The Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815 was a series of international diplomatic meetings to discuss and agree upon a possible new layout of the European political and constitutional order after the downfall of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Participants were representatives of all European powers and other stakeholders, chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, and held in Vienna from September 1814 to June 1815.
The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars through negotiation. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries, but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace, being at the same time shepherds for the smaller powers. More generally, conservative leaders like von Metternich also sought to restrain or eliminate republican, liberal, and revolutionary movements which, from their point of view, had upended the constitutional order of the European ancien régime, and which continued to threaten it.
At the negotiation table, the position of France was weak in relation to that of Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia, partly due to the military strategy of its dictatorial leader over the previous two decades and his recent defeat. In the settlement the parties did reach, France had to give up all its recent conquests, while the other three main powers made major territorial gains. Prussia added territory from smaller states: Swedish Pomerania, most of the Kingdom of Saxony, and the western part of the former Duchy of Warsaw. Austria gained much of northern Italy. Russia added the central and eastern part of the Duchy of Warsaw. All agreed upon ratifying the new Kingdom of the Netherlands, which had been created just months before from formerly Austrian territory.
The immediate background was Napoleonic France's defeat and surrender in May 1814, which brought an end to 23 years of nearly continuous war. Remarkably, negotiations continued unaffected despite the outbreak of fighting triggered by Napoleon's return from exile and resumption of power in France during the Hundred Days of March to July 1815. The Congress's agreement was signed nine days before Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
Some historians have criticised the outcomes of the Congress for causing the subsequent suppression of national, democratic, and liberal movements, and it has been seen as a reactionary settlement for the benefit of traditional monarchs. Others have praised the Congress for protecting Europe from large widespread wars for almost a century.
The Congress format
The name "Congress of Vienna" was not meant to suggest a formal plenary session, but rather the creation of a diplomatic organizational framework bringing together stakeholders of all flocks to enable the expression of opinions, interests and sentiments and facilitate discussion of general issues among them. The Congress format had been architected by Von Metternich, assisted by the brilliant Friedrich von Gentz, and the first occasion in history where, on a continental scale, national representatives and other stakeholders came together in one city at the same time to discuss and formulate the conditions and provisions of treaties. Before the Congress of Vienna the common method of diplomacy involved the exchange of notes sent back and forth among the several capitals and separate talks in different places, a cumbersome process that required much in the way of time and transportation. The format set at the Congress of Vienna would serve as inspiration for the 1856 peace conference brokered by France (the Congress of Paris) that settled the Crimean War. The Congress of Vienna settlement gave birth to the Concert of Europe, an international political doctrine that emphasized the maintaining of political boundaries, the balance of powers, and respecting spheres of influence and which guided foreign policy among the nations of Europe until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
To reach amiable consensus among the many different nations holding great interest in the settlement proceedings, informal, face-to-face deliberative sessions were held where opinions and proposed solutions could be inventoried. The policy work on which the Concert of Europe was built on came about through closed-doors dealing among the five Great Powers – Austria, Britain, Russia, Prussia and France. The first four of the five dominant peacemakers held sway simply because they brought to the table "negotiating power" that came of hard-won victory in the Napoleonic Wars; France enjoyed her advantageous position largely through the brilliant diplomatic maneuvering by senior statesman Talleyrand. Lesser powers, like Spain, Sweden, and Portugal, were given few opportunities to advocate their interests and only occasionally partook in the meetings held between the great powers. However, because all representatives were gathered in one city it was relatively easy to communicate, to hear and spread news and gossip, and to present points of view for both powerful and less powerful nations. Also of great importance to the parties convened in Paris were the opportunities presented at wine and dinner functions to establish formal relationships with one another and build-up diplomatic networks.
The Treaty of Chaumont in 1814 had reaffirmed decisions that had been made already and that would be ratified by the more important Congress of Vienna of 1814–15. They included the establishment of a confederated Germany, the division of Italy into independent states, the restoration of the Bourbon kings of Spain, and the enlargement of the Netherlands to include what in 1830 became modern Belgium. The Treaty of Chaumont became the cornerstone of the European Alliance that formed the balance of power for decades. Other partial settlements had already occurred at the Treaty of Paris between France and the Sixth Coalition, and the Treaty of Kiel that covered issues raised regarding Scandinavia. The Treaty of Paris had determined that a "general congress" should be held in Vienna and that invitations would be issued to "all the Powers engaged on either side in the present war". The opening was scheduled for July 1814.
The Congress functioned through formal meetings such as working groups and official diplomatic functions; however, a large portion of the Congress was conducted informally at salons, banquets, and balls.
Austria was represented by Prince von Metternich, the Foreign Minister, and by his deputy, Baron Johann von Wessenberg. The Austrians sought to maintain the balance of power, while protecting the interests of the Conservative nations and rebuildings Austria's position in diplomatically in Germany and Italy. As the Congress's sessions were in Vienna, Emperor Francis was kept closely informed.
