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The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line fortifications on France’s German and Italian frontiers were a marvel of 1930s engineering - they cost over €7 billion in today’s prices.

Among the million troops who served there were two future French presidents, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, the composer Olivier Messiaen, and the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Yet the catastrophic defeat of 1940 turned the fortifications into a symbol of national decadence. Nowadays, historians reject this stereotype and focus instead on decisive battles in Belgium and the Netherlands, thus sidelining the Maginot Line.


View of the village of Lembach in Alsace
View on the village Lembach from block 5 by Sylvainlouis - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

This interdisciplinary project shows that fortification was part of a hubristic project to restore hierarchy in the army, polity, society, and the natural environment following the tremendous upheaval and destruction of the Great War. It was designed to help reintegrate the German-speaking province of Alsace-Lorraine into France after five decades of German annexation. Fortification drew on nascent management science, Taylorist work practices, and neo-classical modernist and regionalist architecture and urbanism. It aimed to ‘perfect’ the topographical boundaries of France and to regulate forests and rivers in the service of national defence.

Yet fortification was always unpopular within the officer corps. It was adapted, co-produced and subverted by often Germanophone soldiers, civilians, and by damp and soiled air. Public perceptions of it owed more to the genres of popular culture in which it was represented – such as the murder-mystery and science fiction – than to official propaganda. The objective of harmonising man, machine and the natural environment in service of national defence was never achieved.

Principal Investigator