Woo-hoo! Time to Celebrate the Bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna!

Congress of Vienna

A peace that ended the greatest war that Europe had ever seen? Check. A settlement that imposed large reparations on the vanquished and deprived them of territory? Check. Talks in which the victors sought to erect a diplomatic system as well as a forum for discussion that would contain the defeated and preserve the peace? Check. With all the recent talk about commemorating the centennial of World War I’s outbreak, we must be referring to the Paris peace settlement of 1919, right? Wrong! Instead, this month, we celebrate the bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna which convened in September 1814. History Today has published an interesting article about this momentous event:


To be precise, the Congress of Vienna, which “met” from September 1814 to June 1815, was not exactly what we’d call a congress. Nor was it conference in which all the participants met at once in one location. Rather it was a series of meetings between various diplomats representing the great powers of Europe—Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and later France—who sought to pick up the pieces after Napoleon’s political demise (Napoleon first abdicated in April 1814, went into exile, returned, lost Waterloo, abdicated again, and went into exile for good in July 1815). After almost 25 years of war, the great powers sought to erect a stable diplomatic system that would contain France and ensure that Europe could enjoy a sustainable peace. Recognizing the extent to which domestic and foreign policy were related, the great powers also hoped to promote peace by quelling the revolutionary forces associated with France, such as liberalism and nationalism.

Gordon Craig (1913-2005), perhaps the most important English-speaking historian of Germany of his generation, claimed the Vienna settlement was based on three principles: “compensation for the victors, legitimacy, and balance of power.” While he conceded in the next sentence that this description was perhaps a little crude, it is easy to remember.

By “compensation,” Craig did not mean money. He meant territorial compensation. As the map of Europe was redrawn, each great power believed that nobody should receive more territory than anybody else. If Austria lost territory in one region, it should receive compensation for that loss elsewhere. If Russia received additional territory, so should everybody else. It was all associated with a concept of balance. Napoleon had thrown this idea out the window. He compensated himself with territory and redrew the map of Europe to suit his own needs without giving anything to anybody else. Now it was time to return to a different principle.

By “legitimacy,” Craig meant a particular kind of legitimacy—the right to rule. In the contemporary age, we might say a government possesses legitimacy if it has the support of its people. The idea that a government relied on the consent of the nation to govern, however, was considered a revolutionary idea in 1815 Europe. Rather, legitimacy referred to pre-revolutionary rights and privileges. A monarch had the right to rule a particular territory according to tradition and precedent. This was what legitimacy was all about. Often, however, the great powers neglected to observe this concept, either in the pursuit of compensation or the balance of power.

By “balance of power,” Craig meant a state of affairs in which the great powers operated in a kind of equilibrium that prevented any one of them from becoming too powerful. In 1815, the main state that everybody feared was France (it had singlehandedly made trouble for the previous quarter century), and the territorial settlement was created with an eye toward containing that country. Yet all the great powers were suspicious of one another, and so each sought to check all the others.

The Congress of Vienna has often received a good press from historians, and it has frequently been compared favorably with the Paris settlement of 1919. The few successful revolutions (Greece and Belgium) that occurred while the Congress system remained in place were more or less sanctioned by the great powers. Under this system, the great powers also managed to see off the Revolutions of 1848. The arrangements of 1815 more or less survived until the mid-1850s, when the Crimean War (1853-1856) between France, Britain, and Sardinia, on the one side, and Russia, on the other, led to a series of unforeseen events that completely disrupted the machinery erected in Vienna forty years before. The Crimean War eventually led to the estrangement of Austria and Russia, the expansion of France, the unification of Italy, and eventually the creation of Germany.

Saying that the Congress system collapsed because X did Y, and A did B, of course, describes how it fell apart but does not explain why. Ghervas’ article points to the failure of the great powers to include the Ottoman Empire in their deliberations. There is some merit to this argument since the retreat of the Ottomans from Europe (as well as their weakness elsewhere) produced a power vacuum that led to much conflict between the great powers. To dwell on the weakness of the system, however, allows us to neglect the necessity of good will in perpetuating that system. For sure, a corrupt system will pervert the best of wills, but perverted wills can corrupt even the best systems. By the 1850s, some powers had lost interest in upholding the system (Britain), proved incapable of defending it (Austria), or deliberately sought to overturn it (France and Prussia). Pointing out this problem is, perhaps, another way of saying that the interests of the great powers were bound to diverge. The memory of the great war that had bound them together receded farther and farther in the past. Instead, national interests returned to the forefront. Moreover, changes in the relative strength of the great powers, changes in their character, and changes in the overall circumstances within which they operated, all conspired to bring the Congress system down.

So has it ever been with the demise of various diplomatic systems—they are the victims of these kinds of transformations. Yet in light of this fact, the destruction of the Congress system seems especially piquant in that it sought to arrest change and revolution.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, the most intelligent conservatives understood the futility of attempting to hold back changes in Europe. Among them, Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia and later the first Chancellor of a united Germany, came to see that “for things to remain the same, everything must change” (to quote Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a work of historical fiction dealing with Italian unification and one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century). This “white revolutionary,” as Lothar Gall described Bismarck (white is the color most commonly associated with conservatism, so a white revolutionary would be a conservative revolutionary, something of a paradox), participated in the destruction of the Congress system for the sake of creating a unified Germany national state that could better preserve conservatism at home.  In so doing, Bismarck created the so-called “German problem”—that is, an extremely powerful state that perpetually threatened to dominate the European continent. The formation of this state is the bridge between the destruction of the Congress system and our own time.


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