‘The reconstruction of Europe at the Congress of Vienna is probably the most seminal episode in modern history. Not only did the congress redraw the map entirely. It determined which nations were to have a political existence over the next hundred years and which were not…It entirely transformed the conduct of international affairs.’ Adam Zamoyski, Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (HarperPress, 2007), p. xiii.The Congress of Vienna was a conference between ambassadors from the major powers in Europe that was chaired by the Austrian statesman Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich (1773-1859), and held from September 1, 1814, to June 9, 1815. Its purpose was to redraw the continent's political map after the defeat of Napoleonic France the previous spring. The Vienna settlement was in two parts, interrupted by Napoleon’s return from Elba in 1815. The Congress's Final Act was signed on 9 June, nine days before Waterloo. Technically, the ‘Congress of Vienna’ never actually occurred, as the Congress never met in plenary session, with most of the discussions occurring in informal sessions among the Great Powers.
The Congress was concerned with determining the entire shape of Europe after the Napoleonic wars, with the exception of the terms of peace with France, which had already been decided by the Treaty of Paris (May 30, 1814). The treaties reflected the policies of the victorious powers that imposed it. The fact that the congress was held in Vienna was a personal triumph for Metternich the dominant political figure of the post-Napoleonic era.
At the congress, the United Kingdom was represented first by its Foreign Secretary, the Ulster aristocrat, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822) (left) and after Castlereagh's return to England in February 1815, by the Duke of Wellington; and in the last weeks, after Wellington left to face Napoleon in the Hundred Days, by the Earl of Clancarty. Austria was represented by Metternich, and by his deputy, Baron Wessenberg. Prussia was represented by Prince Karl August von Hardenberg (1750-1822), the Chancellor, and the distinguished diplomat and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt. Although Russia's official delegation was led by the foreign minister, Count Nesselrode, Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) for the most part acted on his own behalf.
Louis XVIII’s France was represented by its wily foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838). His aims were modest and amounted to damage limitation. The weaknesses of his position were obvious but a balance of power in Europe necessarily involved a relatively strong France in order to achieve what he called a ‘just equilibrium’ and counter the potential threat of an over powerful Russia. (Russia and France had the largest populations at the time and also the largest armies.)
Britain: Britain refused to claim any territory in mainland Europe for fear of being drawn into future wars. It wanted the freedom to develop its empire and enhance its wealth through overseas trade. Castlereagh was cautiously in favour of more political liberalism in Europe but not at the expense of stability.
Austria: Metternich was a conservative, 'in every sense a product of the ancien régime, believing in the natural order of things, based on established religion, monarchy and a defined hierarchy. He viewed any change as potentially revolutionary ... [and saw] the French Revolution as the greatest catastrophe to afflict Europe'. (Zamoyski, Rites of Peace, 39.) He was also the representative of a multinational empire without natural frontiers. He told a Russian diplomat:
‘My realm resembles a worm-eaten house. If one part is removed one can never tell how much will fall.’He saw potential threats from Russia and France.
Russia’s foreign policy was the preserve of the tsar. Alexander was idiosyncratic, an authoritarian who gave the appearance of being a liberal and was increasingly under the influence of the mystical Baroness Juliana von Krudener. He was in a strong position because of his massive army, which had taken Paris. His priorities were (a) the annexation of Poland and (b) to take land from the Turks. These ambitions made Russia the most potentially threatening power once France was defeated.
Prussia was also expansionist, partly at least through fear of France and Austria. Her ambition was to gain Saxony.
France: Talleyrand aimed at limiting the punishment of France by exploiting differences among the allies. He was especially anxious about an enlarged Prussia. His views largely squared with those of Castlereagh and Metternich.
Although they did not necessarily like or trust each other, the powers were anxious to stick together. It was recognized that France’s previous dominance had been caused in part by her ‘divide and rule’ policy; this must never be allowed to happen again. Under the Treaty of Chaumont (March 1814) the powers had agreed not to make a separate peace with Napoleon and had joined forces in a Quadruple Alliance.
They also agreed to maintain the territorial integrity of France. The extremely lenient Treaty of Paris (30 May) returned France to the frontiers of 1792 (with the addition of Avignon) and she kept a number of colonies as well as trading rights in India. The Bourbons were restored in the name of legitimacy. But at the same time the allies surrounded France with buffer states. In June 1814 the Low Countries was established as a unitary state, the Kingdom of the Netherlands under William of the House of Orange-Nassau (r. 1813-40) incorporating Belgium (the former Austrian Netherlands). It was later agreed that Prussia should have the east bank of the Rhine and a large portion of the kingdom of Westphalia. South of the Rhineland were the larger south German states of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria. To the south east of France the monarchy of Sardinia-Piedmont recovered its territorial integrity and gained Nice and Genoa.
