The forgotten story of the Atlantic Wall

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A book by the writer and documentary director Jérôme Prieur reveals how the Atlantic Wall, a line of fortifications along France's western and northern coastline, erected to resist an allied troop landing, was a cornerstone of the collaboration effort between the Vichy government and Nazi Germany.

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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.

It is now the subject of a book, 'The Atlantic Wall, Monument of Collaboration' (cover, left), by writer and film-maker Jérôme Prieure1. Published last autumn, his work was also the subject of a television documentary for the France 2 channel.

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".

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Mediapart: Why call a ‘wall' what was perhaps no more than an Atlantic sieve?

Construction work on the wall. © DR Construction work on the wall. © DR
Jérome Prieur: "In German, the Atlantikwall is considered a rampart. The construction is also a propaganda fortification reminiscent of those of antiquity, such as The Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall. But it is in fact a discontinuous line of fortified points. It was a means of controlling access to the beaches, built from Norway to the Spanish borders, and backed up by a Sudwall on the Mediterranean coast between Spain and Italy."

 

Mediapart: The undertaking seems like an amalgam of archaism and modernity, with certain bunkers that prefigure the Guggenheim Museum.

Page extract from Virilio's 'Bunker Archeology'. © DR Page extract from Virilio's 'Bunker Archeology'. © DR
J.P.: "It's a striking mix. The only major book on the subject, Bunker Archaeology, a Study on Second World War European Military Space by Paul Virilio3, highlights this combination of backward -looking conservatism and futurism. There is a sci-fi element to it, as well as a sculptural one, with an architectural style inspired by the Bauhaus. At the same time, it was a throwback in terms of military strategy. How could the Germans, who had bypassed the Maginot Line4, have entertained the idea of building this discontinuous line incapable of holding back assailants in a modern, and thus airborne, war?"

"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."

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1: Le Mur de l'Atlantique, Monument de la collaboration, Published by Denoël, available in French only, priced 18 euros. More on Jérôme Prieur here, and here.

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.

 


Mediapart: So the wall gives the lie to the notion that Hitler was a visionary?

J.P.: "Hitler was the one who believed in this wall, which he never visited, but which was his pet project. He paid meticulous attention to countless details, such as the thickness of the walls. And he died in a bunker. His general staff was aware of this obsession. Rommel, summoned to inspect the western front as of 1943, thought the wall could help win the battle on the beaches, which he expected to take place in the Pas-de-Calais. But he was up against real scepticism."

Jérôme Prieure: 'The wall faced inwards and out' © Camille Ménager Jérôme Prieure: 'The wall faced inwards and out' © Camille Ménager
"In my documentary I include a clip from a French newsreel of May 15th, 1944, which has the ring of a sci-fi film predicting the future. It announced loud and clear that any Anglo-American landing was bound to fail. Beyond the message addressed to the French, this was internal propaganda. It was a piece of rhetoric destined for the German clan who didn't believe in the efficacy of such a system."

 

Mediapart: The wall flaunted its strength in the hope that it wouldn't have to be used?

J.P.: "It was shown off, in the hope that it would be dissuasive. Continuous propaganda was churned out about a wall that would, in practice, last four hours, or a day in the case of Omaha Beach. That works out at a very expensive hourly rate, but still, it can hardly be considered a cardboard wall. It was an ambivalent and flawed construction, ill-adapted to the mobility of modern warfare."

Mediapart: From an economic point of view, the wall was erected as anti-national workshops1, wiping out unemployment.

J.P.: "Work, the number one virtue in Vichy France, does not smell2. If you buckle down to the task at hand it must be for the good of France, albeit in the service of the German war effort. The people are occupied. The occupation is also about that."

Protective fortress: a map of the wall defence.  © DR. Protective fortress: a map of the wall defence. © DR.
Mediapart: All the while hoping to become not just the conquered, but the partner of the German conqueror.

J.P.: "There is a mythologised, a fantastical dimension to the wall. It's a system that reverses the meanings of words and values: from a prison forbidding access to the beaches, it's transformed into a protective fortress. Work in the service of the enemy becomes redemptive, serving the homeland, which will thus find its place in the Europe of the future, a totalitarian Europe, but no matter. Anything can be reversed. The wall becomes the model of such a system."

Mediapart: But it then turned out everything could be reversed again, in the form of the Franco-German motor of post-war Europe.

J.P.: "Edgar Morin3 has recalled just how difficult it was for the European idea to impose itself, sullied as it was by the capital crime of having first and foremost been Nazi. De Gaulle and Adenauer made a democratic project of it, but this complete turn-around was to take time, energy and conviction."

