This little sentence in the Treaty of Versailles
of 1919 was one of the most foolish actions on the part of the Allies
. More than a strategic mistake, the guilt clause was a large factor in precipitating World War II
The representatives from France and Britain fought hard to pin this little sentence onto the Treaty of Versailles. Both of these nations lost large amounts of men to the Germans and they wanted revenge. Americans (represented by Wilson) were more sympathetic to the Germans because of the relatively small number of World War I casualties suffered by America (See Wilsonian idealism). The US wanted peace in Europe more than reparations (as evidenced by Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points).
In the end, the British and French delegations spent enough political capital to add the guilt clause.
The guilt clause can be found in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. It simply blamed Germany alone for World War I and it required Germany to pay the reparations for the war (132 billion Marks). However, the political ramifications were tremendous.
- The Germans suffered national embarrassment. Historically, Germany had a great amount of nationalism. The guilt clause was a way to administer international embarrassment. Hitler was able to use this wounded sense of German pride to his advantage by turning the people of Germany against the rest of Europe.
- The Germans were required to bankrupt their national economy in order to pay the reparations. Even though they never paid in full, the German economy buckled as capital poured out of the nation. Inflation was at an all time high and prices were ridiculous. It was wise to buy bread in the morning because by the end of the day the loaf of bread that cost a bag of money in the morning may cost a wagon full of money at night. This economic crisis fostered national discontent; the Germans were desperate. When Hitler came in and promised to stabilize the economy, the people were so desperate that they were willing to listen.
Thus, the guilt clause had a large influence on helping Hitler gain a foothold in German politics.