Hitler’s Little Jig, 1940

Seventy-one years ago today, Adolf Hitler accepted the surrender of the French government at a ceremony in Compiegne, France. On June 21, 1940, Hitler melodramatically received France’s surrender in the same railroad car in which Germany had signed the 1918 armistice that had ended the First World War, thereby adding an additional flourish to century-long rivalry between France and Germany. (In 1918, the Armistice was singed in that railcar because it had once belong to Napoleon III, who lost the Franco-Prussian War).

It was an episode full of pointless symbolism. Hitler sat in the same chair in which Marshal Foch had sat when he faced the defeated Germans in 1918. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler – in a calculated gesture of disdain to the French delegates – left the carriage, leaving the negotiations to General Wilhelm Keitel (who ironically would sign a surrender of Germany five years later).

After stepping outside, while talking to his generals and aides, Hitler stepped backwards; however, this is not what audiences in the Allied countries saw. John Grierson, director of the Canadian information and propaganda departments, noticed that Hitler raised his leg rather high up while stepping backwards. He looped this moment repeatedly to create the appearance that Hitler was childishly jumping with joy. In those days of newsreels before films, the scene was played over and over again in movie theaters, and served the purpose of provoking popular disdain towards Hitler.

Britain’s Picture Post was typical of the discourse. It wrote: “This Hitler is ridiculous, hysterical, childlish. Nobody who sees these pictures can believe him fit to rule one country, let alone strut about all over Europe. Here, then, are two pages in the life of Hitler. Two more pages remained to be printed. Two pages of Hitler in the final moment of defeat.”

The Armistice site was destroyed on Hitler’s orders three days later; the monuments, which included a German eagle impaled by a sword, and a large stone tablet which read “Here on the eleventh of November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German Reich, vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave”, were destroyed. A statue of Foch was left intact so that it would be honoring a wasteland. The Armistice carriage was taken to Berlin, but later destroyed in war. See here for Hitler’s reaction to the Armistice site.

 

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