Transnational Rhine Network

A Rhine Economy, 1870-2010

The development of the German Ruhr area into the most important industrial centre of Europe since the 1870s, would have been impossible without the Rhine, just as the development of Rotterdam (and the surrounding towns) as the most important deep sea port of Europe. These areas developed into a European cross-border centre of economic activity without a rival. The Rhine, however, crossed borders of several states, with various national institutions and conflicting interests, which was a source of co-operation as well as conflict.

By viewing regional development as a historical process, considerable leeway is also opened up for the application of two key concepts from evolutionary economics, i.e. path dependence and adaptation. Economic choices are always to some extent depended on past institutional and technological developments and it is even so that historical decisions have major influence on decisions now and in the future. Regional economies inherit past developments with negative as well as positive effects. On the other hand, a region’s lasting success depends on its adaptive capability: i.e. the capacity of firms, clusters, and state institutions to adapt to new market, technological and organizational opportunities.

Research questions

This Transnational Rhine Network explores these different aspects of long-term economic development of the Rhine clusters and 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. As a consequence, companies with important economic relations across the borders were interested in peaceful relations and open borders. Nevertheless, firms also had to support national interests, which could result in conflicts with the states and with their international interests.

Central questions are:

  • How and why did the Rhine economy become one of the most competitive economic regions in the world?
  • What were the consequences of this long-lasting successful economic development for the political relations between the diverse Rhine states?
  • How did cross-border economic relations influence the economic development within the diverse countries?
  • What were the effects of crises for the development of firms and groups of firms in the region?

Creating a transnational network

In order to realize a research program on these and related issues, the organizers of this historical Rhine conference endeavour to build a transnational network of economic and business historians, as well as historians of technology, in the first place from the countries along the Rhine and its delta, i.e. Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The aim of the first conference was to explore different aspects of long-term economic development of the Rhine clusters which will be looked into from five different perspectives, i.e. geographical, macro-economical, institutional, business historical, and technological. Although these perspectives sometimes overlap it is useful to analyze the Rhine economy from these different points of view, dependent on different academic fields. The organizers, based at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and Goethe University in Frankfurt, aim to bring together scholars from various disciplines and make it a genuine multidisciplinary venture.

Program Committee

Prof.dr. Werner Plumpe (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main)
Prof. dr. Hein. A.M. Klemann (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Dr. Ralf Banken (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main)
Dr. Ben Wubs (Erasmus University Rotterdam)


Four consecutive annual conferences have been held in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013.

  • Kick-off meeting (Rotterdam, 2009)
    The first conference, held in Rotterdam from 12 to 14 November 2009, entitled 'Creating a Transnational Rhine Economy, 1870-2000', explored possible research questions and themes with regard to the history of the Rhine Economy (find conference summary and the program here).

  • 2nd meeting: The coal-based Rhine economy (Frankfurt, 2010)
    The second conference, held in Frankfurt on 25-27 November 2010, entitled 'The Coal-based Rhine Economy. Development of an Industrial Region from Basel to Rotterdam, 1850-1950', discussed themes and topics related to the first century of industrial development in the Rhine region (find conference summary and the program here).

  • 3rd meeting: The switch from coal to oil (Bochum, 2011)
    The third conference, held in Bochum on 1-3 December 2011, entitled 'The Rhine Economy on a New Basis. The Switch from Coal to Oil and the Implications for the Transnational Region, 1945-73', discussed the development of the Rhine economy in the economic boom period between 1945 and 1973 (find conference summary and the program here).  

  • 4th meeting: Globalisation and war (Rotterdam, 2013)
    A fourth conference was organised in Rotterdam on 21-23 March 2013, discussing the Rhine economy in the context of globalisation and the impact of war in the 19th and 20th century (see program and conference summary).

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