Silent Monuments

the Impacts of World War II on European Landscapes

World War II was well known for having a profound impact on the people, societies, and culture in Europe and reshaping the post-war geopolitical order. Yet, the war also had an extensive impact on European landscapes, often fundamentally changing both their aesthetic and symbolic character. This article will explore several notable examples of these changes and the impacts of World War II on six landscapes in France, Belgium, and Germany.

Intentional and unintentional aesthetic transformations

The six years of World War II (1939-1945) led to some dramatic aesthetic transformations of European landscapes that were both intentional and unintentional.

Intentional landscape transformations

These intentional landscape transformations can be defined as alterations to the landscape that have been systematically planned and executed with a specific goal. This category includes the many physical, defensive structures that both the Allied and Axis powers built during this period. The following are three landscapes altered aesthetically by intentional transformations.

Main photo - view of remnants of the artifical harbour of Arromanches (credit: PicsPoint.nl)

Hürtgenwald

North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

The first major landscape transformation of World War II era occurred from 1936 until 1939, when the German government worked to construct the massive Siegfried Line or Westwall. This defensive line along Germany’s western border stretched from the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France consisting of over 22,000 bunkers and pillboxes complemented by dragon teeth (tank obstacles) and trenches. Abandoned after the fall of France, the Germans reactivated the defensive network after the D-Day landings in Normandy, and later became a major obstacle for the Allied troops during the final phase of the war in Germany.

Hürtgenwald (Hürtgen forest south of Aachen) was a major point along the Siegfried Line and became the site of the longest World War II battle in Germany from the autumn to the winter of 1944/45. Here the Germans transformed the natural forest landscape through the construction of fortifications and bunkers.

Today these fortifications and bunkers are still present in the landscape. The Germans erected lines and lines of dragon’s teeth, concrete triangle shaped blocks designed to impede tanks and other vehicles. Today these dragon’s teeth have fused with the scenery whose mossy concrete geometric shapes contrast with the surrounding forest vegetation.

View of dragon's teeth defences in the Hürtgenwald (Photo credit: PicsPoint.nl)

Atlantic Wall Raversyde

Ostend, Belgium

One of the largest intentional landscape transformations in Europe came as a result of the construction of the Atlantic Wall. Between 1943 and 1945, the Nazis transformed the European coastal landscape from Norway to southern France along the Atlantic coast through the construction of defensive bunkers, observation posts, artillery batteries, and trenches.

The Atlantikwall Museum Raversyde in Ostend is one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall, the Saltzwedel Neu Battery with over 60 bunkers, observation posts, and artillery positions. The Nazis started construction on the battery in 1941, building a central observation/command post with four-gun emplacements, ammunition bunkers, personnel bunkers/barracks, and a hospital all connected by a vast system of trenches and tunnels.

From the beach, the concrete observation posts and gun emplacements stand as stark concrete monoliths emerging from the grassy dunes along the beach. These structures have added an eerie manmade element to the natural Belgium coastal landscape.

German bunker with artillery gun at Atlantic Wall Raversyde (Photo credit: Paul-Hermans via wiki-commons)

Atlantic Wall Raversyde

Ostend, Belgium

One of the largest intentional landscape transformations in Europe came as a result of the construction of the Atlantic Wall. Between 1943 and 1945, the Nazis transformed the European coastal landscape from Norway to southern France along the Atlantic coast through the construction of defensive bunkers, observation posts, artillery batteries, and trenches.

The Atlantikwall Museum Raversyde in Ostend is one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall, the Saltzwedel Neu Battery with over 60 bunkers, observation posts, and artillery positions. The Nazis started construction on the battery in 1941, building a central observation/command post with four-gun emplacements, ammunition bunkers, personnel bunkers/barracks, and a hospital all connected by a vast system of trenches and tunnels.

From the beach, the concrete observation posts and gun emplacements stand as stark concrete monoliths emerging from the grassy dunes along the beach. These structures have added an eerie manmade element to the natural Belgium coastal landscape.

