Total War and the Genesis of Industrial-Scale Recycling

AHA Session 178
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Anne Kristina Berg, University of Michigan
The Audience

Session Abstract

World War II caused unprecedented destruction to human life, the built and natural environments, social and political structures, national economies and cultural capital. But like other wars before and since, World War II was not only a force of destruction, it was also a transformative and generative force as the work of Ed Russell and others illustrates. Wartime recycling is a case in point. During and in preparation for war, combatant nations instituted comprehensive recycling programs to enlist the population at home in the war effort, to extend resources, to instill resource consciousness and to mitigate austerity. In today’s world, recycling has become imbued with an almost mystical power to heal the ailing planet, to transform the way we produce and consume, to at least begin to undo the damage overproduction and overconsumption have down to our eco and climate systems. In the 1940s that mystical power was also recognized but it was hardly understood with respect to the planet or its ecosystems. Instead, recycling was cast as the magic weapon that could turn scarcity into resource, lack into substance, defeat into victory. Wartime recycling not only bore similar features in different countries, it also witnessed a transnational exchange of methods, technologies and scientific approaches to the extension of natural resources that drew on experiences and lessons from salvaging efforts during World War I and extended beyond the rupture of 1945.

The papers in this session examine the differences and similarities in wartime recycling practices in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe and their relationship to similar efforts in peace-time. Chad Denton highlights the importance of Jewish expertise and labor as he traces industrial-scale metal recycling from its origins during the first World War to their subsequent nazification and extension across occupied Europe. Heike Weber focuses on the Nazi recycling regime itself and details the development of a closed-loop economy that was steeped in and perpetuated the racist expansionist ideology of the Third Reich. Outlining in the transnational reach of Nazi-style industrial-scale recycling, Anne Berg examines the interconnections between administrative and industrial innovations that undergirded the regime’s zero-waste economy and found their most brutal expression in the concentration camp system. As much as the genesis of industrial-scale recycling was transnational in nature, so were the lessons that were drawn from wartime endeavors. Roman Köster illustrates how the state-mandated recycling of Nazi Germany destroyed its own foundations, while Great Britain appropriated lessons learned from wartime recycling instead and revitalized its salvage business in the postwar decades, thus prefiguring the “greening” of recycling in the name of environmental protection in the 1960s and 1970s. Together, we are interested in understanding the role of and relationships between the state, the industrial sector, ordinary citizens and waste workers (voluntary and forced) in the forging of an economic order of Europe dominated by Nazi Germany and their transformation after that order’s collapse.

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