Shadow factories in Britain and Germany: Towards an international model of war economies in the 1930s and the Second World War




This essay intends to demonstrate how international comparisons for the 1930s and 1940s reveal that the rearmament preparations and the war economies of the combatants were, in general, far more similar than many studies suggest. Indeed, the extent of the similarities might even imply, with reference to the first half of the 20th century, the existence of an international model of a modern war economy. A model constructed around the commonly-held characteristics of the different war economies could not, of course, claim to be all-embracing. On the contrary, if such a model were established the remaining differences - like, for example, the mass employment of forced labour in Germany - would be more readily thrown into stark relief and require distinct and discrete explanations. Overall, the purposes of broad historical understanding and interpretation might then be better served.

Both Britain and Germany were driven to establish shadow factories by the same political objective. This was the need to prepare for upcoming war by creating additional capacity for mass-produced armament goods which, it was clear from the beginning, could not be profitably disposed of during peacetime. But, in seeking to develop this capacity, both governments encountered major problems. These were the risk-aversion of private armament manufacturers, the necessity to hide or disguise in some fashion the building-up of new armament plants from domestic and foreign observers, the choice of locations which were both safe, or considered relatively so, from a strategic point of view and feasible from an economic perspective, the opposition of the local population against the new armament plants, and, last but not least, the utilization of the technological know-how of the established armament and engineering firms.

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