How to Build a Bloc: Strategic Minerals and Interwar Quests for Autonomy and Autarky

This paper examines business rivalries over scarce raw materials in the age of total war. Mineral resources were sources of economic and political power, forming key components of the interwar “raw materials problem,” which stemmed from the uneven distribution of, and access to, the world’s resources. Little-studied, but critically important, alloying minerals like tungsten and manganese were needed only in small amounts, but they were essential to the very foundations of national prosperity and security—steel and military production. Herein lay a fundamental problem: none of the industrial powers possessed adequate domestic deposits of these minerals, which were concentrated in remote locations—like central India, the Caucasus, southern China, Brazilian jungles, and southern Africa. In a world in which steel was power, resource anxieties motivated interwar quests for autarky and autonomy among both state and business interests. The realities and dangers of resource interdependence pushed businesspeople and state officials toward “bloc thinking”—strategies dreamed up to organize and consolidate self-contained, self-sufficient blocs of territory and trade networks to circumvent the dangers of interdependence. This paper explores case studies of interwar market actors in the steel industry, and how their rivalries and anxieties over access to strategic minerals contributed to interwar bloc-building. Commercial units and industrialists sought to protect their positions by stockpiling key inputs, researching synthetics or possible substitutions, integrating their operations, acquiring foreign firms and concessions, coordinating markets with other firms via cartels, forging long-term government contracts, and harnessing the power of the state to protect their foreign and domestic interests. Companies and industrial associations like Metallgesellschaft, Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), Wah Chang Trading Company, and the Comité des Forges all pursued these strategies to achieve “raw materials freedom” in a blocifying world.