Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles
|Paris Peace Conference|
On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed ending the First World War between the German Empire and the Allied Powers. Article 231, commonly known as the "War Guilt Clause", was the opening article of Part VIII: the "Reparations" section of the treaty. Other than "Article 231", there is no title for this article. The term "War Guilt Clause" became popular after the publication and signing of the treaty, and is often used by the media and historians. The article was also included, mutatis mutandis, in the treaties signed by Germany's allies.
The article was one of the most controversial points of the treaty. It required "Germany [to] accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage" during the war. Germans saw this clause as taking full responsibility for the cause of the war, and a national humiliation. German politicians were vocal in their opposition to the article, in an attempt to generate international sympathy while German historians worked to undermine the article with the objective of subverting the entire treaty. On the other hand, the Allied leaders were surprised at the German reaction. They saw the article as only a legal requirement to yield German compensation. However, the United States diplomats who wrote the article later regretted their work and the wording used, believing it further aggravated the defeated Germans.
Historical consensus has demonstrated that responsibility or guilt for the war was not attached to the article, and that the clause was purely a prerequisite to allow a legal basis to be laid out for the reparation payments that were to be made. However, historians have also highlighted the damage done by the clause, which instigated resentment amongst the German population.
During the First World War, French territory had been heavily scarred by the fighting. No other country had been so physically damaged. Furthermore, in 1918 during the German retreat, German troops had "devastated France's most industrialized region" in the northeast. "Hundreds of French mines and factories" had been destroyed along with railroads, bridges, and entire villages. For these reasons, the Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau believed France was required to be compensated. In addition, Clemenceau viewed reparations as a way of weakening Germany to ensure that they would not again be able to threaten France. Reparations would also go towards the reconstruction costs in other countries, such as Belgium. Finally, the British argued that any reparation sum should include war pensions for disabled veterans and allowances paid to war widows.
Text of the article
"The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."
Writing of article
During the Paris Peace Conference, the "Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties" was established to examine the background of the war. The Commission concluded the "war was premeditated by the Central Powers ... and was the result of acts deliberately committed [by them] to make it unavoidable." Germany and Austria-Hungary had "deliberately worked to defeat all the many conciliatory proposals made by the Entente Powers and their repeated efforts to avoid war." This conclusion, "was duly incorporated" into the Treaty of Versailles. The actual wording was written by United States diplomats Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles. Davies and Dulles were part of an American led compromise to limit German responsibility to civilian damages, and not the larger amount of all war costs originally wanted by the British and French.
The article, in which Germany accepted the responsibility for the damages they had caused by the First World War, served as a legal basis for the following articles of the reparations section, which obliged Germany to pay compensation. Similar clauses, with slight modification to the wording, were present in the peace treaties signed by the other members of the Central Powers.[nb 1]
Foreign Minister Count Brockdorff-Rantzau led the German delegation throughout the peace conference. He charged the treaty and Article 231 as forcing Germany to accept full responsibility for the war. Following the signing of the peace treaty, "Article 231 was not correctly translated into German. Rather than stating "... Germany accepts responsibility of Germany and her allies causing all the loss and damage ...", the German Government's edition reads "Germany admits it, that Germany and her allies, as authors of the war, are responsible for all losses and damages ...". Brockdorff-Rantzau's position was further propagated by German politicians who misinterpreted the treaty and convinced "many who had not read the treaties" that the article implied war guilt by "endlessly" protesting it as a way of gaining international sympathy.
The "prevailing German belief" was that Germany had "signed away her honor in Article 231". German historians subsequently worked hard to "undermine the validity of this clause" and in doing so "found a ready acceptance among 'revisionist' writers in France, Britain, and the USA."
Allied opinion on article
Georges Clemenceau rebuffed the allegations of Brockdorff-Rantzau. Clemenceau argued that "the legal interpretation [of the article] was the correct one" rather than a political one. The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George commented that "the English public like the French public, thinks the Germans must above all acknowledge their obligation to compensate us for all the consequences of their aggression. When this is done we come to the question of Germany's capacity to pay; we all think she will be unable to pay more than this document requires of her.
Prior to the American entry into the war, United States President Woodrow Wilson had called for a "peace without victory", however his war time speeches rejected these earlier notions and he took an increasingly belligerent stance towards Germany. The introduction of Article 231 "did not in any way contradict the fundamental thrust of Wilsonian policy". On 4 September 1919, during his public campaign to rally American support for the treaty, Wilson commented that the treaty "seeks to punish one of the greatest wrongs ever done in history, the wrong which Germany sought to do to the world and to civilization, and there ought to be no weak purpose with regard to the application of the punishment. She attempted an intolerable thing, and she must be made to pay for the attempt." However, the U.S. diplomats, who wrote the article, later regretted their work. Dulles, speaking in 1954 when he was Undersecretary of State, stated "Efforts to bankrupt and humiliate a nation merely incite a people of vigor and of courage to break the bonds imposed upon them. ... Prohibitions thus incite the very acts that are prohibited."
