Treaty of Versailles 1919 article 231 – the German guilt clause

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Treaty of Versailles 1919 article 231 – the German guilt clause

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Treaty of Versailles 1919 article 231 – the German guilt clause

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On June 28th 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked WW1, the peace treaty between the Allies and Germany was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. A long and devastating war, much longer and much more destructive than any of the belligerents had imagined, was declared officially over. Yet there was no rejoicing. The general sentiment was far from the joy and relief that followed the armistice on the Western front 8 months earlier, and it was insightfully captured in the words of the Supreme Allied Commander, Marshal Foch: “this is not a peace but an armistice for 20 years”.

The Allies could have been happier about the outcome of the peace process. After all, it started with an armistice, which in practice was a capitulation, and the conditions imposed on Germany in November 1918 were largely reflected in the Versailles document. For the German delegation this was an ultimatum, resulting in an unjust peace and easily fueling the “stab in the back” propaganda in terms of domestic opinion. The Allies had started the peace process with different aims and, not surprisingly, it had been impossible to fully reconcile these differences.

To understand the peace process we need to go back and reflect on the conduct of hostilities and the evolution of the war aims of the opposing powers. On the Western front, Germany, France and Britain had fought an attrition trench war and after the horrendous casualties of Somme and Verdun, by the beginning of 1917, the belligerents were exhausted and there was a growing sentiment in both camps, that victory is out of reach. Could the belligerents go to the negotiation table and stop the war at that point? One may argue that in the face of such a gigantic loss of human life on both sides, an armistice was a logical step. However the perverse logic of the war triggered the opposite: the more casualties, the less the willingness to stop.

On the Eastern front the operations were more fluid, resulting in a war of movement with shifting fortunes. It would all change during 1917, with the entry of the US into the war and the collapse of Russia, triggered by the February revolution, reinforced by the October revolution and culminating with the peace of Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd 1918.

With Russia out of the war, Germany had the opportunity of transferring 50 divisions to the Western front and to aim for a decisive blow before the US built up its fighting force. The German high command seized this opportunity and using new infantry tactics, launched the first spring offensive in March, followed by a second in April. The Allies stabilized the front with difficulty and re-organized the chain of command. The French Marshall Ferdinand Foch was appointed as Supreme Commander on the Western Front and the Americans became fully integrated into the new command structure. The 3rd German offensive by the end of May failed to split the French and British forces and by the 2nd battle of Marne in July, the Germans ran out of offensive steam. The Allies counterattacked, seizing the initiative and using new tactics based on armored formation. At the battle of Amiens, in August, the Allies’ tanks smashed through the German lines. This was in Ludendorff’s words “the black day of the German Army”, the beginning of the Allies’ 100 days offensive, which pushed the Germans out of France and parts of Belgium. With frequent mass desertions and fearing imminent collapse, the Germans asked for an armistice on October 4th. This sequence of events is important in order to understand the shock of the defeat. The Germans had fought well, holding the lines in the West almost to the very end and making large advances in the East. By the time of the armistice not a single inch of German territory was occupied by the enemy. No wonder that the collapse of the army on the western front was difficult to understand by the common soldiers and civilians at home. This was a very different sequence of events, compared with the long series of defeats, leading to the disintegration of the Wehrmacht in the second world war.

On the Southern front, the defense of the Central Powers rapidly collapsed. Bulgaria was knocked out of the war by the end of September and Turkey signed an armistice on October 30th. With the fall of Trieste, the Habsburg empire signed the armistice on November 3rd.

On October 30th the sailors of the German Navy refused the order to embark on an all-out attack against the British Royal Navy and the revolt quickly spread in the country. The Germans started armistice negotiations on November 7th and on November 9th Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the republic was proclaimed.

The 2nd Reich was no more and the peace process barely involved the new, fragile German republic faced by civil unrest. The negotiations were the business of the victors and the German delegation was faced with a fait accompli. From the German perspective it was a humiliating peace not only because of the harsh terms, but also because Germany was excluded from the negotiations. It was indeed unprecedented: unlike the congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic wars, the defeated powers were not invited to the peace conference.