The United Kingdom was represented first by its Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh; then by the Duke of Wellington, after Castlereagh's return to England in February 1815. The United Kingdom wanted to prevent the return of France as a superpower (and stop Russia from attaining that status). It also sought to promote the balance of power by protecting the rights of smaller nations. In the last weeks it was headed by the Earl of Clancarty, after Wellington left to face Napoleon during the Hundred Days.
Tsar Alexander I controlled the Russian delegation which was formally led by the foreign minister, Count Karl Robert Nesselrode. The tsar had two main goals, to gain control of Poland and to promote the peaceful coexistence of European nations, with Russia as the pre-eminent land power. He succeeded in forming the Holy Alliance (1815), based on monarchism and anti-secularism, and formed to combat any threat of revolution or republicanism.
France, the "fifth" power, was represented by its foreign minister, Talleyrand, as well as the Minister Plenipotentiary the Duke of Dalberg. Talleyrand had already negotiated the Treaty of Paris (1814) for Louis XVIII of France. He sought to ensure that France rejoined the group of Great Powers, and avoided being dismembered by the occupying powers. Louis XVIII, however, distrusted him and was also secretly negotiating with Metternich, by mail.
The lesser powers, parties to the Treaty of Paris, 1814
Virtually every state in Europe had a delegation in Vienna – more than 200 states and princely houses were represented at the Congress. In addition, there were representatives of cities, corporations, religious organizations (for instance, abbeys) and special interest groups – e.g., a delegation representing German publishers, demanding a copyright law and freedom of the press. With them came a host of courtiers, secretaries, civil servants and ladies to enjoy the magnificent social life of the Austrian court. The Congress was noted for its lavish entertainment: according to a famous joke of an attendee, it danced a lot but did not move forward. On the other hand, the possibilities for informal gatherings created by this "side program" may have helped ensure the Congress's success.
Initially, the representatives of the four victorious powers hoped to exclude the French from serious participation in the negotiations, but Talleyrand skillfully managed to insert himself into "her inner councils" in the first weeks of negotiations. He allied himself to a Committee of Eight lesser powers (including Spain, Sweden, and Portugal) to control the negotiations. Once Talleyrand was able to use this committee to make himself a part of the inner negotiations, he then left it, once again abandoning his allies.
The major Allies' indecision on how to conduct their affairs without provoking a united protest from the lesser powers led to the calling of a preliminary conference on the protocol, to which Talleyrand and the Marquess of Labrador, Spain's representative, were invited on September 30, 1814.
Congress Secretary Friedrich von Gentz reported, "The intervention of Talleyrand and Labrador has hopelessly upset all our plans. Talleyrand protested against the procedure we have adopted and soundly [be]rated us for two hours. It was a scene I shall never forget." The embarrassed representatives of the Allies replied that the document concerning the protocol they had arranged actually meant nothing. "If it means so little, why did you sign it?" snapped Labrador.
Talleyrand's policy, directed as much by national as personal ambitions, demanded the close but by no means amicable relationship he had with Labrador, whom Talleyrand regarded with disdain. Labrador later remarked of Talleyrand: "that cripple, unfortunately, is going to Vienna." Talleyrand skirted additional articles suggested by Labrador: he had no intention of handing over the 12,000 afrancesados – Spanish fugitives, sympathetic to France, who had sworn fealty to Joseph Bonaparte, nor the bulk of the documents, paintings, pieces of fine art, and books that had been looted from the archives, palaces, churches and cathedrals of Spain.
The most complex topic at the Congress was the Polish-Saxon Crisis. Russia wanted most of Poland, and Prussia wanted all of Saxony, whose king had allied with Napoleon. The tsar would like to become king of Poland. Austria analysed, this could make Russia too powerful, a view which was supported by Britain. The result was a deadlock, for which Talleyrand proposed a solution: admit France to the inner circle, and France would support Austria and Britain. The three nations signed a treaty on 3 January 1815, among only the three of them, agreeing to go to war against Russia and Prussia, if necessary, to prevent the Russo-Prussian plan from coming to fruition.
From the diaries of the master of aiffairs Von Gentz can be learned, diplomatic tactics possibly included bribing. He notes that at the Congress he received £22,000 through Talleyrand from Louis XVIII, while Castlereagh gave him £600, accompanied by "les plus folles promesses"; his diary is full of such entries.
A German Confederation of 39 states, under the presidency of the Austrian Emperor, formed from the previous 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire. Only portions of the territories of Austria and Prussia were included in the Confederation (roughly the same portions that had been within the Holy Roman Empire).
The Duchy of Lucca was established temporarily as compensation for the House of Bourbon-Parma, (with reversionary rights to Parma after the death of Marie Louise, which were attributed through a collateral treaty in 1817, also stipulating that the Duchy of Lucca would then in turn be annexed by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany).
