EPISODE 1:

THE CONGRESS OF VIENNA

         To begin our look at the First World War we are…not going to talk about the First World War at all, nor will we for at least a few weeks. Before we can talk about all of that, we need to establish some groundwork so that we can all understand the context within which the war itself finally broke out. For those of you with a lot of background on 19th century European history, these first few episodes will mostly cover stuff that you probably already know with fairly broad strokes. But I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page here, and it would be impossible to understand what all the fuss was about in the halls of power in Europe in 1914 without knowing, at least in general, what had happened in the previous century. Today, we will discuss the political and diplomatic summit that met following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 to redraw the map of Europe: the Congress of Vienna.

         So as I’m sure most of you know, on June 18, 1815 the French Imperial Army under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, located in what is today the country of Belgium, by a coalition of British, Dutch, and German (particularly Prussian) armies. This battle marked the end of a series of wars and conflicts that had been raging across Europe, and indeed much of the rest of the world, for more than twenty years following the outbreak of the French Revolution. This period of near constant turmoil, violence, and war had toppled some of the oldest monarchies in Europe, consumed the lives of millions of people, and scarred a generation. Which…spoiler warning for the rest of the series but, this will not be the last time we discuss a giant war that will topple old monarchies, kill millions of people, and scar a generation. After his defeat at Waterloo, the now former Emperor of the French was exiled to the small island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, never to be heard from again.

Now this, of course, was not the first time that the now former Emperor of the French had been defeated by a coalition of allied European states and exiled to a small island never to be heard from again. Napoleon had actually been defeated, deposed, and exiled back in April of 1814, but in a dramatic comeback in March of 1815 known as the “Hundred Days” Napoleon escaped from exile, returned to France, and regained his throne as Emperor of the French. I’ll give you one guess as to how long this second reign lasted.

         This was actually, potentially, a more destabilizing event than my perhaps overly glib tone suggests. You see, after Napoleon was exiled back in 1814, diplomats representing all of the great states who had defeated him and his French Empire got together in Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire, to haggle over what the map would look like in a post-Napoleonic, post-French Revolutionary, Europe. This conference, called the Congress of Vienna, was tasked with redrawing the borders of the nations of Europe after twenty plus years of war and revolution had rendered the old borders obsolete. Their work had largely been completed when Napoleon dramatically returned to power, and had this second reign of his lasted much longer – or if he had actually managed to win the ensuing war – the work of the Congress may have broken down, and the delicate alliance system that bound the Great Powers together against Napoleonic France may have been shattered.

Fortunately for the men of the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon’s return to power was short lived, and following the bloody and decisive Battle of Waterloo – fittingly, one of the bloodiest battles in the whole of the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary wars – the French Emperor was exiled once again. This time, for good. The Great Powers now had a free hand to redraw the map of Europe as they saw fit.

Now, I haven’t yet said who these Great Powers were nor what their place on the European map was. That’s because next week we are going to start with a quick run-down of these five “Great Powers,” as they will be, in one form or another, the same Great Powers that dominated Europe in 1914 and launched the First World War. But, briefly, these Great Powers that ruled most of Europe in 1815 were Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Most of these countries of course still exist today in more or less the same spots they did in 1815, the only exceptions being Austria (which in 1815 included the territory of modern day Austria but also controlled an Empire that included about a dozen modern day countries in central and Eastern Europe), and Prussia, a kingdom that controlled most of northern Germany and a great deal of what is today in western Poland. Again, we will go into more detail on this next week.

So, what exactly was the goal of this Congress of Vienna? What were the overriding concerns the participants had in mind when they undertook to redraw and reestablish the borders and international relationships of Europe? At the risk of oversimplifying these questions, I think it can be said that the Congress of Vienna had two broad, underlying principles behind all of its various decisions: first, to make it impossible for another popular revolution to overthrow an established monarchical regime, and second, to make it impossible for the Great Powers of Europe to go to war with each other.

As for the first point, and indeed most everything to do with the Congress of Vienna, let us turn our attention to the Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire: Prince Klemens von Metternich. As Foreign Minister of the government based in Vienna, and a ruthless and skilled negotiator in his own right, Metternich was effectively the host of the Congress of Vienna. More than anyone else it would be his worldview that shaped the final result of the Congress. And more than perhaps anyone else present at the Congress of Vienna, Metternich despised the very idea of popular revolution.

