This is a question not well answered in the textbooks – probably because it the answer is a difficult mix of the devil-in-the-detail and the blindingly-obvious!


So, anyway, here are a few ideas:


1.   Different victors wanted different things, so they couldn’t ALL have everything they wanted.  Britain and France did NOT want a League of Nations, but Wilson insisted on little else.  Clemenceau wanted crippling reparations, Wilson and Lloyd George didn’t.  It is not even that the victors didn’t TRY to get everything they wanted – they pushed things to the point where in March 1919 the Conference was about to break up in failure, and Lloyd George had to step in and push through his Fontainbleau Memorandum (whereby he forced Wilson to accept reparations, and Clemenceau to accept the League of Nations).  So the eventual Treaty of Versailles (it is rather obvious to say) HAD to be a COMPROMISE … and a compromise is by definition ‘not getting all you want’.


2.   Moreover, it was not as though the victors had only themselves to think about.  Perhaps if they had gone to Versailles thinking only of themselves, some of the leaders COULD have got everything they wanted.  But the leaders – as Wilson pointed out in his opening speech – had much more to do at Versailles than get something for themselves.  The world was in ruins after the greatest war ever.  In eastern Europe three great empire had collapsed and there were literally NO countries at all.  The Big Three were VERY aware that it was their job, not just to get what they wanted but to re-build the world to make it ‘safe for democracy’.  That was, especially, the vision behind Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations; but Lloyd George, too, felt the need for ‘justice’ in the peace.  So I would argue that a second reason the victors didn’t get everything they wanted was because they didn’t even try – they had other, more noble, ambitions.


3.   Even without those higher motives, however, there were plenty people who were not prepared to allow the Big Three just to think of themselves and no one else.  Thousands of lobbyists went to Paris to try to get what THEY wanted from the peace – e.g. Queen Mary of Romania, or a delegation of 20 Ukrainians who wanted independence.  The Big Three made the peace amidst a clamour of demands, many of which were directly conflicting – e.g. American Zionists who wanted Palestine for the Jews, VERSUS Arab delegates who wanted Palestine for the Arabs.  The answer to ‘why did the victors not get all they wanted’ is the simple truism: ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’!


4.   Complexity!  There’s another reason.  When you’re sat in the pub pontificating everything seems so easy … but the real world is much more complicated.  HOW, for example, do you sort out the principle of self-determination in Hungary, which was evidently populated mainly by Hungarians – but which was peppered with small enclaves of Germans, who had emigrated there centuries earlier?  HOW do you work out what figure should be set on reparations – suggestions ranged wildly from £1 billion to £21 billion.  In the end, the Big Three found a series of expedients to help them through – they ‘passed the buck’.  They sanctioned plebiscites (= referendums) to let people decide for themselves which country they wanted to live in (e.g. in Silesia and Schleswig), and they set up a Committee of the League of Nations to put a figure on reparations.  But as soon as they did this, of course, they allowed SOMEONE ELSE to make the decision … which by definition isn’t getting everything YOU want.


It is often said that the Treaty of Versailles was a poor peace – that it angered the Germans, and none of the victors were completely happy with it.  But, if you are thinking sensibly about it, what else did you expect?  The negotiations were ALWAYS  going to have to be a compromise – that is what negotiations ARE!!!  What I find surprising is not that the victors came away not having got everything they wanted, but that statesmen as experienced as Harold Nicolson should ever have gone to Paris thinking that they COULD come away with a perfect peace.  One is tempted to shout down the centuries: ‘Get REAL!!!!’


In fact, thinking about it, they came away with a lot more of what they wanted than they might have done, didn’t they!  The Paris Peace Conference was initially planned as a pre-Conference, when the Big Three met to sort out their own position before they went to negotiate with the Germans.  As time went on and they found it difficult enough just to negotiate with each other, that aim fell by the wayside, and in the end they didn’t negotiate with the Germans at all, but just gave them the Treaty they had negotiated (7 May 1919) and told them to sign it.  The Germans went away and made rival proposals, and for a while Lloyd George wondered if they ought to listen to some of them.  But in the end, the Big Three just forced Treaty on the Germans with the threat of war.  Rather than wondering why the Big Three didn’t get all they wanted from the Peace, perhaps you might like to wonder how much LESS they would have got if they had taken Germany’s views into consideration!!!