Thursday, August 25, 2011

Germany's Synthetic Oil Industry in the Second World War

When Nazi Germany needed the rubber to hit the road, as imports of valuable raw materials were restricted, they turned to their old stalwart, the IG Farben chemical syndicate.

IG Farben Office.  Anti-fascist Encyclopedia.
As Adam Tooze notes in Wages of Destruction, it was the commitment of the IG Farben firm to synthetic chemistry that earned it the place of "the closest and most important industrial collaborator of Hitler's regime."  In 1926, IG set up the first coal hydrogenation plant which could turn coal into gasoline.  The firm also promised to create synthetic rubber, which would provide another vital component of motorized warfare.

When the German Army invaded Russia, industrial priorities shifted to the air war.  Operation BARBAROSSA was intimately linked with hopes for an expanded output of aviation fuel from 1 million to 3 million tons.  The high costs of the hyrdogenation process, however, meant that it was unrealistic to hope for this massive increase through processing German coal alone.  As Tooze writes, "here was the perverse logic of Barbarossa in a nutshell.  The conquest of the oilfields of the Caucasus, 2,000 kilometres deep in the Soviet Union, was not treated as the awesome military-industrial undertaking that it was.  It was inserted as a precondition into another gargantuan industrial plan designed to allow the Luftwaffe to fight an air war, not against the Soviet Union, but against the looming air fleet of Britain and the United States." (Tooze, 452)

Donald Caldwell and Richard Muller, in their work The Luftwaffe Over Germany : Defense of the Reich (2007) attribute a lack of aviation fuel as a major source of inefficiency of the Luftwaffe's defence of the Reich.  This dearth of fuel was heightened in 1944 with the bombing of synthetic oil refineries. While the German aviation industry kept pace in terms of production numbers, lack of fuel (along with declining pilot quality and attrition, and planes destroyed in accidents and by strategic bombers) meant that the Jagdgruppen could not reap the benefits of factory output.  A lack of aviation fuel for training purposes was particularly stifling in the long run.  On 12 May 1944, the bombing of five synthetic oil refineries is portrayed by Caldwell and Muller as a major turning point in the capabilities of German air defence.

"The Man from I.G. Farben" Spitfire List
Figures for 1945, gleaned from the New York Times by Alex Constantine, state that IG Farben's outputs were, "100 percent of German synthetic rubber, 95 percent of German poison gas (including all the Zyklon B gas used in the concentration camps), 90 percent of German plastics, 88 percent of German magnesium, 84 percent of German explosives, 70 percent of German gunpowder, 46 percent of German high octane (aviation) gasoline, and 33 percent of German synthetic gasoline."

Interestingly, the Fischer-Tropsch process of coal liquefaction has recently been applied to turning natural gas to diesel fuel, but is being resisted due to its potential environmental degradation.  Considerations of its base ethical roots as a key factor in the Nazi war industry will undoubtedly be trumped by the utilitarian ethics of energy demand.

Extra Reading on IB Farben and the Nazis from Anti-Fascist Encyclopedia
Excerpt on Synthetic Oil and Bombing Effects on Industry from United States Strategic Bombing Survey
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