Peace For Their Time: The Congress of Vienna

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For Europe, the almost century between 1815 and 1914 was the eye of history’s hurricane. It followed and preceded eras of cataclysmic warfare, when the ideologies of nationalism summoned up all the resources of the Continent and threw them into the chaos of total war. These were periods when old empires crumbled, new nations were born and bloody battles butchered entire generations. While the post-Napoleonic part of the Long 19th Century saw its own wars and conflicts, compared with the broad sweep of history, it was a period of remarkable peace. The only other occasion Europe has witnessed such an era of tranquility has been the time since the fall of the Third Reich – yet that peace has largely been maintained through the threat of mutually assured destruction. In contrast, the key cause of the post-Napoleonic peace was the balance of competing powers carefully established by some of history’s most brilliant statesmen at the Congress of Vienna. 

In many ways, the Congress never existed; the representatives of the various nations never huddled together to draw great red lines on a map. Indeed, they never even assembled in the same room, despite what the paintings might suggest. Rather, the Congress was the grandest social event of century, a party attended by the Europe’s most significant figures, who managed to find time to determine the Continent’s destiny between the myriad dances and feasts. Some 12,000 candles were used on the evening of the opening ball, alongside 10,000 silver spoons. The Congress attended such banquets nightly, and at points seemed to do little actual ‘work’. Instead, those present indulged themselves on the food, gossiped with one another and listened as Beethoven himself performed for them. 

Acting as host and master of ceremonies was the Austrian foreign secretary, Klemens von Metternich. Charming, witty and something of a dandy, Metternich was also a figure of Mephistophelian cunning. Famously, he would send three letters to his foreign ambassadors; the first explaining Austria’s stated position, the second explaining who should be informed about this position and the third expressing Austria’s true position. The very personification of his polyglot empire, Metternich was born on the Rhineland, didn’t set foot in Austria until he was thirteen years old and would always prefer to speak French.

Events since 1789 had revolutionised the way Europe viewed states. The idea of la Patrie – the nation – was that of a people bonded by a shared language, history and culture. This was diametrically opposed to the old notion of dynastic empires, which were held together merely by the monarch’s person and right to rule. Austria was just such an empire, unifying Czechs, Belgians and Croats not through a shared identity, but diplomatic marriages. Metternich’s first great challenge was to reconcile this medieval state with the modern world. His second great challenge was to find a way to diplomatically cushion Austria from the outside world; saving the state’s soul would do little good if a foreign power simply invaded the empire. Sitting in the heart of Europe, without the internal unity or military might of the other great powers, Austria was mortally afraid of both armed anarchy and being at the mercy hegemony of a single hegemon – whoever that may be.

By 1814, that state was Russia. Having done more to defeat Napoleon than any other individual (except perhaps Napoleon himself), Tsar Alexander I was now the supreme figure on the Continent, the modern Agamemnon. With 600,000 men behind him and soldiers stationed everywhere between Moscow and the English Channel, it seemed anything that the Tsar dreamed of would be his. Quite what the Tsar dreamed of, however, was something of a mystery; the Russian autocrat had an infuriating habit of regularly reversing his position on any given issue every few weeks. By turns a liberal crusader, a Christian zealot and a sly politician, Alexander was a uniquely unpredictable figure, but as the Congress began he made it clear that his main interest was the fate of Poland.

In the 18th Century, Poland had been carved up between Prussia, Russia and Austria in a series of partitions, but the Polish patriotic spirit had remained intact. Napoleon had channelled this hunger for a new nation by creating the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which many believed to be a precursor to a true Polish state, and the Poles had become ardent Bonapartists. Napoleon’s defeat had seemed to mark the end of the Polish experiment, but the Poles now found a curious champion in the Tsar, who suggested that he might become the monarch of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and grant it a liberal constitution. 

The only state whose interests were obscure as Russia’s was Britain, which was represented by Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary. The island’s only true strategic imperative was to ensure that the Netherlands were protected from France by Austria, Prussia or Russia; England had only been invaded once since 1066, when William III had sailed from the Scheldt Estuary to depose James II, and Britain had no interest in allowing a French force to follow the stadtholder’s example. Otherwise though, the island seemed reluctant to involve itself heavily in Continental affairs. Castlereagh, however, ardently believed that Britain should be committed to ensuring that peace held. His reasoning was far from altruistic; Castlereagh had correctly calculated that Continental tranquility would mean that the pursuit of power would take the form of colonial ventures in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania – arenas in which Britain, the owner of the world’s mightiest navy, had a unique advantage. 

