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The Myth of French Responsibility for the War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles

Updated on February 5, 2018
The American John Foster Dulles, one of the two writers of Article 231.
The American John Foster Dulles, one of the two writers of Article 231.
The American Norman H. Davis, the other writer of Article 231.
The American Norman H. Davis, the other writer of Article 231.

Myth: Article 231, construed as blaming Germany for the war, was written by the French as another way of punishing Germany.

Article 231 is the infamous "war guilt clause", wherein Germany (and Germany's allies) assumed responsibility for having caused the conflict, and hence were responsible for reparations for it. During the 1920s, Germany launched a fierce propaganda campaign on it, believing that if it could discredit Article 231, then it would knock out the centerpiece of the Treaty of Versailles. It is seen as a representation of the injustice of the treaty, and a lightning rod for German opposition and hostility to the terms of the treaty, even more than many of its actual material and territorial clauses. The text of the clause is below:

"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."

Whether Germany actually started the war can be debated. However, a myth has arisen that Article 231 was written by the French, as part of a vengeful effort to blame the war on the Germans. This at least, is not true : the writing of the clause was created by John Foster Dulles and Norman Davis, two American diplomats at the conference. The United States, not France, is the one which imposed Article 231 on Germany.

Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, whose own interpretation of Article 231 would forever ingrain its certain meaning to us.
Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, whose own interpretation of Article 231 would forever ingrain its certain meaning to us.

Article 231 was furthermore, not destined to inevitably be the element of contention which it was to be. The head of the German delegation to the Versailles Conference, Brockdorff-Rantzau, chose to disregard explicit instructions to launch his frontal attack on the war guilt clause. German opposition to Article 231 was not simply an emotional reaction to being blamed for having caused the war, but instead was part of a strategy of denying the entire legitimacy of the Versailles treaty. It was Germany which chose to make Article 231 into a critical and harmful element of the treaty, instead of ignoring it and letting it be brushed off, claiming that its acceptance of the point was irrelevant as the treaty was signed under duress. Neither Hungary nor Austria expressed the same concern that Germany did about Article 231.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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