War Guilt Clause

Article 231, commonly known as the "Guilt Clause" or the "War Guilt Clause", is the first article in Part VIII, "Reparations" of the Treaty of Versailles. Apart from "Article 231", there is no title for this article in the treaty itself. The term "War Guilt Clause" became popular in the media and is used by historians.

The great majority of Germans felt humiliated and resentful on this point, and it became a major campaign issue for the Nazis in the 1920s. Overall the Germans felt they had been very unjustly punished by what they called the "diktat of Versailles." Schulze says, the Treaty placed Germany, "under legal sanctions, deprived of military power, economically ruined, and politically humiliated."[1]

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.


The article, in which Germany accepted the responsibility for the damages they had caused by World War I, served as a legal basis for the following articles, which obliged Germany to pay reparations.[2] 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]

The article was based on a compromise in which the Big Four agreed that Germany would only be responsible for civilian damages, not the much larger amount of all war costs. It was written by US diplomats Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles without regard to how the Germans would interpret its moral overtones. Dulles later regretted his work, arguing. the Allies should have sought reconciliation not vengeance. He said in 1954, when he was Secretary of State, "Efforts to bankrupt and humiliate a nation merely incite a people of vigor and of courage to break the bonds imposed upon them." Dulles went on, "Prohibitions thus incite the very acts that are prohibited."[7] When the Germans on first reading it protested vehemently, the Allied position hardened and there was no effort made to revise it to remove the "guilt" theme.[8]

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.[9]

The Allied delegations treated Article 231 as mundane since 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 in June 1919. Historian 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, says Macmillan, "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."[9] Historian Sally Marks comments that neither the Austrian or Hungarian governments viewed the similar clauses, in their respective peace treaties, "as a declaration of war guilt" and rather it was "German politicians and propagandists" 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.[10]


President Wilson had downplayed the guilt theme before Paris but he took an increasingly hard stand and rejected advice to soften the Treaty.[11] In his public campaign in summer 1919 to rally American support, he repeatedly stressed Germany's guilt, as in his speech on September 4, 1919, where he said 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."[12]

Long-term impact

By blaming only Germany and its allies for causing the war, Article 231 has often been cited by scholars as one of the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hitler in particular made it a major theme but hostility against the Treaty of Versailles was almost universal inside Germany. Richard Bessell wrote, "The vast majority of Germans refused to accept the post-war settlement, in particular the imposition of the Versailles Treaty."[13] Yale historian Hajo Holborn says that the Treaty of Versailles was "viewed by practically all Germans as a deep humiliation."[14] Tony Rea and John Wright say, "The harshness of the War Guilt Clause and the reparations demands made it easier for Hitler to gain power in Germany."[15] Elazar Barkan says, "In forcing an admission of war guilt at Versailles, rather than healing, the victors instigated resentment that contributed to the rise of Fascism."[16]

Reparations issue

Marks points out that the next article, Article 232 of the Versailles treaty, limits German responsibility to pay only for civilian damages, and that when a conference was called in London in 1921 to determine how much Germany should pay, the Allies calculated on the basis of what Germany could pay, not on their needs.[17] She further notes that the reparation figure was "organized in three series of bonds, labeled A, B, and C. Of these, the C Bonds, which contained the bulk of the German obligation, were deliberately designed to be chimerical" and "their primary function was to mislead public opinion in the receiver countries into believing that the 132-billion mark figure was being maintained."[18] Historian P.M.H. Bell reinforces this position and further notes that two thirds of the reparation figure was contained within C Bond category which "amounted to indefinite postponement" of that sum.[19] Marks continues "thus the A and B Bonds, which were genuine, represented the actual Allied assessment of German capacity to pay". The A Bonds amounted to 12 billion gold marks and the B bonds a further 38 billion marks, which equated to around 12.5 billion dollars "an amount smaller than what Germany had recently offered to pay"[18] In all Germany paid approximately 20 billion marks "during the entire history of reparations,[20] which historian Stephen Shucker notes was "a unilateral transfer equal to a startling 5.3 percent of German national income for 1919-31."[21]

See also




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