This concise edited volume explores the economic relations between the Dutch Port of Rotterdam and the German Ruhr district from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 21st century. The volume is an excellent example of a successful small-scale project in historical research. The three planned PhDs have been duly delivered, and the project initiators have lived up to their promise of writing an accessible and compact synthesis.
Although the title suggests that the two regions are treated separately, there is much to say for a comprehensive view looking at the Lower Rhine and Delta area as one economic space. To a large extent, this is also effectively what the book is doing. Politically, the port region of Rotterdam and the Ruhr district belong to two different national economies. Statistical instruments have long supported this – in terms of economic interdependence – artificial division. Following in the footsteps of Michael E. Porter and Paul Kruger the authors regard the Rhine basis as one transnational economic region, and concentrate on connections, relations, transfers and networks, rather than on boundaries and segregation.
Within this ‘entangled’ perspective, the authors have a keen eye for acceleration, change and transition. The economic relations did not just multiply; their nature evolved over time. Different modes of exchange prevailed one after the other. In the 19th century local industries organized their imports and exports through local and foreign merchants. Towards the end of the 19th century the cartelized structure of the coal industry manifested itself in a cross-border network of production, transport, and trade branches. The 20th century witnessed the expansion of multinationals in major economic sectors, giving rise to yet another type of port-hinterland constellation.
Port-hinterland formation – an approach derived from port economics and container logistics – is another significant lens for the study of the Lower Rhine economy in this book. Through time, port and hinterland interact in different ways allowing a more systematic view of capital and trade flows in the area the port economically controls. In five chapters the book chronologically presents and analyzes the periods of major transition from one dominant mode of exchange to another.
Not surprisingly the historical narrative starts with the foundation of the Central Commission for Navigation of the Rhine in 1815, which despite tenacious protectionist measures heralded the advent of a liberal trade regime. The ‘normalization’ of the Rhine, both in terms of money (taxes) and navigability, gradually materialized in the expansion of cargo going downstream and upstream, which even the First World War could not interrupt. Trade and transport accelerated interdependence, a process in which the transnationally operating Rhenish-Westphalian Coal Syndicate established in 1893 played a prominent role. In his chapter Joep Schenk characterizes the relationship between Rotterdam and the Ruhr in the period 1900-1914 even as a true ‘love story’.
While the First World War and 1920s receive relatively little attention, the story picks up again in the 1930s with the growing tension between two leading rayon manufacturers, the Algemeene Kunstzijde Unie (AKU) based in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and the Vereinigte Glanzstoff Fabriken AG (VGF) in Wuppertal (Germany). In this chapter, the book somewhat abandons its macro-historical perspective, and zooms in on these two companies, which after several troublesome decades finally merged in 1969. To some extent, this chapter also loses sight of the port-hinterland connection and looks at strained economic relations within one sector in the Lower Rhine region.
The general line of reasoning is taken up again in chapter 5, which focuses on the transition from coal to oil, and the impact this had on the integration of the Port of Rotterdam and the Lower and Middle Rhine area, particularly in the oil and petrochemical sector. The final chapter engages in a problem-oriented analysis of a new phenomenon in port-hinterland formation, the rise of containerization in the last decades of the 20th century. It mostly discusses the early 2000s, as data related to earlier years are apparently insufficiently available. With this chapter, the book’s end is a bit of a cliff-hanger. The evidence from the container transport flows shows an ambiguous picture for the Delta and Lower Rhine integration. On the one hand, Rotterdam and Duisburg seem to reinforce each other as linked Atlantic and inland container ports; on the other hand, national, European, and global challenges may also play them apart, and create new hubs altogether. As always, time will tell.