In the following article, historian Mark Bielski shares the little known story of two historic surrenders, 22 years apart. These events, one of which occurred during WWI and the other, WWII, were pivotal moments in both wars.
The WWI-WWII Connection
In the early morning hours of 11 November 1918, the French delegation witnessed the Germans signing the Armistice that would go into effect at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. This agreement in a rail car at Compiegne put an end to the fighting of WWI in Europe that had killed nine million soldiers and left 21 million more wounded; added to the casualty list was perhaps another 10 million civilians. Surely none of this delegation in Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s private car that day—perhaps most of all Foch’s Chief of Staff Maxime Weygand—envisioned that this same spot would host the French surrender to Germany less than twenty-two years later. Weygand would later be commander of French forces in 1940.
The Armistice put an end to the war in Europe. The following June, the Treaty of Versailles put an end to the hostilities between Germany and the Allied powers. That was exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that started the gears of war grinding. The perceived humiliation of the Compiegne signing ceremony and the harsh terms of the subsequent treaty fomented a revenge motive for Hitler and the leadership of the Third Reich in WWII.
Going into Compiegne, many on the Kaiser’s General Staff felt that they were surrendering without suffering defeat. Their armies still occupied swaths of territory in France and Belgium, even though desertion rates were high, morale sinking and there was great unrest at home. Nonetheless they signed and later submitted to the Versailles Treaty terms. Thought extremely harsh even by some of the Allies—not severe enough according to Marshal Foch—the treaty as written had Germany making a final payment of $94 million in 2010.
Twenty-two years later, the Germans returned after sweeping through the Low Countries and into France. The French armies were crushed, 1.5 million were prisoners of war, and complete destruction was assured unless they would submit to German terms of surrender. Hitler had Foch’s rail car returned to the exact spot in the Compiegne forest clearing for symbolic reasons. He arrived and proceeded to take the exact same seat that Foch had used at the end of The Great War. As William Shirer wrote, the Fuhrer’s face was “afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph,” as he had achieved retribution against France and the “Stab in the back” theorists that branded those signers of the 1918 Armistice as the “November Criminals.”
Nearing the end of the War in 1945, members of the German SS used dynamite to blow the rail car to smithereens. Was it a prescient move to avoid having to enact another German surrender in the same car?