August 4, 2023

1940. William L. Shirer Describes the Armistice Negotiations at Compiègne

Adolf Hitler Arrives in France for the Armistice Negotiations

William L. Shirer
CBS News
June 21, 1940

Here, a few feet from where we're standing, in the very same old Wagon-Lits railroad coach where the armistice was signed on that chilly morning of November 11, 1918, negotiations for another armistice—the one to end the present war between France and Germany—began at 3:30 PM German Summer Time this afternoon.

What a turning back of the clock; what a reversing of history we've been watching here in this beautiful Compiègne Forest this afternoon. What a contrast to that day a mere twenty-two years ago. Yes, even the weather, for we've had one of those lovely warm June days which you get in this part of France close to Paris about this time of year.

As we stood here watching Adolf Hitler and Field Marshal Göring and the other German leaders laying down the terms of armistice to the French plenipotentiaries here this afternoon, it was difficult to comprehend that, in this rustic little clearing in the midst of the forest of Compiègne from where we're talking to you now, an armistice was signed here on a cold gray morning at 5 AM on November 11, 1918.

The railroad coach—it was Marshal Foch's private car—stands a few feet away from us here at exactly the same spot where it stood on that gray morning twenty-two years ago. Only—and what an "only" it is, too—Adolf Hitler sat in the seat occupied that day by Marshal Foch. Hitler, who at that time was only an unknown corporal in the German Army.

And in that quaint, old wartime Wagons-Lits car, another armistice is being drawn up as I speak to you now. An armistice designed like the other that was signed on this spot to bring armed hostilities to a halt between those ancient enemies, Germany and France.
Only everything, everything that we've been seeing here this afternoon in Compiègne Forest has been so reversed. The last time the representatives of France sat in that car dictating the terms of the armistice. This afternoon we peered through the windows of the car and saw Adolf Hitler laying down the terms.

Thus does history reverse itself, but seldom has it done so as today on the very same spot.

The German leader, in the preamble of the conditions which were read to the French delegates by Colonel General von Keitel, chief of the German Supreme Command, told the French that he had not chosen this spot at Compiègne out of revenge, but merely to right an old wrong.

The armistice negotiations here on the same spot where the last armistice was signed in 1918 here in Compiègne Forest began at 3:15 PM our time. A warm June sun beat down on the great elm and pine trees and cast pleasant shadows on the wooded avenues as Herr 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 two hundred yards from the clearing here in front of us where the armistice car stands.
That famous Alsace-Lorraine statue was covered with German war flags so that you cannot see its sculpture work nor read its inscription. But I've seen it many times in the postwar years, and doubtless many of you have seen it: 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. And the inscription underneath in French saying: "TO THE HEROIC SOLDIERS OF FRANCE. DEFENDERS OF THE COUNTRY AND OF RIGHT. GLORIOUS LIBERATORS OF ALSACE-LORRAINE."

Through our glasses we saw the Führer stop, glance at the statue, observe the Reich war flags with their big swastikas in the center. Then he strolled slowly toward us, toward the little clearing where the famous armistice car stood.

I thought he looked very solemn. His face was grave, but there was a certain spring in his step as he walked for the first time toward the spot where Germany's fate was sealed on that November day of 1918. A fate which, by reason of his own deeds, is now being radically changed here in this spot.

And now—if I may sort of go over my notes I made from moment to moment this afternoon—now Hitler reaches a little opening in the Compiègne woods where the armistice was signed, and where another is about to be drawn up. He pauses and slowly looks around. The opening here is in the form of a circle about two hundred yards in diameter and laid out like a park. Cyprus trees line it all around, and behind them the great elms and oaks of the forest. This has been one of France's national shrines for twenty-two years.

Hitler pauses and gazes slowly around. In a group just behind him are the other German plenipotentiaries: Field Marshal Göring, grasping his field marshal's baton in one hand—he wears the blue uniform of the air force. All the Germans are in uniform—Hitler in a double-breasted gray uniform with the Iron Cross hanging from his left breast pocket.

Next to Göring are the two German Army chiefs: Colonel General von Keitel, Chief of the Supreme Command, and Colonel General von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army. Both are just approaching sixty but look younger, especially General von Keitel who has a dapper appearance with his cap slightly cocked on one side.
Then we see there Dr. Raeder, Grand Admiral of the German Fleet. He has on a blue naval uniform and the invariable upturned stiff collar which German naval officers usually wear. We see two non-military men in Hitler's suite: his Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in the field gray uniform of the Foreign Office, and Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, in a gray party uniform.

