Maginot Line Is Built

The Maginot line was built to defend France from a German invasion. The line itself was effective, but the French strategy failed as a result of the German Blitzkrieg strategy, which allowed the Germans to advance through Belgium and outflank the wall before the French forces could stop them.

Summary of Event

The Maginot line was created in the aftermath of the carnage of World War I, but its designers failed to take into account the technical advances of 1918 that had made it obsolete long before construction began. After November 11, 1918, France began to explore different means of defense against a possibly resurgent Germany. Having lost more young men per capita than any other nation in the war just ended, the French were convinced that without an adequate system of security, they would lose to Germany if war should break out again. [kw]Maginot Line Is Built (1929-1940)
Maginot line
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Maginot line
France;Maginot line
[g]France;1929-1940: Maginot Line Is Built[07190]
[g]Germany;1929-1940: Maginot Line Is Built[07190]
[c]Engineering;1929-1940: Maginot Line Is Built[07190]
[c]Military history;1929-1940: Maginot Line Is Built[07190]
[c]World War II;1929-1940: Maginot Line Is Built[07190]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1929-1940: Maginot Line Is Built[07190]
Maginot, André
Painlevé, Paul
Daladier, Édouard
Gaulle, Charles de
Pétain, Philippe
Joffre, Joseph-Jacques-Césaire

Workers plow the earth in preparation for the construction of the Maginot line along France’s eastern border with Germany.


The French based their plan on three aims. First, they sought a defensive alliance with Great Britain against Germany. England, however, perceived France as the strongest nation in Western Europe and therefore refused to commit to a Continental ally in the interest of a balance of power. Second, France concluded treaties with nations on Germany’s eastern border including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and—in 1934—the Soviet Union, in order to replace the security of the prewar Franco-Russian alliance. Finally, as a deterrent to Germany, the French signed a defensive alliance with Belgium and then began to construct a system of fortifications along their border with Germany that became known as the Maginot line.

The construction of the Maginot line had its genesis in the experience of World War I. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period Following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the French had sought as their national goal the reconquest of Alsace and Lorraine from the German Empire. The country’s only strategy for success in 1914 depended on a sustained offensive. As Allied casualties mounted, both British and French trenches were designed to be as uncomfortable as possible to encourage troops to attack. By contrast, the Germans attempted to create both strong and relatively comfortable positions that could be easily held. After French mutinies in 1917, the French military commanders, Marshal Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre and Marshal Philippe Pétain, drew the conclusion that switching to a defensive posture would significantly reduce losses. They failed, however, to take into consideration the fact that new offensive techniques using tanks and mobile infantry ultimately overcame Germany’s well-constructed defenses. Instead, the French concluded that a future war should find France maintaining a defensive position against an offensive Germany; only then would the odds be in France’s favor.

After World War I, Joffre was appointed head of a special commission to plan the military defense of France. Both he and Pétain suggested that a system of fortifications be constructed along the Franco-German border. These fortresses would be so impenetrable that the Germans would face great losses if they attempted to attack France. The suggestions were taken up by the two men who served as ministers of war in the 1920’s, André Maginot and Paul Painlevé.

A sergeant who was wounded in World War I and who served as a member of the National Assembly, Maginot was primarily concerned with helping veterans obtain benefits. After he oversaw the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, however, Maginot became convinced that a fortified line was needed to protect France. During the last nine years of his life, he worked to convince the French legislature to vote funds for its construction using the double themes of jobs and patriotism. After Maginot’s death, successive ministers of war continued his work and had the fortifications named in his honor in recognition of his interest and determination.

In 1930, the Chamber of Deputies approved the expenditure of 2.9 billion francs over four years for frontier defenses, but the undertaking proved so immense that by 1940 its cost had doubled. Finished shortly before the start of World War II, the Maginot line was a continuous system of advance posts, casemates, and ourages, holding between two hundred and twelve hundred men, running from Switzerland to Belgium along the entire length of the Franco-German border. Vast underground bunkers, cannons that could be raised automatically, and the most modern equipment were installed. The government made public the existence of the Maginot line, but not the details of its armaments, in the hope of convincing the Germans that it would be folly to assault it.