Metternich was, even for an early 19th century aristocrat, a throwback conservative. He believed that the monarchs of Europe had a divine right to rule with absolute power (with helpful advice from aristocrats like himself, naturally), and that the people of Europe had a duty to be obedient, docile, and above all else, to never try and upset the natural order of things by reaching beyond their place in the world. Even the most ceremonial and powerless of popular assemblies, wherein the people were allowed to elect representatives to lobby the monarch on their behalf, were to Metternich not only absurd, but extremely dangerous. “In your country,” he once said to an American friend, “democracy is a reality; in Europe it is a falsehood…You will become more and more democratic; your system is one that wears out fast. I do not know where it will end, nor how it will end, but it cannot end in a quiet, ripe old age.”

While Metternich was perhaps more vociferous in his convictions that most of his aristocratic contemporaries, they did for the most part share with him a hatred of what they perceived as the destructive anarchy of revolution, and that to give in to even the mildest of reforms was to allow in the thin end of the wedge for full-blow revolution. As Metternich’s contemporary, the great Irish politician Edmund Burke wrote in 1790, “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” And this, of course, was during the very early stages of the French Revolution, before the rise of Napoleon, before the beginning of the First French Republic, before even King Louis XVI had been overthrown, let alone executed. This, then, was the lesson that Metternich and men of his ilk had learned from the French Revolution – that revolution was anathema to the just and proper ordering of society – and it was thus their overriding concern to ensure that sort of thing never happened again.

But this concern – preventing another great revolution from tearing down a legitimate monarchy – was only half the problem Metternich wanted to solve in the Congress of Vienna. The other great concern was to make it impossible for another “total war” involving all the Great Powers to consume Europe. Going into the French Revolution, warfare in Europe had been a relatively small affair: relatively small armies (compared with the population of the countries raising them) fighting campaigns with relatively limited aims, usually either the acquisition of a piece of disputed territory, or at worst the replacement of one royal dynasty with another. It is debatable how “limited” warfare in the 18th century was, or indeed how “limited” warfare can ever really be; for example the Battle of Malplaquet [MAL-pla-kay] fought in 1709 during the War of the Spanish Succession saw nearly 200,000 men combined facing off, resulting in over 30,000 casualties. But the thing is, not only were battles of this size extremely rare during most of the 18th century in Europe, but the strategic aims of the countries fighting these campaigns were, as I said, usually pretty limited in scope. The three biggest land wars fought in Europe before the French Revolution broke out in 1789 were the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years War; the first two wars were, as the names suggest, essentially dynastic conflicts fought over which royal family would sit on which important throne, while the latter was really just a war over peripheral territorial and colonial provinces.

The French Revolution, and especially the rise of Napoleon, changed all of that. When the First French Republic was proclaimed in 1792, the armies of France were unleashed upon the kingdoms of Europe, intent upon conquering (or, in their eyes, liberating) basically the entire continent. And these were not small armies of professional mercenaries, as had for the most part made up the armies of the old French Kingdom. As the famous Leveé en Masse decreed by the National Convention declared in August of 1793 said, “From this moment until that in which the enemy shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the service of the armies. The young men shall go to battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothing and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the aged shall betake themselves to the public places in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach the hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.”

 In doing this, the French Republic in effect made every adult Frenchman a potential soldier, and they were prepared to call upon this new reserve. In 1786, the French Army was composed of about 150,000 men; by 1794 that number was over 600,000, and by 1812 Napoleon could count on just about 1 million soldiers to police and expand his empire. This, in effect, forced the other powers who in fits and starts united to defeat Napoleon, to respond by raising their own massive armies. By 1814, the Great Powers allied against Napoleon were able to mass over 350,000 men at the single Battle of Leipzig against Napoleon’s army of 200,000; this was the largest battle fought on European soil until the First World War, and in just 4 days of vicious fighting some 150,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured. The destruction and loss of life these massive wars caused was, truly, unprecedented. It is impossible to know for certain how many people died in Europe as a direct result of warfare between the beginning of the French Revolution and the fall of Napoleon, but estimates range anywhere from 3 to 7 million people, military and civilian combined.

This was of course not only a humanitarian catastrophe of astronomical proportions, but it rocked the stability of the countries who were involved in these conflicts. Metternich believed that this generation-long conflict had nearly destroyed the civilization which he grew up in and revered, and believed that should another such conflict erupt that European civilization might not be able to survive. As he wrote in 1830 following another revolution in France, which we will get to at the end of today’s episode, “The true, nay, I do not hesitate to say, the last anchor of safety still left for Europe, is to be found in an understanding between the Great Powers, founded on the conservative basis of their great and auspicious alliance.”

