Military history

THE SECOND ARMISTICE AT COMPIEGNE

I followed the German Army into Paris that June, always the loveliest of months in the majestic capital, which was now stricken, and on June 19 got wind of where Hitler was going to lay down his terms for the armistice which Pétain had requested two days before. It was to be on the same spot where the German Empire had capitulated to France and her allies on November 11, 1918: in the little clearing in the woods at Compiègne. There the Nazi warlord would get his revenge, and the place itself would add to the sweetness of it for him. On May 20, a bare ten days after the great offensive in the West had started and on the day the German tanks reached Abbeville, the idea had come to him. Jodl noted it in his diary that day: “Fuehrer is working on the peace treaty … First negotiations in the Forest of Compiègne.” Late on the afternoon of June 19 I drove out there and found German Army engineers demolishing the wall of the museum where the old wagon-lit of Marshal Foch, in which the 1918 armistice was signed, had been preserved. By the time I left, the engineers, working with pneumatic drills, had torn the wall down and were pulling the car out to the tracks in the center of the clearing on the exact spot, they said, where it had stood at 5 A.M. on November 11,1918, when at the dictation of Foch the German emissaries put their signatures to the armistice.

And so it was that on the afternoon of June 21 I stood by the edge of the forest at Compiègne to observe the latest and greatest of Hitler’s triumphs, of which, in the course of my work, I had seen so many over the last turbulent years. It was one of the loveliest summer days I ever remember in France. A warm June sun beat down on the stately trees—elms, oaks, cypresses and pines—casting pleasant shadows on the wooded avenues leading to the little circular clearing. At 3:15 P.M. precisely, Hitler arrived in his big Mercedes, accompanied by Goering, Brauchitsch, Keitel, Raeder, Ribbentrop and Hess, all in their various uniforms, and Goering, the lone Field Marshal of the Reich, fiddling with his field marshal’s baton. They alighted from their automobiles some two hundred yards away, in front of the Alsace-Lorraine statue, which was draped with German war flags so that the Fuehrer could not see (though I remembered from previous visits in happier days) the large sword, the sword of the victorious Allies of 1918, sticking through a limp eagle representing the German Empire of the Hohenzollerns. Hitler glanced at the monument and strode on.

I observed his face [I wrote in my diary]. It was grave, solemn, yet brimming with revenge. There was also in it, as in his springy step, a note of the triumphant conqueror, the defier of the world. There was something else … a sort of scornful, inner joy at being present at this great reversal of fate—a reversal he himself had wrought.

When he reached the little opening in the forest and his personal standard had been run up in the center of it, his attention was attracted by a great granite block which stood some three feet above the ground.

Hitler, followed by the others, walks slowly over to it [I am quoting my diary], steps up, and reads the inscription engraved (in French) in great high letters:

   “HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN EMPIRE—VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES WHICH IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE.”

   Hitler reads it and Goering reads it. They all read it, standing there in the June sun and the silence. I look for the expression in Hitler’s face. I am but fifty yards from him and see him through my glasses as though he were directly in front of me. I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

He steps off the monument and contrives to make even this gesture a master-piece of contempt. He glances back at it, contemptuous, angry—angry, you almost feel, because he cannot wipe out the awful, provoking lettering with one sweep of his high Prussian boot.* He glances slowly around the clearing, and now, as his eyes meet ours, you grasp the depth of his hatred. But there is triumph there too—revengeful, triumphant hate. Suddenly, as though his face were not giving quite complete expression to his feelings, he throws his whole body into harmony with his mood. He swiftly snaps his hands on his hips, arches his shoulders, plants his feet wide apart. It is a magnificent gesture of defiance, of burning contempt for this place now and all that it has stood for in the twenty-two years since it witnessed the humbling of the German Empire.

