x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Siegfried Line working for Germany's wildlife

Second World War fortifications built to protect the country's western frontier have become a major habitat for some rare species.

Sebastian Schöne of the environment group Bund, inspects a Siegfried Line bunker in a forest south-west of Cologne, Germany.
Sebastian Schöne of the environment group Bund, inspects a Siegfried Line bunker in a forest south-west of Cologne, Germany.

BERLIN // For decades, the thousands of bunkers of the Siegfried Line, built by the Nazis to protect Germany's western frontier, have lurked overgrown and forgotten in forests and fields as silent testimony to Adolf Hitler's military aggression. Until recently Germany ignored this 630-kilometre relic stretching from the Dutch border down to Switzerland and focused instead on tending other sites that better illustrated the Nazis' crimes, such as the concentration camps. Shunned by humans, the cavelike structures became a haven for such rare animals as wildcats and bats. The growing importance of the bunkers as a natural habitat has sparked calls by environmental groups to preserve what the Germans call the "Westwall". The Allies referred to it as the Siegfried Line. "The bunkers must be saved not just because of their historical significance but because they have become a major habitat for rare animals and plants," Sebastian Schöne, a wildlife expert for Bund, the German section of Friends of the Earth International, said in an interview. "They're especially important for bats at this time of year because there are very few other places left for them to spend the winter." Monument protection agencies, historians and local authorities aware of the sites' potential to attract tourists have joined the campaign in a bid to revive memories of the fortification that Hitler's propaganda machine promised would make Germany impregnable. Most of the 18,000 bunkers and gun emplacements were blown up and left in ruins by the Allies after the Second World War. The mangled concrete with its sheltered nooks provides perfect accommodation for rare birds, including large birds of prey and owls, as well as martens and badgers. Lizards sun themselves on the warm concrete in summer and feed off the spiders and wide variety of insects that have also settled there. Rare mosses and other types of plant thrive on the chalk seeping from the walls. The anti-tank trenches have become popular thoroughfares for foxes and animals now frolic among the concrete obstacles built to funnel enemy tanks into killing zones. The wildlife was free to thrive until the 1960s and 1970s, when authorities began ordering the removal of the concrete remains to make way for construction or farming. But in the past few years the demolition has slowed down in response to Bund's campaign. "They're more careful these days and have stopped the systematic removal; it now only happens in individual cases if local councils or residents living nearby want to get rid of them," Mr Schöne said. Bund has received permission to fence off selected bunkers known to contain bats and has purchased one bunker in North Rhine-Westphalia, one of four states through which the Siegfried Line runs. "Our main aim is to have the bunkers classified as nature conservation areas," said Martin Lillig, project manager for Bund in the south-western state of Saarland. He had inspected hundreds of the more than 4,000 bunkers in Saarland, most of them in ruins. "The ruined ones are most interesting for wildlife. We have 400 to 800 bunkers that are still completely intact, but they're locked up and most animals can't get in them," Mr Lillig said. "I regularly spot foxes and a while ago I thought I saw a wildcat in a bunker, but it may have just been a house cat. It darted off in a second." Bund has joined forces with monument conservation agencies who argue that the Siegfried Line is worth keeping because of the lessons it teaches future generations. About 100 bunkers in North Rhine-Westphalia have already been placed under monument protection and local historians provide tours of some of them. So far, efforts to preserve them have been piecemeal and there has been no nationwide approach. But Bund is now worried that uncontrolled tourism will disturb the animals. "Many towns are using the bunkers for tourism for financial reasons and the nature conservation aspect is being forgotten," Mr Schöne said. Although many Germans still shun the Siegfried Line because they see it as a tasteless reminder of past militarism, foreign tourists have been visiting the bunkers in increasing numbers. Peter Drespa launched a programme of guided tours in late 2007 and showed 800 visitors around selected bunkers this year. "It's mainly British tourists and there are definitely more foreign tourists than Germans," Mr Drespa said. "Many people who live here don't dare to deal with this because it's tainted with the Nazi past. "The problem is that one day a young boy will come across concrete ruins in the forest and ask his father, 'What's that?' and the father will reply: 'No idea.' If we allow that to happen, something will have gone very wrong in Germany." Hitler built the Siegfried Line between 1936 and 1940 to provide jobs for thousands of workers and to feed the Nazi propaganda machine by claiming Germany was getting an "unbreachable fortification in the West", as newspapers at the time put it. Before the war, Hitler pointed to the Siegfried Line as proof that Germany's intentions were purely defensive. After the fighting began, its true purpose became evident - to protect Germany's western flank while Hitler sought "lebensraum" in the east with his assault on the Soviet Union. Like so many grand Nazi projects, the Siegfried Line was never completed and many of its fortifications were outdated by the time it became the front line in late 1944. In fact, they became death traps for soldiers because their walls often could not withstand shelling. "We need to debunk myths about the Westwall," Mr Drespa said. "For example, it's not true that they were built with forced labour. There hasn't been enough scientific historical research into the Siegfried Line." The bunkers did not play a military role until after the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944. Advancing US troops encountered fierce resistance along the Siegfried Line in the valleys of the Hürtgenwald forest in late 1944 that claimed the lives of an estimated 35,000 US soldiers and up to 15,000 Germans. The line also became a staging area for German forces ahead of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last major offensive of the war, in the winter of 1944. Allied air superiority rendered the bunkers irrelevant in the final months of the war. They were not nearly as advanced as the Maginot Line on the French side, which Hitler simply circumvented in his 1940 invasion of France. Mr Drespa said talks would take place in the coming months among all the parties interested in the Siegfried Line to agree to a common approach on preserving them. "We've got to define which bunkers should be used for tourism and which for environmental protection," he said. "If you're German, you're born with a stamp on your forehead that says, 'Make sure it never happens again'," Mr Drespa said. "We must never forget what happened. Looking at a bunker system as huge as this one I can be happy about the 60 years of peace we've had. It's not something we can take for granted these days." dcrossland@thenational.ae