So that covers what, in broad terms, the Congress of Vienna was trying to achieve. Now let us turn to some of the specific agenda items of the Congress. For while the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna was signed and agreed to by all the Great Powers of Europe, and while the borders it drew and the treaties it ratified were recognized and enforced by all, in the squabbling of the Congress we can see many of the fault lines along which not only the so-called “Concert of Europe” cracked, but upon which the First World War would ultimately be fought.

The first and most obvious question to be settled by the Congress (actually, before the Congress even officially convened) was what to do about France? In the previous two decades the French people had launched a popular revolution, overthrown and murdered their divinely appointed king, proclaimed a republic, launched an assault upon the other monarchical realms of Europe and, after the republic was transformed into an empire by Napoleon Bonaparte, waged an open ended war of conquest that had seen France’s territory explode and virtually every country not outright annexed into France turned into a client.

Surprisingly, despite all the destruction and bloodshed caused by France during this period, the punishment meted out to them was not as harsh as you might think. The borders of France would be returned to those that had stood at 1792, just before the overthrow of the monarchy and declaration of the republic. While this reduced French territory by something like 200,000 square kilometers, it still left France with more territory than it had held before the Revolution, mostly in the form of a few enclaves previously claimed by the Pope. Less emotionally painful for the French if in reality quite a bit more burdensome was an indemnity of 800 million Francs to the Allies (which, for the record, I have no idea how much that would represent in modern currency, but let’s just say it was a huge pile of money) and the maintenance of an occupation force of 150,000 allied soldiers. These last two points were actually only tacked on to the bill after Napoleon’s surprise return to power, and was meant to chastise the French for having so readily reembraced their Emperor.

The issue of how strongly to punish France provides a nice window into Metternich’s view of a stable “balance of power” as the best way to preserve peace and stability in Europe, both politically and militarily. You might think that after subjugating Europe to two decades of war and conquest premised on destroying the old monarchical regimes that Metternich would want to see France destroyed, but the opposite is actually true. “The war of 1815 is not a war of conquest,” he wrote during the negotiations after Napoleon’s final defeat. “It was undertaken solely with the double aim of toppling the usurpation of Napoleon Bonaparte and of affirming a government in France on bases solid enough that it might be in a position to guarantee tranquility to France and Europe.” Metternich did not want France to be destroyed, but to serve as a stable anchor for maintaining a balance of power among all the Great Powers. France’s crime then was not in being a Great Power, but of overreaching and trying to dominate the other Great Powers. Despite this view of Metternich’s, the rest of the participants at the Congress were furious with France for having so quickly and gleefully returning to the usurper Napoleon, and thus restarting the war they all thought had been ended the year before. So there was only so much Metternich could do to limit how severely the French would be punished.

Then there was the small matter of who would rule this much reduced in size France. Eventually the Allies decided on Louis XVIII of the House of Bourbon, the younger brother of the long since beheaded Louis XVI. This last measure, the restoration of the House of Bourbon to the French throne…would not last too long. But let’s not worry ourselves with that right now.

A potentially trickier question was how to deal with the territorial claims of the three great central and eastern powers – Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Prussia and Austria had been crippled by repeated defeats at the hands of the French, and while Russia had not really lost any territory to the French, they too had suffered horrendous amounts of destruction and bloodshed. All of these powers had seen their borders pushed back and forth over the course of the Napoleonic Wars, in the course of which competing claims to the same territory had been created, particularly where they bordered one another.

Dealing with the Russians would prove to be an especially delicate matter for men like Metternich. More than anyone else save perhaps Great Britain, it was Russia who most deserved the title of “the country that had defeated Napoleon.” It was Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia that had mortally wounded his empire, and Russian troops made up a huge proportion of the Allied armies that drove the little corporal back to Paris in 1814. Yet despite the immense power they wielded in terms of territory and population, Russia’s economy was much less developed than those of the other Great Powers. Beyond that, their ruler Czar Alexander I wanted his empire to play a more active role in Metternich’s system of maintaining the conservative order than Metternich perhaps would have liked, as giving too much leverage to Russia would upset the general balance of power. As the Duke of Wellington, the general who commanded the Anglo-Allied army that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo wrote to his brother during the negotiations, “What the Russians are looking [for] everywhere is general power and influence; but as they have neither wealth nor commerce, nor anything that is desirable to anybody excepting 400,000 men, about whom they make more noise than they deserve, they can acquire these objects…only by bustle and intrigue.”

