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Impact of the Congress of Vienna (1815)

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In its immediate aftermath, the famous description, “le Congres ne marche pas; il danse” (‘the Congress does not work; it dances’) was often seen as the most accurate summary of the events taking place during the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Beneath the façade of all the reveling, this gathering of diplomats marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the turmoil they wrought on Europe, reshaping the order and structure of the continent in its legacy. With Austria, Great Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia playing the lead roles in the Congress while the rest of the world essentially watched, the two foremost concerns in Vienna were the containment of France, and the restoration of peace and balance of power to Europe. In redrawing the continent’s political landscape after the defeat of Napoleonic France the previous spring, the members managed to successfully redesign Europe into a stable and secure block.

The landmark settlement also represented a turning point in the history if international relations, with the Congress serving as more than the usual post-war divvying up of the spoils, but the states were collectively able to at least partially set aside their own agendas for the well being of Europe as a whole, which was most clearly demonstrated in the dealings of the victorious powers with France, as well as the Congress’ handing of the Polish-Saxon Crisis. The commitment to maintaining the balance of power led to the formation of the Concert of Europe, predecessor to the United Nations, and further solidified the long-term well-being of Europe. In doing so, one of the most noticeable results in its aftermath was a major conservative victory over liberal/nationalists, evident with the effort towards crushing future rebellions, reinstating monarchies, and maintenance of the status quo. Overall, the Congress of Vienna successfully achieved all of its goals and created a new political environment on the continent and throughout the world, that resulted in forty years of peace and a century free of major warfare.

Chaired by Austria’s Klemens von Metternich, the Congress opened on September 1, 1814. Credit for the hundred years during which conflict was restrained and peace most often maintained has been granted to the diplomats, who gathered at Vienna to rearrange their world after forcing Napoleon to leave it. The Congress, extending through the winter of 1814 to June of 1815, was a glittering affair – an immediate source of Vienna’s later reputation as the city of “wine, women, and song.” Although there was a great deal of enjoyment, the participants were in fact working to reassemble a Europe shattered by twenty years of military activity. This was to be achieved via three main principles: legitimacy, that all lands conquered by Napoleon were to be reverted to legitimate rulers; compensation, that all countries who incurred expenses in fighting the French would be repaid; and balance of power, the fundamental premise behind the entire Congress, that all parties would work towards a political equilibrium and prevent any one power from achieving hegemonic might .

With Austria’s Metternich charting course for the Congress, the other main delegates were Russia’s Czar Alexander, Britain’s Lord Castereagh, Hardenberg of Austria and France’s Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. Negotiations were initially planned by the victorious four powers to go about mostly without French input, but Talleyrand’s diplomatic prowess saved France from total exclusion, allowing France a say in decisions regarding her future; had France been left out of the decision making process as planned, the outcome could have been very different, and the possibility of future French vengeance would be greater .

As is to be expected, each of the delegates came into the Congress with their own agendas and goals in mind. Russia’s hopes were pinned on Poland; Austria was determined to break up the Kingdom of Italy by implementing Austrian rule; while Prussia was actively pursuing land lost to Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain, meanwhile, was not so much interested in territory, simply wanting a stable Europe within which to do business. As a group, the five agreed that securing the balance of power and overall security of Europe was their absolute priority, with Napoleon’s Hundred Days providing a grim reminder as to why they were all gathered and helped motivate the powers to work together for the betterment of their world.

Their first order of business was the containment of France, as preventing an outbreak similar to that of Napoleonic France was the leading objective of the Congress. To that end, it was deemed to necessary to build the strength of Frances neighbours. Prussia was granted a large section of Saxony, Austria received direct control of the northernmost Italian states, and the newly formed Kingdom of the Netherlands served as buffers, boxing in France by continental powers and thereby thwarting any chances for its expansion in the future. By reversing the radical territorial changes orchestrated by Napoleon and rolling her borders back to those of 1792, the diplomats did not so much punish France as it did take measures to quarantine any future potential for French aggression, which benefited Europe in that it kept France from becoming too weak and tipping the balance of power in the opposite direction .

