Book Review by Thomas Cavanna: Oil and the Great Powers: Britain and Germany, 1914–1945, by Anand Toprani. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019

Originally published in the Middle East Journal (Volume 74, Number 3, Autumn 20). To purchase copies of subscriptions, please visit or

The advent of oil, whose strategic advantages (speed, endurance, conservation, etc.) became evident during World War I, ushered in a paradigmatic shift in international [End Page 484] geopolitics. Whereas richly endowed powers (the United States, Soviet Union, etc.) seemed poised to benefit, oil-deprived Europe, whose imperial expansion had relied on massive coal endowments, faced a major predicament. This award-winning book written by Anand Toprani, Associate Professor at the Naval War College, examines the strategies that Britain and Germany developed during the years of 1918 to 1945 to restore their energy independence (as opposed to energy security, i.e., importing oil at reasonable prices), and how those efforts caused an “overextension” that accelerated London and Berlin’s “demise as great powers” (p. 1)

Eager to reduce its dependency on US supplies (and the US-dominated Western Hemisphere), Britain immediately privileged the Middle East. Although the region’s production was limited, its reserves offered the best prospects to achieve oil independence, control domestic prices, transition to “capital-intensive services,” and shape a financial system in which the sterling would rival the dollar (p. 61). To fulfill those ambitions, Whitehall attempted to leverage its navy, its regional influence, and British multinationals (Shell and Anglo-Persian). Yet its ambitions quickly floundered due to logistical complications (pipeline itineraries, freight costs, etc.), the characteristics of local deposits (viscosity, etc.), resource nationalism (Iran, etc.), great power competition (US, France, Turkey, etc.), and internal bureaucratic disputes (the Admiralty, Treasury, Foreign Office, etc.) regarding Anglo-American relations, private companies, and financial constraints.

However, the most critical blow came in October 1935, when Britain’s sanctions against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia turned Rome into an enemy, thereby threatening its Mediterranean transit. Unable to deploy enough tankers to circumvent Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, Whitehall had to pivot west again. Unfortunately, while Venezuela met expectations, Mexico’s nationalism complicated London’s plans, and the US Neutrality Acts (1935–37) imposed “immediate payment in hard currency and transport on British tankers,” which crippled its financial reserves and rearmament (p. 91). As German, Italian, and Japanese forces increased their pressure on Britain’s imperial possessions, Whitehall fell into Washington’s strategic orbit. In Toprani’s words, “Seldom ha[d] a strategy promised so much yet yielded so little as [London’s] efforts in the Middle East following World War I” (p. 129).

Incapacitated by energy shortages and stripped from its Middle Eastern and Eastern European assets, Germany quickly committed to synthetic fuels following the Great War. After 1933, the Nazis turned this objective into a strategic priority while also betting on stockpiling and crude oil production. However, instead of long-term selfsufficiency, they merely sought the means to wage “a war of conquest and resource acquisition” (p. 21). Berlin struggled to reconcile its energy targets, rearmament goals, and financial stability. As of 1938, it still imported 75 percent of its oil from the US, Mexico, and Venezuela (p. 190). Yet Hitler accelerated the march to war anyway. The Sudeten crisis and the Soviet-German pact helped procure supplies from Romania and, to a much lesser extent, the Soviet Union, which, combined with increased domestic production, gave Germany a window for expansion. However, the Nazis started World War II “with only the slimmest margin of error” (p. 199).

Despite their prestige, Hitler’s May/June 1940 victories against France and the Low Countries “planted the seeds for a crippling energy crisis” because they forced Berlin to assume responsibility for Europe’s huge needs (p. 199), which, paradoxically, German planners had never prepared for. As a sustained campaign against Anglo-American forces loomed on the horizon, the Nazis’ only way forward was to conquer the Soviet Union— and, later, the Middle East. In that sense, Berlin’s strategic situation reinforced the ideological rationale that drove the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. One of its core objectives was to occupy the oil-rich Caucasus. Yet Hitler’s plans quickly unraveled due to the Soviets’ unexpected resilience, which partly benefited from the Wehrmacht’s oil shortages. By late 1941, Germany’s high tide had passed. From now onward, it would fight for “increasingly modest geopolitical objectives” (p. 252). [End Page 485]

The book’s conclusion reiterates key takeaways and draws more general observations. First, although the advent of oil did not cause Britain’s long decline, it “aggravated difficulties that were already in existence and created others” (p. 261). Second, the pitfalls of energy independence strategies reemerged during the Cold War. The Soviet performance was a case in point. But America’s recurrent flirtations with self-reliance also took their toll, whether in the form of weakened reserves, heightened domestic prices, reduced leverage over the global oil industry, or increased exposure to external shocks. Finally, those assessments suggest that the inward temptations revived by the recent shale gas revolution would compromise US strategic interests.

Anand Toprani’s book is outstanding in many respects, including the breadth of its archival research (British, German, and American documents), the rigor of its comparative methods, the depth and meticulosity of its analysis, and its ability to weave together so many events, actors (strategists, politicians, financers, corporations, etc.), and scales of analysis (individual, national, regional, and inter-continental) without ever losing clarity or focus. The book makes numerous contributions to the literature on Britain and Germany’s interwar energy strategies. It uses oil as an entry point to revisit larger historical questions in novel ways and to cross-fertilize subfields too often compartmentalized (diplomacy, political economy, grand strategy, etc.). Finally, it sensibly calls attention to the perennial—if neglected—importance of geography in world politics. Facing a study of that ambition, one can always be tempted to want more on certain themes or to debate specific points (timeline of Britain’s decline, rationale of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, etc.). Yet this only reflects the book’s enormous qualities, relevance, originality, and ability to move the lines. A must-read for anyone interested in energy, strategy, and great power competition.

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