Eventually the various border disputes among Prussia, Austria, and Russia were all settled, with probably the most disappointed group in these negotiations being the Poles, as any hopes they had that an independent Poland would emerge from the Congress of Vienna were dashed. Austria would control most of the region known as Galicia, Prussia would get what was dubbed “the Grand Duchy of Posen,” while most of the rest of the Polish people were swallowed up by Russia, who would control the old Polish capital of Warsaw. These borders dividing Prussia, Austria, and Russia from one another would be almost exactly the same borders dividing Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia from one another in 1914, and would be the principle regions where the Eastern Front of the First World War would be waged.

         Finally, perhaps the most important issue tackled by the Congress of Vienna, at least as it relates to the First World War, was what to do about the Germans. In 1815, there did not exist a country called “Germany,” nor had such a country ever existed. The map of central Europe, which is today mostly made up of this thing called “Germany,” had for almost a thousand years been dominated by an entity called the Holy Roman Empire. Now we are not going to talk in any detail about what the Holy Roman Empire was, partly because it has little to do with the setup of the First World War but mostly because it would take too long. Suffice it to say that it was a hodgepodge collection of over 300 sovereign units, ranging from tiny city states all the way up to, you know, the Austrian Empire, each of which had its own unique relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor, a position elected by several of the more powerful princes of the Empire. As Voltaire famously quipped in the 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire was, “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” and by the dawn of the 19th century it was such an brittle farce that Napoleon was able to declare this millennia old body dissolved in 1806 with hardly any controversy. He then reorganized the mostly Germanic states in the region into a series of client kingdoms, and stripped as much territory as he could get away with from the two largest Germanic states: Austria and Prussia. After Napoleon’s defeat, of course, this area could not remain a collection of French client kingdoms, but that left the question of just what to do with it.

          Concerning the German lands, there were essentially three interested parties who came to haggle at the Congress of Vienna. First, there were the minor princes who had lost territory to the French conquest and dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire who demanded compensation. Second, there were those princes whom had been elevated by Napoleon’s new system, given more land and more prestigious titles, who wanted to protect their acquisitions. And third, there was a group of, frankly, idealistic dreamers who came to Vienna demanding a united, federal, German state, uniting all the German peoples together into a single nation called “Germany.” Ridiculous, I know.

         In the end, after much squabbling and haggling over territory, sovereign rights, and what if any kind of larger organization the German kingdoms would be grouped into, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna formally instituted the so-called German Confederation. This was a union of 34 principalities and four free cities, each of which was completely independent and sovereign within its own borders, but all of which would have to contribute to the common defense of the Confederation, and send delegates to regular Diets or assemblies to discuss issues of common German interest. The two most powerful members of this confederation were of course Prussia and Austria, and their rivalry would ultimately spell the doom of the German Confederation. Critically, the members of these Diets would be appointed by the German kings and princes, not elected by the German people, and over the next few decades the chief concern of these Diets was how to maintain the absolute power of the German monarchs.

         This system maintained the general status of central Europe before the French Revolution: lots of disunited states, ruled by absolute monarchs, and who’s borders purposefully divided the German people from one another. Yet despite this manifest disunity, the German Confederation was a critical step in the formation of unified German state for three big reasons. First, it cut the number of sovereign units on the map of central Europe down by 90%; rather than their being more than 300 German principalities, now there were only 38. Second, by erasing all of those previous distinctions among the German people, and after the shared experience of the Napoleonic Wars, more and more Germans were starting to come around to the notion that maybe they had more similarities with each other than differences, and that maybe uniting as a single people into a single nation would be in all of their self-interest. And third, with Prussia clearly the wealthiest and most powerful member of the German Confederation, they would soon begin dominating the other smaller members, on the way to outright annexation into a new German Empire in 1871.

         One last thing I’ll say about the specifics of the Congress of Vienna has to do with the Italians. Briefly, the status of Italy before and after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire mirrored the status of Germany. It had once been a collection of fractured kingdoms, republics, and principalities, been turned into a collection of French client kingdoms, and following the Congress of Vienna was returned to its pre-revolutionary disunity. But just like with the Germans, many Italians were coming around to the idea that they might be better served (and less likely to be turned into playthings of the Great Powers) if they united into a single Italian people under a single Italian Kingdom.

         So, after almost a year of deal-making and horse-trading among all the participants on all of these myriad issues, on June 9, 1815, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna was signed by representatives of all of the Great Powers of Europe, as well as several of the…mm, let’s call them “less” great powers. You’ll notice that this timing, June 9, was actually almost two weeks before Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, suggesting that Metternich and the diplomats at Vienna were perhaps a bit impatient to have a signed agreement on the future map of Europe as soon as possible, not unjustly worried that if it took too long to defeat Napoleon again that the alliance system opposing him might collapse.

