Business History in Europe From previous issues of the EBHA Newsletter

Business History in Italy: The ASSI Foundation

The ASSI Foundation is the most important institution for the study of Italian business history. Created in 1983 as the association of Italian business historians (ASSI stands for Associazione di Storia e Studi sull'Impresa, i.e. the Association for the History and Study of Enterprise), three years later it was transformed into a foundation, thanks to the support of Italian corporations including Fiat, Montedison and Fratelli Dioguardi as well as the Milan Chamber of Commerce.
ASSI's activities are divided into four areas. They include:

Seminars and Workshops

Each month a seminar is organised for the discussion of a research project of an Italian or foreign scholar. Recent scholars have included Mark Fruin from the University of British Columbia and Louis Galambos from Johns Hopkins. Another important initiative in this field is a once a year seminar dedicated to young researchers (the theme in 1995 was 'stories of entrepreneurs').
In addition to the series of monthly seminars, since 1985 ASSI has organised every other year an international seminar (called the 'International Week on Business History') on a specific topic. Previous meetings have dealt with 'Small and Big Business in an Historical Perspective' (1985), 'Enterprise and Technology' (1987), 'Enterprise and Finance' (1989), 'Forms of Enterprise' (1991), and 'Markets, Hierarchies and Power' (1993). This initiative will be continued in 1996 as an international colloquium organised in collaboration with the Bocconi University. Primarily discussion-oriented, the topic will be 'The Rise and Fall of the State Owned Enterprise in a Market Economy'.


ASSI publishes two journals. The first is Annali di Storia dell'Impresa (edited by Franco Amatori, Guiseppe Berta and Duccio Bigazzi), a yearly publication intended to offer an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas on topics related to the modern enterprise. The second publication is Archivi et Imprese, a quarterly journal edited by Duccio Bigazzi which is more oriented towards empirical research. ASSI was also a founding member and sponsor of Industrial and Corporate Change, a journal in economic and business history.
In addition, ASSI has edited a series of books on business history. To date twenty-one titles have been released, the first five published by Franco Angeli in Milan and the others by the Bologna-based publishing house Il Mulino. One of the most recent titles is the Italian edition of Alfred Chandler's Scale and Scope.


ASSI is co-ordinating two major projects of the CNR, the Italian National Research Council. The first, 'Small Business in Italy from Unification to the Economic Miracle (1860-1960)', involves ASSI as leader of eight operating research units studying three major industrial cities (Milan, Turin and Naples), the company town of Terni, three 'emerging' areas (in the provinces of Bologna, Macerata and Vicenza) characterised by 'diffused' forms of industrialisation, and the old-industrialised area in the Lombard province of Varese. The second project is related to Italian business in the Soviet Union in the years between the two world wars.
ASSI is also involved in research for the sectorial associations representing the state-owned holdings of IRI (Intersind) and ENI (ASAP).

Educational Activities

ASSI is a fundamental component of ICSIM (Istituto per la Cultura e la Storia d'Impresa Franco Momigliano), an institute for postgraduate studies sponsored by the Region of Umbria and the provinces (as well as the cities) of Perugia and Terni, which is located in Villalago, near Terni. In April 1996 ICSIM will begin a two-year programme in business history leading to a Masters degree.
In addition, ASSI (with the sponsorship of the city of Milan) has started an extended programme in international and comparative business history for high school teachers.

Since its creation ASSI has made a substantial contribution to the diffusion of business history in Italy, in part due to its interdisciplinary thrust with the involvement of economists, historians, students of business policy and social scientists. Thanks to a long series of monographs and essays, ASSI's efforts form a decisive component in the history of the Italian corporate economy.
The challenge ahead is to deepen this goal through the systematic study of the evolution of the structure of Italian big business (ASSI has already begun examining the first two hundred firms at different benchmark years since the beginning of the century) and to further study the field of small businesses, an area in which Italy has an international competitive advantage and for which the sources are often not easily identifiable. ASSI is now directing its attention and its resources towards these two tasks.

Contact address:
Fondazione ASSI, c/o Raccolte Storiche, Via Borgonuovo 23, 20121 Milan, Italy.
Phone: +39 (2) 861-141.
Fax: +39 (2) 876-539.

President: Franco Amatori
Secretary General: Nicola Crepas
Board Members:
Franco Amatori, Stefano Angeli, Guiseppe Berta, Duccio Bigazzi, Teresio Fraviga, Renato Giannetti, Giulio Sapelli
In addition, the late Gianpaolo Gallo and Felice Mortillaro were members of the board.
Scientific Advisors:
GianPrimo Cella, Renato Covino, Beppe Della Rocca, Giovanni Dosi, Giovanni Federico, Michele Lungonelli, Alfredo Macchiati, Mauro Magatti, Franco Malerba, Raul Nacamulli, Luigi Orsenigo, Claudio Pavese, Giorgio Roverato, Francesco Silva, Pier Angelo Toninelli, Vera Zamagni.

