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 and Associated Powers. Article 231, often known as the War Guilt Clause, was the opening article of Part VIII, the reparations section of the treaty. The article, with the signatory's name changed, was also included 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 viewed this clause as forcing Germany to accept 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. American diplomat John Foster Dulles — one of the two authors of the article — later regretted the wording used, believing it further aggravated the German people.
Germany objected to the statement in 231 "the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies." The historical consensus is that that responsibility or guilt for the war was not attached to the article, but that the clause was a prerequisite to allow a legal basis to be laid out for the reparation payments that were to be made. Historians have also highlighted the damage done by the clause, which caused anger and resentment amongst the German population.
In 1914, the First World War broke out. For the next four years fighting raged across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. On 8 January 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson issued a statement that became known as the Fourteen Points. In part, this speech called for Germany to withdraw from the territory it had occupied, for the creation of a Polish state, the redrawing of Europe's borders along ethnic lines, and the formation of a League of Nations. During the autumn of 1918, the Central Powers began to collapse. The German military was decisively defeated on the Western Front, while on the Home Front the navy mutinied prompting uprisings in Germany, which became known as the German Revolution. The German Government attempted to obtain a peace settlement based on the Fourteen Points, and maintained it was on this basis that they surrendered. Following negotiations, the Allied Powers and Germany signed an armistice, which came into effect on 11 November while German forces were still positioned in France and Belgium.
On 18 January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began. The conference aimed to establish peace between the war's belligerents and establish the post-war world. The Treaty of Versailles formed part of the conference, and dealt solely with Germany. The treaty, along with the others that were signed during the conference, were each named after the suburb of Paris they were signed in. While 70 delegates from 26 nations participated in the negotiations representatives from Germany were barred from attending, nominally over fears that a German delegation would attempt to play one country off against the other and unfairly influence the proceedings.
Writing of the article
Most of the major battles on the Western Front had been in France, and the French countryside had been heavily scarred in the fighting. Furthermore, in 1918 during the German retreat, German troops devastated France's most industrialized region in the northeast. Hundreds of mines and factories were destroyed along with railroads, bridges, and entire villages. Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau was determined, for these reasons, that any just peace required Germany to pay reparations for the damage they had caused. In addition, Clemenceau viewed reparations as a way of weakening Germany to ensure that it could not again threaten France. Reparations would also go towards the reconstruction costs in other countries, such as Belgium, also directly affected by the war. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed harsh reparations, arguing instead for a lower sum less crippling to the German economy so that Germany could remain a viable economic power and British trading partner. He furthermore argued that reparations should include war pensions for disabled veterans and allowances to be paid to war widows, which would, consequentially, reserve a larger share of the reparations for the British Empire. Wilson opposed these positions, and was adamant that there be no indemnity imposed upon Germany.
During the 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 reasoned that the "war was premeditated by the Central Powers ... and was the result of acts deliberately committed [by them] to make it unavoidable", concluding that 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 duly was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles, led by Clemenceau and Lloyd George who were both insistent on the inclusion of an unequivocal statement of Germany's total liability. This left Wilson at odds with the other leaders of the conference; he proposed instead a repetition of a note sent by Robert Lansing to the German Government on 5 November 1918, stating that the "Allied Governments ... understand that compensation will be made by Germany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and their property by the aggression of Germany ..."
The actual wording of the article was chosen by American diplomats Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles. Davies and Dulles produced a compromise between the Anglo-French and American positions, wording Article 231 and 232 to reflect that Germany "should, morally, pay for all war costs, but, because it could not possibly afford this, would be asked only to pay for civilian damages." Article 231, in which Germany accepted the responsibility of Germany and its allies for the damages resulting from the First World War, therefore served as a legal basis for the articles following it within the reparations chapter, obliging Germany to pay compensation limited to civilian damages. Similar clauses, with slight modification in wording, were present in the peace treaties signed by the other members of the Central Powers.[nb 1]
Foreign Minister Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau headed the 180-strong German peace delegation. They departed Berlin on 18 April 1919, anticipating that the peace talks would soon start and that they and the Allied Powers would negotiate a settlement. Earlier, in February of that year, Brockdorff-Rantzau had informed the Weimar National Assembly that Germany would have to pay reparations for the devastation caused by the war, but would not pay for actual war costs; The German government had also taken the position that it would be "inadvisable ... to elevate the question of war guilt". On 5 May, Brockdorff-Rantzau was informed that there would be no negotiations — once the German delegation received the conditions of peace they would have fifteen days to reply. Following the drafting of the treaty, on 7 May the German and Allied delegations met and the Treaty of Versailles was handed off to be translated and for a response to be issued. At this meeting Brockdorff-Rantzau stated that "We know the intensity of the hatred which meets us, and we have heard the victors' passionate demand that as the vanquished we shall be made to pay, and as the guilty we shall be punished". However, he proceeded to deny that Germany was solely responsible for the war. Following this meeting, as the various articles of the peace treaty were translated, the German delegation sent comments to the Allies "attacking one section after another". On 18 June, having disregarded the repeated explicit decisions of the government, Brockdorff-Rantzau declared that Article 231 would have Germany accept full responsibility for the war by force. Max Weber, an advisor with the German delegation, agreed with Brockdorff-Rantzau, also challenging the Allies over the issue of war guilt. He preferred to reject the treaty than submit to what he called a "rotten peace".
