The Treaty of Versailles, the one that resulted at the end of the First World War, contained the following, commonly known as the "war guilt clause" (Article 231):
"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 clause and its consequences have been the subject of considerable dispute over the years. It was of course much resented by Germans at the time. Was it inserted merely to provide a more or less legal foundation for the reparations Germany was required by the treaty to pay? Was it an expression of the desire which may have been honest or dishonest to characterize Germany as an evil aggressor? Was it a just assessment of "war guilt" or unjust and hypocritical?
It's been called an incitement to future war, and a cause of the rise of Hitler. I'm not sure if that's entirely the case, however. I think it's likely war would have come regardless of any sense of injustice experienced due to the clause itself. The treaty as a whole made war probable, I think. It was well called an armistice for twenty years by some Frenchman, whether Marshal Foch or an adviser to Clemenceau or someone else (this seems a matter of some dispute as well). It created quite a mess by arbitrarily establishing borders, creating new and sometimes remarkable states, and trying to satisfy the imperial and otherwise territorial claims of the victors. We're victimized by its nation-building still. Wilson, for all his pontificating, caved in dreadfully to demands made by Britain and France, leaving Germany and others feeling betrayed.
I'm one of those who think the U.S. should not have become involved in that war, and so have no fondness for Wilson or for the leaders of France and Great Britain at the time. However, I also feel that Germany was primarily responsible for the war if by "responsible" we mean causing it to take place. I also feel that although Allied propaganda was extreme and irresponsible in its characterization of the Germans as barbarians, and the Allies themselves were guilty of atrocities in that war, the Germans' conduct in Belgium, their destruction of people and historic properties in that small nation, their initiation of the use of poison gas on the battlefield, all were indicative of a ruthlessness and disregard of the accepted rules of war of that time which could be called barbaric. Perhaps surprisingly, German apologists of the time, when they did not deny atrocities took place, justified them on the grounds that the end (protecting the lives of German soldiers, for example) justified the means.
Of course, we then had much to learn of cruelty and barbarism in wartime, and proved to be eager students. Lately, we in the U.S. have taken to justifying torture and other things on the grounds that the end (protecting American lives) justifies the means. It doesn't put us in the best of company.
The concept of "war guilt" had its place at the end of the Second World War as well. We saw it in the Nuremberg trials and other war trials and the occupation of Japan and Germany.
Does it remain a useful or at least existent concept at this time? Was it ever useful or proper? Is it inappropriate or unhelpful to assign blame for war?
It may be useful and possible as to wars of aggression, and could be if there is a rule of law applicable to wars. The Allies, and particularly the French after WWI, in that case would have had a legal claim for damages. On the Western front, the great majority of the fighting took place on French soil. The war guilt clause would thus be a kind of legal finding or conclusion if there was a governing tribunal. The treaty might in that case be considered a settlement, but if it was a settlement Germany may have been able to agree to reparations without admitting liability and expressly denying it, which is typical in settlement agreements entered into to resolve a dispute.
Whether there is any rule of law is questionable, though; even if there is one applicable to war, it seems it will be disregarded when necessary. But there is especially no rule of law where there is a conflict, but no war, which is the situation we find ourselves in now and have been in for some decades There seem to be no rules where there is no war; not even rules that can be disregarded.
Accepting that some people or some nation can be responsible for a war in certain cases (to have caused a war), reparations would seem appropriate in that case. But it's possible to cause a war without commencing military hostilities. It's possible to be forced into war. In that case, though, there is still someone causing a war, which could be subject to penalty. This is something the law can handle, provided all agree to laws and a method of resolving dispute as to causes.
We've been hesitant to accept any laws, or courts, which are not our laws and our courts, however. We're unwilling to leave the determination of responsibility to others. We are willing to leave the determination to the victor, as we think we are likely to be the victor. This is all well and good when we are the strong nation. But all things pass.
It is one of the benefits of law that it would have application regardless of whether one is or is not strong or likely to win. It is in fact this which would make war less of a desirable option than it currently is--those nations which are victorious on the field may otherwise lose. If we're serious about peace, we may have to accept the concept of war guilt and be willing to have that guilt assessed by an impartial decision maker. This is much as we do among ourselves. What is it that prevents us from doing so in our external as well as internal relationships?
Distrust, it would seem. There are of course those who think that a single world government is being planned and sought by various people and powers. But in essence it seems we simply don't trust the other residents of this world to properly judge citizens of the United States, nor do we trust them to participate in the creation of laws which we would find acceptable.