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    • Document type
      Presentation (monograph)
      Author (Presentation)
      Language (Presentation)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Anastasiadou, Irene
      Constructing Iron Europe
      Transnationalism and Railways in the Interbellum
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      Amsterdam University Press
      Technology and European History Series
      Series (vol.)
      Number of pages
      Subject classification
      History of technology
      Time classification
      20th century → 1900 - 1919, 20th century → 1920 - 1929, 20th century → 1930 - 1939
      Regional classification
      Subject headings
      Geschichte 1918-1939
      Internationale Kooperation
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Irene Anastasiadou: Constructing Iron Europe. Transnationalism and Railways in the Interbellum (presented by

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Irene Anastasiadou: Constructing Iron Europe. Transnationalism and Railways in the Interbellum. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2011


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maschi says:
Dec 18, 2014 04:17 PM

The railways’ contribution to economic, social and spatial development in the 19th century is widely known. Their superior characteristics compared to road and waterborne transport of the time facilitated the flows of people, goods and also ideas enormously. Starting from individual routes, ideas for comprehensive networks were quickly developed and implemented in due course, making the railways an excellent means for exchange and integration. Yet, their technical and operational complexity also makes them a challenging object of integration whose functioning depends on a high degree of technical standardisation, common procedures, but also willingness to collaborate and often political goodwill. A mere look at only technical developments or outcomes in terms of traffic volumes fails to capture in full the difficulties of creating and maintaining a “seamless network”, to use a common term from today’s transport policy.

In her book, Irene Anastasiadou focuses on these more “hidden” aspects of rail integration. It is part of a series of studies which examined the role of the European dimension in different infrastructure sectors pursued as part of the Tensions of Europe initiative. The inter-war years as her period of study can be considered a particularly difficult time for international collaboration due to their political and economic problems and the redrawing of many European borders. So how was the international dimension of Europe’s railways maintained and developed during that time?

The book is structured into four main chapters focusing on (a) international railway projects, (b) the trans-national railway regime that emerged in the inter-war time, (c) the development of international passenger services (express trains) and (d) the evolution of railways in Greece at the time, as an example of how the international developments influenced the national level. Hence all the main elements of the railway system - infrastructure, rolling stock, operations and the regulatory framework - are covered.

The material presented on international rail projects (like the “Line of the 45th parallel”, now largely forgotten) indicates that the political tensions even seem to have had a stimulating effect on the number of such schemes, as there were now two (contrasting) motives for promoting them: a “separatist” one where new routes were proposed to avoid the enemy’s territory (i.e. Central Europe, dominated by Germany), and an “integrative” one: to bring the whole continent together as a means of reducing hostilities. Although hardly anything of the schemes was implemented, their number shows that railways continued to be seen as means of integration on a continental and even intercontinental scale.

After 1918, European railways were faced with the challenge of re-establishing not only services but also the administrative and legal framework for cross-border operations. Much more change took place here than in the field of infrastructure, as the detailed presentation of the numerous debates and agreements shows. A key factor in the emerging new framework was the need to change the balance of power away from the pre-war system dominated by German/Austro-Hungarian influence (through the “Verein” of railway administrations) to a more balanced one which also considered the newly-founded nations. The establishment of the new International Union of Railways (UIC) in 1922 clearly shows this new approach - unfortunately its archives were not available for research. According to the analysis, the League of Nations has to be seen as the main driver in establishing the new framework, which also sought to address the railways in a more comprehensive way rather than the different, specific technical agreements established in the 19th century.

The third main chapter of Anastasiadou’s book discusses operational and technological developments. Here, the case studies present somewhat surprising results for an observer of contemporary rail and transport policy: first, international passenger services evolved well during the inter-war period, in spite of the political and economic difficulties. There were international express train operators (the incumbent Wagons Lits and its German rival Mitropa, established during the war) who managed to expand and find a way of co-existence, supported by the established procedure of the European timetable conferences. On the contrary, debates about technological step changes went on throughout the period without a conclusion. It is remarkable to read that the disadvantages of having different systems of electric traction (still a problem today) were already recognised and discussed then, when the technology was still in its infancy. A similar debate developed about the introduction of automatic couplers. Here, the European railways chose to leave aside positive experiences with such systems in America and Japan, arguing for lengthy studies and tests of various European solutions, in the end postponing the replacement of costly and dangerous manual coupling ad infinitum.

The chapter on rail development in Greece shows that connections to Europe were an important driving force in building the country’s railways, and some design decisions were taken in the early stages to facilitate cross-border integration. However, other factors like the difficult economic situation of the railways and issues of “nation building” by connecting the territories gained after the end of the Ottoman empire interfered and led to a “hybrid” network that allows some integration, but with severe limitations in terms of capacity and quality.

The book addresses several limitations of previous works simultaneously: the long-standing focus of railway historiography on the national perspective and the time before World War I (hence until all the major routes had been built) and the neglect of the physical dimension by much of European integration history. As such, it provides a welcome and complementary addition to the literature.

In her conclusion, the author doubts the contribution of large-scale “European” visions for the inter-war development of the continent’s rail network. Where such visions existed, they were either isolated views or put forward as a disguise for national or regional interests. The fact that international rail transport developed, all in all, positively, can be attributed to the reasonable degree of integration achieved before the war and its gradual re-establishment and expansion afterwards, which was the result of much less prominent activities of industry bodies and practitioners. However, the failure to make progress in the fields of electrification and automatic couplers points to the limitations of this approach - unfortunately, many more examples of disintegrative decisions have followed since, contributing to the decline of the railways’ competitiveness in Europe.