Tuesday Q&A: History has given us a wealth of walls to study ... so do they work?

by John Thompson, Office of Communications and Marketing

January 15, 2019

Welcome to "Tuesday Q&A," a weekly story where issues of broad topical interest are viewed through the lens of the research expertise of Western's faculty.

With the news coverage of the Border Wall dominating the media along with the government shutdown that continues on as a negotiating tool to fund it, Western Today asked three WWU historians - Roger Thompson, Steven Garfinkle and Amanda Eurich - to take a look back at three of the biggest walls in history - the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and Hadrian's Wall - and examine their efficacy and cost to help answer one basic question: Did they work?

The Great Wall of China: WWU Professor of History Roger R. Thompson

The Great Wall of China is a series of walls and fortifications built over the course of hundreds of years across thousands of miles of China’s northern border as way of protecting the country from invading nomadic groups such as the Mongols. As well as its defensive benefits, the Great Wall also created choke points which allowed for the easier taxation of incoming and outgoing trade into neighboring areas or along the Silk Road.

Work on the wall went on in China for more than 1,000 years. How big a threat were the Mongols and other nomadic groups at the time, and did the threat justify the incredible expense and effort of the wall?

RT:  After China’s first emperor decided to link together some sections of walls built by the warring states he defeated, the nomads’ access to Chinese goods was limited.  This tension between the Chinese and the nomads continued into the next dynasty.  Chinese policy-makers were divided: should the Han army march north and defeat the nomads, or should a peaceful approach be taken that would allow for trade and cultural interaction?  Both approaches were expensive, for the Chinese gave monetary gifts to the nomads that were then used to buy Chinese goods.

Why didn’t the Great Wall keep the Mongols out of China?

RT:   When the Mongols began their conquest of China, the Great Wall we can see today did not exist.  The Chinese had already retreated to the south and the leaders and armies remaining in the north, walls or no walls, were no match for the Mongols.  Soon the Mongols controlled all of China.  No need for northern walls then.  But dynasties come and go and like those before them, the Mongol dynasty ended and the Mongols retreated north.  This is when the story gets really interesting.

Why is that?  Did the Mongols continue to be a threat?

RT:  Yes they were and the Ming dynasty, which had restored the Chinese to power, was determined to expand and defend that power.  Over the course of several hundred years, enormous resources were poured into building the stone-faced walls, watch towers, and fortresses that we now know as the Great Wall of China.  This effort was largely successful on a tactical level, although determined attackers could find ways to get through the wall or go around it.  The Great Wall was the answer for leaders who just wanted to exclude the Mongols from Chinese life.  But some Chinese argued for war, while others were willing to compromise. 

In one word, was the Great Wall a success, or a failure?

RT: How about two words, Yes and No.  The Great Wall allowed the Chinese to communicate quickly through fire and smoke signals.  Nomads could attack anywhere; the Ming army, however, could not be everywhere at once.  Communication was critical.  Think of the Great Wall as a Great Road.  Tactically, then, we can say Yes, it was a success.  But did it keep out the next set of invaders from the north?  No, it didn’t.  In the early twentieth century, in one of darkest periods of Chinese history, the Great Wall became a powerful positive symbol.  This was echoed in 1984 when a Chinese journalist wrote: “The Great Wall is the symbol of the Chinese nation” and “loving and repairing the Great Wall will reflect the patriotic feelings of the Chinese people.”  It’s complicated.

Hadrian's Wall: WWU Professor of History Steven Garfinkle

Hadrian’s Wall was built during the reign of its namesake, the Roman emperor Hadrian, and was begun around 122 AD, probably to highlight a visit by Hadrian to Roman Britain. The wall marked the northern border of the Roman Empire in what is now England, and stretched from the North Sea on the east to the Irish Sea on the west.

Who were the groups of people on the other side of the wall, and how did they threaten the Roman Empire?

SG: The people on the other side of wall, predominantly in what are now the Scottish lowlands, were barbarians. This was a distinction handed down from the Greeks to the Romans for anyone who lived outside of the boundaries of their civilization. There is no reason to believe that the ancient inhabitants of the Scottish lowlands posed any direct threat to the Roman Empire. Typically, ancient societies like Rome, regarded anyone whom they considered uncivilized to be a threat to their way of life, but the Romans were also deeply engaged, throughout their empire, in the project of turning barbarians into civilized contributors to their society. This was a process we call Romanization. Empires like Rome, and this was equally true of many earlier societies, thrived on bringing outsiders into their communities. 

In fact, the kinds of walls that Hadrian ordered to be built were an outgrowth of the predominantly urban nature of ancient civilizations. The city wall had long been a divider between settled urban communities and their hinterland. Walls like that built by Hadrian projected the notion of city walls out to a more distant frontier. Many ancient civilizations experimented with these kinds of frontier fortifications. In fact, we can perhaps first wind the clock back and look at the earliest documented experiment with this kind of wall, and it dates back to the ancient Sumerians at the end of the Third Millennium BC. 

What do we know about this much earlier wall?

SG: The Third Dynasty of Ur ruled in southern Mesopotamia over one of the earliest complex states for which we have a treasure trove of historical evidence. Late in the dynasty’s history (circa 2,030 BC), they built what they called a wall to hold back the Amorites. Some of the Amorites were pastoralists who lived at the margins of the Ur III kingdom. The “wall” to hold them back was really a string of fortifications marking the boundary between safe space and the uncivilized world beyond it. One modern scholar recently noted, “This region was a true frontier zone, constituting one of the marches of the Ur III state. Shepherds, herdsmen, tribute bearers, messengers, ambassadors, traders, as well as native and foreign armies constantly traversed these areas. This is also where different ethnic groups and different languages intermingled, where cultural contact worked in all directions, and where settled and pastoralist dwellers of the mountains and valleys exchanged goods and ideas.” 

