This year STEAG, founded in 1937 as Steinkohlen- Elektrizität AG, is 80 years old. How do you view the development of the company?
STEAG originated as a joint venture company and in that respect was a typical mining phenomenon. For that is where the earliest industrial associations can be observed – starting with the Association for Mining Interests in the area covered by the Superior Mining Authority in Dortmund, through the Rhenish-Westphalian Coal Syndicate and later including companies such as RWE, VEW and STEAG with a special focus – involving the entire western German coal mining industry in power generation from hard coal. History shows that this strategy worked.
Was the foundation of Ruhrkohle AG in 1969 and the incorporation of STEAG for the reorganization of the hard coal mining industry an inevitable decision, or should those responsible at the time have been more creative in their actions?
If the mining industry was really to be stabilized, this solution was inevitable. From an energy policy point of view, other possibilities can of course be speculated about today. But there was also the socio-political component. In 1958, when the first shifts were cancelled because of declining demand, there were just under 500,000 employees in the mining industry. When Ruhrkohle was founded about ten years later, the figure was just under 200,000. 300,000 jobs lost in just one decade – with all the knock-on effects. How many more jobs could be replaced in a region like this? That would not have been possible by other means. In this respect, stretching out that shrinking process was a success.
Today, one of the main criticisms is that energy companies were caught napping by the development towards renewable energy sources and distributed generation. What is the historian's view of this allegation – is it fair?
In retrospect, it is all too easy to make all kinds of allegation. Particularly, you know, if you’re a politician. I’m not aware of any situation that I would say was exactly one in which a sudden change of course was needed. I can’t see that there has been any kind of careless policy on the part of the companies.
Coal and steel – employers in the industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia have always been synonymous with secure jobs. Can you give people a little hope that the move in these large companies towards other technologies and production sectors will compensate for the jobs lost?
I have to disagree. There have never been “secure” jobs in the sense of “jobs for life” in the coal and steel industries. That is a myth. I have already mentioned the conflicts in the mining crises of the 1950s and 1960s. But they weren’t the first ones. After the First World War, Germany experienced massive inflation. At the peak of hyperinflation in 1923, there were 500,000 employees in the mining industry. Just under ten years later, at the height of the global economic crisis, there were only 190,000 employees. To that extent, the miners’ workplaces were never as secure as is suggested in retrospect today.
The last colliery in Germany is scheduled to close in the coming year. What do you as a historian think the coal will leave behind? What do you think should be preserved as a cultural heritage?
I believe that, for at least one or two generations of the post-coal era, mining and hard coal will remain an essential aspect of identity and identification with the area. As part of our work, we have made an interesting discovery: This positive identification with the Ruhr and the industries on which its regional development was founded becomes stronger as the mining and steel industries decline. When they were at their peak, no-one talked sentimentally about the Ruhr area. Today, the Ruhr area is the world champion in proclaiming the beauty of what used to be considered ugly.
What can be learnt from the past of the Ruhr area and STEAG for the future of the state and the company?
If a glance at the past of the Ruhr teaches us anything at all, then it is that cooperation between different, otherwise antagonistic forces is possible. In the Ruhr area, a culture of compromise, of recognition, at least of the fact that other people are entitled to their own interests, has developed. That is something that should be preserved for the future.