Controlling resources: coal, iron-ore and oil in the Second World War

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To a degree not evident in most histories of the war, its great generalissimos engaged directly, routinely and expertly with the material, the quantitative and the economic. It was clear to Churchill, Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt that success in modern war required control of key resources, to be acquired for oneself and denied to the enemy. Hitler is well known to have been interested in raw materials, especially oil, though there is a tendency to see his interventions as ignorant. But he was hardly unique in an age when the economy was thought of in very material ways; where elites knew where the world's major resources came from, what they were used for, who owned them, and how they might or might not be substituted for. While the coal of the Ruhr or the oil of Ploieşti or the iron ore of Lapland did not stir the imagination as did the silver of Potosί or the mercury of Almadén in the early modern period, they were nevertheless known to educated men of affairs of the mid-twentieth century. This chapter is thus in part an exercise in making familiar again what was once obvious to all people seriously concerned with war and statecraft. It was also familiar in some respects to the general public. Wartime propaganda films repeatedly told of the centrality of the material to modern war, from newsreels reporting events to films encouraging the salvage of waste materials. It is not a complicated story, but it is now unfamiliar.
That raw material supply would be a feature of a future war was obvious from the First World War, and from the international politics of the interwar years. In the Great War coal was in short supply all over Europe as trade patterns changed, production fell and transport problems developed. Every-where state involvement in the industry followed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCambridge History of World War II,
Subtitle of host publicationVol III, Total War: Economy, Society, Culture at War
EditorsMichael Geyer, Adam Tooze
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781139626859
ISBN (Print)9781107039957
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


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