Over the years, numerous photographers were fascinated by the bunkers of the Atlantikwall. The big inspiration, I think, for all these photographers was the French cultural theorist, urbanist, and aesthetic philosopher Paul Virilio. His 1975 book Bunker Archéologie is a classic, and also the first to examine the concrete World War 2 structures in detail.

In his tradition many followed, including myself, but really only since the 2000s and the introduction of digital photography and the internet. Virilio’s publication became known under a wider audience then only art historians, architects and a single philosopher. Black and white photography is usually the choice to portray the bunkers, giving them this repeated image of ruin architecture. ‘Built as a reminder of the Nazi-Reich’, sometimes even wrongly understood as if the bunkers were actually built, only for propagandic value, which actually shows the impact of that very same Nazi propaganda. Obviously the images of an ‘impregnable wall’ from the Wochenschau films still resonate to this day and fit the image. Even better in this perspective of course, is that the Atlantikwall, ‘only’ lasted several hours before it was ‘penetrated’ in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. It’s the proof that it was ‘built for nothing’ and was only a ‘megalomaniac personal project’ of Hitler himself.

Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archéologie, original 1975 edition (left) and 1994 edition.

Solely military

To ruin the party, it was ofcourse not a personal project, nor was it a propagandic one. Of course, Hitler thought he was a mastermind on fortifications, because of his made up experiences in the Great War’s front lines, and the bunkers served Goebbels’ propaganda ministry well. But above all, the Atlantikwall, better translated as Atlantic Rampart (Rolf, 2014), was a military project, solely built to keep the British from opening up a second front against the Germans. The latter were vastly preoccupied with trying to conquer the Sovjet Union and only had a garrison of 300.000 soldiers to defend the vast western European coast. Already in 1943 the Germans were expecting an allied invasion, and frantically built thousands of bunkers, despite lack of materials and workers. Although northern France, especially the coast line between Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer in the south, was closest to the British isles and heavily fortified, Normandy was seen as the most vurnerable place. The German command in the west thought it was highly likely the attack would be there.

Jean-Claude Gautrand's 1977 Forteresses du Dérisoire.

Jean-Claude Gautrand’s 1977 Forteresses du Dérisoire.

Single bunker battles

The weak defences of Normandy basically funneled the allies towards this area of France. And so it happened. The whole tactical idea of the Rampant, that of a strong first defence line slowing down the attack, with mobile troops coming to the rescue in threatened areas, failed in Normandy, because of the mostly mediocre quality of troops in the bunkers, and slow decision making about the mobile troops and armour. However, the Atlantikwall kept the allies busy in the months to come. The Free French around the Gironde estuary, the Americans in Saint-Malo, the Canadians in the French Channel ports and in the battle of the Scheldt. In september of 1944 the largest airborne operation in history, operation Market-Garden, was partly executed in Arnhem and Nijmegen to circumvent the already ‘ancient’ 1930s bunkers of the Westwall, the defence line along the western border of Germany. The operation at Arnhem failed, and the Americans would feel the toll in the tough terrain of the Eifel, where battles for single bunkers were fought.

Stephan van Fleteren’s 2004 Atlantic Wall.

Fysical reminders

So why am I writing this? Maybe to add another view to the Atlantikwall myths which generally exist and which are made bigger by yet another photographer or artist repeating the same and easy mantra, depicting the bunkers in dramatic, hard contrast, black and white. I would say, dig into the subject more, try to get a broader view, read more books than Paul Virilio’s. These bunkers were actually occupied by people. Mostly regular German soldiers, from a small village deep in Germany, who never got much further than a small radius around their home town. The war is only a fraction of a bunker’s ‘life’, and this percentage gets smaller every year. Their history doesn’t stop in 1945. They’ve shaped landscapes, influenced the youth of many during vacations, and they’re one of the few fysical reminders of World War 2.

Propaganda poster in Dutch: Atlantikwal, 1943 is geen 1918. (Collection: NIOD)

Propaganda poster in Dutch: Atlantikwal, 1943 is geen 1918. (Collection: NIOD)

Mathieu Douzenel

I was triggered because of a the announcement of an exhibition by Mathieu Douzenel, a French photographer working in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Normandy region. He’s an observer of the land, and how we as people interact with it. Judging his pictures he’s also interested in decay, which Nord-Pas-de-Calais has plenty of. There’s a lot of grey here, especially in fall and winter. “Monuments de chagrin” is his series about the Atlantikwall bunkers. His exhibition opened in the Théatre Le Passage in Fécamp last week and can be visited until 18 December 2020.

Regelbau 501 in Bray-Dunes. Part of the photographic series 'Monuments de Chagrin' by Mathieu Douzenel.

Regelbau 501 in Bray-Dunes. Part of the photographic series ‘Monuments de Chagrin’ by Mathieu Douzenel.

Until the end of March and during July, August and September I’m presenting my photo series ‘Regelbau’ in Kunstfort Vijfhuizen, the Netherlands.

It’s a study on the German standardized bunker from World War Two and its current state both as an historical object and a part of present nature. A fascination for modernist materials such as concrete and steel and how time transforms these buildings into modern time ruins. But also, a fascination for the idea of building permanent fortifications and in what form and size. In less than three years tens of thousands of concrete structures were erected along the European coasts and deep inland.

Løkken, 2013

Løkken, 2013

For the last fifteen years I’ve travelled the European continent to document these defenses. It brought me to remote places, and it helped me grasping the geography of war too.

