Just Peace Or Day of Dishonor? – The Treaty of Versailles I THE GREAT WAR June 1919



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“Thank you” offer available on Patreon for the next two weeks. Now, on to the show. It’s June 1919 and moment of truth has come
at the Paris Peace Conference. The Allies have given the peace terms to Germany. If they sign, the Treaty of Versailles will
bring an end to the war in the West and forge a new world order. But if they don’t, no one knows what will
happen next. Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the
Great War. By June 1919, after months of meetings and
negotiations amongst the victors and notably not the defeated powers, the Peace Conference
in Paris was ready to bring to a close to the war between Germany and the Western Allies
and establish a new order in Europe. Now before we jump into to the infamous Treaty
of Versailles, a quick reminder that if you want to learn more about the start of the
conference and the Italian crisis, you can check out our February and April episodes. So, by early May, the Big Four Allied leaders
at the Peace Conference were ready to present the terms of peace to the Germans and the
German delegation had arrived in Paris. To understand what happens next, let’s start
by asking ourselves what went into the making of the treaty and who wanted what from the
peace. All four of the Allies – the United States,
France, Great Britain and Italy – knew they had to act fast: without a peace settlement,
no one was sure how long Allied unity would last, and Bolshevism might take hold in other
countries as it had in Russia and Hungary and almost had in parts of Germany. The Allies’ military strength was also ebbing
away as they demobilized their armies – by June 1919 they only had 39 divisions available,
down from 198 at the time of the armistice (Macmillan 169). They had to act while they still had enough
military might. The Big Four did agree on some basics: Germany
should be punished, should pay, and should be prevented from starting another war. But there were serious differences among them
on how to achieve these goals. The French priority was security. France had suffered enormous economic destruction
and loss of life during the war, and had now been invaded twice by Germany in the past
50 years. They wanted to continue the alliance with
the US and Great Britain, to be compensated for the cost of the war, and they wanted Germany
to be as weak as possible. Prime Minister Clemenceau was firm but open
to compromise on the details, but General Foch and President Poincare were much more
hawkish. Now the British aims in Paris were to maintain
the strength of their empire and a balance of power in Europe. They didn’t want Germany to be so weak that
it would go Bolshevik, but they didn’t want France to get too strong either. As Lord Curzon put it: “I am seriously afraid,
that the Great Power from whom we have the most to fear in the future is France.” (Sharp, 202). The British also wanted to make sure that
Germany would not be an imperial and commercial competitor as it had been before 1914, though
they did hope it would remain a market for British goods (Sharp 203). The US also wanted Germany to recover economically,
as they considered free trade a cornerstone of a stable peace. But the Americans also had their own set of
priorities. They felt the League of Nations should be
the instrument for the security of France, and the world in general. (Macmillan 182) Wilson’s advisor Colonel
House was confident in the League as a guarantee for security: “…if after establishing
the League, we are so stupid as to let Germany train and arm a large army and again become
a menace to the world, we would deserve the fate which such folly would bring upon us.” (Macmillan 182)
As for the Germans, they assumed that there would be negotiations with the allies and
that the peace would be based on the 14 points and the diplomatic notes between Germany and
the United States in the fall of 1918. The 180-man German delegation that travelled
to Paris was led by Foreign Minister Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, who had served the
Kaiser during the war but also had good relations with the ruling Social Democrats. He wanted to get the mildest possible terms
for Germany and maintain the country’s potential for Great Power status. (Leonhard 951). Now that we have an idea of the competing
interests of each of the powers, let’s take a look at the terms the Germans were given
when they got to Paris. Block Germans get terms, allied publics learn
Actually the politics of the peace began before the Germans got to Paris, while they were
still on the train. The French forced the train to take a slow
route through the most devastated regions of the war zone, to bring home the full impact
to the German delegates. Once they arrived, they were put into the
same hotel in which the Prussians stayed after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, and were
basically kept under house arrest, ostensibly to protect them from French mobs. The very day they arrived, May 7th, the Germans
met with the Allies to receive the terms. This was the first face-to-face contact between
