When we first talked about Napoleon, I pointed out how his constant need to export the French Revolution led him deeper into Europe until he collected so many enemies that both he and the Revolution were pushed back into France. This was a great victory for the so-called fourth coalition of Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia. However, having finally succeeded in defeating France the coalition now had the problem of what to do with liberated Europe. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods had wrought so many changes—politically, socially, and economically—that there was no way to go back to the pre-1789 world. Thus, when the victorious powers met at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, they had to walk a difficult line between the old world and the new, between dampening the forces of disorder and not going so far as to incite new revolutions. They did restore political order to Europe, but it would constantly be challenged by the forces that Napoleon and the French Revolution had unleashed.
Today, I want to consider one force that the victorious powers struggled with: the belief among Europeans that governments were, in some sense, answerable to the people. Whereas Louis XVI, the King of France, had been King by the grace of God alone, all future European rulers would have to construct their right to rule along more worldly lines. For example, when Louis Philippe became the French King in 1830, after his predecessor Charles X had been expelled by yet another revolution, he pointedly accepted the title “King of the French” and not, as had been the case for his predecessors, “King of France.” This shift in terminology highlights what I will call the problem of legitimacy. For the next century, European states tried to maintain political stability, in the face of a political settlement that had no political legitimacy.
The negotiators at the Congress of Vienna confronted a new world—one in which the myths that had supported previous regimes no longer held sway. The problem was that the negotiators attempted, nonetheless, to bring stability without reference to this change. They succeeded in part, as Europe would avoid another great Continental war until World War I broke out in 1914. Yet even in 1919, when yet another conference tried to pick up the still smaller pieces that another war had left behind, the negotiators at Versailles blithely ignored the same lessons that the participants at Vienna had proved incapable of grasping: only governments that were legitimate in their people’s eyes could maintain domestic peace. Unfortunately, this second time around, with millions already dead, the mistakes made at Versailles’ negotiating table contributed to many millions more dying.
I have couched my discussion of the Congress of Vienna in terms of its failures, but we should keep in mind that those failures were also a product of the French Revolution and Napoleon. That is to say, that what may appear to us as one-dimensional conservative reaction was, in fact, something new in the history of Europe. The participants in Vienna worked in a difficult, unstable world. Some of their “reaction” may have been overdone, but a good part was the result of legitimate security concerns. So we want to be sure not to view the entire process of negotiation and reorganization in a wholly negative light.
A little perspective will help us understand the difficulties more clearly. Consider, for example, that when the Congress began on November 1, 1814, barely seven months had elapsed since Napoleon had left an exhausted Continent for his exile in Elba. Thus, we cannot forget that Napoleon and the French Revolution’s shadows loomed over the entire event, and it is fair to say that this Congress was as much a product of France’s dark side, Revolutionary aggression, as it was a regressive reorganization of the Old Regime.
In discussing the Congress of Vienna, we confront, thus, a complicated world whose outlines were forged in a desperate struggle for survival. You will recall that after France first declared war in 1792 it took multiple coalitions and 21 years of war to achieve final victory. This system of coalitions conditioned both the structure of the Congress itself and the participants’ attitudes. While on their march to Paris, the chief members of the Fourth Coalition met in the French town of Chaumont to sign a treaty that committed each participant to negotiate a post-war order. After occupying Paris, the major powers agreed, in accord with this Treaty of Chaumont, to meet in Vienna for formal negotiations. Thus, war of liberation itself was the inspiration for an attempt to keep wars at bay. The result was what has been called the Congress System. This system was founded on the belief that European states should work to avoid wars and that the best means to do so was to negotiate before hostilities actually broke out. (Notice that there is no talk of legitimacy, or democracy here. It was diplomats, not peoples, who worked to end war.) Between 1814 and 1822, there would be four more conferences that aimed at mitigating conflicts.
1818 Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle
1820 Congress of Troppau
1821 Congress of Laibach
1822 Congress of Verona
These conferences were very early signs of international co-operation, and they reveal how confused the post-war situation had become. Political reaction brought us international cooperation. This opposition to war was not, however, the product of a humanitarian instinct, nor did it represent a philosophical desire to end “war.” Rather, it stemmed from the realization among Europe’s political elite that wars destabilized governments, which threatened their positions.
Seen from this perspective, the Congress of Vienna was an attempt to ensure that France would not threaten stability again. Although the major powers tried to pick up the Old Regime’s pieces, they recognized that the previous 25 years had brought irreversible change. In particular, they recognized the power of French nationalism, which was evident in their offering France a lenient peace settlement for fear that the French would spill over their borders again. Thus, France was required only to return to the borders of 1793, which meant that the former Austrian Netherlands, an area that would later become Belgium, remained under French control. France was not required to pay an indemnity. Finally, all the art treasures that Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies had looted from across Europe were allowed to remain in Paris for their own protection, as it was said.
