On 10 May 1940 Hitler unleashed his legions on France and the Lowlands. A month later, Paris fell. The French army was no match for German forces employing their "lightning war" tactics. Barely six weeks passed before the French were forced to come to terms...
On the exact spot in the little clearing in the Forest of Compiegne where, at five a.m. on 11 November 1918, the armistice which ended the [First] World War was signed, Afolf Hitler today handed his armistice terms to France. To make German revenge complete, the meeting of the German and French plenipotentiaries took place in Marshal Foch's private [rail] car, in which Foch laid down the armistice terms to Germany twenty-two years ago. And through the windows we saw Hitler occupying the very seat on which Foch had sat at that table when he dictated the other armistice.
The humiliation of France, of the French, was complete....
The armistice negotiations began at three fifteen p.m. A warm June sun beat down on the great elm and pine trees, and cast pleasant shadows on the wooded avenues as Hitler, with the German plenipotentiaries at his side, appeared. He alighted from his car in front of the French monument to Alsace-Lorraine which stands at the end of an avenue about 200 yards from the clearing where the armistice car waited....
The Alsace-Lorraine statue, I noted, was covered with German war flags so that you could not see its sculptured work nor read its inscription. But I had seen it some years before -- the large sword representing the sword of the Allies, and its point sticking into a large, limp eagle, representing the old Empire of the Kaiser....
Through my glasses I saw the Fuhrer stop, glance at the monument, observe the Reich flags with their big swastikas in the centre. Then he strode slowly towards us, towards the little clearing in the woods. I observed his face. 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, difficult to describe, in his expression, a sort of scornful, inner joy at being present at this great reversal he himself had wrought.
Now he reaches the little opening in the woods. He pauses and looks slowly around. The clearing is in the form of a circle some 200 yards in diameter and laid out like a park. Cypress trees line it all round -- and behind them, the great elms and oaks of the forest. This had been one of France's national shrines for twenty-two years. From a discreet position on the perimeter of the circle we watch.
Hitler pauses, and gazes slowly around. In a group just behind him are the other German plenipotentiaries: Goring, grasping his marshal's baton in one hand. He wears the sky-blue uniform of the air force. All the Germans are in uniform, Hitler in a double-breasted grey uniform, with the Iron Cross hanging from his left breast pocket. Next to Goring are the two German army chiefs -- General Keitel, chief of the Supreme Command, and General von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army. Both are just approaching sixty, but look younger, especially Keitel, who has a dapper appearance with his cap slightly cocked on one side.
Then there is Erich Raeder, Grand Admiral of the German Fleet, in his blue naval uniform and the invariable upturned collar which German naval officers usually wear. There are two non-military men in Hitler's suite -- his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in the field-grey uniform of the Foreign Office; and Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, in a grey party uniform.
The time is now three eighteen p.m. Hitler's personal flag is run up on a small standard in the centre of the opening.
Also in the centre is a great granite block which stands some three feet above the ground. Hitler, followed by the others, walks slowly over to it, steps up, and reads the inscription engraved in great high letters on that block. It says: "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 Goring reads it. They all read it, standing there in the June sun and the silence. I look for the expression on 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 masterpiece 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 met 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...
It is now three twenty-three p.m. and the Germans stride over to the armistice car. For a moment or two they stand in the sunlight outside the car, chatting. Then Hitler steps up into the car, followed by the others. We can see nicely through the car windows. Hitler takes the place occupied by Marshal Foch when the 1918 armistice terms were signed. The others spread themselves around him. Four chairs on the opposite side of the table from Hitler remain empty. The French have not yet appeared. But we do not wait long. Exactly at three thirty p.m. they alight from a car. They have flown up from Bordeaux to a nearby landing field. They too glance at the Alsace-Lorraine memorial but it's a swift glance. Then they walk down the avenue flanked by three German officers....The German guard of honour, drawn up at the entrance to the clearing, snaps to attention for the French as they pass, but it does not present arms.
It is a grave hour in the life of France. The Frenchmen keep their eyes straight ahead. Their faces are solemn, drawn. They are the picture of tragic dignity.
....Now we get out picture through the dusty windows of that old wagon-lit car. Hitler and the other German leaders rise at the French enter the drawing-room. Hitler gives the Nazi salute, the arm raised....
Hitler, as far as we can see through the windows, does not say a word to the French or to anybody else. He nods to General Keitel at his side. We see General Keitel adjusting his papers. Then he starts to read. He is reading the preamble to the German armistice terms. The French sit there with marble-like faces and listen intently. Hitler and Goring glance at the green table-top.
The reading of the preamble lasts but a few minutes. Hitler, we soon observe, has no intention of remaining very long, or listening to the reading of the armistice terms themselves. At three forty-two p.m., twelve minutes after the French arrive, we see Hitler stand up, salute stiffly, and then stride out of the drawing-room, followed by Goring, Brauchitsch, Raeder, Hess, and Ribbentrop. The French, like figures of stone, remain at the green-topped table. General Keitel remains with them. He starts to read them the detailed conditions of the armistice.
Hitler and his aides stride down the avenue towards the Alsace-Lorraine monument, where their cars are waiting. As they pass the guard of honour, the German band strikes up the two national anthems, Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles and the Horst Wessel song. The whole ceremony in which Hitler has reached a new pinnacle in his meteoric career and Germany avenged the 1918 defeat is over in a quarter of an hour.
Disputed German-speaking provinces on France's eastern borders, which became French territory in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1871, as a result of the Franco-Prussian war, Alsace and northern Lorraine were annexed to the new German Empire, the Second Reich. They were called the Reichsland, and governed from Berlin by a viceroy in Strasbourg. The coking coal of Lorraine was welcome in the steelworks of Krupp and others in the Ruhr, and assisted the Second Reich's armament programme. The inhabitants were given the option of staying or leaving for France; 45,000 left.
French politicians of the Third Republic dreamed of recapturing Alsace-Lorraine; it was ... a sore spot for decades in Franco-German relations ....
By the Versailles settlement of 1919, the provinces again became French, again subject to French law and apparently happy at the change. In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France ... they were reannexed to Germany .... At a few hours' notice 200,000 French-speaking inhabitants were evicted westwards.
The coking coal was again useful to the German armaments industry. The provinces were subjected to the full rigours of Nazi law -- directed labour, directed education, elimination of Jews, restrictions on religious meetings, and conscription .... The remaining inhabitants, German-speakers but few of them pro-Nazi in sentiment, were given no opportunity to express any feelings of resentment they might have had. In 1945, as automatically as in 1919, they reverted to French control, where they remain.
Oxford Companion to World War II, Dear and Foot, eds. (1995)