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Congress of Vienna
Category: 19th Century: Political History
The Congress of Vienna was opened on October 1, 1814, following the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Armeé and his abdication earlier in that year. All European states were summoned to the congress, which was meant to "bring back the old times" to Europe, the times previous to the French revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic Wars that followed. There has been much debate among historians on whether the Vienna Settlement which resulted actually managed to address and solve the problems that Europe faced in a post-Napoleonic era.
There were four principles, which were meant to ‘guide’ the decisions and changes that the Vienna Settlement brought about. They were; restoring the balance of power, the containment of France, the restoration of legitimate rulers and rewarding and punishing those involved in the Napoleonic Wars, depending on which side they had fought on. Before trying to analyze whether or not the Vienna Settlement solved "the problems of Europe", it would be good to point out that that was not its genuine intention. Europe’s problems were really the problems of its rulers, and yes, those with enough influence could do something about it. The Vienna Congress set out to follow the four principles mentioned previously, and so it would be good to analyze and discuss to what extent these four principles/objectives were met in the settlement.
The borders of pre-Napoleonic Europe were more or less restored (those that weren’t fall mostly under the ‘Containment of France’ and ‘Rewards & Punishment’ principles), the same can be said for the Restoration of Balance to the credit of the Vienna Settlement. This was largely because the victorious side of the Napoleonic Wars pursued their national interests to a considerable extent. All the Great Powers did agree, that an effective balance of power needed to be constructed, but how to go about doing it, that was where their opinions and ideas differed. It was problematic, however, as France needed to be contained, and with the Holy Roman Empire dissolved and replaced by small, weaker German states, Prussia seemed the natural candidate to be strengthened. Prussia sought to expand on Saxony’s expense, and Austria was worried about this. The Russians were also bent on expanding considerably on Poland’s expense, which in British eyes threatened Peace. It was the French representative, Talleyrand, who negotiated a secret deal with the British and the Austrians, that they would mutually counter the possible threat posed by Prussia and Russia. Eventually, both Russian and Prussia were willing to give up some of their demands for land, and the situation was solved. Balance was, more or less, restored to Europe, as even France came off fairly lightly and was not humiliated with enormous economic and military sanctions like Germany was after the First World War.
Containment of France was one of the issues on the agenda, as no European leader wanted to see French armies marching victoriously through Europe once more. The intention was to create a defensive belt around France to discourage future French aggression. This was done by strengthening the states and territories surrounding France, especially those which had been previously over-run by the Grand Armeé. This was done by allocating the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) to Holland, a German Confederation (virtually headed by Prussia & Austria) was created mainly for defensive purposes to replace the Holy Roman Empire, Genoa was given to Piedmont, along with some other Italian states, and Austrian influence was extended to much of Northern and Central Italy by putting Austrian Hapsburg royalty on the thrones. The war reparations paid by France were rather miniscule, compared to those imposed by another, infamous, peace treaty a hundred years later. This was were the statesmen of the Allies, Castlereagh in particular, showed their ability. France would not become a vengeful, ever-threatening nation that had to be watched continuously, but in time she would become an ally and trusted partner in European affairs. In this manner France was, in effect contained, and there has been no major French expansion in Europe after the Vienna Settlement. The rift that emerged during the conference among the four major allies against Napoleon gave Talleyrand the chance to assert French influence in the congress, and he was able to exploit the rift to become an equal member of the congress system soon after.
The restoration of legitimate rulers is one of the more unclear principles. It became quite evident, that this principle was applied only when it suited the interests of the Great Powers. The Bourbons of France were replaced, as was advocated by Talleyrand, and this suited the other Great Powers. The restoration of the Bourbon dynasty of Spain, an ally to the Great Powers against Napoleon, only seemed natural. Likewise, the Hapsburg princes and princesses were restored in Central Italy to keep the region under Austrian influence, as discussed earlier. However, the Legitimate monarch in Saxony was forced to give up two-fifths of his territory to please Prussian demands, which clearly goes against the principle of legitimacy advocated by the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna. This would suggest, that this principle was not taken very seriously by the major powers, nor was it deemed very important, especially when it concerned minor states.
The principle of handing out Reward and Punishment to the different powers would seem to have been more of a matter of ‘compensation’ to those powers that gave up territory or gained territory in order to construct the afore mentioned ‘defensive belt’ around France. For example, Austria gained influence and territory in Italy, after the previously Austrian-owned Belgium was incorporated into Holland. Prussia also gained impressive amounts of territory in order to strengthen central Europe against French aggression. Of course, some of this had nothing to do with France, and examples of genuine "rewards" would be the territories gained by Russia in the east. The Great Powers agreed that Russia would keep Finland, although it had been conquered in league with Napoleon, and Russia would also be able to keep large parts of Poland. Norway (Danish) was given to Sweden to compensate for the loss of Finland, and to punish Denmark for remaining allied to Napoleon for too long.
Now, it would seem that, for the most part, the four principles were followed, and they achieved the objectives they sought to achieve. Also, none of the Great Powers engaged in major hostilities in the next 40 years, and stability was more or less preserved in Europe. In that sense, the Congress of Vienna managed to address and solve the problems the Great Powers had set for themselves. However, the question arises, were they the only problems 19th century Europe faced? The complete lack of regard for the new forces of change in 19th century Europe meant that the 19th century would see its share of civil unrest and revolutions. Borders were still being drawn heavy-handedly, ignoring completely the wishes of the local populations and their ethnicity. No attempt was made to draw the new borders around more ‘ethnically natural’ frontiers, which caused problems with the rise of Nationalism and Liberalism. The Congress System, as short-lived as it was, failed largely because of this. Of the European leaders, especially Metternich showed complete disregard towards the forces of change, and did his best to suppress them.
In conclusion, the Congress and Settlement of Vienna managed to control and discourage war between the Great Powers in Europe for much of the 19th Century. They also managed to restore the balance of power to effectively build a peaceful Europe which was as it had been before Napoleon, as was their intention. Their refusal to acknowledge that times were changing and that there were new forces to be reckoned with and respected, they failed to build a very stable and pleasant Europe. The Great Powers might not have been aware of the potency of such forces as Nationalism or Liberalism, or they, as Metternich, thought that any attempt compromise with them would only strengthen those forces and lead to nothing but ruin. In the end, however, I would see this as about as good as one can expect with leaders from the ‘old age’ trying to solve problems of a ‘new age’ the old way. When comparing the Settlement of Vienna and its aftermath to the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath, it becomes clear which one solved the problems that mattered.
"An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century European History 1815-1914" – Alan Farmer