In addition, there is a large group of Honorary Advisors which comprises some of the world's foremost business historians.

Business History in The Netherlands

The following overview of Dutch business history is based on information provided by Joost Jonker.

Along with many other lines of research, business history experienced a great upsurge of interest in the Netherlands during the 1970s and 1980s. From a somewhat obscure trade practised by a few specialists, business history started to attract a wider circle of students, researchers, readers and writers. Conferences and public debates on specific issues drew large audiences, and academic respectability was reached with the foundation of a yearbook, university chairs and institutes as well as a society for business history. Today, there are established curricula and/or research activities in business history at several universities. In addition, firms have also begun to recognise the value of business history and are increasingly open for researchers.

Among the Dutch universities, the Erasmus Universiteit in Rotterdam was the first to establish a specific centre for business history, the Centrum voor Bedrijfsgeschiedenis (CBG) founded in 1984 by the late Huib Vleesenbeek. Based on his initiative, the CBG organised a successful international conference in business history in October 1994, which also marked the launch of the European Business History Association. After a period of uncertainty following its founder's early death, the future of the CBG now appears once again secure. Currently, there are a number of doctorate dissertations written at the centre, with topics including for example the history of the Dutch statistical office and the privatisation of the Dutch postal service.

The Universiteit Utrecht has also established a research centre for business history, the Onderzoekscentrum voor Geschiedenis en Cultuur (OGC). Led by Dr. Joost Dankers, this group concentrates on contract research. There is as yet no link with the history curriculum, but the University provides a welcome academic backing. A related discipline of business history, the history of technology is particularly vigorous in the Netherlands. The group under Prof. Dr. Harry Lintsen at the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven recently set a landmark with the completion of a six volume survey of Dutch technology in the 19th century. Especially its detailed treatment of industrial sectors is of considerable interest to business historians. The group now plans a survey of 20th century developments. In addition to these four main centres of research and/or teaching, there are outposts such as the part-time chair at Amsterdam University held by Prof. Dr. Eric Fischer.

There is also a business history association in the Netherlands, which currently has almost 100 members. It came into being when the initial moves towards the establishment of the European Business History Association (EBHA) inspired Dutch business historians like Vleesenbeek and Dr. Keetie Sluyterman to resurrect a Dutch society. The Stichting voor Bedrijfsgeschiedenis (Foundation for Business History) was launched as a successor to the dormant Werkgroep voor Bedrijfsgeschiedenis. The Foundation aims to promote business history among a wider audience. It organises two events per year, a seminar to debate current issues and usually a company visit, which are very popular. The Stichting welcomes members living abroad. Details can be obtained from Dr. B. Hogesteeger, PO Box 869, NL-2501 CW The Hague, The Netherlands.

Finally, the Nederlandsch Economisch-Historisch Archief (NEHA) provides a key focal point for research in economic and business history. At its centre is the Economic History Library (EHB) which has a world-famous collection of books, pamphlets, prospectuses, commercial papers, statistical data, company reports, etc., stretching back into the 16th century. Twice per year the NEHA publishes an academic journal on economic history, the NEHA-Bulletin, and also edits a well-known yearbook on economic history which some years ago merged with the yearbook for business history. From time to time, the archive sponsors wide-ranging projects like the multi-volume survey of the known location of business records in the Netherlands. Covering all industrial and service sectors, it is a very useful research tool for all those interested in Dutch business history. The NEHA also facilitates contract research. The insurance business has become its main focus of attention and this is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

One very welcome development during recent years is the gradual opening up of business records for academic research. Until the late 1980s most companies remained closed to outside research with the exception of a few cases where support from within was available. Nowadays, companies are generally more inclined to grant access to their records, including the Dutch multinationals Philips and Unilever. The increasing openness is very often driven by the academically trained archivists employed in these companies. Banking provides a good example for these considerable changes. Only a decade ago, some banks declined requests for access even to files from the late 19th century. But over the last five years a vast area for research has opened up when the records of all commercial and private banks now grouped in the ABN-AMRO Bank became available. Even recent records can be consulted at the bank's head office,confidentiality permitting. Files older than 30-50 years are, as a rule, transferred to public archives with free access.

Despite the increasing number of research centres and the encouraging developments regarding business records, a few uncertainties remain. These concern especially the position of Dutch business history in the academic environment. Very similar to economic history, its ties with economics departments and business studies are tenuous at best, even though both could benefit from a closer co-operation with business historians. In addition, the fact that much of the current work is generated by commissioned research results in a rather narrow focus and a lack of more general debates, even though the need to discuss fundamental issues and questions is widely recognised.