637, Wissant, 2013

637, Wissant, 2013

The German bunkers show how practical solutions lead to modernist monuments. I also try to open a discussion on their history and whether we should preserve them for future generations.

L 409A, Vigsø, 2013

L 409A, Vigsø, 2013

When: Until the end of march 2014, and during July, August and September. Where: Kunstfort Vijfhuizen, close to Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands.

629, Ambleteuse, 2013

629, Ambleteuse, 2013



Ruin Lust

Ruin Lust, an exhibition at Tate Britain from 4 March 2014, offers a guide to the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art from the seventeenth century to the present day. The exhibition is the widest-ranging on the subject to date and includes over 100 works by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, John Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Rachel Whiteread and Tacita Dean.


The Norwegian artist Tori Wrånes is known for her daring performances on sometimes strange places. In 2010 she chose the beautiful Leitstand type 636 at Svolvær for a piano play.

During the Lofoten International Art Festival she played the piano attached to the wall of the bunker. Loose Cannon was the project title. More images and info via her website.

Loose Cannon by Tori Wrånes.

Loose Cannon by Tori Wrånes.

Bunkers are getting hot. Even in fashion. Best thing I’ve seen in years!

Try to wear a Ringstand this summer, you’ll be a trendsetter!

Sylvie Ungauer’s website.

Prêt-à-porter (extrait) from sylvie ungauer on Vimeo.

Dutch artist Jet Nijkamp is working on her project Bunkerleven (Bunker life). What thoughts do we trust with the concrete bunkers? Their walls contain stories of life, hope, love, war, sex and death. Help Nijkamp extend the project from drawings and paintings to an installation, the bunker of thought, at Retort Art Space. Visit http://www.voordekunst.nl/vdk/project/view/204-bunkerleven

My personal favorite, this sliding Tobruk. (By Jet Nijkamp)

My personal favorite, this sliding Tobruk. (By Jet Nijkamp)

Besides the Propagandakompanien which reported in word, photo, film and sound there was another medium used by the Reich to inform the homefront about the massive building activities around Europe: paintings.

One of the most prominent painters of this genre was Ernst Vollbehr. Born in Kiel in 1876, Vollbehr studied art in Berlin, Dresden, Paris and Rome before going on expeditions to Albania and Brasil in the early years of the twentieth century. During these trips he got familiar with painting landscapes and other scenes regarding travelling. In the years following, he travelled through the German African colonies.

Painting war

A German artillery position by Vollbehr.

A German artillery position by Vollbehr.

During the First World War he becomes an army staff painter and depicts the front, landscapes, destroyed villages and German troops.  A selection of his work is published in 1915 as “Kriegsbilder-Tagebuch des Malers Ernst Vollbehr”. In 1917 a second volume is published called “Bei der Heeresgruppe Kronprinz”. His depictions of World War One didn’t show the horrors of war. It was the soldier’s life and the landscape of war, which inspired him. His work looks quiet and safe, not the mud and terror of the trenches, but soldiers reading in a lightened cave, a wooden officer’s bungalow with a little garden, soldiers slowly loading an artillery piece like it’s the most pieceful thing to do. Compared to the dark expressionism of Belgian and German colleagues of the same time, Vollbehr’s paintings are easy to look at. Even a ruined chateau in a deserted landscape baths in a soft Provencal sun.

Hard times

After the war, Germany is broke, and so is Vollbehr. He searches for new ways of earning money and begins painting for the industry. He visits the big steel companies in Brandenburg an der Havel, Zeppelin- and Dornierfactories and the inland harbours along the Rhine, Ruhr and Donau. In 1927 he travels again, this time to the Dutch East Indies, financially supported by the Dutch government. The exhibitions in the Colonial museum in Amsterdam and the Scherl-Haus in Berlin are a big succes.

Vollbehr and the new Reich

Heavy Dreischartenturmbunker painted by Ernst Vollbehr around 1939.

Heavy Dreischartenturmbunker painted by Ernst Vollbehr around 1939.

When Hitler comes to power, things start to look bright again for Vollbehr. He is asked to paint the Reichsparteitagen, the Olympic games and, commissioned by Fritz Todt himself, the Reichsautobahnen, the huge highway building project. His works are acquired by the NSDAP, showing his popularity in those days with the new regime. Despite the ban on new party members, Vollbehr joins the NSDAP in july 1933, which is approved by Hitler personally. He publishes several books of which the last one, Mit der OT beim Westwall und Vormarsch (1941), shows the Westwall. He then depicts the battle fields again, from Poland to France, and the German building activities along the Atlantic coast. This work is published in newspapers and magazines. He receives the Goethe-Medaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft (Goethe decoration for Art and Science) for his work but then in 1943 he suddenly retreats to his private life. When his youngest son gets killed on the eastern front and the bombing of the Berliner Ateliers takes place he feels at first hand the results of the war politics of the NSDAP and Hitler. During the Tagen der Kunst in Kiel in 1944 he participates in an exhibition of landscape paintings for the last time.

Vollbehr died in May 1960, aged 84. A large part of his work is now in the collection of the Institut für Länderkunde in Leipzig.

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Nice video by Robin de Goede.


RUIN VALUE from robindegoede on Vimeo.

Tribute to Paul Virilio’s ‘ Bunker Archeology ‘
Music by: B. Lustmord & Robert Rich
Film by Robin de Goede