On 15 March 1935 the French war minister General Louis Maurin addressed the Chamber of Deputies in the following terms: "How could anyone imagine that we were still thinking in terms of offensive movements when we have spent billions building a fortified barrier? Why would we be so insane as to go beyond this barrier on who knows what adventure?" These few words summed up France's military thinking during the interwar years, and the implications were clear: though France had made a number of alliances in Europe, it would not come to the aid of its allies if the need arose because its army had no intention of emerging from behind its fortified lines.
The First World War had three phases: a war of movement based on an all-out offensive that was brought to an end by a true massacre of infantry; a stalemate period of trench warfare that was also very costly in human lives; and a resumption of mobile warfare in which tanks and aviation played a very large part. Good sense would have dictated the further development of these two kinds of armament, in the production of which France excelled in 1919, but psychological factors (the continuing spread of pacifism) combined with financial considerations brought any such course of action to a virtual halt. Military service was likewise reduced (to just one year in 1928). It is true that not all the politicians and military leaders—notably Marshal Ferdinand Foch—were in agreement on this issue; nor, a priori, was the idea of a line of fortifications necessarily incompatible with mobile warfare, once the mobilization and concentration of troops had been effected within the defended zone. But the views of Maréchal Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) prevailed, and the military option quickly chosen was all-out defense behind this line. Feasibility studies were made from 1925 to 1929 under the direction of war minister Paul Painlevé. The law of 13 July 1927 decreed that "the protection of the integrity of the national territory" should become "the essential objective of the military organization of the country." Construction was already under way by the time parliament, on 14 January 1930, passed the law that authorized the project and appropriated 2,900 million francs to support the work over a five-year period. The minister of war by that time was André Maginot, a parliamentary deputy for Bar-le-Duc since 1910, called up as a simple soldier in 1914, seriously wounded in action and hospitalized for almost a year, and now a significant political figure of the center-right who had held several ministerial posts since 1917. In reality, however, he had very little to do with the construction of the line of fortifications to which his name became attached.
The Maginot Line was not a Great Wall of China. It comprised very heavily fortified underground installations with less heavily protected positions spaced out between them. Deemed impregnable, it received a great deal of publicity in the 1930s and was glorified in all sorts of ways. In a sense it was France's military shop-window. Unfortunately, the widely believed claim that it protected the entire frontier of northern and northeastern France turned out to be false. The Maginot Line proper was the work of a "Commission for the Organization of Fortified Regions," and in fact it consisted of only two systems of fortifications, one covering the region around Metz and the other the Franco-German frontier along the left bank of the Rhine. Along the Rhine it was felt that relatively weaker positions would suffice to make the river impossible to cross. Farther west, in the Ardennes, whose forest terrain was considered impassable by a modern army, and along the Belgian border nothing was done. To fortify the border with Belgium would have suggested that that country would be abandoned automatically in the event of war.
After Adolf Hitler came to power, when another war seemed possible, and when war indeed broke out in September 1939, it became apparent that the northern frontier needed fortifying, and a large number of structures of limited strength were built with military manpower (or main d'oeuvre militaire, whence the name "MOM Line"). The unquestionable strength of the Maginot Line inevitably led the German leadership to seek a way to flank it in the event of invasion—that is, to advance through Belgium. This eventuality was anticipated by the French, who threw their best troops into Belgium when the Germans moved; but the German plan had been modified—at the last minute, it is true—and the decision taken to pass through the almost undefended Ardennes. The resulting German offensive took the French troops from the rear while at the same time allowing the Germans to flow behind the Maginot Line. The Maginot positions still had the capacity to defend themselves but to no good purpose: the German armies were overrunning France, and once the armistice was signed the garrisons of the line had no choice but to surrender.
The building of the Maginot Line was thus a vain enterprise; it pointed up the French command's disastrous strategic notions and, worse still, swallowed immense amounts of money that would have been better spent on tanks and aircraft.
After the war, the Maginot Line was abandoned, and some of its physical structures were even sold off to private citizens.
Kaufman, Joseph, and Hanna Kaufman. The Maginot Line: None Shall Pass. Westport, Conn., and London, 1997.
Kemp, Anthony. The Maginot Line: Myth and Reality. New York, 1982.
Panouillé, Jean-Louis. "Autopsie de la ligne Maginot." In L'Histoire (April 1985), 3–18.
Vaïsse Maurice. "Ligne Maginot." In Dictionnaire historique de la vie politique française au XXe siècle. Paris, 1995.
Maginot Line (măzh´Ĭnō, Fr. mäzhēnō´), system of fortifications along the eastern frontier of France, extending from the Swiss border to the Belgian. It was named for André Maginot, who was French minister of war (1929–32) and who directed its construction. Although considered impregnable, the line was still not complete at the outbreak (1939) of World War II. Its actual strength was never tested, for the line was flanked by the Germans in their French campaign of 1940. Like fortified lines since the Great Wall of China, the chief effect it had was to create a false sense of security; it could not eliminate the necessity for mobile warfare, and that particular lesson was thoroughly learned after the French collapse of 1940.
See V. Rowe, The Great Wall of France (1959); J. M. Hughes, To the Maginot Line (1971).