Hitler and his party then entered the armistice railway car, the Fuehrer seating himself in the chair occupied by Foch in 1918. Five minutes later the French delegation arrived, headed by General Charles Huntziger, commander of the Second Army at Sedan, and made up of an admiral, an Air Force general and one civilian, Léon Noël, the former ambassador to Poland, who was now witnessing his second debacle wrought by German arms. They looked shattered, but retained a tragic dignity. They had not been told that they would be led to this proud French shrine to undergo such a humiliation, and the shock was no doubt just what Hitler had calculated. As Halder wrote in his diary that evening after being given an eyewitness account by Brauchitsch:

The French had no warning that they would be handed the terms at the very site of the negotiations in 1918. They were apparently shaken by this arrangement and at first inclined to be sullen.

Perhaps it was natural, even for a German so cultivated as Halder, or Brauchitsch, to mistake solemn dignity for sullenness. The French, one saw at once, were certainly dazed. Yet, contrary to the reports at the time, they tried, as we now know from the official German minutes of the meetings found among the captured Nazi secret papers,27 to soften the harsher portions of the Fuehrer’s terms and to eliminate those which they thought were dishonorable. But they tried in vain.

Hitler and his entourage left the wagon-lit as soon as General Keitel had read the preamble of the armistice terms to the French, leaving the negotiations in the hands of his OKW Chief, but allowing him no leeway in departing from the conditions which he himself had laid down.

Huntziger told the Germans at once, as soon as he had read them, that they were “hard and merciless,” much worse than those which France had handed Germany here in 1918. Moreover, if “another country beyond the Alps, which had not defeated France (Huntziger was too contemptuous of Italy even to name her), advanced similar demands France would in no circumstances submit. She would fight to the bitter end … It was therefore impossible for him to put his signature to the German armistice agreement …”

General Jodl, the Number Two officer at OKW, who presided temporarily at this moment, had not expected such defiant words from a hopelessly beaten foe and replied that though he could not help express his “understanding” for what Huntziger had said about the Italians nevertheless he had no power to change the Fuehrer’s terms. All he could do, he said, was “to give explanations and clear up obscure points.” The French would have to take the armistice document or leave it, as it was.

The Germans had been annoyed that the French delegation had arrived without authority to conclude an armistice except with the express agreement of the government at Bordeaux. By a miracle of engineering and perhaps with some luck they succeeded in setting up a telephone connection from the old sleeping car right through the battle lines, where the fighting still continued, to Bordeaux. The French delegates were authorized to use it to transmit the text of the armistice terms and to discuss it with their government. Dr. Schmidt, who served as interpreter, was directed to listen in on the tapped conversations from an Army communications van a few yards away behind a clump of trees. The next day I myself contrived to hear the German recording of part of the conversation between Huntziger and General Weygand.

To the credit of the latter, who bears a grave responsibility for French defeatism and the final surrender and the break with Britain, it must be recorded that he at least strenuously objected to many of the German demands. One of the most odious of them obligated the French to turn over to the Reich all anti-Nazi German refugees in France and in her territories. Weygand called this dishonorable in view of the French tradition of the right of asylum, but when it was discussed the next day the arrogant Keitel would not listen to its being deleted. “The German émigrés,” he shouted, were “the greatest warmongers.” They had “betrayed their own people.” They must be handed over “at all costs.” The French made no protest against a clause which stated that all their nationals caught fighting with another country against Germany would be treated as “francs-tireurs”—that is, immediately shot. This was aimed against De Gaulle, who was already trying to organize a Free French force in Britain, and both Weygand and Keitel knew it was a crude violation of the primitive rules of war. Nor did the French question a paragraph which provided for all prisoners of war to remain in captivity until the conclusion of peace. Weygand was sure the British would be conquered within three weeks and the French POWs thereafter released. Thus he condemned a million and a half Frenchmen to war prison camps for five years.