Concerning the history of Dutch firms, there continue to be gaps which are not addressed by recent research. Royal Dutch Shell and KLM for example have no proper company history, while Wilson's classic book on Unilever could do with a successor. In the service sector, insurance has been well covered, and banking is increasingly becoming so, but trade, transport, and retailing remain underrepresented. The role of business during the Second World War is still awaiting academic treatment, pending the outcome of a more general debate concerning collaboration and resistance in this period.

The main challenge facing Dutch business historians lies in the need to maintain present standards, and to retain its vigour under increasing pressures and restraints. Ironically, at a time when companies are increasingly welcoming independent historical research, universities are more reluctant to provide facilities for it, thus further curtailing the scope for the necessary reflection and for the discussion of more general issues. Societies such as the Stichting voor Bedrijfsgeschiedenis can and do counterbalance these developments by building a forum for wider debate, but without close academic ties, business history will remain in a difficult position. One can only hope that the future will bring opportunities to strengthen these ties.

Business History in Russia: A Research Project

The following information about a major research project covering many aspects of Russian business and economic history was provided by Professor Michael Bibikov.

In the former Soviet tradition, the academic approach to business and economic history had two major characteristics. On the one hand, scholarly efforts were largely concentrated on the criticism of the capitalist economic system, way of life and the perspectives it offered for economic development. On the other hand, categories such as Œbusiness¹ and Œbusinessman¹ were always used with a negative connotation, even for describing and analysing Russia¹s own past.

A major new research project entitled ŒEconomic and Business History: International Experiences and Modern Problems¹ constitutes a clear break with this tradition. It is currently undertaken by the Centre of Economic and Business History of the Institute of Universal History at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Foundation of History, Ecological Reconstruction, Economics and Business.

The objective of this project is twofold: First, to integrate the relevant academic research in Russia with the tradition of business history in Europe and elsewhere. Secondly, to investigate the common or different trends, principles, tendencies driving the evolution of business in Russia and in the rest of the world as well as the direct links between the two. While focusing on historical developments, the project also aims to contribute to a better understanding of (and possible solutions for) the problems created in Russia and other Central and Eastern European countries by the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy. It consists of four separate, but interrelated topics.

Russia between East and West

This part of the research project focuses on the Russian tradition of entrepreneurship and the place of Russia in the global economy. The country participated fully in development of foreign direct investment in Europe since the middle of the 19th century. Siemens, for example, invested not only in Britain, but also in Russia. It was followed by others, including German electrical machinery producers, Ericsson, the Swedish telephone company, and Shell. At the turn of the century, Russia hosted a large number of subsidiaries of foreign multinationals. The research aims to identify their influence on the development of local enterprises and on the competitiveness of the country as a whole.

Business - Government Relations

The interaction between the administration and free enterprises and the role of the state in a market economy are at the centre of the second part. The research considers from a historical point of view the potential problems created by government intervention, the impact of political reforms on business or the role of protective measures in a market economy. Rather than studying individual firms, the research contributions apply econometric methods to arrive at conclusions for the national level. Other interesting questions are therefore left to future studies. These could include, for example, the role of government instruments in the transitional period, the fact that totalitarian administrative structures disappear with so much difficulty, or the possibility that for a limited time period different economic systems (a free market and central planning) co-exist in different regions of the same country.

Banking and Finance

This part of the project attempts to use the results of recent business history research in this field for the current situation in Russia and other transitional economies. Special attention is paid to works about the financing of industrialisation, the origins of and the solutions for financial crises or the control of inflation. Other important topics include monetary reforms and the role of central banks. Many other aspects relating to the financial and monetary problems in Central and Eastern Europe will have to be addressed in more detailed future projects.

Businessmen in the Mirror of Public Opinion

The final topic concerns the image of businessmen in Russia. It looks in detail at the different factors contributing to emergence and the evolution of this socio-cultural group, including for example education, mentality and economic stratification. In addition, it considers the influence of entrepreneurial and managerial style and practice on the firm, its strategy, industrial relations etc. This topic is also of considerable interest for the current situation in Russia where the new Œclass¹ of businessmen, very heterogeneous in its composition, has received much public attention.

Those interested in receiving further details, publications related to the above project etc. should contact Professor Michael Bibikov at the Foundation of History, Ecological Reconstruction, Economics and Business, Leninskij prospect, 32 A, korp. B, N° 1401, 117334 Moscow, Russia, Tel: +7 (095) 938-1009, Fax: +7 (095) 938-2288.

Updated 28 July 1997

For further information about the EBHA and membership please contact Professor Geoffrey Jones at:

The University of Reading, Centre for International Business History
PO Box 218, Reading RG6 6AA, U.K.
EBHA Home Page