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 blindinglyobvious!
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’.!
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
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 Silesiaand 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!!