the warring parties since 1914 – legally they were still at war after the armistice. Clemenceau gave a very short speech, in which
he accused Germany of bringing about the war and informed the Germans there would not be
any verbal negotiations. They could respond, but only in writing. Then it was Brockdorff-Rantzau’s turn. He had two different speeches with him, one
softer and one more defiant. He chose the defiant version. He admitted Germany’s defeat but denied
German responsibility for the war and insisted on a peace based on the 14 Points and the
diplomatic notes, which he felt was a binding agreement. He also spoke of the ongoing naval blockade
and reminded the Allies of “The hundreds of thousands of non-combatants who have died
since the armistice of November 11th, murdered as the result of cold calculation after our
opponents had achieved victory. Think of that when you speak of guilt and
atonement.” (Leonhard 964) The Count’s emotional tone
did not win him any friends among the Allies. Wilson remarked during the session: “This
is the most tactless speech I have ever heard. The Germans are a stupid people. They always do the wrong thing.” (Macmillan 494) Now the terms had been handed over, and the
Germans would have to respond, so let’s take a look at the treaty itself. The treaty Clemenceau had given the Germans
was much different than traditional peace deals. It was very long and very detailed – in
all there were 440 separate sections. This reflected the improvisation and compromising
that had gone into the settlement, but also the extension of total war thinking in terms
of bureaucratic and scientific planning and control (Leonhard 986). So what exactly were the 440 clauses of the
Treaty say? There are too many to cover in one episode,
but here are the parts of the treaty that would drive the events to come. The very first section laid out the foundation
and objectives of the League of Nations, which was meant to solve disputes between states
and prevent future war – basically, to be the foundation of the new world order. Germany, however, was not allowed to join
the League until the Allies gave their permission. Germany was to suffer territorial losses amounting
to 13% of its land and 10% of its population, though these were mostly non-ethnic Germans. (Gerwarth 199). Alsace was returned to France, small strips
of land would go to Belgium and Lithuania, and several provinces were to be lost to Poland,
including the mining region of Upper Silesia. Coal-rich Saarland and Schleswig would be
allowed to vote on their fate. Germany was also to lose its colonies in Africa
and the Pacific to Britain, France, Belgium and Japan. Germany was to be disarmed. Its army was limited to 100,000 volunteers,
and its navy to 15,000. Tanks, subs, aircraft, poison gas, and large
warships were forbidden. In fact, the High Seas Fleet was to be given
to the Allies. In addition, the Rhineland was to be demilitarized
and occupied by Allied forces for years to come. The French had argued for it to be made into
a separate country controlled by the Allies, but the British and Americans had opposed
the idea. And Germany would have to pay, both in cash
and in kind. The merchant fleet, 40 million tonnes of coal
and 50% of chemical stocks and other resources would go to the allies. (Leonhard 975). Billions of marks in reparations were also
planned, to compensate the allies for war damages and veterans’ pensions. The amount of money to be paid was only to
be finalized at a later date. Now, in order to justify the reparations,
the Allies included article 231, which would become known as the war guilt clause. The article referred to “the responsibility
of Germany for causing all the loss and damage to which (the Allies) 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 was inserted as a pragmatic measure
to allow reparations to be demanded, not as an explicit moral condemnation – though
of course most in the Allied countries did hold Germany morally responsible. (Prost/Winter, 34). The Germans, as we will soon see, read it
differently. So those were the terms of the peace: exclusion
from the League of Nations, territorial losses, reparations and responsibility for the war. The revelation of what the peacemakers had
proposed came as a shock to many on both sides. One thing was clear: nearly everyone in Germany
was unhappy with the treaty. The long months since the November had turned
into a sort of armistice period dreamland, as one historian has called it (Leonhard 969). The Germans had underestimated the hurt and
hate that still lingered in Paris and did not expect the terms they had just received,
which many viewed as a betrayal of the armistice agreement and a death sentence for Germany. The war was still largely understood as defensive,
and the stab in the back legend was already influential: that the German Army was “unbeaten
in the field” but lost the war because of the betrayal by the home front. Basically, the reactions amounted to a continuation
of the war by other means. (Macmillan 475)
Brockdorff-Rantzau was aghast, remarking “This fat volume was quite unnecessary. They could have expressed the whole thing
more simply in one clause: l’Allemagne renonce à son existence – Germany renounces its existence.” (Macmillan 475). Demonstrations broke out across the country. The Berliner Tageblatt newspaper wrote that