German bunker with artillery gun at Atlantic Wall Raversyde (Photo credit: Paul-Hermans via wiki-commons)

The Artificial Harbour of Arromanches

Arromanches, France

During the preparations for D-Day, the Allies at the behest of Winston Churchill decided it was necessary to have artificial deep-water ports to provide needed supplies during the Battle of Normandy. Therefore, two artificial ports, code-named Mulberry A and B, were constructed at various locations in Great Britain, including Portsmouth.

The day after the capture of Arromanches by the 50th British Division on D-Day, construction on the artificial harbour began by sinking old ships known as the “Gooseberry” ships to create a breakwater. Large concrete “Phoenix” caissons built in Britain were then floated across the Channel to create a reinforced harbour that was linked to the mainland via floating roadways made from “whale” pontoons.

While the artificial harbour at the American Omaha Beach was destroyed a few weeks after its construction in June 1944, the British harbour at Arromanches remained in use until November 1944. Today, the vestiges of the port have changed the seascape surrounding Arromanches where the remnants of the concrete Phoenix caissons can still be seen in the water and along the beach. Many of the metal Whale pontoons dot the surrounding areas as memorials. For the last 75 years since D-Day, the landscape of Arromanches has remained altered by this feat of engineering.

The remaining concrete caissons of the British artificial harbour can be seen in the harbour of Arromanches (Photo credit: PicsPoint.nl)

These three landscapes of Hürtgenwald, Atlantic Wall Raversyde – Ostend Coast, and the artificial harbour of Arromanches represent how both the Allies and the Axis made intentional alterations to various landscapes through the construction of defensive structures.

Unintentional landscape transformations

Unintentional landscape transformations can be defined as landscape alterations that were incidental or unplanned. In the context of World War II, this category includes the transformations that resulted from battlefield combat between the Allied and Axis powers such as bombing raids.

Pointe-du-Hoc

Cricqueville-en-Bessin, France

Pointe-du-Hoc near Cricqueville-en-Bessin in Normandy is well known as the location of the 2nd U.S. Ranger Battalion’s D-Day assault on the German artillery battery located on a cliff between two beaches that would become known for their codenames as Omaha and Utah.

The landscape of the small peninsula underwent major changes because of the war. The first was an intentional transformation by the Germans with the construction of the artillery battery and bunker as part of the larger Atlantic Wall.

The second major transformation arrived with the numerous Allied bombing raids that led up to D-Day. This had a profound transformative effect on the landscape leaving many bomb craters of various sizes, carving an otherworldly landscape with physical scars from the war. This physical aesthetic alteration as a result of the bombing of the Pointe-du-Hoc landscape was unintentional in contrast to Raversyde Atlantic Wall or the artificial harbour of Arromanches whose interventions were planned.

Cratered landscape near Pointe-du-Hoc

Bois Jacques

Bastogne, Belgium

In December 1944, following the Allied liberation of Belgium, the Ardennes in southeastern Belgium became the location of the infamous Battle of the Bulge offensive made by the Germans that winter. During the battle, the Americans of the Easy Company, 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne division became entrenched in the Bois Jacques or “Jack’s Wood.” From December to January, they dug foxholes to hold the lines against the advancing German offensive.

These numerous foxholes dug in the heat of the battle led to an unintentional transformation of the landscape of Bois Jacques in stark contrast to the planned transformations of the Hürtgen Forest in Germany with the Siegfried Line.

A fox hole dug by the 101st Airborne division (Photo credit: PicsPoint.nl)

Bois Jacques

Bastogne, Belgium

In December 1944, following the Allied liberation of Belgium, the Ardennes in southeastern Belgium became the location of the infamous Battle of the Bulge offensive made by the Germans that winter. During the battle, the Americans of the Easy Company, 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne division became entrenched in the Bois Jacques or “Jack’s Wood.” From December to January, they dug foxholes to hold the lines against the advancing German offensive.

These numerous foxholes dug in the heat of the battle led to an unintentional transformation of the landscape of Bois Jacques in stark contrast to the planned transformations of the Hürtgen Forest in Germany with the Siegfried Line.

A fox hole dug by the 101st Airborne division (Photo credit: PicsPoint.nl)

Olympiaberg

Munich, Germany

In the final years of World War II, up to 80% of buildings in Germany’s main urban centres were destroyed as a result of large-scale allied carpet bombing. Major cities such as Berlin, Munich, Dresden, and Frankfurt (Main) were nearly flattened in the course of this final battle for Germany.

