The Maginot Line has traditionally been viewed by military historians and thinkers as an example of the catastrophe that a defensive orientation combined with an obsolete conception of the nature of future war will produce. That the Maginot Line did not fulfill the purpose originally assigned to it certainly gives credence to these conclusions. However, it must be noted that (1) the Maginot Line indeed did fulfill the main role assigned to it as the Germans did not penetrate it; and (2) the German outflanking of the Maginot Lien was the result of German operational flexibility and of French strategic inflexibility and political limitations rather than a defect in the concept of a defensive line in itself.
The Maginot Line is of conceptual relevance to efforts in developing ballistic missile defenses on a strategic level. Hence the Maginot Line revisited.
The concept of fortifications on a vast scale are not new in history. The Great Wall of China was began during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) to keep out nomads from the north out. It went through various additions and expansions until what we have now which was built by the Ming's during the sixteenth century. What impact the Great Wall had on french strategic thinking is unknown, but certainly as a precedent it did not go unnoticed as will be shown later.
The experience of World War I was traumatic for France who although considered a victor, it was a certainly a phyrric victory at best as a whole generation of Frenchmen perished on the battlefields, which according to Anthony Kemp, totaled 1.4 million killed, 4.3 million wounded, and 500,000 missing. Further, the doctrine of the offensive which had guided French strategic and tactical thinking had also been a victim of the machine gun and barbed wire. As a result of these considerations, Marshal Pétain who had been appointed Inspector General of the Army, in 1921 became convinced that the answer to France's future security needs lay in what he described as 'battlefields prepared in peacetime.' "which he understood as a continuous front on the principles of the wartime trenches." What Pétain envisioned was a system of fortifications around the French frontier like those of the Battle of Verdun which would safeguard France. It was with this strategy of positional warfare that France went into war in 1940. On January 4, 1930, the French National Assembly voted for the appropriations for a "Great Wall on the eastern frontier." André Maginot, the Minister of War, was responsible for the construction of the fortifications and therefore bear his name. By 1936 some seven billion francs had been invested in the Maginot Line and the fortifications were largely complete. The purpose of the fortifications was: (1) to protect the frontiers against a surprise attack initiated without a declaration of war; (2) in case of a formal declaration of war, to protect the frontiers during the critical three weeks needed for mobilization; (3) after mobilization, to provide a core resistance and to ensure the industrial potential of the nation, and the nation itself.
The Maginot Line did stop the Germans; who had to plan around it. Hitler thought that the next war would be quite different than that envisioned by Pétain. Hitler has become an avid supporter of General Heinz Guderian's concept of fast armored warfare. He is said to have remarked that: "I shall manoeuvre [sic] France right out her Maginot Line without losing a single soldier." The Germans instituted a number of deception plans to make the French think that a real attack, or at least a serious secondary attack, would come from Army Group C which was facing the Maginot Line. As it was there was never an intention to actually attack the Maginot Line head on, when it could be outflanked. Therefore, as a defensive shield against a German invasion the Maginot Line was successful. It was only taken from the rear in the last days of French resistance. So why is the Maginot Line considered to be a failure?
The Maginot concept would have worked if it had been carried to its logical end which would have been to fortify the whole French frontier. As was pointed out previously, the Germans clearly realized that the only way to attack the Maginot Line was to go around it. So why was the plan of a full Maginot Line stretching around the entire frontier of France not carried through? Besides the financial considerations which certainly had an impact, two key diplomatic and political issues are salient. First, if the Maginot Line had been constructed all around France's borders, this would have meant, in political terms that France had no confidence in the Belgians, Belgium being a traditional invasion route against France. In practical terms, this meant throwing the Belgians to the wolves, and it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for the weak French governments of the Third Republic to do this. The second point is that if line had been completed, there was the likely probability that British would not come to France's aid in case of war and British aid was central to French strategy and planning. France truly felt that it could contain a German thrust but would need British help to repel the Germans back across their borders. The only way to get the British in was to show that both French and British were fighting for Belgium against German aggression. Thus the line was only completed along the eastern portion of the border and not the along the north. The French did not consider that they would have to ask for Britain's help to save French soil itself. Thus these political and diplomatic considerations entered the national security calculus, limiting the expansion of the line, and which combined with French strategic misconceptions such as the impenetrability of the Ardennes to large armored formations, led to France's defeat in 1940. Hence, the Maginot Line did not fail; France failed by not completing it and through an antiquated military strategy that did not credibly foresee the possibility that the Germans would attach through the Ardennes; bypassing the Maginot Line.
The concept of the Maginot Line must be considered when planning for a ballistic missile defense shield of the nation; and/or of theater air defense. The desirability to shield our nation, and military forces in theater, from ballistic missiles is quite in line with the French desire to protect their nation from attack by building impenetrable fortifications. What we must learn from the French experience is that military considerations must be integrated within the larger context of the national security environment. Building their military strategy around fortifications which they knew to be incomplete due to political and diplomatic considerations is the cardinal sin that the French military committed. Another lesson that may be gleaned from the French experience is that these defenses should not be piecemeal but rather should be complete in order to be effective.
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
Horne, Alistair. To Lose a Battle: France 1940. London: Macmillan and Co Ltd, 1969.
Kemp, Anthony. The Maginot Line: Myth and Reality. New York: Stein and Day/ Publishers, 1982.
"Maginot Line." In The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Warfare, gen. ed. Noble Frankland. 1st US edition. New York: Crow Publishers, 1989.