the treaty was “A document of the oldest type of subjugation politics, far removed
from the ideas of the league of nations, without the least hint of a new spirit, substituting
force for justice.” (Leonhard 972)
Businessman and art historian Oskar Münsterberg wrote in his diary “Where are all the flowery
speeches about humanity and justice? Where are Wilson’s points, which we and
the enemy recognized as the basis for the armistice? Was everything just a trick? Is there no justice, no trust anymore?” (Leonhard 946)
Social Democratic Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann gave a fiery speech, saying „…German tribes…we
belong together!…We are one flesh and one blood, and whomsoever tries to separate us
cuts into the living body of the German nation with a murderous knife…Today we must save
the life, the naked and poor life, of our country and people, as everyone feels a strangling
hand on his throat.” (Scheidemann)
Now you might not be surprised Germany was unhappy with the treaty. But even on the Allied side, because of the
complexity of the treaty and the limited information given to the press, many saw it only now in
its entirety for the first time. One of the most prominent critics was South
African Jan Smuts. He wrote: “There will be terrible disappointment,
when the peoples realise that we have not made a Wilsonian peace, that we have not kept
our promises to the world and not kept faith with the public.” (Leonhard 984) Some members of the American
delegation were so disgusted with the terms they resigned, as did British economist John
Maynard Keynes a few weeks later. Others felt little sympathy for the Germans,
given the draconian peace treaties they had imposed on Russia and Romania just a year
earlier. Though the Germans were outraged and some
on the Allied side were disappointed, the Big Four had endorsed the treaty and the Germans
now had just a few weeks to respond. German deliberations and counter offers
The German dilemma was not an easy one – if they accepted, the new order and the republic
would be tied to defeat and humiliation. If they refused, no one knew what would happen
– the Allies might invade, or the country might even be broken up. Brockdorff-Rantzau’s strategy was to mobilize
public opinion against the treaty and appeal to the internationalist left outside Germany. He hoped that with enough pressure from their
own public the Allied governments might agree to negotiate directly with the Germans. If he could not achieve that, he favoured
rejecting the treaty, as did Scheidemann. Cabinet Minister Matthias Erzberger, who had
signed the armistice in November, feared the consequences of refusal more than the terms
of the treaty and urged acceptance. On May 29 the German answer finally came,
after days of heated debate in Berlin. Their proposal was to keep the country’s
1914 borders except where people voted to leave with a two thirds majority (Leonhard
1002), which likely meant the loss of only Alsace-Lorraine, Schleswig and Posen. They would disarm and pay a one-time lump
sum of reparations, could join the League of Nations immediately, and the occupation
of the Rhineland would be limited to six months rather than 15 years (Stevenson 523-524). Crucially, they rejected responsibility for
the war and put the blame on Russia (Leonhard 1003). This was an admission that Germans would have
to make concessions to avoid a worst-case scenario. The members of the delegation issued a statement:
“The enemy governments can only be forced (to negotiate) if on our side there are such
clear and broad concessions that those governments cannot justify…the use of force against
us to their own people – and if they took such a step they would place themselves in
the wrong and not us.” (Leonhard 998)
But the Germans miscalculated. They overestimated the possibilities open
to them in the highly charged emotional situation still dominated by Franco-German animosity
(Leonhard 999). Brockdorff-Rantzau’s righteous tone made
it nearly impossible to approach the problems from a pragmatic point of view, and since
the two sides never negotiated face to face, the opportunity for traditional relationships
and compromises between diplomats just didn’t exist. Each side interpreted the smallest gestures
or words according to assumptions fuelled by years of war, suffering and propaganda
(Leonhard 985). Brockdorff-Rantzau was basically repeating
wartime propaganda when he told the government: “[I] hope and believe, that if we can hold
out for two more months, we can achieve an acceptable peace.” (Leonhard 1000). So, by the end of May the German response
was in Allied hands. They had mostly accepted disarmament and reparations
but rejected war guilt and most territorial losses. As for the Allies, they were not in a compromising
mood. After almost five years of war and destruction
and months of painful negotiations and compromises, major changes to the treaty were quite unlikely,
and the tone of the German note angered many. In fact, even as the Germans debated their
response, the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshall Foch, had begun to draw up plans for a full-scale
