The Maginot Line and the Evacuation of Paris Part II: What DID They Plan For?

Although government and military officials were happy to tout the Maginot Line as impenetrable, past experiences had taught them that it would be worth making plans for evacuations of French cities. In 1918, nearly 2 million French refugees had fled from German occupied areas. Paris was under siege by Prussia in 1870, and the city had been hit by bombs in the Great War. Yet Paris survived these attacks, and they had occurred before the border had been fortified by the Maginot Line, which Paris was very far away from. Thus, the government saw no serious need for a comprehensive evacuation plan for Paris or areas far away from the Maginot Line, as it appeared that they were not seriously threatened.  Instead, discussions for a planned evacuation during the mid-1930’s focused on populations in the North of France, the South East along Italy’s border, and along the Maginot Line, especially in Alsace-Lorraine. These areas were in close proximity to combat zones and were the most threatened by an invasion. By 1938, this region had a concrete evacuation plan, and departments (similar to a state, a department is a sub level political unit comprising of one area of France)  had predetermined destinations to host departments, although many in Alsace-Lorraine, used to the threat of invasion, took the initiative to leave before plans were put into place or a declaration was made to evacuate. For the most part, evacuation in this area was successful. Strasbourg for instance, evacuated 250,000 inhabitants to Perigueux in just one day and by Sept 3, the city appeared deserted.

Outside of the most threatened areas, preparations for an invasion and for an evacuation were underdeveloped or nonexistent. Not only were these areas far removed from the Maginot Line, but such plans seemed to run counter to the government and military’s stance and appeared defeatist in nature. The military’s strategy was to keep Germans out of French territory, and evacuation plans would suggest that the government lacked faith in the strategy as well as the Maginot Line in repelling an invasion. Arved Arenstam, a Latvian political correspondent located in Paris at the time, described the situation:

“The Maginot Line is a wonderful narcotic. ‘They’ll never cross the Maginot Line’ is a phrase that has become a national axiom…Generally speaking the mentality of the World War prevails. Germany will be starved out. Something or other is bound to happen, and Germany will be defeated. What is that something? Nobody knows-nobody tries to define it. But no one believes for a moment that France could possibly lose the war.”

Instead, the government and media prepared the French population for certain victory. The Maginot Line was impenetrable, and the invincible French army, with its wise leadership, would beat back any German attack. The effect of this was that populations were under prepared for an evacuation, as the military collapse and true nature of the disaster were hidden by the media. For instance, after Germany’s crossing of the river Meuse and success in Belgium and Northern France, the people of France were reminded that this correlated to the events of 1914, as well as to the strategies of the victorious WWI officers still in charge. The image of France’s military superiority was shown off even after the German’s defied the Maginot Line and the rough terrain of the Ardennes, even after floods of terrified refugees and retreating soldiers began to stream into Paris. On May 24th 1940 Prime Minister Paul Reynaud proclaimed that “France has been invaded a hundred times and never beaten… our belief in victory is intact.”

Following the events of 1870 and WWI, the French government was aware that Paris might not be safe from all forms of attack. For instance, the examples of Guernica   and Poland highlight the destruction that a German air raid could cause. Yet the government was rather uncertain as to how effective such a raid would be getting to Paris. Ultimately, plans enacted were no more comprehensive than those in 1870 and WWI, leading many to believe that once again, Paris will come out of this conflict just fine. The plans also reflected the government’s uncertainty. A few bomb shelters were constructed and some of the more obvious monuments were protected, and a fairly impractical preliminary evacuation plan was drawn up.

The preliminary plan for the Department of Seine, which includes Paris and its suburbs, was the arrondisement plan. Paris was already split into arrondisement, which were similar to boroughs. Each arrondisement, and any suburb near a particular arrondisement, was designated to one of twelve host departments. These host departments would provide for the refugees of their predetermined arrondisement in case of an evacuation. The plan was very simple, and hastily thrown together with few considerations for the makeup of Paris.

For instance, the plan did not take into consideration the rural origins of many Parisians. Many Parisians had come from rural backgrounds, or were one generation away from a rural community, and nothing prevented them from staying with family rather than their designated department. Along the same lines, it wasn’t considered what would happen if Parisians in general went to somewhere other than their host departments, or what would occur if they tried to return to Paris. Also, Paris was largest city in France, and it was not considered how well the host departments could accommodate this large population. Also, based on the spirit and memory of the Miracle of the Marne, it was presumed that Paris would have the capabilities to transport its large population at once. The plan was underdeveloped; it was meant to be. Military and government authorities saw comprehensive evacuation plans of large cities as bad idea which would harm morale, and preference was given to plans on how to protect these cities from attack. Besides, the existence of a plan, even if it was premature, created the illusion that Paris would be ready in case of an attack.

The evacuation plans of Paris and the most threatened regions also overlooked a number of issues of French society. For one, nearly an entire generation of French males had died during WWI. This high number of casualties coupled with a low birth rate during the Inter War years meant that France was facing a demographic crisis at the outset of the war; they had a shortage of young males. As a result, the government had to call up a wider age range for soldiers, leaving a large portion of the French population without husbands or fathers. The evacuation plans did not mention how to assist these wives and mothers, most of who were of working class origins, who would single-handedly have to come up with the means to evacuate their children and any elderly or sick relatives. Also, the government struggled to find a balance between th0e manpower needs of the military with what would be necessary to keep key industries operating. The government had to place many of the specially designated workers exempt from mobilization in Paris, where most of the factories that produced for the war were located. This meant that these workers would have to be considered into the evacuation plan, and also that it would need to be calculated how many workers could evacuate without crippling the war effort. Paris also had a substantial emigrant population, many of whom were Jewish refugees that had fled from the Nazis and added to the already thriving Parisian Jewish population. In the event of a , these populations would have been the most at risk, but they received no special provision for evacuation. Instead, the Jewish and non-French peoples in Paris faced attacks due to Fifth Column suspicions, and were interned based on these suspicions.


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Maginot Line and the Evacuation of Paris Part III: How Did It Work Out? | worstemever

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