Plus Ça Change…by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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One hundred years ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the heavy guns of the American Expeditionary Force in France fired one last salvo and finally fell silent. World War One, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, was finally over. Europe lay in ruins. Twenty million soldiers and civilians (actually more civilians than soldiers) had been killed; another twenty-one million souls were shattered in body or in spirit.

The Armistice that signaled the end of hostilities between the Allies and Germany was actually signed in the private railway car of Marshall Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, in Compiègne, France about five hours earlier on the morning of November 11, 1918. The war had raged across Europe for more than four bloody years—ghastly trench warfare that saw wave after wave of men impaled on barbed wire or cut down by bullets or suffocated by deadly poison gas. As horrific as the actual slaughter was, the final instrument of peace—the Treaty of Versailles—would set in motion another and even greater world war within twenty years.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 and ratified by the League of Nations on October 21, nearly a year after the Armistice was signed. It was never intended to heal Europe, only to humiliate and punish Germany. Article 231 of the treaty—the ‘War Guilt’ clause—required Germany to not only accept responsibility for the war but also required Germany to disarm, to make large territorial concessions, and to pay substantial reparations to the Allied countries. At today’s values, those reparations would exceed $440 billion; John Maynard Keyes, a British economist who attended the Paris Peace Conference, predicted the terms of treaty were far too harsh—he called it a “Carthaginian Peace”—and that the reparations figure was excessive and counter-productive. Marshall Foch disagreed; he thought the treaty too lenient.

In September, 1919, a month before the Treaty of Versailles was ratified by the League of Nations, a young Austrian named Adolph Hitler, a veteran of the Great War, joined the National Socialist German Workers Party, commonly known as the Nazi party. Rooted in opposition to the Weimar Republic (Germany’s post-war government) and the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler and the Nazis advocated extreme German nationalism, as well as virulent anti-Semitism. By January, 1933, Hitler had risen through the party ranks to become Chancellor of Germany and began to exercise dictatorial power with little or no constitutional objection. He didn’t hesitate to use violence to advance his political agenda and used deceptiveness and cunning to convert the Nazi party’s rabid base and non-majority status into effective political power.

In the same month that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Thomas Wolff wrote in the Frankfurt Zeitung that “it is a hopeless misjudgment to think that one could force a dictatorial regime upon the German nation. The diversity of the German people calls for democracy.” Only a month later, Sir Horace Rumblod, Britain’s ambassador in Berlin, cabled Whitehall to say that “Hitler may be no statesman but he is an uncommonly clever and audacious demagogue and fully alive to every popular instinct.” Within a year, Hitler himself was quoted by a British journalist saying, “At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense, I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years! … Don’t forget how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that one day I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power!”

On June 22, 1940, France surrendered to Germany, just six weeks after Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of the low countries. The French army was disbanded and France agreed to bear the cost of the German invasion. The instrument of French surrender was signed in Compièigne, France at the exact location and in the same railway car used by Marshall Foch on November 11, 1918.

…Plus c’est la meme chose.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

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Letters to Editor

  1. As for Jamie’s last statement, “and it’s the same thing,” I don’t think he’s talking about the German reversal of the conditions in the setting for the surrender of the French. I can see the parallels of history, the 1930’s and now. Difference is: our president doesn’t need Goebbels; he’s got Twitter, Fox, and rally speeches.

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