Records from the kingdom indicate that state officials often struggled to amass the labor and resources necessary to make this royal idea of a wall into a reality. In a twist that evokes modern parallels, we know that some Amorites already numbered among the prominent and trusted courtiers attached to the royal household. In the end, when the dust had settled on the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur, succeeding dynasties, like that of Hammurabi of Babylon, would trace their origin back to those Amorites from the other side of the wall. 

Back to Hadrian and his wall: it is one of the largest, and certainly the longest, surviving Roman ruins. It, too, was a connected line of fortifications but was unlikely to stop committed bands from crossing the frontier. Instead, its role was to project the power of Rome and its ability to maintain the frontier. 

Building a wall would seem to be a statement of “holding onto what you’ve got” as opposed to a continued effort at expansion. Was the Roman Empire still growing at this point?

SG: By the time of the building of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Empire had largely stopped expanding, and emperors like Hadrian were committed to shoring up and Romanizing the lands that had already been conquered. The wall served commercial and psychological purposes more clearly than it functioned as a defensive barrier. The Romans knew what the Sumerians had discovered more than two millennia earlier: frontier walls make for porous barriers. 

In one word: Was Hadrian’s Wall a success or a failure?

SG: Success (but historians seldom give one word answers…) In Roman terms, the wall likely accomplished their goals; but later generations have imagined Hadrian’s wall as having been constructed on the basis of loftier ambitions. If we want to understand the wall as an impermeable barrier, then it was a failure. Hadrian’s wall succeeded in marking the boundary between Roman influence and the world beyond that influence, which the Roman’s little understood and often had little curiosity about. As a border, Hadrian’s wall functioned similarly to modern ports of entry.

It was intended to allow the Romans to better monitor access to Romanized Britain and to give them an improved ability to control imports and exports; however, it was not intended primarily as a defensive fortification or hard barrier. Indeed, it was replaced within a generation by the Antonine Wall farther to the north. And within a few generations, that northern wall was abandoned and the frontier returned to Hadrian’s wall. 

The Maginot Line: WWU Professor of History Amanda Eurich

The Maginot Line was a system of French fortifications along the Franco-German border built during the 1930s in the aftermath of the horrific casualties of World War I. The line was designed to prevent a rapid German advance into France and to be so formidable that it would act as a deterrent to war. But the line didn’t extend to the sea, and the Germans simply went around it through the Low Countries and captured Paris, forcing France out of World War II only six weeks later, something it was unable to do in the four years of World War I.

The Maginot Line was a huge project that took enormous amounts of France’s infrastructure in the lean years after World War I. How did the horrors of that war shape the drive to build it?

AE: Fortification projects along the eastern frontier of France date back to the seventeenth century and the storied reign of Louis XIV, but the decision to construct a line of concrete fortifications to deter a future resurgent German state from invading France again was rooted in the horrific realities of a world war fought largely on French soil.   Northern France was the main theater of war along the Western Front.  The French suffered tremendous casualties — approximately 1.5 million combat dead (surpassed only by Russia and Germany) and an almost equal number of civilian losses.  The pock-marked landscapes of parts of northern France and the mutilés de la guerre (war wounded) who marched in Armistice Day parades served as constant reminders of foreign aggression. Even today the haunting war memorials that can be found in almost every village attest to the toll of World War I on the French psyche.  

The need to defend the country from such terrible sacrifices inspired the Maginot Line project.  Journalists help to rally popular support for the Maginot Line and its promoters.  Military veterans, such as Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, refused to listen to younger commanders like Colonel Charles de Gaulle, who suggested that investment in new technologies would offer a better defense.  In 1940, it would be Petain who signed the armistice with Hitler, arguing that accepting defeat was the necessary cost of saving France from another bloody war. 

The Maginot Line has become a metaphor for an expensive project that gives a false sense of security. Are there similar projects over history that compare, and were they built for the same reasons?

AE: The example that immediately comes to mind is the Berlin Wall. In this case, we are talking about a wall built by the German Democratic Republic to suppress the migration of its own citizens and the potential loss of their labor and talent to rival, capitalist states in the West.  You could argue that it was a successful project that impeded the flow of emigrants to West Germany and beyond, but narratives of daring escapes (in one case by hot air balloon) and poignant tales of failure and death in the barbed-wire no man’s land erected on the East German side captured the attention and imagination of the world, making it easier for Cold-War politicians in the West to describe the GDR as a failed, communist state. 

I was teaching in France in October 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell.  It was impossible to keep my students in class (nor did I want to) and many made a pilgrimage to Berlin to witness the dramatic dismantling of one of the most iconic emblems of the Iron Curtain. 

In the 1980s, progressive public activists suggested that a “Maginot mentality” had gripped conservative policy makers in the U.S.  They weren’t necessarily talking about physical border walls, but rather the cultural barriers that continued to stoke the defensive, binary policies of the Cold War. People like, Sidney Lens, argued that greater attention should be paid to economic issues in the developing world.

In a single word, was the Maginot Line a success, or a failure?

AE: Failure. BUT ... Do you expect any academic would be willing to be confined to one word?  I do have to mention that there is still vibrant debate in historical circles on this issue, and even revisionist historians, such as Julian Jackson, find it hard not to offer a qualified answer, especially as the Maginot Line has synonymous with colossal failures in political and military judgment.  Ardent defenders are quick to point out that the Maginot fortifications were also built to give the French army time to mobilize.  The devastating defeat of the French army in 1940 is attributed to poor leadership on the ground rather than the failure of the Maginot Line.  Others suggest that the Maginot Line failed because fortifications were never extended all the way to English Channel.  This latter argument has interesting resonances with our current debates on the border wall.

Hadrian's Wall
The Maginot Line