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Nicholas Ostrum, State University of New York at Stony Brook, History

From Autarky to Globalization: the German Pursuit of Oil in the Arab World, 1941–1969

My project examines the relationship between West German petro-policy and the private firms and experts that developed Libyan and Syrian oil fields during the first decades after the Second World War.  The turn to Arab oil was a vast departure from the prewar and wartime German quest for energy autarky and was made possible by the postwar loosening of British, French, and Italian hold over their former colonial territories.  Still, it was far more than the quest for a primary industrial feedstock.  Through this pursuit, West German experts and officials found a crucial and effective way of navigating north-south and east-west tensions and of carving out a space for the Bundesrepublik as a modern, western, technological power in the postwar world.  West Germany’s pursuit of Arab petroleum was deeply entangled with the global Cold War.  Oil companies such as Gelsenkirchener Bergwerks AG, Deutsche Erdöl AG, and Wintershall AG purchased concessions from Syrian and Libyan governments in part spurred by the knowledge that the Soviet Union and East Germany were paying particular interest to the developing world.  When nationalization campaigns nullified foreign concessionary holdings and stripped western firms of their rights to oil fields in Souedie and the Sahara, East Germany in particular moved into the vacuum opened by the departure the West German experts to promote their own non-capitalist road to development and modernization. 

In part because of the geopolitical implications and ramifications of developing Arab oil fields, these private-sector endeavors were supported by and coordinated with federal Entwicklungspolitik (development policy).  In addition to securing oil to support the West German economy, industry, and lifestyle, they sought to establish a presence in the region that advanced West German national interests.  On the one hand, through cooperating with other western powers in this neocolonial quest for the resources of the third world, the private sector pursuit of petroleum was a transnational as well as international quest for the primary fuel of the industrial world.  In partaking in the extraction of oil, these West German experts were developing not just the individual sources of oil, but also promoting and developing West Germany as a productive force deeply entwined in the world capitalist economy.  In other words, it was deepening the Bundesrepublik’s own integration into the west.  On the other hand, petroleum was critical to the economic and social stability of postcolonial Libya and Syria and participating in its extraction, circulation, and refinement was a crucial means of promoting West German and western influence in the region.   As West German experts successfully discovered and exploited these sources of oil, therefore, they showed West Germany as a technologically advanced state that was working toward developing not just Syrian and Libyan oil fields but also economies and societies.  Moreover, as a free market counterpart to federal Entwicklungspolitik, these endeavors to extract and import Arab oil worked simultaneously to export a decidedly western model of economic, political, and societal modernization.  As much as this was a quest for oil for domestic West German purposes, in other words, it was also a quest for influence in the developing world.