Sections of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall are being restored by French enthusiasts. But should the Nazi fortification be fully embraced as part of the country’s heritage?
The so-called Atlantic Wall – Hitler’s defensive system against an expected Allied attack – stretched all the way from the Spanish border to Scandinavia.
Inevitably, it was in France that the most extensive building took place. Today there are still thousands of blockhouses, barracks and gun emplacements visible along the French shore.
But in France there has been no effort up until now to preserve this extraordinary historical landmark.
Elsewhere, World War II bunkers have been renovated as tourist attractions or for educational visits. The internet boasts Atlantic Wall fan sites in Germany and the Netherlands – and strong interest in the UK – but nothing in France.
It is as though the nation was relieved to see the German defences slide inexorably into the sands – and oblivion.
But now – quite suddenly – a new mood has emerged. Recently, several local associations dedicated to safeguarding portions of the Wall have been set up in France.
Times have moved on, memories of the war have lapsed, and a new generation no longer feels pain or guilt, but curiosity.
“It really has been very rapid. In just the last three or four years, there has been a radical change,” says Marc Mentel, founder of Gramasa (Archaeological Research Group for the Atlantic Wall: Arcachon Sector).
“Today people are constantly coming up to us at our sites and wanting to know more about the Wall. In the past, the whole issue was too painful, it brought back too many bad memories.
“Time had to do its work. For me personally, there was no way I could have started the association until the death of my grandfather. He had been a prisoner in the war. For his generation, the Wall was something you preferred not to think about.
“Funnily enough, I think it was the death of the last poilu (World War I veteran) a couple of years ago that was the trigger. Suddenly now we see that World War II is slipping into history too.”
Members of the association spend their weekends clearing and restoring German bunkers around the bay of Arcachon, a beautiful area of oyster beds, pine woods and tourist beaches to the west of Bordeaux.
Falling into the sea
The sector was too far south to be a likely contender for Allied landings. Nonetheless, the Germans had a complex of emplacements defending the narrow entrance to the bay and the port of Arcachon.
Some of the defences were on the actual beaches, where they are now gradually falling victim to the tides and shifting sands. Others – mainly gun batteries – were on higher ground, and are relatively intact.
By studying German military maps, Mentel was able to pinpoint where one bunker had apparently disappeared. In fact it was buried beneath the sands next to the lighthouse at Cap Ferret, one of the promontories guarding the bay of Arcachon.
The association has now dug away the sands, revealing concrete walls still showing signs of the original camouflage. There is also an intriguing outside mural – drawn by some bored German soldier – of a man in a boater hat smoking a pipe.
Such amateur art works are quite common. In another emplacement across the entrance to the bay, there is a cartoon of a jazz band – sadly, rather hidden by modern-day graffiti.
“The Germans built the bunkers according to absolutely standard patterns, so we can walk into one and know straight away where everything will be – the hole for the radio mast, another for the periscope, the air vents, the sleeping area and so on,” said amateur archaeologist Jean-Francois Laquieze.
“The blockhouses that are on the beaches, I don’t think there is any way we can save. They are already disappearing into the sands, or in some cases are already under water.
“The ones that are slightly inland we can preserve. But there the problem is encroaching urbanisation. Town authorities are under pressure to open up more and more land for building.
“Nowadays we wouldn’t for a minute consider destroying our mediaeval castles. But that is what is exactly happening to the Atlantic Wall, which is just as much part of our history,” he said.
If the French preferred for 70 years to avert their gaze from the Wall, it is perhaps for understandable reasons.
The fortifications were after all German fortifications – emblems to the French of their own national humiliation. But there is more to it than that – the Wall was not just a symbol of defeat – but of collaboration.
“A lot of French construction companies got very rich out of building the Wall,” said Jerome Prieur, author of a 2010 book, Le Mur Atlantique.
“After the war, France needed those same companies for the task of reconstruction. So no-one said anything. There was a wilful blindness, in which everyone was complicit.”
In addition, many thousands of French men were forced to work on the Wall as part of an arrangement between the Vichy government and the Organisation Todt, the Nazis’ civil engineering group.
That will never happen. No French government would elevate a symbol of national dishonour.
But what is intriguing is how the French people have themselves now taken the initiative, safeguarding what for them is less a mark of shame, more part of the collective memory.