With mainland France effectively taken care of, the delegates were faced with the more delicate matter of negotiating the redistribution of territories among themselves in such a way as to create a new, maintainable stability. Firstly, all rulers installed by Napoleon were removed as illegitimate, and the old dynasties were enthroned again in Spain, Switzerland, Holland (acquiring the former Austrian Netherlands), and Italy, where the Papal States were partially restored and Habsburg rulers brought back . At this point came the biggest test faced by the Congress. While most of the work of the Congress went relatively smoothly, conflict arose between the participants in a contentious affair that became known as the Polish-Saxon Crisis. The Russians and Prussians proposed a deal in which the Prussian and Austrian shares of Poland would go to Russia, which would create an independent Polish Kingdom in personal union with Russia, making Alexander its king, and Prussia would receive the whole of Saxony as compensation.

The Austrians, French, and British rejected this plan, and at the suggestion of Talleyrand, who justified his proposition in the name of legitimacy, signed a treaty on January 3, 1815, agreeing to go to war if necessary to prevent the Russo-Prussian plan from coming into fruition. In fear, Prussia and Russia gave in and there was equal distribution of the land . Had Russia and Prussia been successful in their plans, the balance of power would be tipped in favour of those Eastern powers for years to come, quite possibly resulting in a showdown of some kind down the line, and such expert handling of such situations is the reason that the Congress was followed by no major conflict from Waterloo to the First World War.

Once the new balance of power had been agreed upon, the task at hand was to maintain it. At the proposal of Metternich, the Quadruple Alliance was born. Consisting of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, the foursome dubbed the Concert of Europe saw it as its duty to maintain the balance of power and use force If necessary to preserve the Vienna settlement, policing smaller states in their internal affairs, should there be any chance of disturbance to the balance . A system of international conferences was held when needed in accordance with the Concert, for the purpose of cooperative regulation of international affairs. At Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), France was admitted to the Quintuple Alliance, ending its Alliance-imposed occupation from 1815 . A later confreence, at Troppau (Austria) in 1820, was the most significant, upholding the right of the international community to intervene in the domestic affairs of a nation to curb revolutionary activity via the Troppau Protocol. That decision stated that,

“States, which have undergone a change of government due to revolution, the result of which threaten other states…cease to be members of the European Alliance, and remain excluded from it until their situation gives guarantees for legal order and stability. If, owing to such alterations, immediate danger threatens other states the powers bind themselves, by peaceful means, or if need be, by arms, to bring back the guilty state into the bosom of the Great Alliance.”

Although Britain and France declined to back this statement, not seeing it as of immediate significance to Europe as a whole, this Congress System was a crucial point in history as a modest first step towards the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War, and ultimately the UN that exists today. Troppau was a response to revolts in Spain, Portugal, Piedmont and Naples, where Britain opposed intervention. Later, at Laibach (1821), Austria and Russia were ready to send soldiers to suppress Italian revolts, where Britain once again opposed intervention. Handling of the Greek revolt caused a rift between members, leading to Britain’s withdrawal at Verona (1822), when French troops were used against the rebellion in Spain . While there was a clear diference in opinion, the fact remains that for the first time in history, there was a conscious effort being made by the powers of Europe to maintain the balance of power after it was struck, and their crushing of revolutionary forces in Spain and Italy worked in ther favour as they enhanced the Concert’s integrity by proving to the world that it had the muscle to uphold its resolutions.

“The near future was secure, the eyes and ears were in place to report any sign of liberalistic revolt, none had the power or was in position to overthrow the other major powers, and legitimate leaders had been restored in many places. The congress solved most of the problems faced by its delegates…For each delegate to have had all the problems…of their country solved would have been impossible. In understanding that to gain what Europe did as a whole, which was peace, was worth small territorial sacrifices made by a few parties the problem of ongoing war was solved, along with many other problems faced by the delegates of the congress.”

