The Napoleon Series: FAQ

What was the Congress of Vienna?

By Stephanie Verbeure


At the end of 1813, the battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813) rang in the fall of Napoleon's Empire: Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland are lost; France is invaded. Napoleon retreats to Fontainbleau, where he abdicates on April 6, 1814. The Treaty of Paris,which is signed May 30, 1814 restores peace, reduces France to its frontiers of 1792, and places Louis XVIII, brother of the decapitated Louis XVI on the French throne. This treaty was an expression of the legitimacy-principle and of the necessity felt by the Allies to return to the Ancient Regime. Six secret articles stipulated that a congress would be held in Vienna to decide the fate of the recovered territories. However, all the important decisions would be made by the four great powers: England, Austria, Prussia and Russia. The other nations were not allowed to partake in these secret dispositions.

A Dancing Congress

The Congress opens October 1, 1814. All European states are summoned. To entertain all these princes and diplomats, there are numerous military reviews, theater presentations, concerts, balls, and other festivities. This prompted the Prince de Ligne to utter his famous words: "Le congres ne marche pas, il danse." The four great powers delegate their top-diplomats to impose a new European balance: Castlereagh and Wellington for England, Metternich for Austria, Hardenberg and Humboldt for Prussia, Razumovski and Nesselrode for Russia, and last but not least, Talleyrand for France. With the return of France on the diplomatic scene, the Allies tried to boost Louis XVIII's prestige, and prove that they were not making war against France, but against Napoleon. Talleyrand had received instructions from Louis XVIII not to accept an Austrian prince as a ruler over the states of the king of Sardinia, to obtain the restoration of Ferdinand IV, to keep Russia from controlling Poland, and to prevent Prussia from annexing Saxony. Talleyrand sets himself up as the champion of these second-rate princes and the defender of the legitimacy-principle: sovereignty can not be obtained by conquest, without consent of the sovereign. As soon as the Congress opens, some discords disturb it: Russia wants Poland, with Prussia supporting the Tsar as long as it can have Saxony. Austria refuses to accept the dominance Prussia would have in Northern Germany if it gets Saxony, while England considers the western expansion of Russia as dangerous. Attempts to break the Prussia - Russia understanding fails, and soon there are threats of war. France sees itself places as the arbitrator, with Talleyrand as master of the game. In the beginning of 1815, Castlereagh proposes a secret alliance between Austria, England and France. Talleyrand accepts, and the coalition is shattered, but he risks dragging France into a war that isn't hers. Furthermore, by refusing to back Prussia's claims to Saxony, he gives King Frederick-William a perfect pretext to claim the Rhineland, which would threaten the Alsace Region of France. The shocking news of Napoleon's escape of Elba (which reached Vienna in the night of March 6th-7th) causes all sides to forget their disagreements. On March 13, 1815, Napoleon is declared an outlaw. During the period Napoleon is in power in France (also known as the Hundred Days), the Congress of Vienna continues its diplomatic activities. Its Final Act is signed June 9, 1815, just nine days before Waterloo!

A New European Balance?

The Hundred Days hastens the end of the Congress of Vienna. On March 23, 1815, the Prince of Orange is proclaimed king of the United Netherlands, which includes Belgium. Prussia receives the left bank of the Rhine, while Sweden gets Norway. Denmark is compensated for its lost with Schleswig and Holstein. Interestingly, all these decisions are made without the consent of the concerned populations, with no respect for their nationalities or liberties. Austria recovers the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom, Russia gets control over a great part of Poland. Italy remains broken up into 7 states, all of except Piedmont and Naples, under Austrian control. Germany forms a confederation of 38 states, under presidency of the Emperor of Austria. France is surrounded by solid states, and is reduced to its frontiers of 1790 by the 2nd Treaty of Paris (November 20, 1815). By this treaty it holds Avignon, but looses Savoy and Nice, it has to pay 700 million francs in war indemnities, sustain an army of occupation of 150,000 men, and return all works of art that were taken during the previous 20 years. The Final Act consists of 121 articles and is signed on June 9, in the only session that is held with all representatives.

On the surface, the old Europe has triumphed over Revolutionary France, but the balance is not the same as before 1789. Certain French modifications have been maintained. Bavaria, Saxony, and Wurtemberg retain their royal title. Many states still have a strong French influence introduced by Napoleon: such as centralization of the government, the Code Napoleon, and where the French abolished it, feudalism is not reestablished. In countries occupied by France, the sale of national goods had caused a increase in the middle class which starts the eventual decline of the power of the nobility and clergy. However, Metternich was wrong when he thought to have redrawn the European map "for eternity", as he put it, because he ignored — just as Napoleon did — the strong national aspirations of many people (Polish, Italians, Belgians, Germans, and Spaniards among others) that lead to the fall of Napoleon's Empire. Within 20 years, revolutions in Belgium and Poland had jeopardize the arrangements of the Congress.

For more information about this topic, read:

Kluber, J. L.: Acten der Wiener Congresses, Erlangen, 1817-1819, 2 vol.

Webster, C. K.: The Congress of Vienna, London, 1937.

Weil, M. H.: Les dessous du Congress de Vienne, 1917, 2 vol

Zieseniss, C.O.: Le Congres de Vienne et l'Europe des Princes, 1985.

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