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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.