invasion in case Germany refused to sign. The British were the only ones who wanted
modifications, and Lloyd George went so far as to threaten to withdraw British support
for the treaty if nothing was done. Wilson was furious, and accused him of having
no principles (Macmillan 480). In the end, the only changes made were a vote
on the future of Upper Silesia and a slightly more favourable plan for Germany’s future
admission to the League of Nations (Deperchin Peace Conf 945). Clemenceau still refused to negotiate face
to face. The Allies sent their response and an ultimatum
on June 16. The tone was harsh, and went even further
in blaming Germany for the war – unlike the pragmatic article 231, Germany’s guilt
was indeed being framed in moral terms: “The war which broke out on August 1st 1914 is
the greatest crime against humanity and against the freedom of nations ever committed by a
nation that calls itself civilized” (Leonhard 1010). “The behaviour of Germany is nearly unparalleled
in human history. The terrible responsibility that burdens her…that
at least seven million dead lie buried in Europe, while more than 20 million of the
living bear witness through their wounds and suffering to Germany’s desire to quench
its thirst for tyranny through war.” (Leonhard 1010). The note made clear that Germany must accept
the terms or the Allies would invade. In Berlin, the government was plunged into
crisis in the face of a looming invasion. Brockdorff-Rantzau and the peace delegation
were for refusal. The delegation recommended to government:
“The conditions of peace are still unbearable, for Germany cannot accept them and continue
to live with honour as a nation.” (Macmillan 483). At a meeting of top generals and Defence Minister
Gustav Noske, most generals wanted to fight, except for General Groener, who felt the civilians
wouldn’t be able to hold out – another echo of the stab in the back myth (Leonhard
1014). Chancellor Scheidemann was opposed to signing,
but others, led by Minister Erzberger, were convinced an immediate peace was the only
chance for Germany to avoid a Bolshevik revolution or Allied invasion and achieve stability. Deadlocked, the government resigned June 20,
followed by Brockdorff-Rantzau, who blamed Erzberger also in stab-in-the-back style:
“I was close to the objective, but the criminal Erzberger ruined everything” (Leonhard 1016). The German High Seas Fleet, interned at Scapa
Flow in Scotland, scuttled its ships rather than give them to the British, an event that
we will have a closer look at this summer. A new government was formed under Gustav Bauer,
which informed the Allies they would accept the terms except for the war guilt clause
and the proviso for war crimes trials, since they were questions of German honour. But the Allies refused and gave the Germans
24 hours to fully accept. Bauer realized there was no choice: the German
government accepted the terms just hours before hostilities were to have been renewed. The signing took place June 28th, the 5th
anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination that set off the war. The treaty was to be signed in the Hall of
Mirrors at the palace of Versailles, the very place where the German Empire had been created
in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. For Wilson advisor Colonel House: “The whole
affair was elaborately staged and made as humiliating to the enemy as it well could
be.” (Gerwarth 199) The emotional and theatrical
nature of the ceremony was a clear a break with the sober and rational diplomatic culture
of the past (Leonhard 1034). Under the eyes of more than 1000 onlookers,
Foreign Minister Hermann Müller and Transport Minister Johannes Bell signed for Germany,
followed by the Allied delegates, except for China, who refused to sign since the Shantung
peninsula had been given to Japan. Less than one hour after it began, the ceremony
was over when Clemenceau said simply: “La séance est levée. The session is over”. So, the peace had finally been signed and
Paris celebrated the end of the war with Germany with a massive parade on July 14. But, even amongst those who had made the peace,
many feared for the future of Europe. Some, particularly in the British Empire and
the US, felt the treaty was simply too harsh. South African Jan Smuts wrote to Wilson: “This
treaty breathes a poisonous spirit of revenge, which may yet scorch the fair face – not
of a corner of Europe, but of Europe.” (Sharp, 204). British diplomat Harold Nicolson recalled
his disappointment in 1933: “We came to Paris convinced that the new order was about
to be established; we left it convinced that the old order had merely fouled the new.” (Sharp, 213) Keynes would publish the most
famous critique of the treaty that December, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace”,
in which he predicted economic ruin brought on by reparations. For others, like Ferdinand Foch, whose son
and son in law had been killed in the war, the problem with the treaty was that it was
too weak. He said that “Wilhelm II lost the war [but]
Clemenceau lost the peace.” (Macmillan 486) and famously predicted “This
is not Peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” (Sharp, 200)
The architects of the peace were hopeful. Clemenceau placed his hopes in his fellow
