The French Designed a Fake Replica of Paris to Fool German Bombers During World War I

Paris counts among the most beloved cities on Earth, a sta­tus that owes in part to the rel­a­tive lack of dam­age tak­en in dur­ing both World Wars. The desire to pro­tect and pre­serve Paris thus runs high today, but then, it also did a cen­tu­ry ago. The prospect of the city’s oblit­er­a­tion dur­ing what was then called the Great War inspired an espe­cial­ly ambi­tious defen­sive scheme. “At the begin­ning of 1917, a wild idea was float­ed,” writes the Dai­ly Beast­’s Alli­son McN­ear­ney. “Why not build a repli­ca of Paris just out­side of the city and fool Ger­man bombers into drop­ping their destruc­tive loads where only the decoys made of wood and fab­ric could be harmed.”

This Paris leurre (decoy) is the sub­ject of the 35-minute British Pathé doc­u­men­tary above, Illu­sion: The City That Nev­er Was. Its detailed plan “called for the con­struc­tion of three sep­a­rate ‘sham’ neigh­bor­hoods just out­side of the city”: a large train sta­tion mod­eled after Gare du Nord, a repli­ca city cen­ter with its own Champs-Élysées, and a “faux indus­tri­al zone with fac­to­ries and oth­er indi­ca­tions of wartime pro­duc­tion.”

Built most­ly out of wood and fab­ric, these remote unin­hab­it­ed quar­ters were to be equipped with ele­ments like work­ing street light­ing — designed by Fer­nand Jacopozzi, lat­er famed for his illu­mi­na­tion of the Eif­fel Tow­er — and a mov­ing train.

As it turned out, the train was one of the few ele­ments of this elab­o­rate fake City of Light actu­al­ly con­struct­ed. “In 1918, before the project could be com­plet­ed, the war came to an end and the gov­ern­ment quick­ly moved to dis­man­tle their secret project and sup­press all infor­ma­tion con­cern­ing its exis­tence,” writes McN­ear­ney. Only in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry has this World War I‑era push to build a fake Paris come to light. Though nev­er com­plet­ed, its sheer ambi­tion speaks to France’s own con­cep­tion of its cap­i­tal as a store of price­less cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal her­itage. In a sense, Paris is civ­i­liza­tion, or at least French civ­i­liza­tion. One must ask: would human­i­ty go to the same lengths to pro­tect it today?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Albert Camus, Edi­tor of the French Resis­tance News­pa­per Com­bat, Writes Mov­ing­ly About Life, Pol­i­tics & War (1944–47)

Col­or Footage of the Lib­er­a­tion of Paris, Shot by Hol­ly­wood Direc­tor George Stevens (1944)

How France Hid the Mona Lisa & Oth­er Lou­vre Mas­ter­pieces Dur­ing World War II

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less: How World War II Changed Cin­e­ma & Helped Cre­ate the French New Wave

See Berlin Before and After World War II in Star­tling Col­or Video

Time Trav­el Back to Tokyo After World War II, and See the City in Remark­ably High-Qual­i­ty 1940s Video

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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