As a result of the advertisement of its presence, a myth was established about the Maginot line. Most citizens of the republic believed that it ran the entire length of France’s eastern border, passing through Belgium to the English Channel. At the time of the fortification’s construction, Belgium was a friendly nation with its own defenses on the German border. Pétain foresaw that in the event of war with Germany, the French troops stationed on the Maginot line would be able to hold the border, while the bulk of the mobile French forces would move into Belgium to help that country hold its lines against the Germans. In 1914, the British had joined France to protect Belgium, and the French believed that the need to do so again might be the only means to gain England’s support in the future. The Maginot line’s strength, it was believed, would invite such a German attack on Belgium. When Belgium signed a pact with Germany in 1939, France’s northern flank became exposed, but few foresaw the weakness that a static defense now posed.

In 1940, the Germans both outflanked the Maginot line and split the Allied forces by launching a mobile attack through the Ardennes Forest. Although many Germans marched through France as their fathers had done in 1914, dramatic penetrations were made by Panzer tank units. The success of such an attack had been envisioned as early as 1922 by Major General J. F. C. Fuller and Captain Basil Liddell Hart of Great Britain and warned against by Charles de Gaulle. Much to de Gaulle’s frustration and the country’s detriment, the General Staff failed to take his arguments seriously.

After the French garrisons surrendered on June 25, 1940, the Germans made an in-depth study of the Maginot line. Impressed by the small amount of damage wrought by their aerial bombardment, the army used French construction techniques and many of the guns it had seized in the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The Germans converted much of the Maginot line to storage or factory space until the Allied liberation of Europe in June, 1944. At this stage, part of the fortifications at Faulquemont and Wittring were rearmed and successfully slowed the advance of General George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army. Following the war, the French military began a reconstruction of the line that continued until 1964, when the fortifications were abandoned for defense and parts were opened to tourists and historians.


The Maginot line has entered popular lore—along with the Trojan Horse and the invasions of Russia by Napoleon I and Adolf Hitler—as one of the great blunders of military history. The line itself, however, did not fail, nor were the French wrong in predicting that the Germans would storm Belgium and attack France through its Belgian border. The strategy broke down simply because the French had not foreseen the ability of the Germans to advance their tanks so quickly through the Ardennes Forest, which most cartographers and military strategists believed to form a natural defense. The German Blitzkrieg (literally, lightning war) strategy, in which armored divisions advanced as quickly as possible, seizing territory before defenders could forestall them, proved effective: It enabled the German army to get around the line before the French could stop them. Once in the country, moreover, the German troops had a clear path to Paris. Most of France’s mobile forces were in Belgium or on the Belgian border, without an opportunity to place themselves between the invaders and the French capital. Maginot line
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Maginot line
France;Maginot line

Further Reading

  • Chapman, Guy. Why France Fell: The Defeat of the French Army in 1940. New York: Henry Holt, 1968. Chapman examines the fall of France by first studying the victory of 1918 and the mistakes that were made outside the political front involving the military.
  • De Gaulle, Charles. War Memoirs, Vol. I: The Call to Honour, 1940-1942. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. London: Collins, 1955. As the champion of mobile warfare in France before 1940, de Gaulle uses his autobiography to contradict the notion that the Maginot line and a policy of defense were created without protest.
  • Fuller, General J. F. C. The Second World War, 1939-1945. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948. As an early theorist on mobile warfare and the use of the tank, Fuller brings a unique perspective to the study of the war.
  • Hughes, Judith M. To the Maginot Line: The Politics of French Military Preparation in the 1920’s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. Hughes addresses how the debate between peace and security created an atmosphere from which the Maginot line was born.
  • Joseph-Maginot, Marguerite. Maginot: He Might Have Saved France. Translated by Allan Updegraff. New York: Doubleday, 1941. This work not only provides a contemporary biography of Maginot but also includes not-so-subtle recriminations for the fall of France shortly after it took place.
  • Kaufmann, J. E., and H. W. Kaufmann. Fortress France: The Maginot Line and French Defenses in World War II. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006. Study of the state of French defenses at the beginning of World War II and their failure to defend against the German invasion. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Kemp, Anthony. The Maginot Line: Myth and Reality. New York: Stein & Day, 1982. Kemp provides not only the history of the fortifications construction but also diagrams and photographs that illustrate the immense nature of the project. Further, he follows the history of the Maginot line through the German occupation into the Cold War when France and her neighbor became allies.
  • Rowe, Vivian. The Great Wall of France. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961. Provides detailed accounts of the battles around the Maginot line and suggests that it was the best defense for France at the time.
  • Weinberg, Gerald L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. This comprehensive work addresses the world war chronologically rather than thematically.

German Troops March into the Rhineland

Germany Invades Poland

Germany Invades Norway

Collapse of France