The historian Wolfgang Mommsen highlights that during the peace conference, "the German government took the position that it would be inadvisable ... to elevate the question of war guilt" and it was only "at the last minute that Brockdorff-Rantzau decided to disregard the repeated explicit decisions of the Reich cabinet and launch a frontal attack on the Allies' position regarding war guilt". He further comments that top-level German "government officials were apparently aware that Germany's position on this matter was not nearly so favorable as the imperial government had led the German public to believe during the war." The Allied delegations treated Article 231 as mundane, as it was intended to limit German liability with regard to reparations and were surprised at the reaction when the German delegation read the peace terms.
Writing in 1926, Robert Binkley and Dr. Mahr, both of Stanford University and the latter the assistant Professor of German, comment that the German accusations of the article assigning war guilt were both "ill-founded" and "mistaken". They argued that the article was "an assumption of liability to pay damages than an admission of war guilt" and compared it with "a man who undertakes to pay all the cost of a motor accident than to the plea of guilty entered by an accused criminal". They further argued "it is absurd" to charge the reparation articles of the treaty with any "political meaning" and the legal interpretation "is the only one that can stand". They conclude the German mistranslation and position "is based upon a text which has no legal validity whatsoever, and which Germany never signed at all." The American historian Sidney Fay was the "most outspoken and influential critic" of the article. In 1928, he concluded that all of Europe shared the blame for the war and that Germany had no intention of launching a general European war in 1914. Between the wars, the issue of Kriegsschuldfrage (the war guilt question) became a major theme of Adolf Hitler's political career. "He promised to rectify what he called the Versailler Diktat (dictate of Versailles) and punish those responsible for creating it." In 1940, historian Rene Albrecht-Carrie commented that "article 231 gave rise to an unfortunate controversy, unfortunate because it served to raise a false issue." He argued that the German inter-war argument "rested on her responsibility for the out-break of the war" and if that guilt could be disproven then the legal requirement to pay reparations would disappear. This crutch was further attacked, between 1959 and 1969, by the German historian Fritz Fischer. In his "well-researched", but highly controversial, works Germany's Aims in the First World War and War of Illusions, Fischer "destroyed the consensus about shared responsibility for the First World War" and "placed the blame ... firmly on the shoulders of the Wilhelmine elite." By the 1970s, his work "had emerged as the new orthodoxy on the origins of the First World War". During the 1980s, historian James Joll led a new wave of First World War research concluding "that the origins of the First World War were "complex and varied" although "by December 1912" Germany had decided to go to war.
In 1978, historian Sally Marks reexamined the reparation clauses of the treaty. She stated that "the much-criticized 'war guilt clause', Article 231, which was designed to lay a legal basis for reparations, in fact makes no mention of war guilt". She notes it only specifies Germany was to pay for the damages caused by the war they imposed upon the allies and "that Germany committed an act of aggression against Belgium is beyond dispute" and highlights that "technically, Britain entered" the war and French troops entered Belgium "to honor" the "legal obligation" to defend Belgium "under the treaties of Apr. 19 1839" and that "Germany openly acknowledged her responsibility in regard to Belgium on August 4, 1914 and May 7, 1919." She further notes that "the same clause, mutatis mutandis" was incorporated "in the treaties with Austria and Hungary, neither of whom interpreted it as declaration of war guilt." Mommsen supports this position, noting that "Austria and Hungary, understandably paid no attention to this aspect of the draft treaty". Writing in 1986, Marks echoed Albrecht-Carrie. She commented that the German foreign office, supported by military and civilian notables, "focused on Article 231 ... hoping that, if one could refute German responsibility for the war, not only reparations but the entire treaty would collapse".
Historians Manfred Boemeke, Gerald Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser note "pragmatic requirements characteristically influenced the shaping of the much misunderstood Article 231. That paragraph reflected the presumed legal necessity to define German responsibility for the war in order to specify and limit the Reich's obligations". Margaret MacMillan comments that the German public's interpretation of Article 231 as unequivocally ascribing the fault for the war to Germany and her allies, "came to be the object of particular loathing in Germany and the cause of uneasy consciences among the Allies." She notes that the Allies never expected such a hostile reaction, for "No one thought there would be any difficulty over the clauses themselves." Neff states "the term 'war guilt' is a slight unfortunate one, since to lawyers, the term 'guilt' primarily connotes criminal liability" while "the responsibility of Germany envisaged in the Versailles Treaty ... was civil in nature, comparable to the indemnity obligation of classical just-war theory." Louise Slavicek comments that while "the article was an honest reflection of the treaty-writers' beliefs, including such a clause in the peace settlement was undiplomatic, to say the least." Diane Kunz comments that "rather than being seen as an American lawyer's clever attempt to limit actual German financial responsibility by buying off French politicians and their public with the sop of a piece of paper" Article 231 "became an easily exploitable open sore".