In its remarkably successful effort to find and maintain a political equilibrium, the work of the Congress was carried out with such wise consideration that no single nation was so generously satisfied and no single nation so badly humiliated that resentment or desire for retaliation led to a large-scale or open conflict.

The Congress of Vienna, convened to decide the fate France, was a major building block in the future of Europe, and the conservative views of the leaders at the time led to a successful peace settlement to end the Napoleonic era. At least in the short term, the Congress was an ideological victory for conservatism. After the Congress, liberalists – defined as those looking to achieve equlity of the people, often under revolutionary leadership – and nationalists – those seeking national unity by replacing systems of the old regime – such as those behind the French Revolution, were seen by European leaders as a serious threat .

Frankly put, the delegates, “sought not merely to recreate a Europe congenial to the interests of their own classes and countries, but also to quell forever the manifestations of revolutionary and Bonapartist sentiment and to restore respect for the hierarchy and authority of the established order.” Looking at more than peace in Europe, but for the betterment of society (in their eyes), the leaders at the Congress worked to uphold conservatist norms and institutions. One other important goal of the congress was to restore the leaders that legitimately, based on their family lines, should be in power. During Napoleon’s reign he conquered lands and replaced the original leaders with members of his family; actions reversed by the Congress in Holland, Sardinia, Tuscany and in Modena.

Although the members of the Concert differed greatly – Britain being a constitutional monarchy and seat of liberalism, with its allies being conservative monarchies – they shared the common goal of preventing another revolution in Europe through the conservation of traditional social and political order that had been disrupted by the French Revolution. This especially catered to the interests of Austria, Prussia and Russia, all with freshly acquired territories after the redrawing of the European boundaries, and did not want a popular uprising to topple their rule from the people they subjugated.

The restored conservative sociopolitical order in Europe was to be maintained with the twin policies of balance of power and powers’ policing of Europe. This time excluding Great Britain, the three Eastern powers of Austria, Russia and Prussia banded together in a document secondary to the Quadruple Alliance, agreeing to conduct their policies in accordance with the Christian principles of charity, peace, and love. This “Holy Alliance,” as proposed by the Russian tsar, was of little practical importance, but it gave its name to the cooperative efforts of Austria, Russia, and Prussia to maintain conservative governments in Europe.

“The Three contracting Monarchs will remain united by the bonds of a true and indissoluble fraternity…they will, on all occasions and in all places, lend each other aid and assistance; and, regarding themselves towards their subjects and armies as fathers of families, they will lead them, in the same spirit of fraternity with which they are animated, to protect Religion, Peace, and Justice.”

This self-conscious alliance of throne, land and altar was relatively new, and stood against the new ideas presented and exported by the French Revolution. With several other states joining as time went on (but never Great Britain), the Holy Alliance served, in practice, as a bastion against any liberal/nationalist revolution.

It was Napoleonic ideas of military glory, enlightened government, and a ‘liberating-minded’ empire that provided an alternative to the real and apparent conservatism and conformity that the Congress (especailly the Holy Alliance) was poised to eliminate. One example is the reinstatement of ‘legitimate’ or traditional rulers in France (Louis XVIII) and Italy (Ferdinand IV), among others. The notion of the divine right of kings embodied the pinnacle of conservatism, and these efforts to maintain the status quo may have been met with partial success in the short term, but were bound to fail in the long-term because they opposed the irresistible forces of historical change resulting from modernization . Those irresistible forces took the form of the dual revolutions of liberalism and nationalism in the eighteen-thirties and forties, but for the time being, preserving the staying power of such institutions as landed aristocracies, monarchies and the Church, was of foremost concern for political leaders.

