Mobilities, Knowledge Flows, and Entangled Logistics in Global Aviation, c. 1918-1945

Andreas Greiner


Between the 1920s and 1940s, state-sponsored airline companies of all major European countries and the United States developed sophisticated route networks following the imperial, political, or economic interests of their home countries. This Habilitation project studies the emergence of the global network of intercontinental civil air routes between 1918 and 1945. It investigates how infrastructure networks were created and governed across national boundaries before and during the Second World War, how aviation knowledge and technologies began to circulate on a global scale, and how logistical chains functioned on the spot.

As a global history of civil aviation, the project provides a multi-layered analysis of this worldwide infrastructure system. On the macro-level, it engages the legal codification of the aerospace and the diplomatic and economic factors guiding intercontinental airway extension as much as the circulation of scientific knowledge and innovation. Challenging the dominant narrative of aeronautical development in the interwar years as a history of daring national pioneers, the project unfolds an entangled history. First, it identifies patterns of commonality, connectivity, and coordinated planning underlying the evolution of seemingly separated airline networks. Secondly, the research is interested in the more immaterial networks of aviation, illuminating transfers and circulation of technologies, knowledge, and experts across political borders. Studying international relations through the lens of aviation provides novel insights into the “Age of Extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm). Not only does it unveil conflicts between imperialism and independent statehood in the end phase of the international imperial order, but it also reveals hitherto overlooked layers of cooperation across, as well as conflicts within, ideological boundaries.

Interwar aviation provides an appealing subject for adding local layers to the study of global networks because it was, surprisingly, firmly rooted on the ground. An analytical zoom into the microcosms of the hundreds of airfields situated along all intercontinental routes provides new perspectives on the material dimension of civil aviation and its meta-infrastructure, such as radio and weather stations. It redirects our gaze to the fragility of technology – to instances of maintenance, repair, and breakdown – and reveals how local conditions and actors had decisive impact on global structures. By studying the complicated, multilinear trajectories of infrastructure expansion and the many challenges it entailed, the Habilitation project seeks to shed new light on processes of 20th-century globalization.