The time is now, I see by my notes, 3:18 PM in the forest of Compiègne. Hitler's personal standard is run up on a small post in the center of the circular opening in the woods. Also in the center 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. Many of you will remember the words of that inscription. The Führer slowly reads them, and the inscription 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 Göring reads it. They all read it standing there in the June sun and the silence.

We look for the expression on Hitler's face, but it does not change. Finally he leads his party over to another granite stone, a smaller one some fifty yards to one side. Here it was that the railroad car in which the German plenipotentiaries stayed during the 1918 armistice negotiations stood from November 8 to 11. Hitler looks down and reads the inscription which merely says, "THE GERMAN PLENIPOTENTIARIES." The stone itself, I notice, is set between a pair of rusty old railroad tracks, the very ones that were there twenty-two years ago.

It is now 3:23 PM and the German leaders stride over to the armistice car. This car, of course, was not standing on this spot yesterday. It was standing seventy-five yards down the rusty tracks on the shoulder of a tiny museum built to house it by an American citizen, Mr. Arthur Henry Fleming of Pasadena, California.

Yesterday the car was removed from the museum by German Army engineers and rolled back those seventy-five yards to this spot where it stood on the morning of November 11, 1918.
"Left to right: Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler, and Walther von Brauchitsch in front of the Armistice carriage, on 21 June 1940" (source)
The Germans stand outside the car chatting in the sunlight. This goes on for two minutes. Then Hitler steps up into the car, followed by Göring and the others. We watch them entering the drawing room in Marshal Foch's car. We can see nicely now through the car windows.
Hitler enters first and takes the place occupied by Marshal Foch the morning the first armistice was signed. At his side are Göring and General Keitel. To his right and left at the ends of the table we see General von Brauchitsch and Herr Hess at the one end. At the other end, Grand Admiral Raeder and Herr Von Ribbentrop. The opposite side of the table is still empty. All we see there: four vacant chairs. The French have not yet appeared, but we do not wait long.
Exactly at 3:30 PM the French alight from car. They have flown up from Bordeaux to a nearby landing field and then driven here in auto. They glance at the Alsace-Lorraine memorial now draped with swastikas, but it's a swift glance. Then they walk down the avenue, flanked by three German Army officers. We see them now as they come into the sunlight of the clearing: General Huntziger, wearing a bleached khaki uniform, Air-General Bergeret, and Vice Admiral Le Luc, both in their respective dark blue uniforms.

And then, almost buried in the uniforms, the one single civilian of the day: Mr. Noël, French ambassador to Poland when the present war broke out there. The French plenipotentiaries pass the guard of honor drawn up at the entrance of the clearing. The guard snaps to attention for the French, but does not present arms.

The Frenchmen keep their eyes straight ahead. It's a grave hour in the life of France, and their faces, their bearing, show what a burden they feel on their shoulders. Their faces are solemn, drawn, but they're the picture of tragic dignity.

They walk stiffly to the car where they're met by two German officers, Lieutenant Colonel Tippelskirch, quartermaster general, and Colonel Thomas, Chief of the Führer's Headquarters. The Germans salute, the French salute. The atmosphere is what Europeans call "correct." But you get the picture when I say that we seen no handshakes. Not on occasions like this.

The historic moment is now approaching. It is 3:32 by my watch—the Frenchmen, under Marshal Foch's Pullman car, standing there a few feet from us in Compiègne Forest.

Now we get our picture through the dusty windows of that historic old wagon-lit car. Hitler and the other German leaders rise to their feet as the French enter the drawing room. Hitler, we see, gives the Nazi salute, the arm raised. The German officers give a military salute. The French do the same. I cannot see Mr. Noël to see whether he salutes or how.

Hitler, so far as we can see through the windows just in front of us here, does not say anything. He nods to General Keitel at his side. We can see General Keitel adjusting his papers, and then he starts to read. He is reading the preamble of the German armistice terms. The French sit there with marble-like faces and listen intently. Hitler and Göring glance at the green tabletop.

This part of this historic act lasts but a few moments. I note in my notebook here it's 3:42 PM—that is 12 minutes after the French arrive—3:42 we see Hitler stand up, salute stiffly with hand upraised. Then he strides out of the drawing room, followed by Göring, General Brauchitsch, Grand Admiral Raeder there, Herr Hess, and at the end, Herr von Ribbentrop.

The French remain at the green-topped table in the old Pullman car and we see General Keitel remains with them. He is going to read them the detailed conditions of the armistice. Hitler, Göring, and the others do not wait for this. They walk down the avenue back towards the Alsace-Lorraine monument. As they pass the guard of honor, the German band strikes up the two national anthems, "Deutschland über alles" and "The Horst Wessel Song."
The whole thing has taken but a quarter of an hour—this great reversal of a historic event.