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The Atlantic Wall, the story of “an infernal machine that breaks humans”

  • On the occasion of the 33rd edition of the international historical film festival of Pessac (Gironde), director Vincent de Cointet presents a new documentary entitled “The Atlantic Wall, a fortress in the service of the enemy”.
  • The film shows how this immense defensive belt, desired by the Germans to protect themselves from an Allied landing, was erected by tens of thousands of forced laborers from all over Europe.
  • The daily life of the inhabitants of the Atlantic coast was also profoundly disrupted by the construction of these bunkers.

The most “colossal defense system of the modern era”. On the occasion of the 33rd edition of the Pessac history film festival (Gironde), which opens Monday November 20, a new documentary entitled “The Atlantic Wall, a fortress in the service of the enemy” , takes us back to the history of the construction of this immense defensive belt which will see the light of day from the end of 1941, on 4,000 km of coastline, from Norway to the Pyrenees.

Hitler had demanded that 15,000 bunkers be built before May 1943, particularly in France, to ward off the Allied landings which he knew were inevitable. Despite the massive recruitment of labor from all over Europe, infernal speeds and working conditions sometimes worthy of slavery, only 8,000 blockhouses were erected at the beginning of 1944. Director Vincent de Cointet reveals in his documentary the underside of the construction of this building, the reality of forced labor, and how the work turned the daily lives of the inhabitants of the Atlantic coast upside down…

You start your documentary in January 1940, with the construction of the very first bunkers on the coast of northern France. But it’s not yet the Atlantic Wall…

Today, we tend to mix all these bunkers a little, but if we go back to their origin, the first concrete structures on the Pas-de-Calais coast were not built for the Atlantic Wall, but with an offensive aim to participate in the invasion of England. When Hitler’s plan to invade England was postponed indefinitely, they would be integrated into the Atlantic Wall, a defensive work, but that was not their initial role.

After these first blockhouses in the north of France, the Germans decided in the fall of 1940 to reinforce naval bases, or even to build new bases, along the Atlantic coast, and the issue of workforce…

From the start, the occupier needed a large workforce, which would continue to grow. And the simplest thing is to take local labor, especially since they are unemployed in a ruined country. It also suits Vichy to be able to put the French back to work. It actually suits everyone. This is how a massive recruitment strategy was organized, and in the spring of 1941, 60,000 French workers found themselves working for the German organization.

You then speak of “economic cooperation” with the German system, the Todt organization”, that is to say?

There is a sort of duplication of what was done in Germany for the Siegfried line. We are faced with a military-civilian organization which takes charge of all this work in France. At the beginning, it is voluntary work, what I call economic collaboration, but with growing needs, it will become a system of forced labor on a European scale. To erect the Atlantic Wall from the end of 1941, people arrived from everywhere, and we found prisoners of war, Jews, Red Spaniards, people who were rounded up on the right or on the left – at one point people were even rounded up as they left cinemas in France… All the available hands were going to be used to build these fortifications, in generally very harsh conditions. At the end of 1943, there were 250,000 workers on the wall, including many forced workers parked in camps or barracks.

And the more the imminence of an Allied landing becomes felt, the more the pace accelerates in conditions which are constantly deteriorating?

There is a kind of infernal machine that is being set up, like the Nazi machine that goes completely crazy, and which devours everything, consumes materials excessively, breaks humans… And all this for not much , finally. I don’t say it, but after the Landing of June 1944, the Germans continued to build defensive works along the coast, because they wondered if there would not be a second landing later… Which was totally absurd.

The daily life of coastal residents is turned upside down because of this Wall, with in particular a zone that is set up along the coast where you need a pass to enter and exit, or even the ban on swimming or swimming. approach certain beaches…

The daily life of the inhabitants has been profoundly disrupted, which is little known. They were subject to the German occupation machine, which was extremely administrative. This prohibited coastal zone, for example, could change in terms of its surface area, and the rules could change from one month to the next…

Another aspect revealed by the construction of this Wall is the collaboration of the Vichy regime which continues to increase, notably when in August 1942 Pétain proposed that France itself participate in the protection of the Wall…

This offer of service from Pétain was also refused by the Germans, because the Nazis considered that they did not need it, and that the Vichy regime did not deserve to speak on an equal footing with the Third Reich. . But this shows to what extent this Vichy regime was deeply collaborative, when some still want to try to make people believe in this fable that it protected the French… No, this regime wanted the victory of the Third Reich from the start, and it did everything to achieve this victory.

Did you also want to denounce the “war profiteers”?

There is economic collaboration with large construction groups who have enriched themselves shamefully with the construction of the Wall. But if we look at things in their entirety, we need the entire economic and social fabric of the coast, from the restaurateur to the market gardener, including the laundry workers…

At the beginning of 1944, only 8,000 bunkers were built, when Hitler had demanded 15,000. Was the project doomed to failure?

Yes, it’s the story of an impossible project, even if it’s a bit easy to judge that eighty years later. The Nazi leaders believed this at the time, and they organized enormous propaganda around the Wall, both aimed at the occupied population and the German population.

Bunker on the Atlantic coast, in Soulac-sur-Mer (Gironde). – Mickaël Bosredon

Today, there are many bunkers remaining all along the Atlantic coast. Do you think they should be preserved as witnesses to this history?

I think it’s essential. Above all, we must build education around it, which several local associations are already doing with organized visits. These are not only military works which served to prevent a landing, they represent the quintessence of the enslavement of the whole of Europe, which worked on these concrete works, and for which there were many deaths. This is the story of forced labor.

“The Atlantic Wall, a fortress in the service of the enemy”, by Vincent de Cointet, will be previewed at the Pessac historical film festival, Wednesday November 22 at 6:40 p.m. at the Jean Eustache cinema in Pessac .

Gn Fr France

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