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Ideas, Individuals and Institutions: Notion and Practices of a European Electricity System


Based upon extensive multi-archival research, this article traces the long lineage of the notion of European electricity network. Since the 1930s engineers and policy makers conceived of a geographical conception for rationalising and optimising electricity supply: a European one. This article purports that three vectors undergirded threads of continuity: institutional, intellectual and physical (technological networks). These vectors, and the actors involved in them, created strong path dependencies that kept the idea of a European system firmly on the agenda. Today's international electricity market of the European Union should be seen as an extension of this legacy.

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1 See Schipper, Frank, Lagendijk, Vincent and Anastasiadou, Irene, ‘New Connections for an Old Continent: Rail, Road and Electricity in the League of Nations’ Organisation for Communications and Transit’, in Badenoch, Alexander and Fickers, Andreas, eds., Europe Materializing? Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 113–43.

2 Étude de Mr. van Dissel, 9 Aug. 1939, Transport et transit de l'énergie électrique en Europe, section 9E, 38833, 1777, League of Nations Archive.

3 Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 75.

4 Klingenberg, Georg, Bau grosser Elektrizitätswerke (Berlin: Verlag Julius Springer, 1924); Gilson, Norbert, Konzepte von Elektrizitätsversorgung und Elektrizitätswirtschaft: Die Entstehung eines neuen Fachgebietes der Technikwissenschaften zwischen 1880 und 1945 (Stuttgart: Verlag für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 1994).

5 Neidhöfer, Gerhard, ‘50-Hz Frequency’, IEEE Power and Energy Magazine, 9, 4 (2011), 66, 73.

6 Chandler, Alfred D., Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1990), 464; Hausman, William, Wilkins, Mira and Hertner, Peter, Global Electrification: Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 52–3.

7 Millward, Robert, Private and Public Enterprise in Europe: Energy, Telecommunications and Transport, 1830–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 28; Hausman, Wilkins and Hertner, Global, 10–13, 23.

8 Gugerli, David, Redeströme: Zur Elektrifizierung der Schweiz, 1880–1914 (Zurich: Chronos Verlag, 1996), 287; United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Transfers of Electric Power Across European Frontiers: Study by the Electric Power Section (Geneva: United Nations, 1952), 62–7.

9 Génissieu, Etienne, ‘Échanges d’énergie entre pays,’ in Transactions of the World Power Conference, Basle sectional meeting, vol. 1 (Basle: E. Birkhäuser & Cie., 1926), 1001 & 1015.

10 Haas, Robert, ‘Austausch elektrischer Energie zwischen verschiedenen Ländern’, in Transactions of the World Power Conference, Basle sectional meeting 1926, vol.1 (Basle: E. Birkhäuser & Cie., 1926), pp.987–99.

11 Landry, Jean, ‘Exchange of Electrical Energy Between Countries: General Report on Section B’, in Transactions of the World Power Conference, Basle Sectional Meeting, vol. 1 (Basle: E. Birkhäuser & Cie., 1926), 1117; 1. ‘Le professeur Jean Landry’, Revue technique suisse des mensurations et améliorations foncières, 7, 38 (1940), 151–2.

12 Morgan, Philip, ‘The First World War and the Challenge to Democracy in Europe’, in Spiering, Menno and Wintle, Michael, eds., Ideas of Europe since 1914: The Legacy of the First World War (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 6970.

13 Carls, Stephen D., Louis Loucheur and the Shaping of Modern France, 1916–1931 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 34, 129 and 172–3.

14 LoN, Report of the Sub-Committee for Hydro-electric questions: Advisory and Technical Committee for Communications and Transit, Minutes of the 4th session, LoN document C.486M.202.1923.VIII (Geneva: LoN, 1929), 9.

15 For a more thorough discussion of the role of the League, see Lagendijk, Vincent, Electrifying Europe: The Power of Europe in the Construction of Electricity Networks (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2008), 61ff.

16 Ziegerhofer, Anita, Botschafter Europas: Richard Nikolaus Coudenhove-Kalergi und die Paneuropa-Bewegung in den zwanziger und dreißiger Jahren (Böhlau Verlag Wien, 2004); Deschamps, Etienne, ‘“L'Européen” (1929–1940): A Cultural Review at the Heart of the Debate on European Identity’, European Review of History, 9, 1 (2002), 8595.

17 Oliven, Oskar, ‘Europas Großkraftlinien: Vorschlag eines europäischen Höchtspannungsnetzes’, Zeitschrift des Vereines Deutscher Ingenieure, 74, 25 (1930), 875–9.

18 ‘Session spéciale de la Conférence Mondiale de l'Énergie, Stockholm 1933,’ n.d., section 9E, box R-4286, League of Nations Archive.

