This week we put our main focus on the Congress of Vienna, where the nations of England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and France gathered to try and redraw the map of Europe in Napoleon’s wake.
Historians have debated many issues about this peace conference from the moment it met.
What do to with France? Napoleon’s conquests discombobulated every nation in Europe, and perhaps as many as 3 million died in what we call the Napoleonic Wars. Should France be punished?
Most give the Congress credit for realizing that taking revenge on France would not serve peace in Europe. France weakened would wave the red flag at every other strong nation in Europe. Soon nations might fight over French spoils. Besides, during the Napoleonic Wars the other nations made it clear that they made war on Napoleon, not France. France was not the problem in their minds during the war, they could not very well make France the issue during the peace.
The French too made the point that if other nations wanted to avoid another Napoleon, they needed to hand the recently re-installed Louis XVIII the keys to a nice car. If he inherited weakness, the Bourbon dynasty would crumble once again, and Europe would revisit all the issues brought on by events in 1789. For example, one of the problems of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1919 was that the new democratic regime came into being only because of Germany’s defeat in World War I. That government lacked the psychological or cultural legitimacy to have a solid chance at success. Louis XVIII was a nice guy, but didn’t impress like Napoleon. He would need some help.
The Congress of Vienna explicitly rejected the “Romantic” notion of expansive ideals transforming states and creating new national boundaries, and returned to the 18th century Enlightenment policies of security through interlocking and more or less equal parts. Those familiar with Madison’s “Federalist #10” and his theory on democracy and political factions will see the same concept writ large on the European stage in Vienna. In reacting against the French Revolution ideologically, they also returned to the pre-French Revolution methods of foreign policy. The genie needed stuffed back into the bottle.
For the most part the countries involved agreed on these principles, but the practical outworking of meant a great deal of jockeying for position. The map had changed so much so quickly, a lot seemed up for grabs.
Here is Europe in 1789, just prior to the French Revolution
Now Europe in 1800, just after Napoleon took power
Europe in 1807, after Napoleon’s victorious Peace of Tilsit
Europe in 1812, at the peak of Napoleon’s power
Europe in 1813, after his first exile
Napoleon’s success and the subsequent rise of Russia made the fate of Poland crucial to the peace process. Their turbulent history get reflected in the many ways the map below reflects how their country got sliced and diced over the years.
Napoleon made it a point of policy to resurrect Poland to check the power of Russia, and also to limit the expansion of Austria and Prussia. England, however, also waned a strong Poland to check the very same countries. Napoleon’s conquests also demolished the tottering Holy Roman Empire, making a complete mish-mash of central Europe, sure to draw the attention of Prussia and Austria.
For a class activity I wanted the students to deal with the issues divided the class into five different groups, each representing the interests of their assigned country. The winning group would be the one that got the best deal relative to their interests.
- To maintain its absolute dominance of the sea
- To prevent anyone else from having the dominance on land that they enjoy currently at sea
- The independence of the “Low Countries” (Belgium, Holland, Netherlands) to prevent any other major power from obtaining the coastal ports there.
- The rising land power of Russia – England likes the idea of Poland as a buffer to Russian power.
- The possible westward expansion ideas of Prussia
- What it considers to be its rightful place in the sun given the fact that their repulse of Napoleon in 1812 opened the floodgates for all of Europe to overthrow him
- The elimination of Poland, which Napoleon recreated to reduce Russian power
- A weak Austria
- England using its economic whip to get its way on the continent
- A strong Austria
- A strong Prussia
- Its rightful place in the sun considering their efforts in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, and at Waterloo in 1815.
- The possibility of westward expansion if Austria were strengthened. They would rather see Austria strengthened rather than Russia
- A strong Russia
- French Expansion
- An extension of their borders to their “natural” borders near the Rhine River
- Territory in the Low Countries, who speak French after all
- A curbing of English naval power
- English dominance
- Reduction to 2nd rate status
- To restore national honor, for no one got beat more often than Austria during Napoleon’s reign.
- To prevent instability in central Europe, which would likely lead to a war they would lose
- The joint rise of Prussia and Russia. Should those two ever fight, they would inevitably be drawn in as a second-banana ally. No matter who won that war, they would lose
The actual Congress of Vienna decided on this. . .
Did the Congress of Vienna work? Can we call it a successful peace conference?
By most measures we can answer “yes.” The system started to break down after 35 years in 1848, and had broken completely by 1871. Still, while so-called “small wars” popped up intermittently, Europe did not see another general war until World War I in 1914.
Critics of the Congress call it reactionary. Those that thought they could truly put the French Revolutionary genie away deluded themselves, for it had roamed throughout Europe for 25 years. They felt that they could smother the liberal democratic impulse to death, when really it turned out that they had created a pressure cooker instead. When it finally burst in 1914, nationalistic impulses that had been held in check unleashed a conflict that essentially destroyed Europe.
I personally have a lot of sympathy with this latter view, but feel it may be too harsh on the participants. Their immediate experience of French romantic nationalism saw France overthrowing religion, traditional values, and killing one’s fellow man over shades of political difference. It would be quite natural for them to throw the baby out with the bath water, and they did not have the benefit of hindsight. Maybe we can say the countries represented had high levels of competence and lower amounts of imaginative foresight. Even so, on some level they wanted to pretend that the French Revolution never happened, that everything could go back to normal after 25 years of philosophical, cultural, and political upheaval. The saying, “You can’t go home again,” proved itself true in this case.
Next week we begin to review for the final exam. Many thanks for a great year,