But were the peace terms that harsh to be remembered as unjust and a reason for the raise of the Nazis and ultimately leading to the second world war? With the exception of Alsace and Lorraine, annexed 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war and retroceded to France, the territorial integrity of the German territory was maintained. The war reparations were high but not unreasonable considering the size of the German economy. Of the 132 billion gold marks stipulated by the treaty, Germany only paid 21 billion and the payments were suspended after 1932. The Germans were angered for the restrictions imposed on their military force (article 159, restricting the number of troops to 100 000), for the loss of colonies (article 119) but most of all, for the so called “guilt clause” (article 231). It continued to be bitterly resented through the years of the Weimar republic and was subsequently amply used by the Nazi propaganda.

It is still debated what the guilt clause really meant at that time. Is it really blaming Germany for starting the war?

The Versailles treaty infamous article 231 reads as follows:

“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”.
This could be interpreted as blaming Germany for starting the war. But it can also simply represent a legal device to justify the reparations. Some historians claim that article 231 was actually a compromise to France and Belgium in exchange of reduced war reparations.

The start of WW1 was amply researched and the prevailing thesis is that “sleep walking” politicians and a badly calculating military, let a regional conflict which could have been a 3rd Balkan war explode into a world war, engulfing all European big powers and their overseas territories. However since the publication of Fritz Fisher’s “Germany’s Aims in the First World War” in 1961, many historians agree that the major cause of WW1 was Germany’s determination to become a world power and seeking parity to the British Empire’s war fleet. The September program (1914) envisaged to quickly cripple France and Russia, in order to quickly achieve victory like in 1871 against France and it also stated that Belgium should be turned into a vassal state. However by the time of the September program, Belgium was already occupied and the front line was already in northern France. The German war aims were not clearly articulated prior to the start of hostilities but rather evolved during the war. It is true that the German ambition upset the balance of power in Europe and triggered an arms race, but this is rather the underlying condition than the immediate cause of converting a local conflict into a world war. The “sleepwalkers” scenario has its merits and I defended it in a previous article.

To us, hundred years after the events, rather than interpret and over-interpret article 231, it is more important to answer the question: what was the guilt of the German 2nd Reich in WW1?

“On August 25, 19__, the German army ravaged the city of _, deliberately burning the university library with gasoline, killing 248 residents, and expelling the population of 10,000. Civilian homes were set on fire and citizens were often shot where they stood”. If we fill the blanks this could be a description of an Einsatz Kommando rampage during the operation Barbarossa but it actually describes the sack of Leuven 1914:

“On August 25, 1914, the German army ravaged the city of Leuven, deliberately burning the university library of 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts with gasoline, killing 248 residents and expelling the population of 10,000. Civilian homes were set on fire and citizens often shot where they stood.” Similar atrocities were witnessed in Tamines (383 dead) and Dinant (674 dead). The “rape of Belgium” is today little known, overshadowed by the brutal German occupation in WW2, but at that time it gave fuel to the Allied war propaganda and it was definitively not forgotten during the peace negotiations. The pattern reminiscent of medieval warfare was repeated in the northern French territories during the German advance, before being stopped at the battle of Marne. In Belgium, as in the occupied French territory, the systematic looting of industrial assets, compulsory labor and deportation of workers to Germany caused outrage in the Allied camp. This was a new type of war, the total war to be repeated at a grander scale by the Germans in WW2.

The image of Germans as the new barbarians, was reinforced by the decision of the high command to wage unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking military and civilian, enemy and neutral ships alike. Finally to complete the picture of a ruthless enemy, in the fall of 1918, the retreating German army systematically destroyed the industrial infrastructure in the territory it had occupied in northern France.