The victorious side’s leniency toward France evaporated, however, when on March 1, 1815, Napoleon returned for his “Hundred Days.” This policy reversal suggests how central security was for the negotiators. Napoleon escaped his prison island of Elba, and after landing in southern France raised an army. He marched north, acquiring troops as he went, and by March 20, he was in Paris again, confirming the coalition’s worst fears about French aggression. We should not, however, overstate French support for Napoleon. Although he attracted many enthusiasts, usually veterans pining after the good old days, most of the French kept a cool distance, preferring to see whether Napoleon would win before joining him. This was not going to happen. By June 1815, Napoleon’s dreams were dashed, as a combined Prussian/British force defeated him at the Belgian town of Waterloo. Napoleon abdicated once more on 22 June 1815, and was sent into exile again, though this time his prison was more secure, being on a cold and wet island in the Atlantic called St. Helena. Peace could return to Europe again. But this time it was of a markedly different kind.
Napoleon’s renewed adventurism brought a much harsher peace to France. After the Congress of Vienna met again, France was reduced to the borders of 1790. (Belgium was added to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in order to create a buffer state that would keep the French in line.) The victorious powers also exacted a large indemnity and required the French to pay the costs of a 150,000 man occupying army. But the Hundred Days also made firmer the resolve to maintain political stability against any threat of disorder. As a result, the Congress of Vienna restored monarchies and redistributed territory without reference to any local conditions, or to calls for more democratic involvement. Belgium is a good example of this trend. Even though most of Belgium’s residents were Catholic and many spoke French, this region was given to the King of Holland, a Dutch-speaking, Protestant country. Fundamentally, security interests often clashed with emerging national consciousnesses. The gap between these two was a key element the Vienna settlement’s ultimate instability.
With this in mind, let’s consider the Congress of Vienna’s redrawing of the maps more closely. We will begin with Great Britain. As a result of the final treaty, Great Britain acquired the island of Malta, and a small island that they had stolen from Denmark called Heligoland. (This island was ceded to Germany in 1890.) The British also became protectors of the so-called Ionian Islands, which were Greek-speaking territories off Turkey’s coast that had been under Turkey’s control. They also acquired Mauritius, Tobago, and St. Lucia from France. Britain took Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope from Holland. Finally, the British took Trinidad from Spain. These were important acquisitions, and they completed a trend that had been underway since the end of the seventeenth century. By means honest and dishonest Britain had become the world’s largest commercial power, dominating the world’s oceans. This would have important consequences after 1850.
Prussia was another big winner, distinguishing itself at the conference of Vienna through naked greed. Prussia received half of Saxony, the entire Duchy of Berg, which as you will recall Napoleon had created only a few years before. Prussia also received part of the Kingdom of Westphalia, and a large swath of territory on the Rhine’s left Bank that included Cologne and Aix-la-Chapelle. (The Germans call this city Aachen.) In addition, Prussia acquired Pomerania from Sweden, ending a Swedish presence in this German-speaking area that dated back to the seventeenth century. Finally, Prussia also retained the territories it had already acquired in the three partitions of Poland. This included the region known as Posen and, in particular, the cities of Danzig and Thorn.
In many ways, however, Austria was an even bigger winner than Prussia. This was not because Austria acquired new territory (the post-1815 Austria was about as large as the pre-1815 Austria), but because the Habsburgs succeeded in consolidating their once far-flung empire into a contiguous territory that could be defended and managed. This was a major advance, and we need to take note of it, because it essentially allowed the empire to endure for another 100 years. Only in 1919 was the Austrian empire dissolved for good.
Belgium provides the clearest example of Austria’s success. This territory had once been known as the Austrian Netherlands. The Austrians never liked having this territory. It was too far away to be managed effectively, and the people did not exactly welcome Austrian oversight. In fact, during the eighteenth century the Austrians tried repeatedly to arrange a swap with the Wittelsbachs, the Bavarian royal family. Twice during the eighteenth century, the Wittelsbachs and the Habsburgs came close to swapping these territories, but each time Frederick II, the King of Prussia prevented the deal going through.
Rather than dealing with a sullen people far off in Europe, Austria concentrated on gaining territories that were nearby. It took back lost territories in Venetia, Trieste, and Dalmatia, while keeping the Polish province of Galicia. In addition, the Alpine region of Tyrolia was acquired, as well as the Bishopric of Salzburg. To top it off, the Duchies of Tuscany and Modena were given to Habsburg relatives. A glance at the map shows just how compact and powerful Austria had become. Reaching far into the East and with direct access to the Mediterranean, Austria’s immediate future looked bright.
