The Atlantic Wall was built during the WWII German occupation of France, a line of fortifications along France's western and northern coastline, erected to resist an allied troop landing. While remnants of it still stick out like giant sore thumbs, the true story behind its construction has largely crumbled away from France's collective memory.
Prieure explains, (or rather, reminds us) how, from 1942 to 1944, the Third Reich's principal engineering group, the Todt Organisation, under Hitler's orders, carried out a vast operation in collaboration with Vichy France, to build the fortified wall (which also stretched beyond the border with Belgium to Scandinavia). Some 300,000 French workers toiled over its construction, enriching hundreds of companies, which were then able to profit from the post-war reconstruction boom; once, that is, they had been through the motions of the post-liberation purge supposed to bring collaborators to justice.
We are shown how the Atlantic Wall was both massive and immaterial. The fortification, riddled with gaps, was like a dotted line leading to an uncertain future. Jérôme Prieur retraced its course to its origins, with the help of three generations of historians2, accompanied by arresting photos and documents.
He discusses his work here with Mediapart's Antoine Perraud, and reveals how he discovered that "beneath the cement, the embers are still smouldering".
Mediapart: Why call a ‘wall' what was perhaps no more than an Atlantic sieve?
Mediapart: The undertaking seems like an amalgam of archaism and modernity, with certain bunkers that prefigure the Guggenheim Museum.
"Ideological construction is a major dimension of this wall, as if it were necessary to protect oneself from the hereditary enemy, the English. [The French historian] Olivier Wieviorka explains well that we associate the success of the German army with an idea of a lightning-fast war. But this blitzkrieg is something of a historical accident. Granted, it allowed the invasion of France, but the concept was only forged afterwards."
2: Historians: Robert Paxton; Jean-Claude Hazera and Renaud de Rochebrune; Olivier Wieviorka; Claude Malon; Sébastien Durand; Peter Gaida; Daniel Lindenberg; Fabrice Grenard; Fabian Lemmes; Manuel Martin; Isabelle Raynaud and Christian Bougeard.
3: Paul Virilio, born in 1932, is a prominent, politically engaged urbanist and philosopher, known for his writings on the effects of speed and technology upon modern society. An English-language translation of the French Bunker Archéologie, first published in 1975, was published in 2009 by Princeton Architectural Press, to accompany an exhibition of Virilio's photographs at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
4: Defensive concrete fortifications and bunkers built by France along its borders with Germany and Italy between World War One and World War Two. Named after the then-French Minister of Defence André Maginot.