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1: This is a reference to the national workshops, called in French les ateliers nationaux, introduced under the French Second Republic - which followed the 1848 revolution. They were created to provide work for the many unemployed during a severe economic crisis.

2: "Work does not smell" is a twist on "Money does not smell"/ Pecunia non olet, a Latin proverb used to excuse receiving money from questionable sources.

3: Renowned French philosopher and sociologist.

Mediapart: Was the project of a new Europe, symbolised by this concrete signature on the Atlantic coast, not above all technocratic, personified by Speer1 and Bichelonne2?

J.P.: "There were two sides, like with a wall facing both inwards and outwards. There was a colonial model, imposed on oppressed populations by the dominator. And at the same time, a technocratic model was being woven, with, in both camps, a social and economic utopia, a solution for the future. Jean Bichelonne, technocrat among technocrats, responsible for industrial production, joined forces with his counterpart Albert Speer, representative of the most modern fringe of Hitlerism. In his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich3, Speer wrote about his association with Bichelonne: "Both of us were young, we believed the future lay ahead of us, and promised ourselves to avoid in the future the mistakes made by the generation then in power in this period of world war". We discover that the construction of the Atlantic Wall had traits of serfdom and temping agencies. Vichy supplied the labour, prefiguring the practises of some of today's international temping agencies."

Sore thumb: remains of a gun turret. © DR. Sore thumb: remains of a gun turret. © DR.
"There was indeed an enslavement of deportees, prisoners of war, colonial troops, a subjection of local populations, but, at the same time, you could see the emergence of a rational, modern aspect, where the motor was money, where pay was better than elsewhere, with salaries doubled, as inflation was compensated for by the creation of special bonuses. So you could distinguish the premises of globalisation there, transcending the colonial model."

"Nazi Germany was inventing a way of managing economic resources at the service of an infernal machine, where the victims paid their own ransom, where, in the form of occupation fees, money had to be given to those who were enslaving you. But the boom fizzled out before the end of the conflict, when the French workers building the Atlantic Wall were rounded up, often on payday, to be sent to building sites in Germany."

Mediapart: No witnesses are interviewed in your documentary.

J.P.: "Sociologically, I arrived too late. And now there is a standard story, involving a reconstruction of memory: "We were forced, requisitioned, and we did our utmost to sabotage the construction of the wall, replacing cement with flour and sugar, when we weren't delivering plans to the Resistance!"

"What's the point in setting the word of witnesses who carried out the construction of the wall against that of historians? I wanted to make a historical film, not an exploration of the living memory of this wall. Twenty five years ago, it would have been the other way round, I could have interviewed the small fry and the big bosses, but would have been unable to find a single historian. However, memories still seem very much alive, as in Fécamp, where a screening of the film allowed me to note how, beneath the cement, the embers are still smouldering. Indirect witnesses, the heirs of entrepreneurs or minions, defend the reputations of their predecessors. In a debate in Paris, I heard the argument deployed that it was a ‘food wall'; if you wanted to eat, you had to work on it."

Mediapart: And this wall, with its ruins that are not ruins, solid as the Pont-Neuf, continues to taunt us from beach to beach.

J.P.: "Or even kilometres inland. All this would be very expensive to demolish. The legacy is sometimes monstrous. There's no reason why the submarine bases like those in Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, or Bordeaux, shouldn't still be there in 2,000 years' time. Some evidence is more discreet, but municipalities prefer to forget about it. As for individuals, they've been landed with vestiges on their property, their fields. They build a house on top of them, or a swimming pool, unless they choose to convert them into wine cellars, taking advantage of their exceptional thermal stability. Sometimes they fill the thing in, sometimes they transform it into a holiday home, or a recording studio. In Norway, the army naturally took over the bunkers."

Mediapart: Did you feel as if you were exploring repressed territory?

J.P.: "It's always awkward to claim to be the first to do something. But I am indeed the first to undertake a film, as well as a mainstream book, on this subject. It's incredible! I never stopped sounding out the people I met in the course of this project. In 97% of cases nobody knew who built the Atlantic Wall. In the immediate post-war period people were well aware that such and such had got rich, but then memories faded, to the point of effacing any French participation at all."

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1: Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's Chief Architect and later his Minister of Armaments and War Production.

2: Jean Bichelonne, Vichy government minister. As Secretary of State for Industrial Production he played a key role in the organisation of France's industrial collaboration with the Nazi Germany.

3: Published in 1979. Speer died of a stroke while visiting Britain in September 1981 for a BBC television interview.

English version: Chloé Baker
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