The crux of the armistice treaty was the disposal of the French Navy. Churchill, as France tottered, had offered to release her from her pledge not to make a separate peace if the French Navy were directed to sail for British ports. Hitler was determined that this should not take place; he fully realized, as he told Mussolini on June 18, that it would immeasurably strengthen Britain. With so much at stake he had to make a concession, or at least a promise, to the beaten foe. The armistice agreement stipulated that the French fleet would be demobilized and disarmed and the ships laid up in their home ports. In return for this

the German Government solemnly declares to the French Government that it does not intend to use for its own purposes in the war the French fleet which is in ports under German supervision. Furthermore, they solemnly and expressly declare that they have no intention of raising any claim to the French war fleet at the time of the conclusion of peace.

Like almost all of Hitler’s promises, this one too would be broken.

Finally, Hitler left the French government an unoccupied zone in the south and southeast in which it ostensibly was free to govern. This was an astute move. It would not only divide France itself geographically and administratively; it would make difficult if not impossible the formation of a French government-in-exile and quash any plans of the politicians in Bordeaux to move the seat of government to French North Africa—a design which almost succeeded, being defeated in the end not by the Germans but by the French defeatists: Pétain, Weygand, Laval and their supporters. Moreover, Hitler knew that the men who had now seized control of the French government at Bordeaux were enemies of French democracy and might be expected to be co-operative in helping him set up the Nazi New Order in Europe.

Yet on the second day of the armistice negotiations at Compiègne the French delegates continued to bicker and delay. One reason for the delay was that Huntziger insisted that Weygand give him not an authorization to sign but an order—no one in France wanted to take the responsibility. Finally, at 6:30 P.M. Keitel issued an ultimatum. The French must accept or reject the German armistice terms within an hour. Within the hour the French government capitulated. At 6:50 P.M. on June 22, 1940, Huntziger and Keitel signed the armistice treaty.*

I listened to the last scene as it was picked up by the hidden microphones in the wagon-lit. Just before he signed, the French General, his voice quivering, said he wished to make a personal statement. I took it down in French, as he spoke.

I declare that the French Government has ordered me to sign these terms of armistice … Forced by the fate of arms to cease the struggle in which we were engaged on the side of the Allies, France sees imposed on her very hard conditions. France has the right to expect in the future negotiations that Germany show a spirit which will permit the two great neighboring countries to live and work in peace.

Those negotiations—for a peace treaty—would never take place, but the spirit which the Nazi Third Reich would have shown, if they had, soon became evident as the occupation became harsher and the pressure on the servile Pétain regime increased. France was now destined to become a German vassal, as Pétain, Weygand and Laval apparently believed—and accepted.

A light rain began to fall as the delegates left the armistice car and drove away. Down the road through the woods you could see an unbroken line of refugees making their way home on weary feet, on bicycles, on carts, a few fortunate ones on old trucks. I walked out to the clearing. A gang of German Army engineers, shouting lustily, had already started to move the old wagon-lit.

“Where to?” I asked.

“To Berlin,” they said.*

   The Franco–Italian armistice was signed in Rome two days later. Mussolini was able to occupy only what his troops had conquered, which meant a few hundred yards of French territory, and to impose a fifty-mile demilitarized zone opposite him in France and Tunisia. The armistice was signed at 7:35 P.M. on June 24. Six hours later the guns in France lapsed into silence.

France, which had held out unbeaten for four years the last time, was out of the war after six weeks. German troops stood guard over most of Europe, from the North Cape above the Arctic Circle to Bordeaux, from the English Channel to the River Bug in eastern Poland. Adolf Hitler had reached the pinnacle. The former Austrian waif, who had been the first to unite the Germans in a truly national State, this corporal of the First World War, had now become the greatest of German conquerors. All that stood between him and the establishment of German hegemony in Europe under his dictatorship was one indomitable Englishman, Winston Churchill, and the determined people Churchill led, who did not recognize defeat when it stared them in the face and who now stood alone, virtually unarmed, their island home besieged by the mightiest military machine the world had ever seen.

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