19 Other plans included Schönholzer, Ernst, ‘Ein elektrowirtschaftliches Programm für Europa’, Schweizerische Technische Zeitschrift 23 (1930), 385–97, which included Great Britain its network proposal, while the plan of French engineer Georges Viel did not. See his ‘Étude d'un réseau à 400.000 volts’, Revue générale de l’électricité November (1930), 729–44.

20 See, for example, Mazower, Mark, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 128–36; Steiner, Zara, The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919–1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 349.

21 LoN, Verbatim Record of the 10th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the League of Nations, 6th Plenary Meeting, LoN document A.10.1929 (Geneva: LoN, 1929), 5.

22 One of few studies on the CEEU is Fleury, Antoine, ‘Une évalution des travaux de la Commission d’Étude pour l'Union Européenne 1930–1937’, in Schirmann, Sylvian, eds., Organisations internationales et architectures européennes 1929–1939. Actes du colloque de Metz 31 mai – 1er juin 2001. En hommage à Raymond Poidevin (Metz: Centre de Recherche Histoire et Civilisation de l'Université de Metz, 2003), 3553.

23 League of Nations, ‘Proposals Put Forward by the Belgian Government for the Agenda of the Commission of Enquiry for European Union’, LoN document C.E.U.E/3 (Geneva: LoN, 1930), 1.

24 Lagendijk, Vincent, ‘“To Consolidate Peace”? The International Electro-Technical Community and the Grid for the United States of Europe’, Journal of Contemporary History, 47, 2 (2012), 402–26.

25 See, for example, Dannie Heineman, ‘Skizze eines neuen Europa: Vortrag gehalten in der Mitgliederversammlung des Vereins der Freunde und Förderer der Universität Köln im Hansasaal des Rathauses am 28. November 1930’ (Gilde-Verlag, 1931). Duchenne, Geneviève, Esquisses d'une Europe nouvelle: l'européisme dans la Belgique de l'entre-deux-guerres (1919–1939) (Peter Lang, 2008), 245–57.

26 See Ulrich, Marcel, ‘Un projet de réseau européen. Le transport de l’énergie electrique’, l'Européen, 25 (1932); ‘Le réseau électrique européen: Un projet grandiose’, l'Européen 201 (1933); ‘Le réseau électrique européen’, l'Européen, 202 (1933).

27 See, for example, Dunlop to Haas, 16 July 1931, and R.A. Schmidt to Haas, 7 Dec. 1932, section 9e, 11978, 1668, box R-2572, League of Nations Archive.

28 Bussière, Eric, ‘L'Organisation économique de la SDN et la naissance du régionalisme économique’, Relations internationales, 75 (1993), 301.

29 Clavin, Patricia and Klaus Patel, Kiran, ‘The Role of International Organisations in Europeanisation: The Case of the League of Nations and the European Economic Community’, in Conway, Martin and Klaus Patel, Kiran, eds., Europeanization in the Twentieth Century: Historical Approaches (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 110; Clavin, Patricia, Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920–1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Schipper, Lagendijk, and Anastasiadou, ‘New Connections’.

30 See, for example, Greaves, H.R.G., The League Committees and World Order: A Study of the Permanent Expert Committees of the League of Nations as an Instrument of International Government (London: Oxford University Press, 1931); Haas, R., ‘World Transit and Communications’, in Problems of Peace: Lectures Delivered at the Geneva Institute of International Relations (London, 1927), 212–20.

31 See Schot and Lagendijk, ‘Technocratic’; Waqar H. Zaidi, ‘Technology and the Reconstruction of International Relations: Liberal Internationalists Proposals for the Internationalisation of Aviation and the International Control of Atomic Energy in Britain, USA and France, 1920–1950’, Ph.D thesis, University of London, Imperial College, 2008.

32 Stier, Bernhard, ‘Expansion, réforme de structure et interconnexion européenne: Développement et difficultés de l’électricité sous le nazisme, 1939–1945’, in Varashin, Denis, ed., Les entreprises du secteur de l’énergie sous l'Occupation (Arras: Artois Presses Université, 2006), 269–90.

33 Maier, ‘The Economics’, 76–8.

34 Füssl, Wilhelm, Oskar von Miller 1855–1934: Eine Biographie (Munich: C.H.Beck, 2005), 195–6; Stier, Bernhard, Staat und Strom: Die politische Steuerung des Elektrizitätssystems in Deutschland 1890–1950 (Mannheim: Verlag Regionalkultur, 1999), 443.

