Stroll through History: Reims in France

Reims in eastern France is where the coronations of French kings used to be held.

Passing through the city's beautiful historical streets, I arrived at an old red brick building. The minute I stepped inside a room on the second floor, it felt as if I had been transported back in time to World War II.

On the wall was a huge map of Europe detailing the locations of where Allied forces and Nazi Germany forces operated and the spots that were to be bombing targets.

There was also a map of the Far East with the Japanese flag placed on Manchuria (currently northeastern China) and Vietnam.

This room was in the corner of a school building and used by American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (see below) and other leaders of the Allied forces as a "war room" in which to hold strategy meetings against Germany in the closing days of the war.

It is also known as the place where the German forces signed the instrument of surrender.

In late April 1945, Soviet forces stormed into Berlin. Once Adolf Hitler committed suicide, the defeat of the German forces was only a matter of time. It was in the early hours of May 7 that German military chiefs arrived in Reims and signed an instrument of surrender.

In addition to the chiefs of the Allied and German forces, journalists were also present in the plain room that had only chairs and a desk.

At the signing, Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief-of-staff, first asked the Germans if they were ready, and Alfred Jodl, chief of operations of the Armed Forces High Command, answered "yes" and signed the surrender document.

The ceremony for ending the war that lasted for over five years in Europe ended in about 10 minutes.

The people of Reims rejoiced. Jacques Perret, 84, who was a middle school student back then, looks back on that day, saying: "Everybody was out on the streets happily drinking champagne. We all hated Germany."

The German forces attacked Reims during World War I and then occupied the city during World War II, so there was strong anti-German sentiment among the citizens.

A ceasefire was to take effect on May 8 in accordance with the surrender document signed in Reims. To ensure Germany would abide by the ceasefire agreement, the Allied forces summoned the German High Command to Berlin and exchanged ratification documents in the early hours of May 9, Moscow time.

That is why the date of Victory Day against Germany is different among European countries and Russia. It remained May 9 in Russia even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower received the title of honorary citizen of Reims on May 12 and attended a ceremony. During his speech, he referred to Reims' suffering during two world wars, saying, "May the act of surrender signed by our enemy in your city be added to the glorious history of Reims."

And Reims, which had been an anti-German city, became the starting point of Franco-German co-operation after the war.

In 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle invited West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Reims and held a Mass for peace. "Reims suffered during World War I and saw the surrender of Germany during World War II," de Gaulle said as the reason for choosing Reims.

In 1963, the two leaders signed the Elysee Treaty, promising Franco-German co-operation, and shifted progress for European integration into high gear, with France and Germany at the core.

The room where the instrument of surrender had been signed was made into a museum in 2005.

"This room has been preserved the way it was when the surrender document was signed by the Germans," said Marc Buoxin, 67, who manages the museum. "I hope that those who visit this place can feel the ambiance from 70 years ago and realise anew the importance of peace."

Honma is a correspondent in Paris.

Allied army headquarters

The room where the German forces signed the instrument of surrender for World War II was in a four-story red brick building. The construction of the building began in 1926 for use as a vocational middle school, which opened in 1930.

It was designed by Hiborite Portavan, a local architect.

Besides the classrooms, there was a workroom for building machines and rooms for the staff to stay in. It became a symbol of restoration for the people of Reims, whose hometown was destroyed by German forces during World War I.

After German forces occupying Reims in World War II withdrew from the city, the Allied forces set up their headquarters in parts of the school building in February 1945.

Classes continued as usual during all this, and many students did not know that important strategies against Nazi Germany were being developed there. To deceive German intelligence agencies, the headquarters was called the "little red brick schoolhouse" among US soldiers.

The school building was designated a historical heritage of Reims in 1985. The place where the Allied headquarters was is now a museum, with exhibitions introducing "Free France," a resistance group, as well as the invasion of Normandy.

The name of the school where the museum is located has now been changed to Roosevelt High School in honour of Franklin Roosevelt, the president of the United States when World War II began. Approximately 2,000 students attend the school today.

■ Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower became the Supreme Allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1943 and took command of the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

After World War II, he became the Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He served as US president from 1953 to 1961.