Of all the negotiators at Vienna, Prince Hardenberg of Prussia was in the weakest bargaining position. In many ways, Prussia had suffered more from Napoleon’s diplomacy than any other nation; Frederick the Great’s heirs had annoyed the French Emperor once too many times, and he stripped the burgeoning great power of everything but a few specks on the map. Prussia was desperate to ensure it never sank back to being a second class power, and Hardenberg believed that safety lay only in territorial expansion. He would not be contented unless his king became the monarch of a state of thirteen million people, for that was the figure the Prussians reasoned would give them the manpower and resources to resist another Napoleon.

But Prussia had so despised the first Napoleon that it had immediately joined the Sixth Coalition as soon as it sniffed blood in the water. Metternich had played a far savvier game, waiting to extract as many definite and guaranteed concessions as possible before Austria committed itself to the war. In contrast, all Prussia had was vague promises of compensation. Hardenberg wanted this compensation to take the form of Saxony, which had been one of Napoleon’s most ardent acolytes. Large, wealthy, Protestant and bordering the Hohenzollern heartland, annexing Saxony had been a Prussian dream for centuries, and now Hardenberg felt he had an excuse to swallow the kingdom up. But such an annexation would leave Prussia pre-eminent, upset the German balance of power and threaten Austria.

Fukuyama noted that each generation of statesman is influenced by the cultural framework that existed when that generation was coming of age. The Congress of Vienna testifies to that theory; Metternich and Castlereagh both perceived events through the Enlightened Newtonian model, which saw the world through the lens of subtle clockwork, action and reaction and cause and effect. Great events, like revolutions, followed a logical pattern of escalation, until the whole Continent was engulfed in chaos. The best way to prevent such turmoil was for an alliance of nearby states to intervene against a state that had fallen victim to revolution, strangle the developing crisis in its crib and restore order.

Europe had attempted to do this in 1792, only to be dismayed to discover that France possessed the strength to overwhelm five successive coalitions. The old order had proven itself utterly incapable of controlling a rogue nation, and therefore had to be done away with. Moreover, the Jacobin genie could not simply be put pack in the bottle; everywhere Napoleon’s armies had invaded had felt the rationalising hand of the French Revolution. Government structures had been entirely reformed, new nations had been created and antiquated alliances had been abolished, all of which meant it was simply impossible to recreate the Europe that had existed on 1 January 1789. It therefore fell to the statesmen at Vienna to build a new world order.

Construction of this Continental balance had begun before Napoleon’s fall. As the Emperor was driven back from Moscow, Metternich had seen that with France crushed and Russia fully mobilised, domination from the west would be replaced by domination from the east, unless something in the political equation was altered. Austria, then theoretically a French ally, carefully exacted concessions from the Sixth Coalition, prepared its armies and then betrayed Napoleon. The romantic Russian Emperor dreamed of heroically storming Paris, deposing his French counterpart and installing Marshal Bernadotte, a firm Russian ally, on the French throne. For Metternich, seeing that a Tsar with the power of Russia augmented by that of a puppet France would be the de facto master of Europe, this was a nightmare. The Austrian had no interest in regime change; he saw a diminished Napoleon as the one man who could contain both the Tsar’s ambitions and the revolutionary forces within France.

Russia was a far more powerful state than Austria, but events played perfectly into Metternich’s hands. Napoleon won a string of stunning victories in 1814, and Metternich threatened to withdraw from the Coalition unless Alexander agreed to his terms. The Tsar had no choice. In the Treaty of Chaumont (4 March 1814) each of the four great powers in the Coalition pledged to provide 150,000 men to the war and another 60,000 to combat potential French aggression in the next two decades. Castlereagh and Metternich persuaded the Tsar to agree to an expanded Kingdom of the Netherlands, which would include Belgium, and to an independent German confederation. In return, the Tsar held his coalition together, had his Dutch debts dissolved and received vague promises about Poland. All Metternich needed was for Napoleon to surrender, but the French Emperor stubbornly clung on to power. As it slowly dawned on the Coalition that there would never be peace on the Continent while a Bonaparte sat on the throne, Castlereagh proposed a compromise that would please both Metternich and Castlereagh – France would see the Bourbons return to the throne under a constitutional monarchy. 

The man who orchestrated this restoration was Talleyrand, a diplomat whose abundance of political nous was matched only by his total lack of principles. An opportunist par excellence, he had served and betrayed every French government since Louis XVI – as such he had been a royalist, a Jacobin, a Thermidorian and a Bonapartist. Realising his master was about to fall, Talleyrand decided to become a royalist once more; he sold every secret he had heard to Metternich, began undermining the French war effort and essentially handed Paris over to the Coalition. Stripped of his capital, Napoleon finally gave in and abdicated. The relationship between Talleyrand and the Emperor had been deteriorating for some time, with Napoleon famously calling him “a turd in silk stockings.” Now, however, with the French diplomat having truly double-crossed his former patron, Napoleon acidly observed that “the only master Talleyrand has never betrayed was Brie cheese.” 

