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Thoughts on Congress of Vienna

The following article talks about the significance and repercussions of the Congress of Vienna; a conference that was convened by the victorious powers after the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig (Napoleon subsequently escaped his exile on the island of Elba and came back to France, only to be defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and be permanently exiled).

The Congress of Vienna stands as a masterpiece in diplomatic history. The peace settlement that came from Vienna ensured that Europe would not see another “great war” for almost a century, from 1815 to 1914, the start of World War One. This is a record that has been matched by no diplomatic settlement that came before Vienna or has followed since. This article seeks to disseminate the ingredients that made Vienna so successful and seeks to help future statesmen guide the treacherous waters of international diplomacy.

1815 was an important year in many ways. The world saw the seemingly undefeatable Napoleon finally surrender to the conservative coalition of Imperial Russia, Imperial Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia and Great Britain after nearly 20 years of warfare that had been unleashed by the French Revolution in 1789. The wars claimed the lives of 600,000 to 1.3 million French alone (Lentz, 2018), and an estimated five million died overall (Gates, 2011).

Yet, the defeat of Napoleon was not the only source for which 1815 was a consequential year; 1815 also marked the year when the Congress of Vienna concluded its meeting and set the stage for world affairs for the era that was to be followed.

As the name suggests, the Vienna Congress was convened at Vienna, then the capital of the Empire of Austria and home to its then ruler, Emperor Francis I. The Congress was convened by the victors of the Napoleonic wars to decide the world order that would follow the chaos that was unleashed by the powers of the French Revolution.

More than 200 states and princely houses were represented in the Vienna congress (King, 2008). But there were only four countries that really mattered in the negotiations; they were the largest and the most powerful of the countries that had opposed Napoleon and France. They were Russia, Prussia, Great Britain and Austria. France later became the fifth player in negotiations due to the machinations of its brilliant diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Austria was represented by Prince Metternich, who was Austria’s Foreign Minister. Emperor Francis I was also closely informed since the Congress’ sessions were in Vienna. Great Britain was represented by its Foreign Minister Viscount Castlereagh. Russia was represented formally by Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, its Foreign Minister, although the delegation’s actions in reality were being controlled by Tsar Alexander I. Prussia was represented by Prince Von Hardenberg, the Chancellor of Prussia. And finally, France was represented by its Foreign Minister Talleyrand.

The Congress’s agenda from the outset was a Conservative one, which was pretty discernable from the monarchist identity of its members. The victorious powers, as a reaction to the radicalism that was unleashed by the French Revolution sought to suppress liberalist and nationalist movements in Europe, and revert to a status quo of prior to 1789 (Soutou, 2000). The Congress also sought a balance of power in which no one power would be able to overpower other nations, as France had during the war.

Largely, the framework of the Congress then hinged on two concepts, balance of power and a Conservative ideology. These two concepts were represented by nobody better than Viscount Castlereagh (Foreign Secretary of Great Britain), who represented balance of power, and Prince Metternich (Foreign Minister of Austria), who represented Conservatism.

Prince Metternich was a citizen of a polyglot and authoritarian Empire, an Empire that would not be able face the liberalist and nationalist forces unleashed by the French Revolution. The Austrian Empire was a collection of areas that belonged to different ethnicities and languages; the core Austria was German, the other important halves were Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Slavonian and Croatian. Any form of liberalism risked diluting the power of the Emperor and the aristocrats, any form of nationalism risked the dissolution of the Empire itself.

Hence, Metternich’s main role was to allow his country to survive. To this extent, he would ruthlessly crush any rebellion which represented the aforementioned forces unleashed by the French Revolution. During the course of the Congress, he formed the “Holy Alliance” along with Prussia and Russia, which expressly sought to uphold traditional social Christian values and monarchism; this alliance would crush any rebellion anywhere around Europe contrary to the values of the alliance. Further, in 1819, he decreed the Carlsbad decrees, which removed liberal professors from universities, banned nationalist organizations, censored the press and established a secret police throughout Germany.

Viscount Castlereagh on the other hand, came from an island country and the holder of a large colonial Empire. The protection of his country and colonial Empire could only be sustained as long as Europe was divided; a united Europe could easily cross the English Channel and occupy Great Britain and destroy its Empire. Hence for Castlereagh, “balance of power” was the method of sustaining his country. To that end, he made Britain join the Quadruple Alliance along with Prussia, Russia and Austria, an alliance which would act together against any country that would be “revolutionary” and try to upend the balance of power by conquering other European countries.

This combination of “balance of power” & “Conservationism” saw Europe go untouched by a “great war” on the scale of the Thirty Years War, Napoleonic Wars World Wars I & II for almost a century. This result of Vienna was such that such a long peace hasn’t seen the world before the Congress or even after it.

Yet, during the course of the 19th century, historians criticized the Congress of Vienna for stifling the progress of liberalism and nationalism (Olson, 1991). In the 20th century, however, people began to admire the Congress of Vienna for stopping war, especially after the experiences of the two world wars.

Viscount Castlereagh arguably more than anyone else understood that liberalism would come to Europe not through bloody revolutions and never-ending wars, but through peace and stability. The history of England would serve as a good example here; during the era of the Tudor and the Stuart dynasties, England was almost as autocratic as mainland Europe, but due to the protection of the English Channel and its relative stability, liberalism eventually developed in England.

Viscount Castlereagh undoubtedly understood that as a citizen of Great Britain, a liberal and a constitutional monarchy. Yet, the citizens of Britain hated him for the Congress, because the Congress meant that liberalism was going to be crushed all over Europe. Eventually, he became one of the most despised people in Britain, and ended his life in suicide.

History though, eventually proved Castlereagh correct, and the rest of the 19th century proved to be the most liberal century Europe had ever witnessed until then. For instance, Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire created the first welfare state in the world. A welfare state is the hallmark of liberalism, you cannot have a welfare state if you’re always at war since resources will then get diverted for war efforts. The neighboring France threw out three monarchs after Napoleon I to be a republic again. All because there was peace in Europe and they could concentrate on their affairs. Germany’s neighbor to the south, the Austrian empire, gave equal rights to the Hungarians (one of the largest ethnic groups in the Austrian Empire) to become Austria-Hungary. Previously, the Hungarians were brutally persecuted. Even Russia, which was by far the most reactionary and backward state in terms of social rights and liberty, freed all their serfs in the 1880s.

-Pratham Agarwal (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition in the 13-24 Years Age Group)

Picture: The Congress of Vienna, watercolour etching by August Friedrich Andreas Campe, in the collection of the State Borodino War and History Museum, Moscow (Credits – Fine Art Images / Heritage-Images / britannica.com)

References:

Gates, D. (2011). The Napoleonic Wars 1803–1815. Random House.

King, D. (2008). Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna. . Crown Publishing Group.

Lentz, T. (2018, March). Retrieved from https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/bullet-point-6-napoleon-responsible-deaths-millions-soldiers/

Olson, J. S. (1991). Historical dictionary of European imperialism. Greeenwood Press.

Soutou, G.-H. (2000). “Was There a European Order in the Twentieth Century? From the Concert of Europe to the End of the Cold War”. Contemporary European History.



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