EUROPE is experiencing the worst fuel crisis in its history -- a catastrophe made doubly grave by the extreme shortage of food. The fuel crisis ranks in importance with the food shortage, for food and fuel together are the essential sources of energy, human and mechanical.

It is frequently said that we live in the age of electricity, and that now we are entering the age of atomic power. But coal remains the chief source of energy in all continents. In prewar years, Europe (excluding Russia) used the following amounts of solid and liquid fuels; 280,000,000 to 300,000,000 tons of hard (black) coal; 220,000,000 metric tons of brown coal or lignite; 40,000,000 to 50,000,000 tons of fuel wood; 8,000,000 tons of natural petroleum (including about 7,000,000 tons of Rumanian oil); 9,000,000 tons of oil imported from overseas; 1,800,000 tons of natural gasoline from European oil wells; 2,400,000 tons of gasoline from overseas; 600,000 tons of benzol for coke ovens. In addition, the Continent used in the neighborhood of 3,000,000 tons of synthetic gasoline. Since this synthetic motor fuel was processed from coal, the energy which it represents is included in the aforementioned volume. The same is true of the large amount of lighting gas, chiefly for kitchen use, which is processed from coal by dry distillation and thus is chiefly coal energy in a more convenient form. The Continent used some 125 billion kw-hrs of electric energy, but two-thirds were derived from coal.

These figures reveal the overwhelming importance of coal as the source of heat and mechanical energy on the Continent. Industries, workshops, offices, homes and kitchens all need coal, and since the brown coal goes chiefly to the electric power plants located on top of the mines, this means, essentially, that they need bituminous coal. Most railroad engines run on coal; inland ships use it; and many tractors and trucks operate on generator gas made from coal.

The Continent has two main hard-coal deposits of the first rank: the Silesian basin (the smaller of the two), and the large and fabulously rich though very deep basin of the Ruhr and the adjacent France-Belgian Brie-Longwy basin. The Ruhr coal, the location of which makes it the European equivalent of the Pittsburgh deposits in the United States, has been the determining factor in the heavy concentration of industries in the Rhenish-Westphalian triangle, and in the construction of the dense system of canals and rivers which feed into the nearby Dutch delta of the Rhine. For centuries the Ruhr coal has been exported by water to other European countries. Great Britain used her abundant coal for overseas exports and established a near monopoly in bunker coal for the world's merchant marine. The Germans, on the other hand, were the chief suppliers of coal to the Continent.

The five major coal-producing countries of Europe had a total annual output of from 255,000,000 to 317,000,000 metric tons of hard coal, of which 54 to 59 percent were mined in Germany. The 1935-1939 average annual production (in metric tons) was: Germany 140,000,000 to 186,000,000 tons; Belgium 27,000,000 to 30,000,000 tons; France 46,000,000 tons; Poland 30,000,000 to 40,000,000 tons; and Czechoslovakia 12,000,000 to 15,000,000 tons. Four-fifths of the German output came from western Germany, and three-fourths of it came from the Ruhr. In addition to her large hard-coal production, Germany mined another 160,000,000 to 200,000,000 tons of lignite or brown coal per annum. Some 30,000,000 to 40,000,000 tons of the German output was high-grade coking coal.

Some countries -- Italy, Switzerland and Denmark, for example -- depended upon German exports for almost their entire supply of coal. Other countries with a large domestic coal production, such as France, Belgium and Luxembourg, used German coal, and such coal as Great Britain could spare, as a substantial supplement to their own resources.

In 1938 the vast German armament program cut the export of coal and coke to a total of only about 30,000,000 tons, as compared to about 47,000,000 in 1937. The total was distributed among the importing countries as follows: Italy 7,400,000 tons, France 6,280,000 tons, Belgium-Luxembourg 5,100,000 tons, Netherlands 5,356,000 tons, Switzerland 1,500,000 tons, Denmark 1,270,000 tons, Czechoslovakia 670,000 tons, Jugoslavia 410,000 tons.

It is noteworthy that the supply of coal needed to keep Europe's industrial machine going and to supplement the supply of lighting gas and home fuel was fairly well maintained up to the final six months of the war. This was possible because under centralized Nazi administration the coal production of the Continent was either held at prewar levels or stepped up by the use of slave labor from the Ukraine. The dislocation of transport as a result of strategic bombing did lead to a shortage of coal in the winter of 1944-45; but the scarcity did not develop into a famine.

An analysis of the recent fuel situation illustrates the complexity of the modern economy. Changes in the political map have disarranged Europe's fuel supply. So far as we can now see, we must assume that for the next two or three years at least little or no fuel -- solid, liquid or gaseous -- will move across a line drawn north and south between Lubeck and Trieste. This means that no Silesian coal, no Rumanian, Polish or Austrian oil, and no Polish or East German wood can be counted on to be available for the countries outside the Russian sphere of influence. These will serve as reparations in kind for Russia or will be used by the countries which produce them.

It should be remembered that there has been a heavy influx of German population into the American, British and French zones. Now that the Saar has been annexed by France, the requirements of homes and industries of these zones must be supplied exclusively from the Ruhr and from the less important Aachen area. These must also supply the chief import needs of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium-Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark and Sweden.

Naturally, France and Belgium are anxious to restore full production in their mines. The main difficulties are the shortage of miners, disorganized rail and water transport and a scarcity of mining lumber. Both countries work their coal mines with a large number of German prisoners of war; Belgium received 45,000 German POW's, all of whom are in the mines, and France 800,000. The coal production in the Saar broke down in the late summer due to the insufficient food allotted to the miners, and the United States Army declared about 300,000 German prisoners of war unfit for work on account of emaciation. These difficulties seem to have been straightened out. By November 1945, it was reported that France had attained a monthly output of coal at the rate of 39,000,000 tons per annum. But in the best prewar years France used close to 70,000,000 tons, of which more than 50,000,000 were produced domestically. Belgium has improved her output, and in November her homes, industries and public utilities began to be fairly well supplied.