The French and British peace negotiators and probably to a lesser extent the Americans, were well aware of these facts when the article 231 was drafted. They must have also been aware of the evolution of the German war aims during the war, as these were subject to public debate and not repressed by censorship. The victorious peace (Siegfrieden) was the center piece of the war aims debate in Germany and was vigorously pursued by the radical nationalist Pan-German League. This group did not just call for extensive annexations in the East and the West, but called for the population of occupied Belgium to be used as an inferior workforce and regions to be annexed in France to be entirely depopulated and used as special military zones. With the collapse of the Russian Empire and the rapid advance of the German army in Ukraine the prospect of massive territorial annexations in the East to satisfy the “German hunger for territories” through large-scale settlement, became the dominant feature of the war aims debate.

Towards the end of the war, the German high command dominated by Ludendorff developed the concept of a greater area ruled by Germany from the Bay of Biscay in France to the Ural Mountains, a pre-Hitlerian dream revived with catastrophic consequences by the Nazis. These plans must have rang serious alarm bells to the allied peace negotiators but it seems that only the French took this seriously.

If we take these factors into consideration, article 231 was a rather reasonable acknowledgement of Germany conduct of the war in violations with the Hague Conventions. By not clearly stating what exactly the German war guilt was, the article became a matter of controversy, giving fuel to the postwar German propaganda, which interestingly enough impacts the contemporary popular view of the Versailles peace.

The postwar German propaganda painted a picture of an unjust attribution to the war guilt exclusively to Germany, associated with very harsh peace terms. It clearly focused on the starting the war aspect and exaggerated the severity of the peace terms.

The reality is that at the end of the war, the German economy was intact, the vast utter destruction landscapes were located in France not Germany, the economy of Belgium was in ruin and of that of France was in dire conditions. From this perspective, the peace terms were reasonable for Germany and too lenient for France and Belgium. The instinct of Petain, the hero of Verdun, to continue the war and invade Germany was understandable, but given the general exhaustion in the Allied camp and the fear of additional staggering casualties, not realistic.

Marshall Foch prophetic words “this is not a peace but an armistice for 20 years” is the right characterization of the Versailles peace, taking into account the available information at that time, not the hindsight wisdom after the outbreak of WW2. Foch must have been painfully aware of the inherent strategic disadvantage of France vs Germany not only in terms of population and size of economy, but in sheer geographical realities. Taking Sedan near the Belgian border as a reference point (assuming Belgium to be overran in the eventuality of war) the distance to Paris is 240 km and to Berlin 800 km. If we consider the coal-iron industrial powerhouse of Ruhr, Duisburg is 300 km away from the Franch-Belgian border but the basin of Longwy is just at the border and it was quickly overrun in the early phase of WW1.

The French position requiring the harshest peace terms to deprive Germany of the capacity to attack France, is therefore understandable and, given the aforementioned strategic realities, the most rational. The American position based on the 14 points and “a peace without victory”, is also understandable considering Wilson’s grand vision of the postwar world but, underestimating the realities on the ground and Germany’s capability to rearm, it was hardly compatible with the French hardline terms. Less understandable, given their massive losses in the war and the better knowledge of the European realities, is the British concern about an excessively strong France upsetting the balance of power in Europe, which ultimately added to the American drive towards a more lenient peace terms. This position would be understandable in 1815, after the Napoleonic wars but it was clearly shortsighted in 1919 and, what is worse, it continued in the interwar period.

In the end, article 231, not backed by efficient peace terms and a closer, trustful cooperation between France and Britain, was an isolated toothless statement for the Allies and an useful tool to the German postwar propaganda.

Список литературы | References

  1. Andelman D. A Shaterred Paeace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. New Jersy: Wiley, 2014. 554 p.
  2. Brezina C. The Treaty of Versailles, 1919: A Primary Source Examination of the Treaty that Ended World War I. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2006. 64 p.
  3. MacMillan M. Peace Makers: Six Months that Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2001. 571 p.
  4. Tampke J. A Perfidious Distortion of History: The Versailles Peace Treaty and the Success of the Nazis. Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2017. 314 p.
  5. Tardieu A. The Truth about the Treaty. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1921. 473 p.