André Maginot

a History

André Maginot

André Maginot was born in Paris in 1877, but he would always be a man of Lorraine, site of his family home at Revigny-sur- L'Ornain. In 1897 he received a Doctorate of Law degree and entered Civil Service, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Maginot would serve 26 cabinets from 1920 until his death in 1932. He was a war hero and, after the war, a hero to the downtrodden veteran. In an era of "feeble politicians and a general lowering of moral standards 1," Maginot stepped forward. To a few, he was war hero and politician, but to most he would be remembered for France's Eastern foritifications.

In 1910, Maginot was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. For six months, (1913/1914), he was Under-Secretary of State for War. When war broke out, he chose to serve in the Army, and was posted to the Lorraine front. In September 1914, he was promoted to Sergeant for his "coolness and courage." In November 1914, as Verdun was being invested, General Serrail showed Maginot a written authorization to evacuate Verdun. He asked Maginot, the Under- Secretary of War, not the Sergeant, what he would do. Maginot tore the authorization to pieces. On 9 November 1914, his knee was shattered in the battle. He would receive the Medaille Militaire, France's highest military award, for extreme valor. He would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

Maginot returned to parliament after the war. He was bothered by the weakness of the French government and felt the Versailles Treaty left France lacking security. When he discovered his home at Revigny-sur-L'Ornain had been bombarded and burned, he swore Lorraine would never be invaded again. In the years to come, he would use his position to push for a defense system in the East.

André Maginot was appointed as Minister of Pensions in 1920. He worked ceaselessly to bring a human touch to the department and to level the bureaucracy in favor of the veteran. In 1922 he was appointed War Minister under Raymond Poincaré. In this capacity he began to approach the question of the defense of France's frontiers and added a sense of urgency to the subject, something lacking in a government that no longer wanted to think about the horrors of war. Maginot worked out a compromise between the Joffre and Pétain camps, a combination of field positions and permanent concrete forts.

In 1924, Maginot was replaced at defense by Paul Painlevé. In 1926, he and Painlevé pushed for funds to build experimental sectors of the new defenses. Work on these sites began in 1928. In 1929, Maginot returned to the War Ministry. He was certain that the Versailles Treaty would ultimately fail to protect France. He was further disturbed that the Rhineland evacuation had been moved up from 1935 to 1930. He became more and more distrustful of Germany and saw fixed defenses as the only answer to the growing menace. Maginot was disturbed to find, upon his return, that little had been done on the experimental sectors. He now devoted his dynamic energy to making sure the defenses would be built. He was up against strong odds.

France's Socialists called for universal disarmament; the Communists were fiercely anti-military. And the majority of the people did not want to think about war. In 1929, the 1930 budget came up. Maginot became a "one man lobbying committee," going from office to office to drum up support. To the right, he pushed patriotism, to the left - employment. At the December 10 budget debate he said:

"We could hardly dream of building a kind of Great Wall of France, which would in any case be far too costly. Instead we have forseen powerful but flexible means of organizing defense, based on the dual principle of taking full advantage of the terrain and establishing a continuous line of fire everywhere."

He pointed out the absolute need to complete the work by 1935, when the number of young men eligible for military service would fall to its lowest. The bottom would actually be reached in 1939, but that was too far away to provide a sense of urgency. Discussion continued on December 28th, 1929. Maginot's argument was calm and reasonable. The defensive line would replace the Rhineland buffer zone, and it would show France's desire for peace since it would be a defensive gesture (this also calmed the pacifists). He asked for 4 years credits then and there, not subject to yearly discussion. He droned on and on and a bored and weary Pariliament voted credits of 3,300 million francs. A few days later the upper house voted 274 to 26 to fund it. He immediately secured the contracts necessary to get the projects going and construction began.

Work progressed with great speed. Maginot expressed great satisfaction during a visit in October 1930. He was especially pleased with the work in Lorraine and fought for extra credits to build extensions in this area.

André Maginot was taken ill in December 1931. On January 7, 1932, he died of typhoid fever. He was greatly mourned nationwide, as a man of the people. No politician had won more gratitude from the people than he had as Minister of Pensions. When war broke out in 1940, he was sorely missed. "His shining honesty, his singleness of purpose, his lack of personal ambition, his skill in handling men, his real eloquence when aroused, found, alas, no single parallel in the politicians of 1939. 2" As far as the defenses to which his name was later given, he devoted his last years to furthering their construction. Their design was more the work of Painlevé than Maginot, but without Maginot, they would never have been built.

(1) Rowe, Vivian, The Great Wall of France, p. 37

(2) Ibid., p. 57

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