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COLUMN: The high cost of assigning blame

A clause in the Treaty of Versailles placed responsibility for World War I entirely on Germany

It was a cold, grey November day as Summerlanders gathered in Memorial Park for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony.

The ceremony was a sombre time to pause and consider those who died during past wars, and to consider how to prevent wars from happening in the future.

The names on our cenotaph are those who died during active service during the two world wars. There are total of 63 names on our cenotaph, 39 from World War I and 24 from World War II.

Each year, I wonder if that list of names could have been shorter if different decisions had been made many years ago.

The Armistice of Compiègne, signed on Nov 11, 1918, marked the end of four years fighting and a war with a death toll of roughly 40 million people.

The peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, was signed several months later, on June 28, 1919.

This treaty was not just an attempt to provide a conclusion to the war, but also to prevent another war of similar magnitude. The four-year war had been termed The War to End All Wars.

Included in the treaty was a clause placing responsibility for the war entirely on Germany. The clause, Article 231, is also referred to as the War Guilt Clause.

“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.”

Not only was Germany burdened with the responsibility for starting the war and for the resulting devastations, but the nation was also forced to disarm, make territorial concessions and pay repatriation costs. The financial costs alone were 132 billion marks, or the equivalent of more than $500 billion Canadian in today’s money.

The treaty served to shame, humiliate and punish Germany.

John Maynard Keynes, a British economist and a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, said the figure was too high and believed the treaty would be counter-productive. His prediction proved to be accurate.

Two decades later, the world was at war once again. The treaty, with its punitive measures, was a significant factor in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.

If a different treaty had been drawn up, without the emphasis on blame and guilt, there is some question as to whether Adolf Hitler or a leader like him could have risen to a position of prominence in Germany.

World War II lasted six years and resulted in an estimated 60 million deaths. The enormity of this death toll is hard to comprehend. If we were to observe one minute of silence for each of these deaths, the period of silence would last for more than 114 years.

The war also affected many of us directly. Many of us have family members, relatives or people we know who served during World War II. Some died in action; others returned home, permanently affected by their experiences.

Could this war have been prevented if the focus at the end of World War I had been on restoration rather than humiliation?

Was World War II inevitable the moment after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles?

Shame, guilt and humiliation did not achieve lasting peace 98 years ago, in the aftermath of a war. And such responses will not provide a good resolution to tensions and conflicts around us today.

Reconciliation was and still is needed. But it cannot come from a focus on blame.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
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