A Rhine Economy, 1870-2000

Prof. Hein A.M. Klemann and Dr. Ben Wubs

Cross-border economic relations

During the last one and a half century the Rhine River became the foremost commercial inland waterway of Europe. The tonnage moved on the Rhine was greater than on any river in the world. From Rotterdam to Basel the waterway was made navigable. This commercial highway from the North Sea to Switzerland went through the most highly developed industrial area of Europe, and had a larger population gathered in a greater number of big towns on its banks than any other European river.

The development of the German Ruhr area into the most important industrial centre of Europe during the period 1890-1970, would be impossible without the Rhine, just as the development of Rotterdam (and the surrounding towns) as the most important deep sea port of Europe and even the world would have been impossible without the Ruhr area. These areas developed into a European cross-border centre of economic activity without a rival. As the Rhine, however, crossed borders of several states, with various national institutions and conflicting interests, this development was a source of co-operation as well as conflict. 

Duisburg Binnenhafen, 1931. Source: Bundesarchiv

Entrepreneurs, firms and governments

The geographical location and natural conditions made the development of Europe’s most important economic region possible, but it were entrepreneurs and firms that used the given opportunities and created the economic reality and governments that created the political surrounding that made this possible. Small, medium sized and big international firms and (inter)national cartels shaped the Rhine economy, while (local) governments played a determinative role and facilitated or undermined the interregional economy. The government had diverse functions in the spatial economy, which changed over time. In some periods the political border seemed of minor importance for the economic development, in other periods it was a barrier that blocked economic opportunities. As regulator of economic activities, owner of public companies and provider of public goods Dutch, German, French and Swiss governments, towns and district counsels played a major role in shaping the Rhine economy.

Waalhaven, Rotterdam, 1929.

Research questions

This project focuses on two main actors in the Rhine economy, i.e. (trans)national firms and governments. It hypothesizes that both firms and markets are engaged with political institutions in a mutually dependent relationship. Firms need governments to function, while the legitimacy of the institutional arrangements will be challenged if they fail to deliver enough economic opportunities for firms within its borders. As a consequence, companies with important economic relations across the borders will be interested in peaceful relations and an open border. Otherwise, firms had to support the national targets, which could result in conflicts with the states and with their international interests.

Central questions are:

  • What where the consequences of the economic development for the political relations between the diverse countries?
  • How did cross-border economic relations influence the economic development in the diverse Rhine States?
  • What consequence did the fact that the economic development took place in a shattered political surrounding have for the development of firms and groups of firms? 

To realize a research programme on these and related subjects we are building an international network of economic and business historians, in the first place from the countries along the Rhine and its delta, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands (please find more information here).

The research projects

Transnational Rhine Network

Prof. Hein Klemann and Dr Ben Wubs took the initiative together with Prof. Werner Plumpe and Dr Ralf Banken of the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main to set up a Transnational Rhine Network in 2009, joining together scholars from various historical and non-historical disciplines with an interest in the history of the Rhine region. The network has since expanded to comprise scholars from countries bordering the Rhine but also scholars from Japan, the US, the UK and other countries (please find more information here).