The capacity of the Ruhr is three times that of all French mines combined; and the "fat coal" produced there is of high coking quality. Thus the Ruhr coal basin can be said to hold the key to the solution of the European fuel crisis. No matter who has title to the Ruhr, or who operates the mines, the Ruhr is part of Europe as a whole, and the fuel shortage in Europe as a whole cannot be overcome unless the Ruhr swings into full production.

No area in Europe was more methodically bombed than the Ruhr, yet underground installations remain mostly intact. In June, pithead output was up to 11 percent of 1938-43 production; in July, it had reached 16 percent; but by November it still had not surpassed 20 percent. Even these figures are deceptive, since only one-half of production represents real output: the other half is needed to run the mine. The entire set of pumps, ventilators, elevators and other machines must operate, no matter how small the output. The mines cannot begin large-scale production, moreover, until the railroads and the canal and river navigation on which they depend have been restored to full service. Some mines of the Rhineland and Westphalia which began to operate immediately after the end of the war had to close down soon thereafter because output piled up at the shafts. By October 1, 1945, the Rhine was passable up to Strasbourg, but closed from there to Basel. Eighty percent of railroad trackage in the western occupied zones is in usable condition, but the freight carried is not more than a fraction of the prewar amount.

A shortage of skilled labor also hampers coal production in the Ruhr. Germany drafted the miners for the Army and replaced them by foreign workers. These have now left; many former German miners between the ages of 20 and 40 are dead; and many others have not returned.

The food situation also holds down production. In July the British began to issue emergency rations of imported wheat, and later established canteens for miners only. The rations of 3,000 calories for surface workers and 3,400 for underground workers are about the same as the rations of 2,915 and 3,665 calories prevailing under the Nazi régime in 1943-44. However, the families of the miners receive rations of only 1,300 to 1,400 calories -- one-third below the subsistence level -- and the miner will surely share his ration with them when he can. Even when he himself is well-fed he will not work well if he knows that his loved ones are starving.

The shortage of wooden pit-props is another bottleneck. The heavy faulting in the mines, the depth of many shafts -- some go a mile and a third down -- and the dense settlements on the surface combine to make heavy and frequent bracing necessary. Most of the timber used formerly came from the eastern provinces of the Reich, now inaccessible; and props must now be taken from the scanty timber stands in the American-occupied zone. By the end of August 1945, 2,000 tons of timber per day were being shipped to the Ruhr, but this amount permits no increase in the present output of coal.

Failure to get production going in the Ruhr has had repercussions in almost every country of Europe. Norway and Sweden will be cold this winter because they have to rely chiefly on cordwood. Denmark and Switzerland are in an even worse plight because they have scanty forest reserves. Holland's chief trouble is the impaired condition of water and rail communication with the Ruhr. In Switzerland, households receive a strictly rationed allowance of gas for cooking, and not a pound of coal; the cordwood ration for the entire winter is sufficient to heat only a single room for one month. Switzerland's plight is especially severe because the Rhine is not yet navigable up to Basel, and no French, Belgian or British coal can reach her. Italy's position is almost as bad. The extreme shortage has driven a good deal of household coal "underground"; indeed, in spite of its bulk, coal has become a popular means of barter. "Bootleg" coal buys almost anything.

Substitutes for bituminous coal offer little help. Production of brown coal has been restored in western Germany to a somewhat greater degree than production of hard coal, and such as there is goes to industrial plants; none is used for domestic heating. Gas and oil obtained from coal are, of course, as scarce as coal itself; the processing of synthetic oil from coal has ceased entirely. Wells in Hanover and Brunswick (in the British zone) now produce up to 55,000 tons of natural crude oil, but the motor fuel which this yields is only a drop in the bucket. Hydroelectricity is abundant in some mountain areas, but it cannot be used for heating purposes unless heavy wiring is installed; and insulated copper wire is scarce, and so are skilled electricians.

The European countries are already making intensive use of cordwood, and an increase is possible only within narrow limits. Europe used fuel wood as an equivalent of 41,800,000 metric tons of coal before the war. The war has drained timber resources heavily, and the demand for lumber for reconstruction will soon be extreme. Cordwood is very bulky and is wasteful as freight; to ship it to urban centers while the railroads are in such bad shape is almost impossible. The quest for substitutes simply leads back to the primary shortage -- hard coal from the Ruhr, supplemented by lignite from various scattered deposits.

Lack of protection from winter weather is destroying Europe's human and capital assets. Bombing wrecked the roofs and walls of innumerable factories; though the machinery within often came through in relatively good shape, months of rain and snow will now reduce the great bulk of it to scrap. Homes are not only unheated but have broken windows and roofs. (Vienna and the province of Lower Austria, for instance, need 10,000,000 square yards of glass and 80,000,000 roof tiles.) The drastic shortage of woolen clothing and blankets further aggravates the effects of the fuel crisis. And the coal famine of course produces mass unemployment in industry.

Starvation, pestilence and violence are logical results of such a situation. This brief survey has not attempted to outline either short-term or long-term measures of relief. But it is clear that Europe must have the coal of the Ruhr. International management of the mines, in which Germany might share, but with the United Nations in control, seems the solution most likely to provide the desired physical safeguards against any renewal of German aggression as well as to supply the fuel which Europe needs if it is to be at peace.

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  • KARL BRANDT, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the Food Research Institute, Stanford University; formerly Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Berlin; author of "Reconstruction of World Agriculture" and other works
  • More By Karl Brandt