Frenchmen when he told the Parliament: “The treaty will be what you make of it.” (Stevenson 529) President Wilson, unsurprisingly,
put his faith in a higher power. As he left Paris he wrote to his wife: “Well,
little girl, it is finished, and, as no one is satisfied, it makes me hope we have made
a just peace; but it is all in the lap of the gods.” (Macmillan 497)
German Chancellor Gustav Bauer reflected the feelings of many Germans when he told parliament
“I will believe to my last breath that this attempt at dishonouring us will one day dishonour
its creators, and that in this global tragedy it is not our honour that has been taken but
theirs.” (Leonhard 1017). Contemporary fears of another war turned out
to be justified, but historians still argue about the treaty and its role in the road
to 1939. For decades, the most popular interpretation
of Versailles, and you’re probably familiar with this one, was that it was too harsh and
led directly to World War Two twenty years later – just as Foch had predicted. Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the settlement
that: “It was doomed from the start, and another war was therefore practically certain.” (Hobsbawm, 34), and he even went on to argue
that Versailles caused the Yugoslav civil war and the ethnic wars in the post-Soviet
countries: “The national conflicts tearing the continent apart in the 1990s were the
chickens of Versailles coming home to roost.” (Hobsbawm, 31). But in recent years historians have re-assessed
the treaty a little bit differently. Even though mistakes were made, many now think
that the peace was the best that could be achieved under the circumstances, especially
given the lack of unity among the allies. The French need for security, the British
focus on their empire, and the US belief in self-determination simply could not form the
basis for a stable world order (Prost/Winter 52). Jay Winter and Antoine Prost have written
that it was the “least bad compromise available at that difficult time” (Prost/Winter 51). Some other scholars have argued the treaty
was not as harsh as commonly believed. According to new research, Germany could in
fact pay the reparations (Prost/Winter 51) but chose not to. Even after its losses in territory, Germany
was still largest country in Europe west of Russia, its industrial base was still intact,
and it had survived as a single state. Germany was now surrounded on the east by
smaller, weaker powers it could influence or threaten, no longer shared a common border
with Russia, and its main enemy, France, was severely weakened. In the words of Margaret Macmillan, “The
picture of a Germany crushed by a vindictive peace cannot be sustained.” (Macmillan 492). As for the question whether the treaty led
to World War Two, many scholars now argue that it was the enforcement of the treaty
after 1919 that is more problematic than the treaty itself. There were in fact, few provisions for its
enforcement. If the treaty was not enforced and twenty
years of policy decisions by all the powers led to another war in 1939, this cannot be
blamed purely on the terms of the treaty of 1919 (Macmillan 493 and 499, Stevenson 503). As David Stevenson has written: “The Treaty
could have stopped another bloodbath if it had been upheld.” (Stevenson 529) And even though Hitler later
used resentment against the treaty as an effective propaganda tool, his goals in starting the
Second World War went very far beyond revising or even overturning the settlement itself,
so it can hardly be said to have caused the war (Macmillan 499). No matter what the immediate or long-term
reactions to the peace may have been, the fact was that after more than four years of
unprecedented bloodshed peace had indeed come to western Europe. But the peace was at best fragile, and at
worst incomplete. The US was slowly moving towards isolation,
leaving only France and Britain to uphold an order opposed by a resentful Germany, Bolshevik
Russia, and the other defeated Central Powers. In fact, peace with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria
and the Ottomans still had to be made, a process that would last another four years. In the meantime, there were a host of open
questions: Russia, Central European borders, the middle east, China and Japan, the possibility
of more Bolshevik revolutions, and the 30 million Europeans now living as ethnic minorities
in the new order. At the same time the League of Nations represented
an attempt at a new spirit in international relations, including mechanisms for international
labour standards, peaceful dispute resolution and minority protections. In the words of historian Jörn Leonhard:
“The signing of the treaty marked the beginning, not the end, of the search for a post-war
order” (Leonhard 1049) As usual, you can find all our sources for
this episode in the video description. Don’t forget that The Great War Aftershow
is premiering right now when this video was uploaded, available to all our supporters
you can find out more at patreon.com/thegreatwar or in the video description. I’m Jesse Alexander and this is The Great
War 1919, a production of Real Time History and the only Youtube history channel that
makes a just peace with its enemies.

