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Sep 11, 2022
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Life after oil: how Germany solved the problem of its deficit

The energy crisis that the Old World is experiencing today is forcing Europeans to look for alternative energy sources with redoubled energy. And if it seems to someone that these searches are doomed to failure, that they have nothing to replace our “oil-mother” and “gas-father”, then he is greatly mistaken. “Necessity is cunning for inventions” – this saying is not only about Russians. This is also about the Germans. Once they knew how to do without oil. And it was by no means in the antediluvian, not in the “pre-oil” times.

True, the Germans really do not like to remember this period of their relatively recent history. The point here, of course, is not the “fiction” itself. Under other circumstances it would, on the contrary, be a matter of national pride. But here the circumstances were such that any “fiction”, any product of the national scientific and technical genius fades against the background of an unprecedented national shame.

“In order to destroy the German military potential, the production of armaments, military equipment and weapons of war, as well as the production of all types of aircraft and ships must be prohibited and prevented,” read the minutes of the Potsdam Conference, officially called the “Berlin Conference of the Three Great Powers”, dated August 1 1945. “The production of metals, chemical products, engineering and the production of other items directly necessary for the war economy should be strictly controlled and limited in accordance with the approved level of post-war peace needs of Germany.”

In accordance with this decision of the victorious powers of defeated Germany, it was forbidden, among other things, to produce synthetic fuel. Most of the equipment of the respective enterprises located in the Soviet zone of occupation was taken to the USSR. By the way, according to rumors, some units are still working safely. Why was it referred to as “weapons of war”? The answer is simple: 90 percent of the combat aircraft of the Third Reich flew on synthetic gasoline and two-thirds of the tanks and other ground military equipment ran.

No, this was not caused by the fact that “synthetics” are better than “natural” fuel, from oil. Worse, however, she, too, was not. The reason, as you might guess, was an acute shortage of oil and oil products. Before the war, most of the Reich’s needs for “black gold” were covered by imports from countries – future opponents (USA, British Empire, Soviet Union) and from regions with which trade ties were cut off due to hostilities (South America).

But the oil blockade did not take the Germans by surprise. The prerequisites for energy autarky were created long before Hitler came to power. A method for the production of liquid hydrocarbons by hydrogenation of carbon at high temperature and pressure (the so-called direct liquefaction of coal) was developed by the German chemist Friedrich Bergius in 1913. Bergius was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931 for his discovery and development of high-pressure methods.

Unlike scarce oil, coal reserves in Germany were – and still are – plentiful. The first pilot plant for the hydrogenation of coal using the Bergius method was built in the country in 1915. Mass production began in the mid-1920s.

Then, in the 1920s, the German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, who worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, invented another method for producing liquid fuel from coal, named after them the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. In this case, the process is divided into two stages. First, “synthesis gas” is obtained from coal – a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen – which is then converted into liquid hydrocarbons in the presence of a catalyst.

Both of these methods received a start in life, but the Bergius method is the most widely used. In the beginning, synthetic gasoline was quite competitive. For example, in 1925 the average world price of a liter of “petroleum” gasoline, including transportation costs, was 16-17 pfennigs, which corresponds to the current 66 euro cents. The sale price for synthetic gasoline of the then most common brand in Germany, Leuna-Benzin, produced by IG Farben according to the Bergius method, was 20 pfennigs. It is quite comparable with “ordinary” fuel.

However, after the start of the Great Depression, world prices for “petroleum” gasoline fell several times – to 5 pfennigs. The increase in import duties on oil did little to help the German producers of “synthetics”: the business became catastrophically unprofitable. And he could well order to live a long time. But fortunately for the “synthesizers” – and woe to the rest of humanity – on January 30, 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Reich Chancellor.

For the Nazis, the production of synthetic fuel immediately became one of the highest priority “national projects”. It reached its peak in 1943-1944. At that time, a total of 21 enterprises operated on the territory of the Third Reich, turning coal into gasoline. In total, they produced about 6 million tons per year, which was about half of the fuel burned by German engines.

And then productivity began to decline sharply. You can even name the exact date of the turning point – May 12, 1944. On this day, the Allied “flying fortresses” launched targeted attacks on German synthetic fuel factories. The consequences of these bombings were fatal for Germany. At the Nuremberg Trials, Third Reich Minister of Armaments and Ammunition Albert Speer, among other Nazi bosses who appeared before the International Military Tribunal, was asked when he came to the conclusion that the war was lost. The answer was:

“If we approach the issue from the point of view of providing weapons and ammunition, then not earlier than the autumn of 1944, since until that time I had been able, despite the bombing of aircraft, to ensure a constant increase in production … In a few months, perhaps in February or March 1945 , we had to have new types of weapons. I can only say about the jet planes that have already been mentioned in the press, new submarines, new anti-aircraft installations, etc. But from May 12, 1944, all this was already useless, since our synthetic fuel plants were already objects of massive strikes from the air. It was a disaster – now we have lost 90 percent of our fuel and thus lost the war in terms of its industrial support: our new tanks and jets were useless without fuel.

Two months after the start of the bombing of fuel plants, the production of synthetic fuel was halved. In March 1945, it fell 200 times, and in April it was completely stopped. The answer to the question why it was not resumed after the war is given at the beginning of this text: a categorical “impossible!” victorious powers. After Germany was divided into the FRG and the GDR, the ban – both there and here – was lifted. But then there was no longer an economic reason: “oats”, in the sense of oil, again became cheap and available.

At least, there was no reason for West Germany, which could easily buy “black gold” on the world market. The economy of the GDR was, to put it mildly, in a slightly different position. With freely convertible currency in this camp, as in the rest of the socialist camp, there was a lot of tension, so the production of “synthetics” resumed and continued for some time.

But in the 1960s, the Druzhba oil pipeline was built, through which cheap Soviet oil poured into East Germany. After that, they forgot about “coal” gasoline there too. But it’s not for nothing that they say: everything new is a well-forgotten old. It is unlikely that anyone today will give a hand to cut off that life will never and never force Europe to remember the experience of the energy survival of the Third Reich.

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