was great demand for cheap food in the ever-growing industrial agglomerations in the Rhine area. Grain, edible fats, and other agricultural produce, however, were not brought in directly from the agricultural Eastern German regions, but were mainly imported from other parts of the world via Rotterdam and the river Rhine.

Although it was geographical location and natural conditions that enabled the development of West Europe's most important economic region, it was entrepreneurs, firms, and cartels that used the given opportunities and created economic realities. Local, national and transnational authorities gave them the freedom to do so, or even took the initiative in some periods, and hindered them in others. The Rhine thereby should not only be seen as a means of water transport, but also as a structuring element of the transnational region, where other means of transport - railways, motorways, and electricity networks - clearly followed the river basin. Moreover, big cities and large industrial centres arose near Europe's main waterway. As the Rhine crossed borders of several states, with different institutions and conflicting interests, this caused co-operation as well as conflict.

After a fruitful and lively kick-off conference in Rotterdam in November 2009, which aimed to discuss the Transnational Rhine economy from various perspectives in the 1850-2000 period, the second Transnational Rhine Conference will be organized at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main from 25 to 27 November 2010 and focuses on a century when the economic region was shaped by the production of coal, iron ore, steel, and the distribution of these items over the river Rhine. It aims to explore the rise, growth, and fall of a coal based economic region from Rotterdam to Basel in the period 1850-1950. In order to achieve its research programme on these and related issues, the organisers endeavour to build a transnational network, consisting of economists, economic and business historians, as well as historians of technology, in the first place coming from the countries along the Rhine and its delta, however not exclusively. To explore the long-term economic development of the Rhine region the organisers have selected five different themes, i.e. "international coal trade", "business and financial relations", "food trade", "institutions and regional integration", and "transport and logistics". The organizing committee has invited scholars to present their papers and others to discuss these, however, those interested to participate in the discussion are encouraged to do so.

For more information please contact Ralf Banken ( or Ben Wubs (

Programme Committee

Dr. Ralf Banken (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main)
Prof.dr. Werner Plumpe (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main)
Prof. dr. Hein. A.M. Klemann (Erasmus University Rotterdam)
Dr. Ben Wubs (Erasmus University Rotterdam)