On 16 June, the Allied Powers demanded that Germany unconditionally sign the treaty within seven days or face the resumption of hostilities. The German government was divided on whether to sign or reject the peace treaty. On 19 June, Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann resigned rather than sign the treaty and was followed by Brockdorff-Rantzau and other members of the government, leaving Germany without a cabinet or peace delegation. With Germany in no condition to return to war, Gustav Bauer, the new Chancellor, unconditionally signed the peace treaty on 22 June.
Article 231 was not initially correctly translated. Instead of 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 ...". This resulted in a prevailing belief of humiliation among Germans as the article was seen as an injustice, and of Germany having signed "away her honor". Despite the public outrage, German government officials were 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." Politicians seeking international sympathy, however, would continue to use the article for its propaganda value, convincing many who had not read the treaties that the article implied full war guilt. German revisionist historians who subsequently attempted to ignore the validity of the clause found a ready audience amongst 'revisionist' writers in France, Britain, and the USA.
Allied opinion on article
The Allied delegation initially thought Article 231 to be a mundane addition to the treaty intended to limit German liability with regard to reparations, and were surprised at the vehemence of the German protests. Georges Clemenceau rebuffed Brockdorff-Rantzau's allegations, arguing that "the legal interpretation [of the article] was the correct one" and not a matter of political question. 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, Woodrow Wilson called for a "peace of reconciliation with Germany", what he called a "peace without victory". His war time speeches, however, rejected these earlier notions and he took an increasingly belligerent stance towards Germany. Following the war, on 4 September 1919, during his public campaign to rally American support for the Treaty of Versailles, 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."
Initially, both U.S. diplomats believed that they had "devised a brilliant solution to the reparation dilemma". In 1940, Dulles stated that he was surprised that the article "could plausibly be, and in fact was, considered to be a historical judgment of war guilt". He further noted that the "profound significance of this article ... came about through accident, rather than design". Dulles took it personally that the Treaty of Versailles failed in its intentions of creating a lasting peace and believed that the treaty was one of the causes of the Second World War. By 1954, as United States Secretary of State and in discussion with the Soviet Union in regards to German reunification, he commented that "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."
Compensation demanded from the defeated party was a common feature of peace treaties at the time. The financial burdens the Treaty of Versailles cast were however labelled reparations, distinguishing them from punitive settlements usually known as indemnities. The reparations were intended for reconstruction purposes and as compensation for families who had been bereaved by the war. Historian 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 Allied claims.
The London Schedule of Payments, of 5 May 1921, established the full liability of the combined Central Powers at 132 billion gold marks. Of this figure, Germany was only required to pay 50 billion gold marks ($12.5 billion), a smaller amount than they had previously offered for terms of peace. While the reparations were unpopular and strained the German economy, they were payable. Between 1919 and 1931, when reparations were ended, Germany paid fewer than 21 billion gold marks. The Reparation Commission and the Bank for International Settlements gave a total German payment of 20.598 billon gold marks, whereas historian 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 and 1932, while Stephen Schuker places the figure at an average of 2 per cent of national income between 1919 and 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.
Writing in 1926, Binkley and Mahr of Stanford University 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 question of Germany's guilt (Kriegsschuldfrage or 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 1937, British historian E. H. Carr commented "in the passion of the moment" the Allied Powers had "failed to realize that this extorted admission of guilt could prove nothing, and must excite bitter resentment in German minds." He concluded "German men of learning set to work to demonstrate the guiltlessness of their country, fondly believing that, if this could be established, the whole fabric of the treaty would collapse." In 1940, French historian René Albrecht-Carrié 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. In 1942, after ten years of tracking down and studying the available documents and interviewing numerous statesmen, Luigi Albertini's The Origins of the War of 1914 was published. Albertini concluded that Germany was primarily responsible for the outbreak of the war. Albertini's work, rather than spurring on new debate, was the culmination of the first research phase into the war guilt question. The issue was reignited 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". She highlights that "technically, Britain entered" the war and French troops entered Belgium "to honor" the "legal obligation" to defend Belgium under the 1839 Treaty of London, 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." Wolfgang 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 the thoughts of earlier historians. 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". P.M.H. Bell comments that despite the article not using the term 'guilt', and while "it may be that its drafters did not intend to convey a moral judgment of Germany", the article has "almost universally" became known as the war guilt clause of the treaty. 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." Stephen 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 have emphasized 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."
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- 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 ..."
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