French History @ the IHR

French History @ IHR: The Maginot Line

Date & Place: Monday 27 February, Institute of Education, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, Bloomsbury, London WC1H 0AL

Speaker: Kevin Passmore (Cardiff)

Paper Title: The Maginot Line in politics, society and culture

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

The Maginot Line has been the subject of a lot of myth-making, and bears a spotted historical reputation. Yet, in this paper, Kevin Passmore gave an insight into his current research project with the hope of interrogating some of that mythology. The fortifications of the Maginot line did not represent French passivity in the face of German ingenuity, but were instead indicative of a much more interesting conversation amongst French strategists and French society more broadly. The Maginot Line was as much the product of contested modernisms as it was cultural determinism.

Fortifications were the product of an age of organisation, drawing on the flourishing of managerial culture and the zest for modernist innovation in every area of French life. Planning took on increasingly rationalist tones (for example in the urbanism of Le Corbusier), and modernist art exhibited a fascination with machinery (eg the work of Fernand Léger), as Fayolisme flourished in the 1920s. Elements of this zeitgeist were evident in the increasing professionalization of the army and the growth of ‘specialists’. The new wave of fortifications took this modernist ethic to heart, run like some combination of a submarine and a factory requiring a wealth of technical expertise to operate.

The Line itself was also shown to be much more regionally diverse than perhaps recognised in the popular consciousness, both in terms of culture and in terms of strategy. More a patchwork of fortifications than an impenetrable wall, the Maginot line relied on the strategic combination of mobility and encampment as it spanned a series of different terrains and threats. In places like Alsace, those that built the fortifications and staffed them were often German speakers, and this led to disjointed hierarchies for French speaking officers led the forts. This also produced suspicion, and proportions of German speaking staff were limited by central decree, although this never quite removed the suspicion that the Germans were cultivating plots to undermine the French military.

As an exploration of this suspicion, and also the cultural influences and impact of the Maginot line, Passmore explored Pierre Nord’s novel Double crime sur la ligne Maginot. This crime thriller explored betrayal and treachery inside the fort, dredging up all sorts of considerations: from regional stereotypes, to the ultra-modern machinery, and the cultural preferences of the army. Further, Passmore showed how the conversion of the novel to a film updated the impressions of the original, and that the heavy hand of army censors betrayed more of their intent than they had perhaps anticipated.

Unpicking the mythology of the Maginot line reveals a much more interesting narrative of French history; far from simply a strategic misstep, the Maginot line was the result of a complex cultural response to competing modernities during  a turbulent moment of international politics.

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