Congress of Vienna

The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), part of the broader Concert of Europe, was a meeting in Vienna of various rulers and their representatives plus the European nobility. These delegates met to discuss the future of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars and the stirrings in Europe caused by the French Revolution. The meetings took place at the same time as Napoleon's escape from exile and his famous last stand where he would be decisively defeated once and for all. The meetings are considered both an acknowledgment of change and a manifestation of continental European cooperation.

The Congress established a status quo in Europe that lasted until the outbreak of World War I, almost 100 years later. Serving as both a model and precedent for later organizations like the League of Nations and the United Nations, the Congress established a multilateral regime in Europe in which the major powers were guaranteed certain spheres of influence, not to be encroached upon by the others. The United Kingdom, France, Austria and Russia constituted the powers, but a number of smaller states were also created, along with a peculiar regime called the German Confederation. The objective of the conference was to create a balance of power in Europe and to decide the fate of new states or failed states in that context.

The Congress dissolved the Duchy of Warsaw, the de facto forerunner of modern Poland, by dividing it between Prussia and Russia. This precedent was mirrored in the Nazi-Soviet plan to divide Poland early in World War II. In a certain respect, the Congress left a very dangerous legacy. Although it strived to balance the interests of the major powers as a means of arriving at a stable peace, it also gave rise to the idea that certain independent states would not be tolerated and arguably could be subjugated by their neighbors.

At the same time, the Congress looked to mitigate the effects of the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire by creating a German Confederation that would serve as a future buffer between rivals France and Russia. The confederation incorporated extant empires and gave a say to almost any nobleman who controlled territory or a principality within the confederation. It also incorporated the territories of the 360 districts that had formerly constituted the Holy Roman Empire, but more importantly, it encompassed the Austrian Empire and its adversary, Prussia. These two German-speaking states later waged several wars.

Despite weakening republicanism, the Congress did have several achievements. It condemned the slave trade and guaranteed the free navigation of major rivers.

The Congress contributed to a long-term buildup of antagonism in Europe by stifling the ideals that led to the American and French Revolutions. Some see the revolutions of 1848, which spread from Europe around the world, as having their origins in the policies decided at the Congress of Vienna, which ignored the principles of liberalism. Additionally, these leaders are said to have ignored the growing nationalism evidenced in the French Revolution that would later lead to the break-up of many of the empires that had established the Peace of Vienna. Some historians blame the delegates for overlooking the motivations for the French Revolution, thereby setting the stage for later wars within their own territories.

Others have seen the Congress as a successful effort to soothe the pangs of war rather than try to stifle the inevitable conflicts that would erupt throughout the continent. Promulgating this view were C.K. Webster, who wrote directly after World War I, and Henry Kissinger. Some representatives to the Congress are known to have vehemently opposed discussions on liberalism and democracy, believing they would lead to anarchy and rule by the uneducated masses. In one way, the violence of the previous 30 years was being left at the doorstep of democratic aspirations and the French Revolution.

Others compare the Congress to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a series of peace treaties in Europe. The so-called Holy Alliance established by the final agreements of the Congress have a parallel as well in the United Nations and its formal recognition of five governing superpowers with veto power over major international measures of security. Despite its pitfalls, it is said to have laid the groundwork for a multilateral world where greater powers represent smaller powers, though the smaller states may easily become victim of the interests of their supposed patrons.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Congress of Vienna, 1814-1815
C. K. Webster.
Humphrey Milford; Oxford University Press, 1919
The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848
Paul W. Schroeder.
Clarendon Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "The Congress of Vienna, 1814-1815"
The States System of Europe, 1640-1990: Peacemaking and the Conditions of International Stability
Andreas Osiander.
Oxford University, 1994
From Vienna to Versailles
L. C. B. Seaman.
Harper & Row, 1963
FREE! The Correspondence of Prince Talleyrand and King Louis XVIII during the Congress of Vienna
M. G. Pallain; Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Paerigord.
Harper & Brothers, 1881
FREE! The Dawn of Italian Independence: Italy from the Congress of Vienna, 1814, to the Fall of Venice, 1849
William Roscoe Thayer.
The Riverside Press, vol.1, 1894 (2nd edition)
Franz Joseph and Napoleon III, 1852-1864: A Study of Austro-French Relations
Charles W. Hallberg.
Octagon Books, 1973
The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1812-1815, Britain and the Reconstruction of Europe
C. K. Webster.
G. Bell, 1931
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "The Congress of Vienna I: The Crisis of Reconstruction, September 1814- January 1815" and Chap. VII "The Congress of Vienna II: Reconstruction Completed, January- June 1815
Europe since 1789
Edward Raymond Turner.
Doubleday, Page, 1924
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "The Congress of Vienna and The Concert of Europe"
Events That Changed the World in the Nineteenth Century
Frank W. Thackeray; John E. Findling.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Congress of Vienna and the Age of Metternich, 1815-1848"
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