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Culture

Exploding History

A row has erupted in Germany about what to do with the Westwall, the country's last standing World War II fortification line.

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Bunkers such as this one on Germany's western border are the subject of fierce debate

Gunther Wagner is incredulous.

“It’s ridiculous -- the Maginot line, just 20 kilometers from us, they just got €5 million from the French state to preserve it as a memorial, you know," the director of the Westwall Museum in Piramens says. "And we’re just destroying ours.”

Wagner is speaking about the fate of the Westwall, a 630- kilometer-long line of fortifications and bunkers along Germany’s western border.

Unlike its French mirror-image, there will be no money to preserve the Westwall. Instead, the federal government is spending an estimated €35 million to destroy the concrete labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels, which Berlin contends have fallen so far into disrepair that they represent a public health hazard.

Amerikanische Truppen passieren den Westwall den Hitlerdeutschland entlang des Atlantiks gegen die Allierten aufgebaut hatten

American soldiers marching along the Westwall in 1945

The Westwall was Adolf Hitler’s creation. A line of bunkers, tunnels and anti-tank fortifications built between 1936 and 1940, it was intended to protect the Third Reich from attack from the west. It cost the Nazi regime 3.5 billion Reichsmark (around 180 million euro) to build at the time and although more than half of it was dynamited by the Allies directly after the war, the other half still exists.

But it’s slowly disappearing.

Under the "Consequences of War" law passed in the 1950’s, the German state is required to get rid of any "ruin" that can cause harm to humans. According to the Federal Property Agency, which owns the Westwall, the site is dangerous -- not only because it lies in ruin but also because of the Neo-Nazis who use the sites as a meeting place. Over the last 30 years, the bunkers have been slowly taken apart and eventually, according to an agency spokesman, the whole line will be destroyed, covered with earth and the ground replanted with trees.

“We don’t want to leave any clue to it being there,” the spokesman told DW-WORLD. Erasing history

Das Westwallmuseum in Schwalbach/Saar Westwall

Bunker Westwall

It’s an attitude which has enraged historians, war veterans and environmentalists alike. The German organization Interfest is fighting to retain the Westwall and preserve it as an important piece of German history and memorial to the people who died there.

“Of course the official reason for dismantling the line is that it’s dangerous,” Interfest President Matthius Schneider told DW-WORLD. “But in reality, there have only been isolated incidents where people have come to harm. Two, I think in the last 30 years. And it's in the middle of woodland, hardly accessible at all,” he says.

Historian and teacher Dieter Robert Bettinger, author of a book chronicling the site's history and Interfest activist, concurs. “The motivation is more ideological I think,” Bettinger says. “The authorities believe here is something that must simply disappear, something that really shouldn’t be here at all.”

Finding a compromise

The Federal Property Agency is sticking to its official line. “Our most pressing task is to get rid of the danger risk,” a spokesman said. The agency also maintains that enough of the Westwall’s bunkers and tunnels are preserved in museums dotted along the border to satisfy historians.

But Interfest hasn't lost all hope. The group says it wants to work with the Maginot line preservationists on a joint tourism initiative to draw attention to the sites.

“It’s not yet been definitely decided whether it’ll all be dismantled. Obviously the most dangerous bits will be the first to go,” the Federal Property Agency spokesperson told DW WORLD. He added that they will also work to find a compromise with environmentalists looking after the interests of the several species -- including foxes, badgers and even bats -- who make their home in the disused ruins. Which bits are worth keeping?

But regardless of the disclaimer that a piece of history may, quite literally, be lost for future generations, Gunther Wagner is still clear on the importance of retaining it.

“The authorities say this fortification is a remnant of a illegitimate regime, a regime which killed many, many people,” Wagner says. “But regimes in the Middle Ages killed a lot of people as well, you know, and you wouldn’t find them destroying castles, now, would you?” Matthius Schneider is more succinct: “It’s about asking the question: 'What is historically important, which bits of history are worth keeping?'” he says.