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4.1: The Congress of Vienna

  • Page ID
    20770
  • This period of peace began as a product of the post-Napoleonic order. When Napoleon was first defeated in 1814, representatives from the victorious states gathered in the Austrian capital of Vienna to establish what was to be done in the aftermath of his conquests. Napoleon’s escape from Elba and inconvenient attempts to re-establish his empire forced the representatives to suspend their meetings while British and Prussian armies finally ended his reign for good. The conference, known later as the Congress of Vienna, was then re-convened, finally concluding in 1815. While various states in Europe, including the Ottoman Empire, sent representatives, the Congress was dominated by the five “great powers”: the Austrian Empire, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and (by the end) France itself.

    By its conclusion, the Congress of Vienna had redrawn the map of Europe with the goal of preventing France from threatening the balance of power again. But unlike the conference that ended the First World War a century later, the Congress of Vienna did not impose a huge penalty on the aggressor. Once it had been agreed to place Louis XVIII, the younger brother of the executed Louis XVI, on the throne of France, the powers that had defeated Napoleon had the good sense to see that it would be illogical to punish the French (not least because the French might opt to have yet another revolution in response). Much of the credit was due to a wily diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, himself a former official under Napoleon, who convinced the other representatives to include France as an equal partner rather than an enemy to punished. Instead, the victors deprived the French of their conquests and imposed a modest indemnity, but they did not dismember the country. They did, however, redraw the map of Europe.

    The powers that defeated Napoleon had a few specific goals at the conference. They sought to create lasting conservative order in France itself. They hoped to restrain French ambition and stave off the threat of another revolution. They sought to reward themselves with territory taken from weaker states like Poland and the formerly independent territories of northern Italy. And, finally, they devoted themselves to the suppression of future revolutionary movements. The political order that emerged in 1815 became known as the Congress System (also known as the Concert of Europe): a conservative international political network maintained by the five great powers.

    The Congress System was devoted to peace, stability, and order. While Great Britain was content with any political arrangement that prevented a disruption like the Napoleonic wars from occurring again, the more conservative states were not: led by the Russian Tsar Alexander I, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France (the latter under its new Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII) joined in a “Holy Alliance” that promised to put down revolutions wherever they might occur. Now, war was to be waged in the name of dynastic sovereignty and the conservative political order, not territorial ambition. In other words, the next time France invaded Spain and Russia invaded Hungary, they did so in the name of restoring foreign conservative monarchs to their “rightful” position of power, not in order to enrich themselves.

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