35 Boll, Georg, Entstehung und Entwicklung des Verbundbetriebs in der deutschen Elektrizitätswirtschaft bis zum europäischen Verbund. Ein Rückblick zum 20-jährigen Beziehen der Deutschen Verbundsgesellschaft e.V. (Frankfurt am Main: Verlags- und Wirtschaftgesellschaft der Elektrizitätswerke d. Elektrizitätswerke mbH., 1969), 44; Maier, Helmut, ‘Systems Connected: IG Auschwitz, Kaprun, and the Building of European Power Grids up to 1945’, in van der Vleuten, Erik and Kaijser, Arne, eds., Networking Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850–2000, (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2006), 135.

36 Stier, Strom und Staat, 443; Tooze, Adam, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Penguin, 2008), 111–2.

37 Maier, Helmut, Erwin Marx (1893–1980), Ingenieurwissenschaftler in Braunschweig, und die Forschung und Entwicklung auf dem Gebiet der elektrischen Energieübertragung auf weite Entfernungen zwischen 1918 und 1950 (Stuttgart: Verlag für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 1993), 276.

38 Boll, Entstehung und Entwicklung, 78. On Oliven, see Lagendijk, Vincent, ‘Biography 1: An Electrifying Legacy: The Long Life of the Oliven Plan’, in Badenoch, Alexander and Fickers, Andres, eds., Materializing Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 44–6.

39 Maier, Erwin Marx, 276–7.

40 Maier, Systems Connected, 138; Raim, Edith, Justiz zwischen Diktatur und Demokratie: Wiederaufbau und Ahndung von NS-Verbrechen in Westdeutschland 1945–1949 (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2013), 992.

41 Stier, Strom und Staat, 482–3.

42 Freund, Florian, ‘Elektrizitätswirtschaft in Österreich und der Krieg’, in Rathkolb, Oliver and Freund, Florian, eds., NS-Zwangsarbeit in der Elektrizitätswirtschaft der ‘Ostmark’ 1938–1945: Ennskraftwerke – Kaprun – Draukraftwerke – Ybbs-Persenbeug – Ernsthofen (Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2002), 3.

43 ‘Niederschrift über die Sitzung des Fachausschusses I (Wasserkraftplanung) am 27. und 28.1.1942 in Berlin, Pariser Platz 5a’, Collection Wasserwirtschaftsstelle für das untere Donau-gebiet, 1940-1942, Box 134, Austrian State Archives.

44 Kleisl, Jean-Daniel, Électricité suisse et Troisième Reich (Lausanne: Chonos/Éditions Payot, 2001), 49 and 71–3.

45 de Heem, Louis, ‘Expérience acquise dans le fonctionnement interconnecté du réseau belge avec les réseaux des pays voisins’, in Report to UNIPEDE Congres: Comité d’études des interconnexions internationales, IV.1 (Rome: UNIPEDE, 1952), 23; Verbong, G.P.J., van Empelen, L., and Hesselmans, A.N., ‘De ontwikkeling van het Nederlandse koppelnet tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog’, NEHA-Jaarboek, 12 (1998), 277309, 304–5.

46 Margit Reiter, ‘Das Tauernkraftwerk Kaprun’, in Rathkolb and Freund, eds., NS-Zwangsarbeit in der Elektrizitätswirtschaft der ‘Ostmark’ 1938–1945, 130–40.

47 Comité Intergouvermental créé par la Conference de Messine, Brussels, 26.7.1955 MAE 94 f/55, doc nr. 54. Liste des membres du comité intergouvermental créé par la conference de Messine, CM3 – Comité Intergouvernmental: listes des membres du comité directeur et des membres de commissions ou sous-commissions instituées dans le cadre du comité intergouvernmental, Archives of the European Council, Brussels.

48 Vas, Oskar, ‘Hermann Grengg: 70 Jahre,’ Österreichische Ingenieurs-Zeitschrift, 4 (1961), 61–2.

49 United States Strategic Bombing Survey, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-All Report (European War) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1945), 83–5.

50 Report of a Meeting held on 22 June 1945 in Laufenburg, Folder: Allgemeines 1930–1951, File 83: Ausfuhrbewilligungen (81, 81.1, 82), 8 E 8190 (A) -/3 - Amt für Energiewirtschaft 1930–1969, Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, Bern, Switzerland.

51 Lagendijk, Electrifying Europe, 116–7.

52 Victor-Yves Ghébali, ‘Aux origines de l'Ecosoc: L’évolution des commissions et organisations techniques de la Société des Nations’, Annuaire français de droit international (1972), 469–511.

53 Verbong, Empelen, and Hesselmans, ‘De Ontwikkeling’, 283, 301–7.

54 Merlin, André, ‘In Memory of Pierre Ailleret’, Power Engineering Review, IEEE, 16, 12 (1996), 31.

55 Millward, Private, 96; Hausman, Wilkins, and Hertner, Global, 234–5.

56 ‘Council recommendation concerning the working of the international power pool’, 26 Mar. 1950; and Ibid., document EL(50)22, ‘Draft agreement between the countries of Western Europe for the joint operation of electric power resources’, 20 May 1950, document EL(50)16, file 1156.1, fonds OEEC, Historical Archives of the European Union.