A despondent Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. Europe’s statesmen wisely proclaimed their struggle had not been with France, but the now vanquished Emperor, and made a lenient peace. The May 1814 Treaty of Paris saw France return to its 1792 borders, meaning it was still larger than it had been in 1789, and recognise an independent German confederation, a neutral Switzerland and an extension of Austrian influence into Italy. Metternich annexed Lombardy-Venetia and installed petty Habsburgs in Tuscany, Modena and Parma in a somewhat blatant but successful grab for power in the Peninsula. In return, France faced no reparations. With the immediate issues resolved, the diplomats agreed to re-assemble at Vienna in November to resolve the great questions of the day. 

When the Congress did finally gather, it was quickly decided that the Quadruple Alliance which had defeated Napoleon (Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain) would form ‘the Big Four’ and decide most matters. The ‘Big Four’ would sometimes meet with France, represented by Talleyrand, and Spain (a group known as the ‘Big Six’) and present their decisions to the whole Congress for ratification, while minor disputes would be settled by the ‘Big Eight’ (the ‘Big Six’ joined by Portugal and Sweden). From the beginning, Talleyrand sought to insert himself into ‘the Big Four’, but while France was not to be punished, feelings still ran high and Talleyrand was kept at a polite distance. 

Now, however, the issues emerged; it was easy enough to conclude treaties when all parties agreed to simply postpone resolving the most complex issues, but actually addressing them was more difficult. At its core, the issue was simple: Russia wanted Poland, but such an annexation would make Russia too powerful and would reduce Prussia, unless it was also suitably strengthened, to the status of a Tsarist client state. Castlereagh tried to explain these issues to Alexander, who simply dismissed the Foreign Secretary from his presence. The Big Four were split, with Prussia and Russia hungry for new lands and Austria and Britain trying to restrain them.  Metternich saw no way to break this deadlock in his favour. So he stalled, waited for events to develop and for his opponents to overreach. The delay infuriated the Congress, with the Prince de Ligny noting that “the Congress dances, but does not progress”, yet the other states could hardly force Metternich to negotiate.

Desperate to seize his objectives, Hardenberg tried to align himself with Austria and Britain against the Russian expansion into Poland. His price, naturally enough, was Saxony. Metternich counter-offered, promising that Austria would support a Prussian acquisition of the kingdom once the Tsar’s ambitions were checked, and as long as gaining Saxony didn’t cause to ‘disproportionate aggrandisement’ for Prussia. Hardenberg was so desperate to gain Saxony that he agreed, and together they presented their concerns to the Tsar, who responded by challenging Metternich to a duel. Alexander then made a personal appeal to the King of Prussia, who ordered Hardenberg to break with Castlereagh and Metternich. It seemed the Congress was back to square one but, without anyone else realising it, the Austrian had ensnared Prussia in a tight net of logic. For if the Tsar gained Poland, then Prussia would not gain Saxony. Yet if the Tsar was stopped, then Prussia would, by default, regain the old holdings in Poland it had lost to Napoleon and become ineligible to receive Saxony – for gaining both Poland and Saxony would surely be considered ‘disproportionate aggrandisement’.

Metternich told Hardenberg that Europe would not accept both Prussian and Russian designs, and that the foundation of an independent German confederation could not be the gravestone of Saxony, an ancient and respected monarchy. He then proposed that Prussia should instead receive two-fifths of Saxony and portions of the Rhineland, holdings that would make it the de facto guardian of the Scheldt Estuary. 

Prussia was deeply reluctant about these proposals, and began threatening war. Metternich responded by threatening to form a German union without Prussia – threatening Hardenberg with eternal isolation – as he knew the smaller German states would always side with one of their own, Saxony, over the land-hungry Hohenzollerns.

Prussia was trapped, and Metternich now played his trump card. For the longer negotiations dragged on and the more tense relations grew, the more rehabilitated France became. Metternich’s stalling had been so successful that eight months had passed since Napoleon had abdicated and, now that the old allies were threatening to go to war with one another, it seemed only natural that France enter negotiations as a major player.

On 31 December, Talleyrand joined the Big Four, elevated by Metternich and Castlereagh to serve as their agent. Through the act of doing nothing, Metternich had achieved the most remarkable of somethings; an old enemy became the means to check a former ally’s ambitions. With a majority of the new ‘Big Five’ now opposed to Prussia’s plans, and the power of France now backing that majority with a powerful army of its own, Castlereagh persuaded the Tsar to abandon Hardenberg. Completely outmanoeuvred, Prussia was forced to agree to Metternich’s compromise. 