The Congress's principal results, apart from its confirmation of France's loss of the territories annexed between 1795 and 1810, which had already been settled by the Treaty of Paris, were the enlargement of Russia, (which gained most of the Duchy of Warsaw) and Prussia, which acquired the district of Poznań, Swedish Pomerania, Westphalia and the northern Rhineland. The consolidation of Germany from the nearly 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire (dissolved in 1806) into a much less complex system of thirty-nine states (4 of which were free cities) was confirmed. These states formed a loose German Confederation under the leadership of Austria.
The Papal States were restored to the Pope. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was restored to its mainland possessions, and also gained control of the Republic of Genoa. In Southern Italy, Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, was originally allowed to retain his Kingdom of Naples, but his support of Napoleon in the Hundred Days led to the restoration of the Bourbon Ferdinand IV to the throne.
During the wars, Portugal had lost its town of Olivenza to Spain and moved to have it restored. Portugal is historically Britain's oldest ally, and with British support succeeded in having the re-incorporation of Olivenza decreed in Article CV of the General Treaty of the Final Act, which stated that "The Powers, recognizing the justice of the claims of ... Portugal and the Brazils, upon the town of Olivenza, and the other territories ceded to Spain by the Treaty of Badajoz of 1801". Portugal ratified the Final Act in 1815 but Spain would not sign, and this became the most important hold-out against the Congress of Vienna. Deciding in the end that it was better to become part of Europe than to stand alone, Spain finally accepted the Treaty on 7 May 1817; however, Olivenza and its surroundings were never returned to Portuguese control and, to the present day, this issue remains unresolved.
The Congress of Vienna has been criticized by 19th century and more recent historians and politicians for ignoring national and liberal impulses, and for imposing a stifling reaction on the Continent. It was an integral part in what became known as the Conservative Order, in which democracy and civil rights associated with the American and French Revolutions were de-emphasized.
In the 20th century, however, historians and politicians looking backward came to praise the Congress as well, because they saw it did prevent another widespread European war for nearly 100 years (1815–1914) and a significant step in the transition to a new international order in which peace was largely maintained through diplomatic dialogue. Among these is Henry Kissinger, who in 1954 wrote his doctoral dissertation, A World Restored, on it and Paul Schroeder. Historian and jurist Mark Jarrett argues that the diplomatic congress format marked "the true beginning of our modern era". To his analyses the Congress organisation was deliberate conflict management and was the first genuine attempt to create an international order based upon consensus rather than conflict. "Europe was ready," Jarrett states, "to accept an unprecedented degree of international cooperation in response to the French Revolution." Historian Paul Schroeder argues that the old formulae for "balance of power" were in fact highly destabilizing and predatory. He says the Congress of Vienna avoided them and instead set up rules that produced a stable and benign equilibrium. The Congress of Vienna was the first of a series of international meetings that came to be known as the Concert of Europe, which was an attempt to forge a peaceful balance of power in Europe. It served as a model for later organizations such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945.
Before 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 to its own delegates of how to achieve an equally successful peace. Besides, the main decisions of the Congress were made by the Four Great Powers and not all the countries of Europe could extend their rights at the Congress. The Italian peninsula became a mere "geographical expression" as divided into seven parts: Lombardy–Venetia, Modena, Naples–Sicily, Parma, Piedmont–Sardinia, Tuscany, and the Papal States under the control of different powers.Poland remained partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, with the largest part, the newly created Kingdom of Poland, remaining under Russian control.
The arrangements made by the Four Great Powers sought to ensure future disputes would be settled in a manner that would avoid the terrible wars of the previous 20 years. Although the Congress of Vienna preserved the balance of power in Europe, it could not check the spread of revolutionary movements across the continent some 30 years later.
Some authors have suggested that the Congress of Vienna may provide a model for settling multiple interlocking conflicts in Eastern Europe that arose after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
^Alsop, Susan Mary (1984). The Congress Dances. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. p. 120.
^Wenceslao Ramírez de Villa-Urrutia, Marqués de Villa-Urrutia, España en el Congreso de Viena según la correspondencia de D. Pedro Gómez Labrador, Marqués de Labrador. Segunda Edición Corregida y Aumentada (Madrid: Francisco Beltrán, 1928), 13.
^Antonio Rodríguez-Moñino (ed.), Cartas Políticas (Badajoz: Imprenta Provincial, 1959), 14 (Letter IV, 10 July 1814). Labrador's letters are full of such pungent remarks, and include his opinions on bad diplomats, the state of the postal system, the weather, and his non-existent salary and coach and accompanying livery for the Congress.
^Villa-Urrutia, España en el Congreso de Viena, 61–62. Joseph had left Madrid with a huge baggage train containing pieces of art, tapestries, and mirrors. The most rapacious of the French was Marshal Nicolas Soult, who left Spain with entire collections, which disappeared to unknown, separate locations around the world. According to Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño, at least "[the paintings] have come to spread the prestige of Spanish art around the whole word."
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