Magazine article The Spectator

The Viennese Charades

Magazine article The Spectator

The Viennese Charades

Article excerpt

RITES OF PEACE : THE FALL OF NAPOLEON AND THE CONGRESS OF VIENNA by Adam Zamoyski HarperPress, £25, pp. 634, ISBN 9780674024588 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Europe had a party during the Congress of Vienna in the last months of 1814. Monarchs, ministers, ambassadors and their wives and mistresses had learnt what Lord Castlereagh called 'habits of confidential intercourse' while engaged in defeating Napoleon. Between balls and banquets in the city's many palaces, they seduced, betrayed and negotiated with each other. Letters copied for the Austrian police tell us who slipped up which staircase, or quarrelled between which polonaises. 'You, always you, nothing but you, ' wrote Metternich to the Duchess of Sagan, while 'all Europe' waited in his antechamber. Their love affair seemed to concern him more than 'the affairs of the world, ' complained his secretary Friedrich von Gentz.

Adam Zamoyski has written a vigorous, colourful sequel to his much praised account of Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812. Darting from city to city and battlefield to battlefield like one of the couriers in his book, he describes not only the Congress of Vienna but almost all campaigns and negotiations in Europe between December 1812 and December 1815. He opens his book with Napoleon's carriage dashing through the central arch of the Arc du Carrousel in Paris just before midnight on 18 December 1812. Rites of Peace contains excellent maps and illustrations, and many quotations from unpublished letters in Cracow, Prague and Belfast, and from works in Danish, German, Polish and Russian. We thus learn that Castlereagh called the 'German dirt', through which his carriage tried to advance, 'beyond the worst parts of Scotland'. 'As repulsive in character as in body', the King of Würtemberg looked like one of the boars he hunted. His stomach fell in folds onto his knees.

With the partial exception of Talleyrand, this book has no heroes. Zamoyski condemns 'the continuous interplay between the serious and the frivolous' at 'the great charade known as the Congress of Vienna'. He considers Alexander I of Russia mediocre and inept: he even scolds the Tsar for having mistresses. If, however, Alexander I was as silly as Zamoyski remarks, he would not, in Paris in 1814 and 1815, have tried to mitigate the humiliation of a vanquished nation, in the interests of European peace, with a statesmanship unknown to democratically elected leaders at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Nor would he have tried, harder than any other Russian ruler, to give an independent existence to Poland, and 'pan-Polish' citizenship to Poles living under foreign rule.

Harsh on Alexander I, Zamoyski is kinder to Napoleon I. He must be the only person, then or now, who believes that Napoleon 'certainly wanted peace probably more fervently than any of his enemies'. If so, why did he refuse all terms? He states that the Pope was liberated by Napoleon in 1813, when he had to wait another year; calls Napoleonic hegemony in Germany 'relatively liberal';

believes that Genoa was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy rather than, like half western Europe, to the French empire; doubts the veracity of Napoleon's suicide attempt in April 1814; and considers the reputation of the British army 'blackened' by its role in removing the Horses of Saint Mark from the top of the Arc du Carrousel, to be returned to Venice, whence Napoleon had seized them 18 years earlier. …

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