Meanwhile, Alexander himself had undergone of his famed mood swings. Influenced by his spiritual advisers, concerned about the prospect of war and believing himself to be a quasi-messianic figure, the Tsar sought to end the bad faith diplomatic haggling and replace it with a common vision for a new utopia. Seizing the moment, Castlereagh persuaded the now generous Alexander to appease the Prussians by granting them the Posen province and the key Polish city of Thorn, to make Krakow a free city and to grant Galicia to Austria. The remaining rump of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was awarded to Alexander, who became the monarch of Congress Poland. Russia had grown stronger, but it had not become omnipotent, and Prussia had been made powerful enough to avoid falling into the Tsar’s orbit.

The last issue to resolve was that of Germany. Prussia pushed for a more centralised union, with a slew of institutions and a common defence force, which Austria and Prussia would be enshrined as the joint leaders of. Metternich, however, realised that such an organisation would only lead to the expansion of Prussian influence. Instead, he created the German Confederation – a looser union of thirty-nine German states, with one institution, the Diet. For historical reasons, Austria was the de facto leader of the German-speaking world, and could expect to be the real head of any union whose leaders were not formally established. Being named the equal of and having to share these privileges with Prussia would therefore be a diminishment for Austria, and so Metternich slyly refused Hardenberg’s offer. Unsurprisingly, when the German Confederation was eventually established, Prussia received no special treatment, while Austria was granted the Presidency and a host of other rights and powers. Metternich would use these to repress the forces of liberalism, imposing censorship, book bans and intelligence networks on the German Confederation.

Yet just as it seemed that issues were finally being resolved, disaster struck. Like a magician, Napoleon vanished from Elba, re-appeared in France and conjured up his army, his nation and his throne. Nothing could have struck more terror in the hearts of the men at Vienna; all of the key players had helped defeat the Emperor, and all bar Castlereagh had betrayed him at some point. Unfortunately for the French Emperor, he had returned at a time when all the great leaders of the Continent were gathered together, and they immediately closed ranks, declared him an outlaw and prepared for war.

Around a hundred days later, Napoleon was again defeated, forced to surrender and packed off into exile. Now, however, the great powers wanted to punish France, with Prussia being especially eager to take vengeance. Only Castlereagh realised the bitterness that a punitive settlement would cause, and he slowly persuaded the other powers to pursue moderation. In the end, France had to pay 700 million francs in reparations, host an occupying force and return to its 1789 borders, meaning it had to sacrifice Savoy. The French felt that these terms were too harsh and the Coalition complained they were too lenient, but eventually all parties unhappily accepted the compromise. 

Napoleon’s brief return had also shown that the settlement needed new institutions to defend it. The Quadruple Alliance of Prussia, Russia, Austria and Britain was reformed and granted the responsibility of thwarting any aggressive nation’s territorial ambitions. At the same time, Alexander I called for a new age of Christian politics, at the centre of which was to sit his Holy League, an alliance meant to replace profane political pacts with an eternal brotherhood of monarchies. Metternich sneered that it was “a resounding nothing”, but the Austrian was too canny to let an opportunity go to waste; he effectively hijacked Alexander’s vision and transformed it into a mechanism that would allow conservative monarchs to borrow one another’s armies, which they could use to repress internal liberal, democratic and nationalist movements. Finally, a Concert System was established; whenever tensions rose, the leading statesmen were to gather together as they had at Vienna, and resolve their issues through subtle diplomacy instead of war. The Concert System was defined by its flexibility, and would remain in effect until 1914, ironically when an Austrian refused to accept its legitimacy.

The European political order for the thirty years following the Congress of Vienna was known as the Metternich System. In this period, the Austrian served as the ‘Coachman of Europe’ and used institutions like the Holy Alliance to strangle fledgling ‘Jacobin’ movements in their infancy. Even after the chaos of 1848 ended this era and Europe experienced the Crimean War, Italian Unification and German Unification, the balance of powers, the Congress System and diplomatic flexibility established at Vienna managed to maintain peace on the Continent for an unprecedentedly long stretch of time. 

The Congress of Vienna has been controversial ever since its participants dispersed in 1815. Criticism reached its peak more than a century later, when world leaders met at Versailles to establish a new peace in the aftermath of the First World War. The statesmen of the early years of the 20th Century critiqued their 19th Century counterparts as too cynical, too conservative and too focussed on the balance of powers. Yet we must remember that within twenty years of the Paris peace conference, Europe was ablaze once more. In contrast, the remainder of the Long 19th Century would certainly see fighting on the continent, but nothing comparable to the Napoleonic Wars, the Seven Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War and the myriad other conflicts which had plagued Europe. Vienna gifted Europe a century of reprieve.

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