39 thoughts on “Just Peace Or Day of Dishonor? – The Treaty of Versailles I THE GREAT WAR June 1919

  • We could not make this show without your support on Patreon. If you pledge to support us now, we will send out original WW1 postcards signed by the team. Patreon supporters can also chat with us live on Discord after every episode. More details: http://patreon.com/thegreatwar

  • From the very beginning your logic and, statements are flawed! Germany DID NOT start the First World War! The guilty parties were in point of fact "Imperial Russia" and Serbia! The French had been screaming 'Revenge' since 1871, and had been planning and HOPING for war! The British were also guilty: Because of Kaiser Wilhelm's decision to build a 'Blue Water Navy' in direct challenge to the Royal Navy the British were, in keeping with their naval policies, driving themselves to the brink of bankruptcy! They also desired war, and actually KNEW in advance the German war plans, and BEFORE the first German soldier set foot in Belgium the British Army was alerted, and ready to deploy! The Allies laid the seeds for a future conflict without the slightest qualm, and to this day refuse to take responsibility for their actions!

  • America calls Germans stupid but is about to fall to cultural Marxism and can’t deicide what washrooms to use. You can’t even make this up 🤣

  • The first great victory towards the permanent establishment of a Jewish supremacy and the destruction of the white man and white civilization. Looking at the world now, are you still proud?

  • Britan, USA: France, your being to harsh and unreasenable,

    France: well after you guys sign the treaty you get to go home safely behind the English channel and the Atlantic Ocean, but i have to sleep knowing there are Germans next to my border

  • 8:38
    I made this timestamp because I'm working on a project about ww1 and the treaty of Versailles and I need to remember

  • "Germany could pay the reparations, but chose not to". nuff said. Seeya on the World war two channel.

  • The real nation that began the war was Austria. Actually the fault of war is everyone's.
    No one should blame Germany to have done the same things of other European nations.
    Everyone did terrible things and just blame Germany for is pure ignorance.

  • At 26:30 – don't forget the Polish-Soviet war, and the Greco-Turkish war (maybe call it the Megali war?)! Those were two "hot" conflicts that resulted out of this period, as well as from Allied intransigence (at least in the case of the Greco-Turkish war.

  • So, Germany refused to recognise their war guilt and tried to blame the Russians. Hhmm, where have we heard a similar accusation of late?

  • Germans: *rek the Roman Empire and are the ancestors of the brits:
    Allies: Sadly for you, history wont see it that way

  • The Ottoman Empire is the only member of the Central Powers who rejected their treaty (The Treaty Of Serves) and fought back. They won…

  • 3:46 the war of 1871 has been started by France, they officially declared war. OK Prussia did nothing to prevent it. But per see you made a false statement.

  • To all the neo-nationalists that still blame France for a harsh treaty. I suggest you to look at some of the potential measures would have taken if won. They even announced some in the newspaper back then. Even if Germany wasn't the big bad guy in this war, it lost and as stated in the video, the treaty wasn't actually a deathsentence to its power, whereas the potential measures envisionned by Germany were actually the end of the French power in Europe. I don't know by which means but just the return of alsace to france (by the will of the alsatians) and the return of polish parts to a new polish state and the destruction of Prussia as an entity, would actually have been a better idea. Germany without Prussia is actually completely different in its mindset, a mindset closer to the nature of the Rhenish and the south Germans (like Germany today). This Germany would have befriended France far earlier in history.

  • Well calling germans stupid even if they invented a better rifle than yours even if they actually were the first to invent blitz and gorilla warfare troughout the second world war. That guy "had" a big mouth

  • Das ist zu viel!!!vallahilazim,es stoert,das ist die anglo amerikanische rache oder was?!?!bu videoklip görmemelidir!!!utanç şeyler, hayret!!!

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