(Uncover a series of wartime defensive structures and border fortifications across Europe)
The urge to protect ourselves from the hostile forces of the world has existed since time immemorial. In ancient times, no city was complete without an impenetrable defensive wall. In the 3rd century BC, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of a wall so great it would encircle his kingdom and keep the entire universe at bay. Others still have built fortifications no less-grand, hoping to keep chaos from overrunning their homes.
Yet, such walls never last. Though well-preserved in some areas, many sections of China’s Great Wall now lie in ruins. Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned and later largely dismantled. The Berlin Wall was torn down. Today, the world is littered with the remains of once-impressive military lines and border fortifications, now crumbling to dust. This article examines 10 abandoned defensive systems and border fortifications built across Europe in the run-up and aftermath of World War Two, as Allied and Axis forces prepared for the deadliest conflict in human history.
Conjuring the Atlantic Wall required a feat of imagination almost as great as China’s fabled Great Wall. Starting in the South of France, where the Basque Country crosses over into Spain, the Atlantic Wall unfurled across Europe’s Western flank, running up France, over the Netherlands, up past Denmark, and on to the north of Norway. Built using one million prisoners of war working for two years (from 1942 to 1944), it encased much of Europe behind a cloak of concrete and steel.
The wall was not continuous. Rather, gun emplacements, bunkers and concrete defences were clustered around ports and possible landing spots. In between, barbed wire, minefields, and natural barriers were left to do what Nazi construction could not, starving the Allies of an entry to occupied Europe. Although the Atlantic Wall was undoubtedly impressive to behold, in practical terms it was little but a vanity project. On D-Day, the Allies quickly overwhelmed the wall’s weaker spots, gaining a permanent foothold in France.
(Image: Uberstroker; map of the Atlantic Wall coastal defences)
Despite this, though, the wall has survived the intervening years well. Take a stroll along Western Europe’s coastal paths, and you’ll doubtless come face to face with the crumbling traces of what was once among the grandest defensive walls on Earth.
Nothing shows up the impossible dream of a fully-secured border quite like France’s Maginot Line, built between 1929 and 1938. Originally designed to forestall a possible German invasion, the Maginot Line was, on paper, an impressive beast. Deep tunnels and concrete fortifications combined to make an impenetrable barrier, bristling with high-tech armaments. In the north of France, alone, there were 22 underground fortresses. It was as fearsome and as impenetrable a fortification as ever built – except for one, titanic flaw. The Maginot Line stopped just shy of France’s border with Belgium, leaving a wide, clear path for invaders to rush on through.
With the perspective of history, it’s easy to laugh at this. But at the time it was a political necessity. Paris didn’t want to offend Brussels by sealing Belgium off from France. So they avoided laying the line there, planning instead to rely on tanks and troops to hold off invaders. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. German forces stormed the Ardennes forest, overran France’s defences, and went right round the Maginot Line.
(Image: Morten Jensen)
(Image: Goran tek-en; map of the fortified Maginot Line)
Today, the French government pays for the upkeep of the long-abandoned defensive line, a testament to their own folly. (Visit the abandoned Fortress Rochonvillers, part of the Maginot Line defences.)
Czechoslovak Border Fortifications
Throughout the dying days of the First Republic, Czechoslovakia was a country with a bulls-eye attached firmly to its forehead. No-one was in any doubt that Hitler’s Third Reich would attempt to attack the territory sooner or later, least of all the Czech-Slovak leadership. The Western Sudeten region was ethnically German, meaning Nazi philosophy considered it part of Germany. In 1936, hoping to defend their young nation, the Czechoslovaks began earnestly building defensive pillboxes along the border. It was too little, too late.
Although the border fortifications that went up were impressive, they were also nowhere near ready in time. In late 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland. By spring 1939, Hitler was speaking from Prague castle, and German tanks were rolling from Bohemia to industrial Moravia. The grand Czechoslovak border fortifications that were meant to stop them had been overrun with almost no resistance. Perhaps if the Czechoslovak First Republic had had time to complete its defensive line, it could have held the Nazi forces back. Perhaps.
Czechoslovakia wasn’t the only now-defunct nation that spent the 1930s hurriedly building border fortifications against Axis powers. In the Balkans, the young Kingdom of Yugoslavia was in a state of high anxiety. Parts of its constituent country Slovenia bordered both Italy and Austria, a precarious position to occupy in 1930s Europe. As relations with Italy worsened, the Yugoslavs hurried to fortify their new nation.
The result was the Rupnik Line, a system of fortifications stretching over the mountains that would keep them safe when completed. The only drawback? The defensive installations’ projected completion date was 1947. When the tanks rolled in in 1941, the Rupnik line completely collapsed. There were only 15,000 troops out of an intended 40,000, and the Yugoslav army soon fell to the Axis hordes.
Abandoned and forgotten by the post-war Yugoslav Socialist Republic, the broken, overgrown remnants of the Rupnik Line are today a minor tourist attraction in Slovenia and Croatia.
The period leading up to World War Two was conceivably the greatest period of wall-building that European civilisation has ever undergone. As Yugoslavia was preparing itself for an Axis attack, Italy was busily preparing its own borders for a potential Yugoslav invasion. During the 1930s, large bunkers were drilled deep into mountainsides, overlooking Alpine passes any enemy forces would have to cross. The ‘wall’ was intended to completely seal Italy off from France, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and even German-allied Austria. In the end, it didn’t come close.