          And while Napoleon’s rapid second rise was followed by an even more rapid second fall, and thus the work of the Congress of Vienna would ultimately be enacted, I would like to close today by evaluating how successful these treaties were at fulfilling Metternich’s goals. Those goals were, again, the prevention of another great revolution and the maintenance of peace throughout Europe. How did the insanely complicated and minutely detailed wording of the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna do in terms of maintaining a stable and peaceful Europe? Well, this may shock you, but the short answer is that it failed spectacularly.

         For awhile, it seemed like everything might be ok. The early 1820s saw a few abortive attempts at popular revolution in Spain and in southern Italy, but these nascent revolts were squashed by the armies of France and Austria respectively. This was exactly as Metternich hoped his new system would work – threats to the stable order of things had flared up, and were quickly nipped in the bud by the Great Powers. And the fact that France, so recently the great fountainhead of revolution, had been instrumental in putting down the revolution in Spain, must have delighted Metternich.

         Yet even in this early stage cracks were showing in Metternich’s system. In 1818 the five Great Powers – Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, and a newly rehabilitated France – sent delegates to a follow up congress at the city of Aix-la-Chapelle (the modern German city of Aachen). This was supposed to be merely the first of a series of regular summits between the Great Powers to discuss common problems, but it quickly became clear that the old realpolitik rules of backstabbing and angling for an opportunity were still at play, rather than Metternich’s vision of altruistic cooperation. Metternich himself was particularly worried by the Russians pushing for several joint military operations in the Balkans and in North Africa against the Ottoman Empire and her vassals, which Metternich saw as nothing more than an attempt to expand Russia’s territory.

         But for Metternich, the first big blow came in July of 1830, when Charles X of France (who had succeeded his brother Louis XVIII to the French throne in 1824) was overthrown by a lighting revolution of Parisian streetfighters and liberal politicians. Though within days of this revolution breaking out a new King had taken the throne, a cousin of the now deposed Bourbons named Louis Phillippe I, Metternich was outraged that a legitimate sovereign had been once again overthrown by no good, smelly, Parisian commoners. Worse yet, just a few weeks later another revolution exploded in what was then the southern half of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but which quickly proclaimed itself to be the independent Kingdom of Belgium. In both of these cases, Metternich found himself and his new system powerless to halt these popular revolutions, as military intervention seemed likely to spark a war among the Great Powers as they scrambled for their own immediate self-interests in the region, rather than the larger self-interest of maintaining the legitimate governments established by the Congress of Vienna.

And here, I think, is where we can see the great fatal flaw in the system established in 1815. As much as Metternich thought that a balance of power among all the Great Powers of Europe, checking one another’s ambition and helping one another quash revolution, was the only way to maintain a general peace, in many ways he had it completely backwards. As we discussed earlier these five Great Powers of 1815 would, in one form or another, be the same Great Powers that dominated Europe in 1914. But by then, rather than assisting each other in a mutually beneficial single alliance, they had devolved into two rival alliance blocs: Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side (the successor states of Prussia and the Austrian Empire), and France, Russia, and Great Britain on the other. Instead of a mutually sustained balance of power, Europe had essentially turned into a giant Mexican standoff, with each of the Great Powers sitting on a hair trigger, ready to pounce as soon as one of their rivals made a diplomatic or military mistake. And because these countries were all bound to one another by alliances in the spirit, if not the form, of the system established by the Congress of Vienna, a conflict between any two of these countries would rapidly suck in all of the others. Thus, rather than forever preventing another general war engulfing Europe, in many ways Metternich had all but guaranteed one.

But that said, it would be nearly a century before that general war would break out. It would take more than petty rivalries over territory to spark another destructive global conflict. And as Metternich saw it, the only thing that could destroy the general peace he had created was another great revolution sweeping the entire continent, and much as he feared this happening with the July Revolution of 1830 in France, the new King Louis Philippe I made it clear that he had no interest in exporting or even glorifying this revolution. Next week, however, we will discuss the great revolutionary year of 1848, which while it would not destroy the international peace established by the Congress of Vienna, it would help to destroy almost everything else.

 

 

Sources:

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  • Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790.

  • Duke of Wellington, Field Marshall Arthur. Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshall Arthur Duke of Wellington, K.G., Volume the Ninth (April, 1814 to March, 1815). London: John Murray, 1862.

  • Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003.

  • Metternich, Klemens von. Memoirs of Prince Metternich, Fifth Volume. Translated by Gerard W. Smith. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1882.

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  • Levee en Masse, August 23, 1793. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1793levee.asp

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