After the ashes of war settled, the Germans set to rebuild their bombed cities, collecting nearly 400 million cubic meters of rubble in West Germany alone that was amassed in artificial hills that became known as “Schuttberge” (debris hills) or “Trümmerberge” (rubble mountains). Today, these Schuttberge have transformed the landscapes surrounding many German cities with large artificial hills.

One notable example is the Olympiaberg in Munich, a 56-meter hill that was built between 1948 and 1957. Later it became the centrepiece of the 1972 Olympic Park for the Munich Summer Olympics Games. That year, a small memorial designed by Rudolf Belling named the “Schuttblume” (debris flower) was erected on the Olympiaberg as a symbol of peace and to remember the 6.000 deaths in Munich that were a result of the aerial bombings.

View of Olympiaberg in the Munich OlympiaPark (Photo credit: AndreasThum via Creative Commons)

Together these three sites, the Olympiaberg in Munich, Germany; Bois Jacques in Bastogne, Belgium; and Point-du-Hoc in Normandy, France represent three landscapes that have undergone unintentional aesthetic transformations during World War II. Yet, in addition to these aesthetic alterations (both intentional and unintentional), there are certain European landscapes that also underwent dramatically symbolic transformations.

Symbolic transformations – from regional to international importance

In addition to the aforementioned aesthetic changes, World War II led to significant symbolic transformations of certain landscapes. Perhaps the most famous example is the Normandy D-Day Beaches, which includes Pointe-du-Hoc as discussed above.

Before the war, the symbolic significance of this coastal beach landscape was unimportant on a global scale. Yet on 6 June 1944, 156.000 Allied soldiers from 17 countries landed on five Normandy Beaches to start the liberation of Western Europe, changing the symbolic significance of this landscape forever. No longer were these Normandy beaches important just to the local population. They became a landscape of international importance – a powerful symbol of freedom and liberation.

Reenactors and tourists at Omaha Beach in Normandy for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day in June 2019 (photo credit: Rémi Praud)

The symbolic transformation of the Normandy coastal landscape continues today. The recent 75th anniversary commemorations are a testament to this transformation. Tourists, history enthusiasts, reenactors, and officials flocked from across the world to visit the various beaches, historic sites, villages, and museums that dot the D-Day landscape in Normandy. Official ceremonies with heads of state and veterans underscored the symbolic importance of this landscape on the international stage. These events are representative of how a cultural identity and a collective memory of the past built on landscapes of conflict have developed here in Normandy over the last 75 years through remembrance ceremonies, memorials, and rituals (Shackel, pg. 3; Larsen, pg. 487). These processes have added a new symbolic dimension to the landscape.

Normandy is just one of many landscapes in Europe that World War II transformed symbolically. These regional European landscapes have become important globally as international landscapes of a common war heritage and collective memory shared by many nations and peoples.

Future Outlook

Together, the transformations of the landscapes discussed in this article can be seen as silent monuments of World War II that are powerful reminders of both the destructive nature of the war and the lasting impacts it has on the environment.

It is also clear that many of these landscapes have complex management issues related to contested memory, difficult heritages, and a painful past that are at times a challenge to interpret and to contextualize in the natural environment. New global challenges such as the climate crisis have created new preservation challenges for these sites. Already, the passage of time and the forces of nature are slowly remaking these landscapes, especially the coastal ones, causing the effects of the Second World War to become ever fainter. With the increasingly adverse effects of the climate crisis, it is unclear if they can be preserved for future generations.

Nonetheless, the work of the Liberation Route Europe and its network of international partners is an important step to preserve and to valorise the collective memory and the vestiges of the war associated with these landscapes. Together, these landscapes will continue to stand as silent monuments to the liberation of Europe for future generations.

Further reading

Larsen, Svend Erik. ‘Landscape, Identity, and War’. New Literary History 35 (3)

Shackel, Paul A.. ‘Archaeology, Memory, and Landscapes of Conflict’. Historical Archaeology 37 (3)

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