Some historians emphasize the damage done by the clause. Ian Kershaw highlights that the "national disgrace", felt in particular by this article coupled with "defeat, revolution, and the establishment of democracy", had "fostered a climate in which a counter-revolutionary set of ideas could gain wide currency" and "enhanced the creation of a mood in which" extreme nationalist ideas could gain a wider audience and take hold. Elazar Barkan argues that by "forcing an admission of war guilt at Versailles, rather than healing, the victors instigated resentment that contributed to the rise of Fascism." Historian Norman Davies claims that the article invited Germany "to accept sole guilt for the preceding war". Tony Rea and John Wright propose that "the harshness of the War Guilt Clause and the reparations demands made it easier for Hitler to gain power in Germany."
Finally, Klaus Schwabe highlights that the article's influence went far beyond the discussion of war guilt. By "refusing to acknowledge Germany's 'war guilt' the new German government implicitly exonerated the old monarchial order" and more importantly failed "to dissociate itself from the old regime." In doing so "it undermined its claim that post-revolutionary Germany was a historic new democratic beginning deserving credit at the peace conference."
Demanding compensation from the defeated party, was a common feature of peace treaties. However, the financial terms of the Treaty of Versailles were labelled reparations, to distinguish them from punitive settlements usually known as indemnities, as they were intended for reconstruction and the compensation of families who had been bereaved by the war. Sally Marks highlights that the text of the article "was designed to lay a legal basis for reparations" to be paid. While Article 231 "established an unlimited theoretical liability" for which Germany would have to pay, the following article "in fact narrowed German responsibility to civilian damages".[nb 2] Furthermore, when the final reparation figure was established in 1921, it was based on "an Allied assessment of [the] German capacity to pay, not on the basis of Allies claims".
The London Schedule of Payments, of 5 May 1921, established "the full liability of all the Central Powers combined, not just Germany alone," at 132 billion gold marks. This figure was divided into three series of bonds. "C" Bonds, which contained the bulk of the German obligation, were intended to deceive public opinion into believing that Germany was being forced to pay a larger sum of money.[nb 3] "A" and "B" Bonds represented the Allied assessment of what the German capacity to pay actually was. Together, the "A" and "B" Bonds had a nominal value of 50 billion gold marks ($12.5 billion), a smaller amount than Germany had offered to pay.
While reparations were unpopular and strained the German balance of payments, they were payable. Between 1919 and 1931, when reparations were ended, Germany paid fewer than 21 billion gold marks out of a total demand of 50 billion. Marks wrote that the Reparation Commission and the Bank for International Settlements gave a total German payment of 20.598 billon gold marks, whereas Niall Ferguson estimates Germany paid no more than 19 billion gold marks. Ferguson further estimates that this sum was only 2.4 per cent of the total German national income between 1919–1932, while Stephen Shucker places the figure at an average of 2 per cent of national income between 1919–1931, in cash and kind, making a total transfer equal to 5.3 per cent of the national income for the period. Gerhard Weinberg argues reparations were paid, towns were rebuilt, orchards replanted, mines reopened and pensions paid. However, the burden of repairs was shifted from the German economy to the damaged economies of the victors of the war.
- Article 117 of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye: "... Austria accepts the responsibility of Austria and her Allies for causing the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Austria-Hungary and her Allies". Article 161 of the Treaty of Trianon: "The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Hungary accepts the responsibility of Hungary and her allies for causing the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Austria-Hungary and her allies." Article 121 of the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine: "Bulgaria recognises that, by joining in the war of aggression which Germany and Austria-Hungary waged against the Allied and Associated Powers, she has caused to the latter losses and sacrifices of all kinds, for which she ought to make complete reparation". Article 231 of the Treaty of Sevres: "Turkey recognises that by joining in the war of aggression which Germany and Austria-Hungary waged against the Allied Powers she has caused to the latter losses and sacrifices of all kinds for which she ought to make complete reparation."
- "The Allied and Associated Governments recognise that the resources of Germany are not adequate ... to make complete reparation for all such loss and damage.
The Allied and Associated Governments, however, require, and Germany undertakes, that she will make compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property during the period of the belligerency ..."
- "C Bonds, which contained the bulk ofthe German obligation, were deliberately designed to be chimerical. They were entirely unreal, and their primary function was to mislead public opinion in the receiver countries into believing that the 132-billion-mark figure was being maintained. Allied experts knew that Germany could not pay 132 billion marks and that the other Central Powers could pay little. Thus the A and B Bonds, which were genuine, represented the actual Allied assessment of German capacity to pay."
- Slavicek, pp. 43 and 58
- Weinberg, p. 14
- Yearwood, p. 127
- Treaty of Versailles, Article 231
- Neff, p. 289
- Immerman, pp. 8-10
- Marks, p. 231
- Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Article 177
- Treaty of Trianon, Article 161
- Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Article 121
- Treaty of Sèvres, Article 231
- Binkley, p. 399
- Craig, p. 141
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- Immerman, 10
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- Martel, p. 19
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- Kershaw, pp. 136-7
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- Rea, p. 39
- Boemeke, p. 48
- Bell, p. 22
- Treaty of Versailles, Article 232
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- Bell, p. 38
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- Boemeke, p. 424
- Martel, p. 43
- Weinberg, p. 16
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