The HLA locus is the strongest risk factor for anti-citrullinated protein antibody (ACPA)(+) rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Despite considerable efforts in the last 35 years, this association is poorly understood. Here we identify (citrullinated) vinculin, present in the joints of ACPA(+) RA patients, as an autoantigen targeted by ACPA and CD4(+) T cells. These T cells recognize an epitope with the core sequence DERAA, which is also found in many microbes and in protective HLA-DRB1*13 molecules, presented by predisposing HLA-DQ molecules. Moreover, these T cells crossreact with vinculin-derived and microbial-derived DERAA epitopes. Intriguingly, DERAA-directed T cells are not detected in HLA-DRB1*13(+) donors, indicating that the DERAA epitope from HLA-DRB1*13 mediates (thymic) tolerance in these donors and explaining the protective effects associated with HLA-DRB1*13. Together our data indicate the involvement of pathogen-induced DERAA-directed T cells in the HLA-RA association and provide a molecular basis for the contribution of protective/predisposing HLA alleles.