The Congress of Vienna, 1814-1815
THE Congress of Vienna was supposed to be a brief formal meeting to confirm the Paris peace treaty, fill in some gaps, and tie the pieces of the settlement together. Instead it lasted nine months without ever convening officially, and turned into a marathon of difficult negotiations punctuated by crises. Contemporary observers blamed this either on the congress's spending too much time on festivities and too little on work, or on the powers being so divergent in their aims that they were barely able to reach a settlement at all and could easily have fallen back into war.
Both impressions are unsound. By and large the statesmen at the congress worked hard, and to a surprising degree they agreed on basic aims, even on the two most difficult and divisive issues at the congress, the Polish-Saxon and German questions. The other major crisis, created by Napoleon's return from Elba, would demonstrate strikingly how united and committed to the peace settlement they were. The chief obstacles to progress at the congress were not really struggles over territory and power, though these cropped up, but problems of learning. Peace was endangered less by greed and fear than by inconsistency and inconsequence, the belief that ends almost everyone agreed on and wanted could be reached without changing old means and practices. The real danger at the congress was, therefore, not a new general war or a failure to reach any settlement at all, but an unintentional relapse into the old competitive politics.
Russia was more dangerous in that regard than Britain because its kind of power, essentially military, was closer at hand and easier to exert, it occupied a more decisive position in respect to the great unresolved questions of Poland, Germany, and the Near East, and its ruler was more unpredictable. The summer of 1814 proved less