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The Atlantic Wall's Colossal Wreck

A Failed Monument to Military Logic

by IAN RUTHVEN

Walking in Normandy some years ago, I came across two monumental bunkers half buried in a wood; their silent, menacing presence in the gentle Cotentin landscape was deeply incongruous. Later I found several tipped-up pillboxes on a beach, with looming shapes that suggested stranded sea monsters. Fascinated by the scale, and length, of these fortifications, I bought a campervan and explored the whole of the Atlantic Wall.

The Wall — the chain of second world war fortifications stretching from Norway’s Arctic frontier with Russia to France’s Basque Country frontier with Spain — is the least acknowledged of Europe’s military monuments. Mostly built between 1942 and 1945, it is the largest construction project in history to have been executed in so short a time. It remains a testament to the “Thousand-year Reich” — yet it lasted just over a decade, even if the virtually indestructible qualities of reinforced concrete mean that a good portion of it will endure for the millennium Adolf Hitler dreamed about.

Strategically, the idea of protecting Nazi-occupied Europe from Allied invasion with a vast network of batteries and bunkers is evidence of the folly of Hitler’s enterprise: without air supremacy, fixed defences were at best redundant, at worst useless. Hitler had understood the limitations of fixed defences when, in May 1940, he successfully bypassed France’s supposedly impregnable Maginot Line. Yet he took an obsessive interest in the Wall, sketching the designs of casemates and bunkers, and planning the installations down to the smallest details.

After the death of his chief architect, Fritz Todt, in an air crash in February 1942, Hitler entrusted the project to his chief architect, Albert Speer. In barely two years, the Wall consumed millions of tonnes of reinforced concrete, depriving armaments factories of vital iron and steel. As Speer recollected during his years in Spandau prison, it had been an exercise in futility: “All this expenditure of effort was sheer waste.” The Wall had concentrated its fortifications on harbours, predicated on Hitler’s belief that the Allies would be unable to mount a successful invasion without taking a sizeable port. But, as Speer noted, with a “single brilliant technical idea [the floating Mulberry harbours], the enemy bypassed these defences within two weeks of the first landing” (1).

Human Cost

The Wall’s military futility is only part of the story. At the height of work in 1944, nearly 300,000 men were coerced into building 60,000 structures, from one-man machine gun foxholes known as “tobruks” to massive casemates to protect the largest guns from air and sea attack. Around 10% of the workers were Germans in supervisory roles, but most were prisoners of war or conscripts of the Compulsory Work Service (Service du Travail Obligatoire), offered the choice of work on the Wall and the massive submarine pens that protected the U-boat “wolf packs” preying on Atlantic shipping, or forced labour in Germany. Many thousands died in terrible conditions, including 500 Soviet prisoners in the Norwegian Arctic not given adequate clothing. Local building contractors operated as subsidiaries of German companies, and profited from the occupation. The Wall is a monument to the profiteers of occupied Europe, as well as to the thousands who died building it or who fought to breach parts of it.

It was designed according to military logic and should not be considered a monument to fascist architecture. Far from reflecting Hitler’s preference for neoclassical grandeur, the structures are infused with the modernist aesthetic that the Nazis were obliged to despise. By integrating form, function and materials, they fulfilled the criteria of rationalist architecture, using standardised sections that could be reproduced in quantity. As the architectural critic Jonathan Meades wrote, “The Todt Organisation built many more Expressionistic structures than the Expressionists did; it gave the idiom new legs” (2).

Many of the structures are strikingly modernist. The command post at Batz-sur-Mer in Brittany — a structure of receding horizontal planes with a cantilevered roof — resembles Le Corbusier’s “machines for living”, while the ground-hugging contours of Henry van de Velde’s masterpiece, the 1914 Werkbund Theatre, are echoed in the massive Oldenburg battery at Calais. The innovative use of moulded concrete had a strong influence on the new brutalist style that became fashionable after the war, when many buildings employed the same materials, techniques and aesthetic. As well as military functionality, the Wall is permeated by modernist industrial logic and the aesthetic of strong geometrical forms, with concrete allowed to “speak” — showing the imprint of its wooden shuttering without any cladding or finish. Architectural quality is not a corollary of a building’s functions. Future generations may well be shocked that most of the Lindemann battery at Sangatte lies buried under a lake of slurry created by the Channel Tunnel excavations. No one considers destroying a Norman castle or Vauban fortress because of its oppressive military connotations.

Mutated symbols of menace

The Wall’s 70 standard designs specified the proportions for each type of structure, based on criteria determined by their military purpose. The hard geometrical lines are often softened by curved angles to reduce the impact of shrapnel and the effects of blast. Many of these bunkers, crouching in the landscape to avoid aerial attack, are moulded to maximise camouflage, in a variety of zoomorphic or even human shapes: casemate embrasures flanked by walls with gorilla-like shoulders to protect the guns have yawning mouths like sharks. Observation towers resemble giants with helmets and visors, while command posts have officers’ peaked caps and epaulettes.

A few of these relics have been converted into museums that attract tourists, and coachloads of students of 20th-century history. But most lie neglected in fields and woods, perched on cliffs or sinking beneath the sands, taboo monoliths. Over seven decades, nature has been at work, covering them with lichens, ivy and climbing plants, or creating mysterious patterns on the concrete surfaces through the action of water, weather and minerals.

In wooded hills and pastures near the coastline, what were once symbols of menace and power have mutated into the relics of a lost civilisation. A few are used by farmers for storing fodder and machinery, or as shelters for cattle and sheep, while a handful have been converted into exotic dwellings or weekend retreats. In urban areas, graffiti artists have covered them with colourful, cheeky displays. On the coast of Jutland, some have been playfully converted into sculptures and there is a “bunker love” festival in summer. Danes, more than other Europeans, seem to regard them as stage sets, discarded props from the tragedy of Europe in the 20th century.

For the architect and philosopher Paul Virilio, the Wall is a last relic of the era of the defensible frontier, beginning with the Roman limes and the Great Wall of China: “Abandoned on the sand of the littoral, like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history” (3). Today, lines drawn on land or boundaries formed by seas are militarily redundant, though they may still have political and legal significance. When military power is ubiquitous, exemplified by unmanned aerial vehicles or drones guided by invisible operators thousands of miles from their targets, defending territory with reinforced concrete makes little sense.

The Wall may have created, for a time, a false sense of security for the Germans and their collaborators. But, as Virilio points out, the war in the air cancelled out this sentiment: the destruction of so many European cities by Allied bombing “completely broke down the shielding effect of littoral and frontier fortifications.” On 6 June 1944, D-Day, the bunkers commanding the Normandy beaches only resisted the Allied invasion a little while. Given the Allies’ command of the air and their willingness and capacity to destroy whole cities, such as Caen and Le Havre, civilians became the victims, not just of Nazism, but of modern warfare itself.

Ianthe Ruthven is a photographer and the author of The Atlantic Wall: Hitler’s Coastal Fortress from the Arctic to the Pyrenees, London, 2014; www.iantheruthven.com

Notes.

(1) Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1994.

(2) Jonathan Meades, Atlantic Wall exhibition review in Country Life, London, 4 June 2014.

(3) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.