In June 1940, the Wehrmacht was at the gates of the Palace of Versailles. The Palace was about to enter a troubled time which would only come to an end in August 1944, at the Liberation. What happened to the Palace and its works during those four years of occupation?
Before the war
After the First World War, between 1924 and 1927, the Palace of Versailles underwent a vast restoration programme thanks to the patronage of American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. This large-scale work breathed new life into the estate of Versailles, which at the same time began a major programme to enrich its collections. Versailles was at the centre of new-found enthusiasm...
In 1939, the exhibition titled "At Versailles in 1789", which was part the programme of ceremonies to mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the French Revolution, was supposed to be held at the Palace from May to October. In August, however, the Curator of the Palace of Versailles, Pierre Ladoué, had to cut it short.
On 25 August 1939, the Versailles museum, along with many other French museums, closed its doors. Like the other national museums, the Palace of Versailles followed the guidelines for passive defence established by the State.
The german army at Versailles
The Palace was invaded for the fourth time in its history on 14 June 1940, when the first German soldiers arrived at its gates. From then on, entire battalions of the Wehrmacht flocked to see the Hall of Mirrors which had hosted the ceremony for the Proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 and, most importantly, the signing of the peace treaty of 28 June 1919, the famous “Diktat”.
Conquering this unique place, over which the Nazi flag flew for several months, was symbolic revenge for the Third Reich. For the most important Nazi dignitaries such as Joseph Goebbels, the Minister for Propaganda who visited the Palace and the Trianon Estate on 1 July 1940, it was a victory in its own right.
A palace under occupation
The Germans were surprised by the state in which they found the place when they arrived: the fountains were dry, the State Apartments “walled up", the Hall of Mirrors and several of the private rooms empty of decor, the windows covered with wooden panels, the museum’s collections stored in depositories… They insistently called for the restoration of the Palace and gardens, radically changed as a result of the passive defence measures in place since the summer of 1939.
André Japy, Chief Architect, and Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré, Head Curator, took on the task in the difficult context of living side-by-side with the occupying army. Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré even reopened part of the museum, although this was limited to the North Wing of the Palace while the Germans continued to wander through the State Apartments, which only they had the right to visit.
Although certain damage and minor looting occurred, it remained moderate and was kept under control by both the French and German administrative authorities. The Kunstschutz, which worked for the protection of works of art, headed by Franz von Wolff-Metternich, took charge of the issue backed up by a propaganda campaign.
Although they didn’t live in the Palace, as has been the case during the war of 1870-1871, the German troops were omnipresent, occupying many of the peripheral buildings such as the Small and Great Stables, at the time used by the War Ministry. With the turn in the conflict in early 1942, the militarisation of the park was a source for worry for many due to the increasingly numerous air raids.
In June 1944, the estate was hit by several bombs from the allied air forces, but the monuments were spared serious damage right up until the arrival of the first tanks in Leclerc’s army at dawn on 25 August.
"The camera of History must, I feel, record everything, the painful moments, difficult for our pride to swallow (...). You can't tear out a page of history. Nothing that happens to Versailles is without meaning; nothing must be deliberately ignored".
Pierre Ladoué, "Et Versailles fut sauvegardé"
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