We spent this day at Ouvrage du Hackenberg, or the Hackenburg Fort, learning about its background and the specific ways in which it was utilized during warring periods. Before we started our tour, we reviewed the history of the region – starting from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. A series of conflicts stemming from the Kingdom of Prussia’s desire to unify German states and become the dominant force in Europe countering France, this War is credited to be a factor in setting the stage for World War I. From the start, Prussians had an advantage in terms of military strategy, leadership, and technology, and German forces quickly overtook the French in several battles. The Siege of Metz, the most pertinent French defeat in the region we were in, resulted in several hundred thousand deaths and casualties and German capture of the important city. At the conclusion of the war in 1871, the Germans were given the Alasce-Lorraine territory, and French determination to regain their territory was a prominent tension contributing to the first world war.
Next, our guide talked about the background of the fort itself, which played a role in France’s defensive efforts in World War II. In 1940, after several German attempts to advance forward through France’s defensive posts, the Hackenberg was invaded and occupied, a significant blow to French forces, acting as an obstacle to further advancements to take back the Lorraine region. 90th infantry division of American forces finally broke through in 1944, infiltrating the fort through the Block 8 entrance.
The background information we received was particularly helpful as we traversed the fort, as it gave meaning to what we were meant to be observing. First, we walked to a location in the M1 “Magasin a Munitions,” or ammunition store, an oval shaped gallery on the west wing of the fort that contained bomb launchers, cannons, etc. Afterwards, we were given a brief history of a large door that ran almost the entire height of the fort (20-30 feet tall). The door had a specific locking mechanism that allowed it to be opened and closed in a set amount of time. However, an explosion in another part of the fort generated enough force to slam this steel and concrete door shut, causing the bottom part of the door to be bent outward. I loved how something as inconsequential as a door had an interesting story behind it – as we exited through the door, our guide jokingly asked us to “pay our respects” and listen for the “ringing of the explosion” contained within the door.
Next, we went to the kitchen area. We saw several different machines that fed around 1000 soldiers – their diet consisted of beef, vegetables and around a pint of wine a day. Our guide emphasized how although they were at war, still had decent food and drink/wine every day as per French culture.
Afterwards, we went to the emergency power plant, which was utilized if the power the fort received from external sources, could not provide electricity. The motors are also still able to run, although the association that preserves the fort chooses not to.
During the Cold War, the fort served as an acting hospital, in addition to guarding against possible Soviet advances in the area.
We also saw the way in which they controlled the air quality underground. The different machines they used filtered out dust and dirt particles and kept the entire fort at a constant temperature. Although the machines often malfunctioned due to the accumulation of particles, I think it’s fascinating how advanced the technology was to create such infrastructure in a relatively short period of time. Another example of this is the overhead monorail system, which safely transported equipment, food, etc. to different parts of Hackenberg. We got the opportunity to take this monorail system to travel to the museum area that the preservation association created, where military equipment and decorations, reenactments of living quarters and word areas, and various other interesting scenes and items were put on display.
After a couple hundred steps up a spiral staircase, we reach a height that’s close to ground level – this is where the “action” happens in the fort. Guns, automatic rifles, machine gun turrets, are positioned in a way so that they can aim above ground to potential attacking armies, and are lifted by automation to do so. We saw a live demonstration of a gun turret, a steel dome that would disappear to enemy eye after firing, as it would retreat back underground/ into the fort. Soldiers would communicate with each other through transmission lines – soldiers located at observation points, which allowed them to see above ground, could communicate the angle or position a gun would need to be aimed to the soldiers manning the weapon. We saw the gun turret and the damages done to the fort by the American attack in 1944 from outside. Although this fort was used during the Cold War, this part of the fort was never restored.
It is truly remarkable how far the Franco-German relationship has come since the initial building and use of this fort. At one point a German prize of occupation, it was later used in cooperative efforts against the Soviet Union. Seen from a nationalist viewpoint, it’s remarkable how these countries have changed in order to cooperate. However, I think their progression can be largely credited to the efforts of the EU, and further contribute to the narrative of the European Union as a peace project.