If we consider the rest of Germany it becomes clear how central security issues were to the negotiations in Vienna. Although Napoleon was gone, Germany did not return to its previous political arrangements, where over 300 separate princes ruled. In the Act of Confederation, which was part of the final Vienna agreement, these 300 some odd principalities were reduced to 38. The proliferation of small principalities that had characterized the Holy Roman Empire was over for good. From this point on Germany’s future belonged to the larger, powerful states.
Russia also received significant amounts of territory. The old Grand Duchy of Warsaw that Napoleon had set up was dissolved and the territory was turned over to Russia. In addition, Russia kept Finland, which it had taken from Sweden in 1808, as well as Bessarabia, which it had taken from Turkey in 1812.
Italy was left in a condition similar to Germany’s, deeply divided. In the south, Ferdinand IV became King in the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, with the capital in Naples. The papal state survived Napoleon’s annexation, and also added Bologna and Ferrara to its domains. Genoa went to the Kingdom of Sardinia, which would, incidentally, unify Italy in 1870. Finally, as I noted before, Tuscany and Modena went to Habsburg princes.
The Low Countries also changed dramatically. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was expanded beyond Holland to include Belgium under King William I. William I was also made Grand Duke of Luxembourg, which made him part of the German Confederation.
Switzerland was also back, after having been defeated by Napoleon. The original 19 cantons were restored and three more were added, Geneva, Wallis, and Neuchatel.
Even Sweden and Denmark got into the act. Sweden kept Norway, which it had taken from Denmark in 1814. Denmark was compensated with Lauenburg, which it would have to give up to Germany in 1864.
Spain and Portugal were the conference’s big losers, as Spain lost Trinidad to the Brits and Portugal lost Guiana to France.
To conclude this part of the lecture, if we consider how Europe’s political boundaries changed after Napoleon’s final defeat, we see security concerns taking precedence over national sentiments, which in many cases undermined the existing governments. The period after 1815 was, thus, not an attempt to go back to a pre-1789 world, but was dominated by the need to prevent another revolution.
Now I’m going to change focus slightly and consider the Congress of Vienna from the perspective of the individual negotiators. The major players were:
For Austria: Klemens von Metternich
For Prussia: Prince Karl August von Hardenberg and Wilhelm von Humboldt
For Russia: Count Karl Robert Nesselrode
For Great Britain: Viscount Robert Castlereagh
For France: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand
I don’t have time to go into all the people I have mentioned, so I will constrain my comments to the man who dominated the entire negotiation and, indeed, dominated European diplomacy for the next 33 years, Prince Klemens von Metternich. Metternich was the Austrian minister of foreign affairs from 1809 until 1848. He spearheaded the diplomatic drive to build a coalition against Napoleon and he manipulated the entire Congress of Vienna to make sure that such a war would never happen again. One way he did this was through dancing. Metternich was a very good dancer and he enjoyed being the center of attention, the perfect character trait for a nineteenth-century diplomat. But Metternich was also cunning and he used the various dances and parties that he had arranged to keep the smaller countries of Europe busy, while he and the other major powers negotiated the important deals. For this reason, the Congress of Vienna is also occasionally known as the dancing Congress.
Metternich was politically conservative, but he also knew that for the Congress to be successful he had to be flexible. He was behind the formation of the German Confederation, a group of German states that included Prussia, that was dedicated to maintaining the political status quo. Metternich assured that this body would be dominated by Austria by having keeping the presidency in Austrian hands. Moreover, using the Congress, Metternich was able to weaken France, keep Prussia locked into the German confederation, while preventing Russia from gaining too much power. Thus, on one level, if we consider what preceded it, the treaty was a tremendous success. There was not another major war in Europe until 1914. But this also gives the diplomatic “system” that Metternich and his cohorts had set up too much credit, since it did not actually last very long. By 1822, the alliance system set up to prevent French revanchism had collapsed. When Europe was rocked by another revolution in 1848, the system was all but gone. Moreover, if it had any life left at all, the congress system was dead by the time the Crimean War broke out in 1853.
The Congress of Vienna was part of the Old World. It was itself something new, brought on by the forces that Revolutionary and Napoleon France had unleashed. The repressive measures that it used were the same ones Napoleon had used. This time, however, these methods were put at the service of political stability rather than war. The Congress system failed, but as I will talk about over next few lectures, it failed because problems that it was never designed to address made its continued existence impossible.