The Rhine Economy on a New Basis. The Switch from Coal to Oil and the Implications for the Transnational Region, 1945-73

Before the Second World War 92 per cent of Germany’s energy needs were supplied by coal. After the war, like in other industrial nations, oil became a major energy source in Germany. With demand for oil products growing at increasing rates it became feasible for the international oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum and Standard Oil to build new refineries in Rotterdam and the Ruhr district. The Ruhr was the best site, since it was Germany’s most populated and largest industrial region. Moreover, the industrial centers in southern Germany could be supplied better from the Ruhr than from the Northern harbours of Hamburg and Bremen. The main problem, however, was that the supply of crude oil could not be handled sufficiently by river barges. As a consequence, between 1956 and 1958 two pipelines were built, one originated in Wilhelmshaven and the other in Rotterdam. At the same time, Rotterdam built an immense new port, called Europoort, capable of receiving super tankers from all over the world. The spectacular development of the post-war oil industry in the German hinterland made Rotterdam into the oil harbour par excellence of Western Europe.

In the meanwhile, during the 1950s and 1960s, the German chemical industry had changed its raw materials basis completely. IG Farben had been replaced by three major successors, Hoechst, Bayer and BASF. During the 1950s these three dominant firms in the West German chemical industry had moved from a policy of autarky to dependence on global business. Political and economic pressure of the Allies had forced Germany and its industry to a complete rejection of the pre-war ideas of autarky. However, competition from American chemical companies in particular had forced IGs successors to move from coal based to petroleum-based chemistry. The big three and many other smaller chemical firms in Germany had become dependent from overseas oil, supplied by American, British and Anglo-Dutch oil companies. The greater part of the oil, crude or refined, was delivered through Rotterdam. As a result, by the 1970s the Rotterdam port area had developed into one of the worlds largest petrochemical complexes.

After a fruitful and lively kick-off conference in Rotterdam in November 2009 and a wonderful second conference in Frankfurt am M. in November 2010, a third Transnational Rhine Conference will be organized at the Institute for Social Movements-Ruhr University, Bochum. This next conference focuses on the move from coal to petrochemical feedstock of the Rhine Industry. It aims to explore the rise of an oil based economy and its consequences for the transnational economic region from Rotterdam to Basel from the 1950s up to the 1970s. In order to achieve its research programme on these and related issues, the organisers endeavour to build a transnational network, consisting of economist, 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. Oil as a New Basis, Chemical and Industrial Clusters, European Integration and the Rhine Economy, Transport and Logistics, the Rhine as an Environmental System. 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.

 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)
Prof.dr. Dieter Ziegler (Ruhr University Bochum)