Part Two, a reflection on Remembrance Day.
On June 22, 1940, Adolf Hitler oversaw the signing of the French surrender in the very same car where Germany surrendered in 1918. On that day, the eagle monument was bedecked with banners and swastikas. And in the railcar, Hitler sat in the same seat as Foch did in 1918.
In the days following, the site was mostly destroyed, though the statue of Foch was left in place, leaving him to preside over the destroyed glade. The coach was unceremoniously pulled from the display building and taken to Berlin. Unlike the 1918 signing, extensive photography and filming took place, to document and widely broadcast France’s humiliation.
What happened next with coach 2419D is the subject of some debate. It was either destroyed by Allied bombs or on the orders of Hitler. With Germany’s defeat all but certain, Hitler knew where Germany would sit in any third signing of an armistice in coach 2419D.
The site was rebuilt and in 1950, it was rededicated. The famous coach was replaced with a replica. The interior was recreated to look as it did in 1918 and includes many original artifacts from the 1918 signing.
The coach is not accessible to visitors. They walk along a raised platform to peer inside. An audio track plays in various languages. Behind the coach room visitors can see displays and other artifacts associated with the site. A small gift shop is located at the exit.
The whole effect here is definitely not one of celebration. On the day of my visit, a large group of young French school students were on a class trip. While my French is not great, it was clear the students were receiving a thorough and balanced presentation about the importance of the site in French history.
Keeping these memories alive and sharing them is hugely important. Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
John Ecker | Pantheon