The treaties were ultimately directed against revolution and therefore against the nationalism that had been aroused by the wars – a phenomenon that greatly troubled Metternich. In the name of legitimacy, the Congress restored dynasties that had been ousted by Napoleon. In May 1814 Habsburg princes returned to Tuscany and Modena, while Napoleon’s wife, Marie-Louise, was made duchess of Parma. Pius VII recovered the Papal States including Umbria and the Marches. Ferdinand VII was restored to Spain and Ferdinand IV to the Two Sicilies. Napoleon’s brother in law, Joachim Murat was initially allowed to retain his position as king of Naples, but in March 1815 he marched north and issued a proclamation to the Italian people calling on them to liberate themselves from foreigners. The great powers combined against him. Murat was shot and King Ferdinand was restored to Naples.
Congress Kingdom of Poland’(above right) ,which would in practice be under Russian control. The majority of Poles, who lived outside the Congress Kingdom, lived either under Prussian or Austrian rule. Prussia was allowed part of Saxony and most of the Napoleonic kingdom of Westphalia on the left bank of the Rhine. This killed two birds with one stone as it provided another buffer state against France; in accepting this, Talleyrand created a serious future danger for France.
The Final Act was signed at Vienna on 9 June 1815. By it, the situation in Germany was settled. Castlereagh had wanted a strong Germany as a bulwark against France, Metternich a weak one that did not threaten Austria. The German Confederation, which replaced Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine, arose out of these contradictory aims. This was a very loose federation and Bavaria, Saxony and Hanover were allowed their own armies and foreign policies as a guarantee against Prussia. The Federal Act which set up the Confederation allowed constitutions to be set up – these were adopted by Baden, Bavaria and Württemberg. There was to be no elected Parliament, but a new Federal Diet at Frankfurt (under the presidency of Austria) consisted of representatives of the 39 German governments, including Austria and Prussia, though both of these states lay partly inside and partly outside the Confederation. German nationalism was, therefore, kept strongly under control.
Like the Poles, Germans and Italians, the Serbs also saw their nationalist aspirations suppressed when the revolt of their new ruler Milos Obrenovic was suppressed. In December 1815 the Ottoman Empire conceded them internal autonomy for fear of provoking intervention by Russia.
Gains and losses
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Russia gained ‘Congress Poland’ except Posen, Thorn and Galicia. The Congress of Vienna confirmed her earlier gains of Finland (from Sweden) and Bessarabia (from Turkey).
Austria lost the Austrian Netherlands but kept Galicia and Lombardy and gained Venetia. Lombardy and Venetia were allowed some autonomy. Austria concentrated on being a central European power, but was vulnerable to conflicts with Prussia, Russia and Turkey. The multiplicity of nationalities within the Empire was a potential time-bomb.
Prussia moved westwards. She lost her previous Polish territory to Russia but gained the Rhineland, though this province was separated from the rest of her territories. In the east she gained 60% of Saxony but only 40% of its people. Nevertheless,
‘the Hohenzollern kingdom was now a colossus that stretched across the north of Germany…The consequences for Prussia’s (and Germany’s) nineteenth-century economic and political development were momentous’. (Christopher, Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Allen Lane: 2006, p. 389.)But the fundamental Prussian problem remained the lack of defensible frontiers.
Britain’s gains were outside Europe. She kept some West Indian conquests (including Trinidad, Tobago and St Lucia) and retained Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope, which she had conquered from the Dutch.
By the second Treaty of Paris (November, 1815) France lost some frontier fortresses, had to pay an indemnity of 700m francs, lost Tobago and St Lucia to Britain, had to return the looted art treasures and suffer an army of occupation for five years.
The Vienna settlement has been praised and criticized in equal measure. Henry Kissinger (1957) praised it because the Congress forged a new ‘legitimacy’ that lasted for a hundred years. But this is to ignore the numerous minor wars that Europe experienced throughout the nineteenth century. Adam Zamoyski argues that it brought into being a ‘pax Europaea’ of a sort, a Europe of expanding prosperity and technological advance, but at a high price.
‘The Vienna settlement…enshrined a particularly stultified form of monarchical government’ institutionalised social hierarchies as rigid as any that had existed under the ancien regime; and preserved archaic disabilities [including serfdom in Russia]. By excluding whole classes and nations from a share in its benefits, this system nurtured envy and resentment, which flourished into socialism and aggressive nationalism. And when, after the ‘Concert of Europe’ had fought itself to extinction in the Great War, those forces were at last unleashed, they visited on Europe events more horrific than the worst fears Metternich or any of his colleagues could have entertained.' Rites of Peace, p. 569.