57 Cornelius W. DeForest to Cisler, 29 Sept. 1948, Box 1, Map: Electricity 1948, Office of the director, subject files, 1948-1952. Administration – Commodities. Entry # 986, Industry division (1948–1951), RG 469 – Records of US Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1948–1961. Office of the Special Representative in Europe (1948–1953), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, United States.

58 See, for example, Lagendijk, Vincent, ‘The Structure of Power: The UNECE and East–West Electricity Connections, 1947–1975’, Comparativ: Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und Vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung, 24, 1 (2014), 5065.

59 CEEC, Committee of European Economic Co-Operation. Volume II: Technical reports (London: His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1947), 132

60 European Power Board, General: Draft note, 13 Dec. 1947, registry fonds GX, file 19/13/1, box 3175, United Nations Office Geneva Archives.

61 ‘Note of meeting held in the Executive Secretary's office on December 19th, 1947 to discuss the proposal that the Power Committee be asked to consider the formation of a European Power Board’, registry fonds GX, file 19/13/1, box 3175, United Nations Office Geneva Archives.

62 Hochreutiner, René, ‘L'Interconnexion au service des échanges d’énergie en Europe occidentale (report no. 9)’, in Compte rendu des travaux du huitième congrès international tenu à Bruxelles en septembre 1949, Rapports des Comités d’Études IV à IX, vol. 2 (Paris: Imprimerie Chaix, 1949), 67.

63 Letter of Myrdal sent to European ministers of foreign affairs and relevant international organisations, 30 Oct. 1951, registry fonds GX, file 19/6/1/4-3815, United Nations Office Geneva Archives; and Notes of Réunion du Comité Restreint, 3 Oct. 1955, UCPTE Archive.

64 Neidhöfer, ‘50-Hz Frequency’, 78–9.

65 UCPTE, ‘Cooperation in the Interconnected Power System of the UCPTE – Technical Reasons for Coordination, in Half-Yearly Report, vol. II - Summer (Brussels: UCPTE, 1993), 40.

66 Facconi, Pietro, preface to UCPTE 1951–1971: 20 ans d'activité (Rome: UCPTE, 1971).

67 Lecture by René Hochreutiner, ‘Gemeinsamer Markt und europäische Freihandelszone’, 4 June 1957, 82 Verband export, Werke 1934–1959, 8190 (A) 1981/1, 37, Schweizerische Bundesarchiv Bern.

68 Comité Intergouvernemental créé par la Conférence de Messine, ‘Rapport des Chefs de Délégation aux Ministres des Affaires Etrangères’, document Mae 120 f/56 (corrigé) (Brussels: Secrétariat, 1956), 126–.

69 Kaiser, Wolfram and Schot, Johan, Writing the Rules for Europe: Experts, Cartels, and International Organizations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 277; CENELEC and Winckler, Rudolf, Electrotechnical Standardization in Europe: A Tool for the Internal Market (Brussels: CENELEC, 1994).

70 See Lagendijk, Vincent, ‘“An Experience Forgotten Today”: Examining Two Rounds of European Electricity Liberalization’, History and Technology, 27, 3 (2011), 291310.

71 Klaus Patel, Kiran, ‘Provincialising European Union: Co-Operation and Integration in Europe in a Historical Perspective’, Contemporary European History, 22, 4 (2013), 653.

72 von Hirschhausen, Ulrike and Klaus Patel, Kiran, ‘Europeanization in History: An Introduction’, in Conway, Martin and Klaus Patel, Kiran, eds., Europeanization in the Twentieth Century: Historical Approaches (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 2.

73 van der Vleuten, Erik et al., ‘Europe's System Builders: The Contested Shaping of Transnational Road, Electricity and Rail Networks’, Contemporary European History, 16, 3 (2007), 327–8.

74 Thue, Lars, ‘Connections, Criticality, and Complexity’, in Högselius, Per et al., eds., The Making of Europe's Critical Infrastructure (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 229–32; Lagendijk, ‘“An Experience”’, 301–2.

75 Schipper, Frank and Schot, Johan, ‘Infrastructural Europeanism, or the Project of Building Europe on Infrastructures: An Introduction’, History and Technology, 27, 3 (2011), 250. The use of ‘technological zones’ is inspired by Andrew Barry. See his Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society (London: Athlone Press, 2001).

76 Albert, Michel, ‘Enlarged Interconnection between the East and the UCPTE’, Perspectives in Energy, 4 (1997), 7.

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