Despite miles upon miles of heavy artillery, fortresses, anti-tank devices and patrolling troops, the Alpine Wall turned out to be remarkably vulnerable. When the Allies invaded, they did so from Sicily, rather than down from the Alps. When Germany seized control of Italy, it wasn’t in an invasion, but as part of a well-prepared coup designed to keep Mussolini in power.
(Image: Luca Lorenzi)
Despite this, the concrete fortifications of the Atlantic Wall itself lasted far into the Cold War, as a new wave of paranoia gripped a continent that had already undergone so much misery.
Historically, there were actually two Siegfried Lines, one in World War One and one in the Second World War (confusingly). However, when English-speakers refer to the Siegfried Line, it is usually the latter incarnation, built in the 1930s, they’re talking about. Featured in a famous song of the era, the Siegfried Line was the German equivalent of the Maginot Line, designed to defend against Allied incursion. But while the Maginot Line fell in almost no time at all, the Siegfried Line would crumble only after a harrowing amount of bloodshed.
In 1944, as Allies forces rolled on toward Nazi Germany, the Reich retreated to its old defensive line. There, despite a vast assault of Allied troops, German forces managed to hold firm for nearly six months. Over 100,000 troops perished on the Allied side alone. The borders between France, Luxembourg and Germany became vast killing fields into which disappeared an endless procession of young lives, torn apart by bullets and ground up by mortar fire.
(Image: Sansculotte; )
After World War Two, the West German state decided to destroy rather than preserve the ruined Siegfried Line. Today, little remains of what was once one of the deadliest fortification structures on Earth.
Not all of Germany’s World War Two defensive fortifications would prove as tough to crack as the Siegfried Line. When it was first mooted, the Oder-Warthe line looked like it’d be one of the world’s great defensive structures. Situated between two powerful rivers in former-German regions of modern-day Poland, it took in deep concrete tunnels, anti-tank traps, bunkers, gun emplacements, and even a subterranean railway line for moving goods about.
Yet when the Red Army reached it in the dying days of the war, it didn’t crumble in six months. It didn’t even crumble in six days. Over three days in January 1945 the Festungsfront Oder-Warthe-Bogen (or Fortified Front Oder-Warthe-Bogen) was broken. Nazi Germany’s last, greatest line of defence had fallen with barely a whimper.
Interestingly, the abandoned tunnels of this former wartime fortress have since taken on a much more peaceful role. Today, they represent one of the largest bat refuges in Europe, with over 35,000 of the creatures calling its remnants home.
Another country, another desperate, 1930s bid to ward off enemy threats. As the Great Depression ground on and the threat of World War Two loomed on the horizon, the newly-restored Kingdom of Greece began to fear for its future. In 1936, authoritarian Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas ordered construction of a major defensive line along the Bulgarian border. Although the chain of fortifications would ultimately hold back the German invasion of 1941, it didn’t do so for long. On April 10, a Panzer division broke through. Thessaloniki fell. The Metaxas Line was done for.
You can still see sections of the abandoned Metaxas Line along the Greco-Bulgarian border. Fragments litter the bright, sun lit countryside, slowly baking in the inescapable Mediterranean heat. Anti-tank blocks lurk in fields, overgrown with vegetation. A handful of machine gun nests are open to the public. The Metaxas Line itself may have collapsed in virtually no time at all, but its memory lingers on.
Cold War Czechoslovak Border Fortifications
When the dust settled on VE Day, it was on a continent whose boundaries had been radically redrawn. Countries like Poland had lost huge swathes of territory. New nations, like East Germany, had been forged. Old protectorates had vanished into nothingness. But no border change was as stark as that between people’s values. As former Nazi territories like West Germany and Austria embraced capitalism, one-time Nazi victims such as Czechoslovakia were forced to embrace communism. A whole new war was just beginning.
In socialist Czechoslovakia, this meant yet more border fortifications to defend against a Western invasion. Ironically, these fortifications would turn out to be in the wrong places. While Austria never attacked Czech territory, the supposedly-friendly Warsaw Pact certainly did, overthrowing the Czechoslovak government in 1968 after leader Alexander Dubček tried to usher in a program of mild liberalisation.
Nowadays, faint traces of these newer Cold War fortifications are still visible, lining the fields between the Czech Republic and Austria to the south. While the advent of the European Union means the border itself may be non-existent, these remnants show how different things were just 30 years ago.
The Museum of the Fortifications, Hlučín
In the far east of the modern-day Czech Republic, in the heavily-industrial Moravia-Silesia region, lies the last trace of one of the First Republic’s defensive lines. A series of five fortifications that dotted the Polish border in the first half of the 20th century, they exist today as a reminder of what a turbulent, mistrustful place Europe was within our parents and grandparents’ lifetimes. A kind of summing up of this article, if you will, forged in steel and concrete.
For modern Czechs, they also act as a reminder of the sad betrayal of the Munich Agreement. In 1938, France and Britain (then under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) signed over the Sudetenland to Germany, in a shameful act of appeasement. The countries that were meant to be Czechoslovakia’s allies betrayed it, raising nary a peep as Hitler’s troops swept over the young nation. Seen now, these fortresses almost seem like a question, asking ‘what if?’. What if Britain and France had come to the First Republic’s defence? What if the policy of appeasement had never been applied? As this article shows, building walls alone will only keep the horrors of the world at bay for so long.