The manner in which this was handled varied from region to region, and the degree to which it was enforced was also highly variant. In Austria, Metternich himself was the epitome of conservatism. Believing that anything else would destroy Austria, there was no compromise with liberalism or nationalism. As a cosmopolitan state, Austria existed only because of its dynasty; nationalism and liberalism were seen as working against loyalty to one dynasty, and thus against the existence of the state. Austria also opposed moves to constitutionalism in German states, believing that they posed a danger to Austria’s soverignty . In Prussia, the ruling class consiting of a landed aristocracy known as the Junkers were allied with the army and King Fredrick William III staunchly opposed German nationalism, and when approached with the opportunity of switching to a constitutional monarchy, Fredrick backed down in 1817 , in true conservative fashion.

Germany in 1819 introduced the Carlsbad Decrees, advocating replacement of local loyalties with loyalty to a united German state, implementing secret police in many German states, suppressing liberal thought, imosing censorship in universities and banning of student associations . The immediate aftermath of the Congress in Britain saw the return of Tories (conservative party) to power. Economic conservatism was adopted, and corn laws were put in place to keep foreign bread out and increase wealth of landed class (an anti-bourgeois measure), which wasn’t repealed until 1846 after a Whig victory . Finally in Russia, liberalism was harshly opposed any liberal movements, especially under the extreme conservatism of Nicholas I, adopting the slogan “Orthodoxy, Aristocracy, and Nationalism.”

Broadly sketched, international affairs between 1815 and 1848 were directed by a coalition of conservative states against the liberal sentiment, institutions, and practices promoted by the French revolutionaries. Nationalism, democracy, and constitutionalism were the related ideologies seemingly undermining the foundations of monarchical Europe. The Congress of Vienna was criticized for its ignorance of the strong democratic and nationalistic sentiments of many Europeans. These sentiments contributed to democratic revolutions in numerous European countries in 1830 and 1848 and to nationalistic movements in Germany and Italy (Risorgimento) . The simple truth was that Europe was not ready for recognition of nationality and liberalism. What it needed most of all was peace, and by establishing equilibrium the congress did much to win that breathing space which was the cardinal need of all.

As an historical document, the Congress of Vienna is one of the most widely acclaimed and significant in history. Prior to the opening of the Paris peace conference of 1918, the British Foreign Office commissioned a history of the Congress of Vienna to serve as an example for its own delegates to achieve an equally successful peace . An auxiliary accomplishment of the Congress is its contribution to today’s standard rules of diplomacy (never before was ‘wining and dining’ considered a significant part of political life, but is an essential component of it today). Furthermore, The 1957 Treaty of Rome has been described as a, “modernized, slightly rectified version of the 1815 Vienna Convention.” That very treaty laid the groundwork for the formation of the European Union some half a century later, and the other most notable institutional legacy left with us by the Congress of Vienna is the United Nations, descendant of the League of Nations, which was the successor of the Concert of Europe, brainchild of Metternich himself.

Ironically eough, one could argue that the “Congress of Vienna” never actually occurred, with most of the discussions occurring through informal sessions among the Great Powers. Nonetheless, its legacy is indisputable and the Congress was an integral part in what became known as the Conservative Order. Successfully creating a balance of power among the powerful nations of Europe, reinstating conservative regimes, working out a non-vindictive boundary settlement with France and reaching an agreement to cooperate with each other were the goals of the Congress that illustrated the altruistic attitude of the national representatives present and supported the overall purpose of preventing future widespread conflict.

It was the work of this gathering that prevented another European general war for nearly a hundred years (1815-1914). Although the separate ambitions of the victors at the Congress to gain territory were mostly fuelled by naked self-interest, they came to a compromise in order to establish a balance in Europe. The near-perfectly balanced powers of the five leading states of the time effectively held each other in check, much the same way crabs keep each other from getting out of a basket, with the establishment of the Concert of Europe serving as a maintainer to one of the greatest historical documents history has ever known.

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