Trading with the Enemy: How British Scrap Exports Aided Nazi Rearmament

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center)
Peter Thorsheim, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
As international tensions grew during the second half of the 1930s, the United Kingdom initiated a major rearmament drive. Conscious of the central role that steel would play in the production of armaments, and anxious to prevent a shortage of this raw material from hampering their nation’s defense, a significant proportion of the public began collecting scrap iron and steel to be melted down and made into weapons. Yet Britain’s overall economy remained mired in the Great Depression, and the supply of scrap far exceeded demand. In an effort to boost the economy and generate foreign currency reserves, the British government promoted the export of both raw materials and finished articles. As a consequence, some of the scrap metal that patriotic Britons had gathered with the intention of aiding their own nation’s rearmament effort actually left the country. The principal destination for these exports was the very country that had spurred British fears of another war: Nazi Germany. When this counterproductive policy came to light, it threatened to undermine people’s confidence in their elected leaders just as Britain entered one of the most perilous moments in its long history. Drawing on a wide range of primary sources, including ministerial records, local newspapers, and trade publications, this paper sheds new light on the political, diplomatic, and economic significance of British scrap exports to Nazi Germany during the late 1930s.
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