Hitler in war, Merkel in peace: A train car for his­tory

The Mercury News - - News - By Thomas Adam­son

COM­PIEGNE, FRANCE >> Adolf Hitler went in wartime for re­venge. An­gela Merkel plans a pil­grim­age in the name of peace. Two Ger­man chan­cel­lors, with op­po­site aims and the same des­ti­na­tion: a train car in a French for­est.

Hitler tried lit­er­ally to re­write his­tory in 1940 when the Nazi leader com­man­deered the din­ing coach to serve France the same hu­mil­i­a­tion Ger­many suf­fered there on the last day of World War I.

This time, Merkel will have the French pres­i­dent by her side as she vis­its what re­mains of the Wagon of Com­piegne, the car­riage­turned-of­fice where the Al­lies and Ger­many signed the ar­mistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

An un­usual jour­ney took Wag­ons-Lits Co. car­riage 2419D from serv­ing sauteed veal and boeuf bour­guignon to pas­sen­gers in the sea­side town of Deauville to serv­ing as a cru­cible for world peace while stopped in the mid­dle of a for­est in Com­piegne.

Puz­zled tourists of­ten ask Bernard Letemps, the cu­ra­tor of the Ar­mistice Mu­seum, why the Al­lies signed the cease-fire agree­ment that ended the atroc­i­ties of the Western Front in that hum­ble set­ting in­stead of a grand mil­i­tary build­ing or a glit­ter­ing palace.

At the time, the of­fi­cial head­quar­ters in Sen­lis of the Al­lied com­man­der, French Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch, would have been the ex­pected place to sign a cease-fire.

But the town had en­dured a bru­tal Ger­man as­sault. Its in­hab­i­tants were taken hostage and its mayor shot in Septem­ber 1914, be­fore the first Bat­tle of the Marne. How the bruised towns­peo­ple would re­act to the pres­ence of a Ger­man del­e­ga­tion, even one com­ing with the goal of peace, was a se­ri­ous con­cern.

“It was out of the ques­tion to re­ceive the plenipo­ten­tiary Ger­mans in (such a) town,” Letemps said.

A move­able train car­riage in the nearby Com­piegne for­est was deemed ideal: The iso­lated lo­ca­tion would de­ter in­trud­ers and the calm and se­crecy of­fered a mea­sure of re­spect to the de­feated Ger­mans.

As it hap­pened, Foch had fit­ted out a mo­bile of­fice just the month be­fore — a din­ing car cho­sen at ran­dom from the French pas­sen­ger train fleet. And so 2419D be­came known as the “Wagon of Com­piegne.”

The Ar­mistice was signed just af­ter 5 a.m., but of­fi­cials held out six hours to put it into ef­fect out of a sense of po­etry — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. That de­lay, rather un­po­et­i­cally, cost lives on both sides at the end of a war that had al­ready left 17 mil­lion dead.

“The train car rep­re­sents the end of fight­ing. The end, when peo­ple found peace,” Letemps said.

He added, smil­ing: “It ful­filled its role of din­ing car be­fore be­com­ing fa­mous.”

The Ar­mistice Mu­seum lays on the train tracks on the site of the sign­ing in the mid­dle of for­est.

Foch was im­mor­tal­ized in stat­ues ubiq­ui­tous across France and gave his name to one of the broad, leafy av­enues ra­di­at­ing out from the Arc de Tri­om­phe.

The same re­cep­tion was not re­served for the los­ing side: One of the Ger­mans to sign the doc­u­ment, Matthias Erzberger, was vil­i­fied for his role in the sur­ren­der. He was as­sas­si­nated in 1921.

The story of din­ing car 2419D and Com­piegne didn’t end with the war.

For throngs of French mourn­ers in the post-war years, the din­ing car be­came a shrine to peace and cathar­sis.

The car was taken to Paris for dis­play in the court­yard of the In­valides, the fi­nal rest­ing place of Napoleon, be­fore it went back to Com­piegne in 1927 to sit in a spe­cially-made me­mo­rial con­structed on the site of to­day’s mu­seum.

Letemps said the wagon re­ceived over 190,000 visi­tors in one year alone in the 1930s as it be­came a fo­cus for mourn­ing France’s 1.4 mil­lion fallen sol­diers.

For Hitler in those same years, it be­came a ral­ly­ing cry dur­ing his as­cent to power as he ex­ploited the Ger­man pub­lic’s con­tempt for the puni­tive terms of sur­ren­der.

The Nazi leader vis­ited the site in 1940 when his armies con­quered France.

The Fuhrer or­dered the din­ing car brought out of the me­mo­rial and re­turned to the tracks in the spot in the for­est it oc­cu­pied in 1918.

What en­sued was Hitler’s sur­real the­atri­cal restag­ing of the 1918 ar­mistice, one of his­tory’s most fa­mous events, with lit­er­ally the ta­bles’ turned.

The 1940 Ar­mistice was dic­tated in that train — with Ger­many the vic­tor and France the loser.

“Gen­eral (Wil­helm) Kei­tel read the con­di­tions for the Ar­mistice in the car, with Chan­cel­lor Hitler sit­ting in the place of Mar­shal Foch,” Letemps said.

Hitler then or­dered the car to be hauled to Ger­many and dis­played, like a no­to­ri­ous pris­oner of war, at the Ber­lin Cathe­dral.

The din­ing car was de­stroyed at the end of World War II, though how that hap­pened has been lost to time. Some ac­counts blame mem­bers of the Nazi SS, oth­ers a ran­dom airstrike.

In 1950, French man­u­fac­turer Wag­ons-Lits, the com­pany that ran the Ori­ent Ex­press, do­nated a car from the same se­ries to the mu­seum — 2439D is iden­ti­cal to its rav­aged twin from its pol­ished wooden fin­ishes to its stud­ded, leather-bound chairs. It is parked be­side

the dis­play of the orig­i­nal car re­mains: a few frag­ments of bronze dec­o­ra­tion and two ac­cess ramps.

On Satur­day, Merkel be­comes the first Ger­man chan­cel­lor in 78 years to visit the for­est clear­ing where the end of the globe’s first con­flict was writ­ten.

She will be joined by

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron in a scene rem­i­nis­cent of 1984 when Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl poignantly held Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand’s hand at an os­suary near Ver­dun.

On the cen­te­nary of the con­flict’s end, this visit will make for soul-sear­ing im­ages of its own.


A vis­i­tor stands by the train car­riage in which the ar­mistice on Nov. 11, 1918 was signed, in the for­est of Com­piegne, north of Paris, on Oct. 19.


In this un­dated photo, two im­por­tant mem­bers of the ar­mistice, Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch, sec­ond right, and Gen­eral Maxime Wey­gand, sec­ond left, stand in front of the train.

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