Monuments de Chagrin
Over the years, numerous photographers were fascinated by the bunkers of the Atlantikwall. The big inspiration, I think, for all these photographers was the French cultural theorist, urbanist, and aesthetic philosopher Paul Virilio. His 1975 book Bunker Archéologie is a classic, and also the first to examine the concrete World War 2 structures in detail.
In his tradition many followed, including myself, but really only since the 2000s and the introduction of digital photography and the internet. Virilio’s publication became known under a wider audience then only art historians, architects and a single philosopher. Black and white photography is usually the choice to portray the bunkers, giving them this repeated image of ruin architecture. ‘Built as a reminder of the Nazi-Reich’, sometimes even wrongly understood as if the bunkers were actually built, only for propagandic value, which actually shows the impact of that very same Nazi propaganda. Obviously the images of an ‘impregnable wall’ from the Wochenschau films still resonate to this day and fit the image. Even better in this perspective of course, is that the Atlantikwall, ‘only’ lasted several hours before it was ‘penetrated’ in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. It’s the proof that it was ‘built for nothing’ and was only a ‘megalomaniac personal project’ of Hitler himself.
To ruin the party, it was ofcourse not a personal project, nor was it a propagandic one. Of course, Hitler thought he was a mastermind on fortifications, because of his made up experiences in the Great War’s front lines, and the bunkers served Goebbels’ propaganda ministry well. But above all, the Atlantikwall, better translated as Atlantic Rampart (Rolf, 2014), was a military project, solely built to keep the British from opening up a second front against the Germans. The latter were vastly preoccupied with trying to conquer the Sovjet Union and only had a garrison of 300.000 soldiers to defend the vast western European coast. Already in 1943 the Germans were expecting an allied invasion, and frantically built thousands of bunkers, despite lack of materials and workers. Although northern France, especially the coast line between Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer in the south, was closest to the British isles and heavily fortified, Normandy was seen as the most vurnerable place. The German command in the west thought it was highly likely the attack would be there.
Single bunker battles
The weak defences of Normandy basically funneled the allies towards this area of France. And so it happened. The whole tactical idea of the Rampant, that of a strong first defence line slowing down the attack, with mobile troops coming to the rescue in threatened areas, failed in Normandy, because of the mostly mediocre quality of troops in the bunkers, and slow decision making about the mobile troops and armour. However, the Atlantikwall kept the allies busy in the months to come. The Free French around the Gironde estuary, the Americans in Saint-Malo, the Canadians in the French Channel ports and in the battle of the Scheldt. In september of 1944 the largest airborne operation in history, operation Market-Garden, was partly executed in Arnhem and Nijmegen to circumvent the already ‘ancient’ 1930s bunkers of the Westwall, the defence line along the western border of Germany. The operation at Arnhem failed, and the Americans would feel the toll in the tough terrain of the Eifel, where battles for single bunkers were fought.
So why am I writing this? Maybe to add another view to the Atlantikwall myths which generally exist and which are made bigger by yet another photographer or artist repeating the same and easy mantra, depicting the bunkers in dramatic, hard contrast, black and white. I would say, dig into the subject more, try to get a broader view, read more books than Paul Virilio’s. These bunkers were actually occupied by people. Mostly regular German soldiers, from a small village deep in Germany, who never got much further than a small radius around their home town. The war is only a fraction of a bunker’s ‘life’, and this percentage gets smaller every year. Their history doesn’t stop in 1945. They’ve shaped landscapes, influenced the youth of many during vacations, and they’re one of the few fysical reminders of World War 2.
I was triggered because of a the announcement of an exhibition by Mathieu Douzenel, a French photographer working in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Normandy region. He’s an observer of the land, and how we as people interact with it. Judging his pictures he’s also interested in decay, which Nord-Pas-de-Calais has plenty of. There’s a lot of grey here, especially in fall and winter. “Monuments de chagrin” is his series about the Atlantikwall bunkers. His exhibition opened in the Théatre Le Passage in Fécamp last week and can be visited until 18 December 2020.