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Historical alchemy offers a route to solving tomorrow's problems

As a student of history I have always been fascinated by my own period - by the events that took place around the year of my birth, 1938. This was a dramatic year, whose political matrix remains the subject of heated debate among historians to this day. In Europe it takes in the reunification of Germany and Austria and Neville Chamberlain's 'Peace in our time' deal with Hitler over the breakup of Czechoslovakia. These consequences of the Treaty of Versailles either came to a head in 1938 or, like the 'Winter War' between the Russians and the Finns, or the start of the Second World War itself in 1939, were clearly foreshadowed by the general European mobilisation in the previous year.

But there is another way of looking at the contribution of one year to a longer historical progress. Thus, against the oft-repeated tale of the Munich agreement, wrought by hapless and corrupt politicians as well as obsolete and deluded military men, there is a ready substitute for the lamentable democratic tendency to fight the last war over, instead of searching for the key to winning the next one.

How was it that a defeated country like Germany, completely lacking in petroleum, with its iron-ore reserves confiscated by the Treaty of Versailles, with no nickel, no tungsten, zinc, lead or copper, and, perhaps most surprising of all, no government planning framework, could undertake the huge task of remedying this state of unpreparedness?

The answer lay in part with the militaristic nature of the Nazi regime. But, even more fundamentally, it depended on the scientific and technological infrastructure bequeathed to the Nazis by the imperial regime they ousted in 1933. Led by its peerless chemical industry from the latter part of the 19th century, German scientific research led the world.

First the chemist Karl von Linde succeeded in liquefying air and turning it into a raw material. Then Fritz Haber synthesised ammonia from nitrogen, a discovery that solved the shortage of nitrates for fertiliser and explosives to such an extent that by 1938 German factories were making six times as much fertiliser from the air as had been imported from the cliffs of Chile in 1914. Air liquefaction was later developed as a source of rare gases - argon, neon and xenon - which revolutionised the lighting industry.

Alchemical achievements like these were readily translated into their military equivalents and then fed into the industries most directly concerned.

But while her science and technology alone made Germany the most technologically advanced country in the world by 1938, they played a no less important role in converting the country into the most energy-efficient as well. This process of radically mobilising the entire population took place under the aegis of an organisation called Verwertung des Wertlosen ('Finding Uses for the Useless'). This outfit rode on the back of a handbook of the same title, with an introduction by Herman Goering. A translation into English was published in London in 1944 under the title Science and Salvage. This book thus becomes, in all probability, the first serious attempt in modern times to codify and organise the available data on recycling and waste processing.

Over time it has become increasingly obvious that much can be learned from a study of the performance of the losing side in the Second World War if we wish to understand one pattern of breakdown - where an energy-starved but technologically sophisticated nation went down with its blast furnaces glowing and its production lines moving to the very end. There are also organisational lessons in the extent to which the Germans achieved great economies and material substitutions, bizarre contrasts between the futuristic and the ancient, as when cart horses towed jet fighters to runways and autobahn filling stations sold wooden logs instead of petrol.

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