What was the Maginot Line?


Dear Straight Dope:

What was the Maginot Line?

John Corrado replies:

Let’s start with what it is, then we’ll work back to what it was. More than 60 years after the German invasion of France in World War II, the Maginot Line remains a symbol of stupidity and shortsightedness.  What we forget is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Let’s say you’re a competent French general in the 1920’s. Studying your military history, you notice a trend–Germany (or Prussia, before it became Germany) has a habit of declaring war on you. Given anti-French sentiment in Germany, plus questions about the stability of the German government, Germany still strikes you as the country most likely to attack you. What do you do?

If you’re Marshal Pétain, you decide that setting up massive fortifications along your border with Germany would be a smart thing to do. Of course, such a massive engineering project requires a lot of money, so you go to the Minister of War: André Maginot.

André Maginot was a civil servant and member of the French Parliament who became undersecretary of war in 1913. When World War One broke out, he resigned his post and enlisted in the army, eventually being promoted to sergeant and receiving the Medaille Militaire (France’s highest military honor) for his valor. Following the war, Maginot returned to Parliament and served in a variety of cabinet posts–minister of pensions from 1920 to 1922, then war minister until 1924 and again in 1928.

When Marshal Pétain broached the subject of France’s defenses to Maginot in the early ’20’s, he found a receptive audience. Maginot was convinced that the Treaty of Versailles would not guarantee a peace, and that some system of defense was needed–an argument that most of the government, horrified by the carnage of the World War, was not willing to listen to.

When Maginot returned to the War Department in 1928, plans for French defenses were lacking–some funds had been allocated for testing new defenses and fortifications, but not nearly enough for the construction of a solid defense. With France planning to evacuate the Rhineland in 1930 rather than Versailles’ stipulation of 1935, Maginot was convinced that work needed to start immediately. To that end, he began a brilliant lobbying job to secure Parliament’s support. To the pro-military right-wing, he promised security and more money for the military. To the anti-military Socialists and Communists, he pointed out the number of jobs that would be created in the construction of the forts. He told pacifists how the forts were for defense only, and militarists how the forts would help solidify French defenses so that troops could be sent to other fronts. And so, in the last few days of 1929, the French Parliament voted more than 3 billion francs toward construction of the fortifications.

The Maginot Line, as it would popularly be called, was not a true wall like Hadrian’s or the Great Wall of China–that would have been far too expensive, not to mention inconvenient. Rather, it was a series of more than 50 forts with hundreds of artillery emplacements and turrets connected by a vast system of tunnels. With a few ready armies behind the line and in the tunnels, France could quickly organize a defense if attacked. Mindful of the importance of defensive fighting in the First World War, most military tacticians thought the Maginot Line could be held indefinitely. Initially, it ran from the Swiss border on the south to the Ardennes forest in the north. Later, after Belgium terminated its alliance with France, there was an attempt to extend the line through the Belgian border, but the forts built there were nowhere near as strong or advanced as the ones on the German border.

Maginot was correct in believing the Germans would eventually go to war with France, but wrong in following Marshal Pétain’s advice. In September of 1939, Germany declared war on France’s ally Poland, and France responded with a declaration of war against Germany. For months the German army simply sat on its side of the border, not advancing, and the French generals congratulated themselves on the Maginot Line’s effectiveness.

Then in early May of 1940, Germany declared war on Belgium and Holland. France, expecting Germany to attempt to flank the forts to the north, moved the bulk of its army north towards Belgium to meet the incoming Germans. But the Germans instead marched in force through the Ardennes forest–which Pétain had called "impenetrable," and which at his suggestion had been left unguarded and unfortified. With little resistance, the Germans easily pushed through and surrounded the main French army in Belgium while advance units pushed on to Paris. Other German forces surrounded the Maginot Line, but had no real success–by the time the French government fell in early June, only a single fort on the Line had been taken.

Prior to the war, the Maginot Line was seen as the premiere defensive installation in the world, proof of French military genius, and the phrase “Maginot Line” signified something impregnable. After the war, “Maginot mentality” meant banking too heavily on one possible outcome and failing to consider alternatives. The line was remanned, but abandoned in the late ’60’s. In the ’70’s, many of the forts were auctioned off to the public.  A few are kept up for tourists, but most have fallen into disrepair.  An inglorious end to an impressive feat of military engineering whose only fault, perhaps, was that it didn’t go far enough.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.


Comment on this Column