The Battle for Rubber in the Second World War: Cooperation and Resistance

Working Paper Number: 14

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Control of certain raw materials assumed an enhanced significance during the Second World War, due to the mechanisation of the armed forces of the world. Together with petroleum and a handful of rare minerals, rubber became crucial to the ability to wage successful war, and every belligerent was short of it at some point during this global conflict. Indeed, shortages of rubber and fuel structurally prevented the Axis powers from mechanising sufficiently to mount a true blitzkrieg . This article aims to use the war to illuminate latent conflicts in the rubber commodity chain, which tended to be exacerbated under conditions of conflict. In authoritarian regimes, social relations at times degenerated into outright savagery, encapsulated in the chilling Nazi policy of 'extermination through work' adopted from the autumn of 1941. Coercion also increased in liberal democracies, although the extent of this process has probably been exaggerated, particularly in their colonial appendages. While many disputes pitted workers against employers - which could be states - there were also perennial tensions between planters and smallholders. At the same time, war can also reveal and fortify collaborative relations, for it would be perilous to assume that a commodity chain is little more than a structure of exploitation. Commodities have a way of inspiring a genuine esprit de corps, at least across some segments of a chain. Moreover, in the face of a common enemy, appeals to patriotism and the defence of established rights and freedoms could be powerful tools. Generally speaking, however, material incentives appear to have been most effective in coaxing producers to deliver precious rubber. Throughout this complicated story, one constant strand appears, namely that social relations in the rubber commodity chain were much more violent and oppressive in communist and fascist states than in liberal democracies. In itself, this is not particularly surprising. However, it is rarely appreciated that this even held true in the colonial world. When the colonial power was a liberal democracy, conditions in its dependent territories were generally worse than in the metropolis, but still remained superior to those prevailing in authoritarian regimes. It follows that the worst conditions under which to be involved with rubber existed in the colonial appendages of communist and fascist states.