Congress of Vienna

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The Congress of Vienna, which met officially from September 1814 through June 1815, was the most significant diplomatic conference since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The doctrine established by the participating powers was—in most cases—far more important than the specific redistribution of territories that the diplomats discussed and determined in detail. The congress accepted the principle of a European balance of power enforced by collective action. The use of territorial compensation as a means of maintaining a general balance became the method of preventing any immediate or future hostilities among European powers. At the conclusion of the conference, the conservative powers of Austria, Russia, and Prussia also moved to suppress future revolutionary movements and to uphold the legitimacy of monarchical powers.

The congress worked out and reaffirmed the articles of the Treaty of Paris (March 1814), which concluded the Napoleonic Wars. Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain temporarily put aside their differences and geopolitical interests to defeat Napoleon. With victory imminent, the allied powers moved quickly to secure territory and guarantees for their specific interests in Europe. Article XXXII of the Peace of Paris called on the signatories to discuss these issues—and implied that all Europe was invited to the conference for similar purpose. Representatives from all causes and corners of Europe arrived in the autumn of 1814 to press their respective claims.

The architect of the congress was Prince Clemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister. His diplomatic skill made him the dominant figure at the talks, challenged only by Prince Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the French foreign minister. Baron Karl August von Hardenberg represented Prussia, and Tsar Alexander I, Russia. Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, stood for England. Before the meeting, the allied powers were determined to make the ultimate decisions. Talleyrand and Pedro Gómez Labrador, the Spanish representative, vehemently opposed this plan. Talleyrand argued that the restoration of the Bourbons necessitated the acceptance of France as an equal among the major powers. Spain, Portugal, and Sweden similarly demanded a seat at the table, as they had been members of the anti-French coalition that had defeated Napoleon. The congress was postponed until November, when the former allied powers admitted France to the decision-making process to the exclusion of the others.

Although the members of the European alliance had temporarily put aside their respective differences, specific territorial interests and particular concerns for the future geopolitical structure of Europe were foremost on their minds. The most pressing issue was the Polish-Saxon question. Tsar Alexander demanded compensation for Russia's military contributions with the annexation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw to Russia's new kingdom of Poland. Frederick William III, king of Prussia (r. 1797–1840), however, was unwilling to support the absorption of former Prussian territory without fair compensation. To this end he was determined to annex the kingdom of Saxony. Metternich and Talleyrand were unwilling to accede to Alexander's and Frederick William's desires, as that would enlarge Russian and Prussian borders to the detriment of Austria, and run counter to French sympathies for the Poles. Castlereagh too, was not inclined to encourage Russian expansion or the close relationship between that empire and the Prussians, which had developed during the war.

Metternich and Castlereagh became appropriately concerned about Russian power at the moment France ceased to be the central threat to European peace. The Polish-Saxon question was hotly debated even before the opening of the congress in November. This critical problem was resolved by January 1815, when all parties grudgingly agreed to a middle course. Russia received two-thirds of the grand duchy, while Prussia annexed a third of Saxony and gained significant expansion of its territories on the Rhine. This compromise satiated Alexander and Frederick William III, gave Metternich and Austria a sense of "equilibrium" in central Europe, and kept France at bay by strengthening Prussia in the west.

Great Britain's interests were not limited to central and eastern Europe. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars also illustrated the danger of French occupation of Belgium and Holland. Castlereagh therefore desired the establishment of a strong state in the Low Countries that would prohibit French expansion. He successfully negotiated an enlarged Kingdom of the Netherlands, which included Belgium. In Germany, he gained the restoration of Hanover to the British royal family, and thereby wrested it from the Prussians, who had possessed it since 1806. Castlereagh also pressed for the removal of Napoleon's sister, Queen Caroline, and brother in law, King Joachim Murat, from the Neapolitan throne. Ferdinand IV, the Bourbon king of Naples (r. 1759–1806, 1815–1825) and of the Two Sicilies as Ferdinand I (r. 1816–1825), had fled his capital in 1806 for the protection of the British in Sicily. In 1814, Murat and Caroline defected to the allied coalition in exchange for their thrones. Metternich brokered this agreement without English consent. Castlereagh's desire to revise this arrangement came to naught until the spring of 1815, when Napoleon escaped from exile and Murat went to war with Austria. Murat's defeat in May 1815 led to Ferdinand's return to Naples, courtesy of Great Britain.

The fate of Italy and Germany were foremost on Metternich's mind, too. Napoleon had removed all vestiges of Habsburg influence in Germany and elevated and enlarged many of the German principalities. Metternich desired to restore some semblance of Habsburg authority to counter Prussia. Hence, he proposed a German Confederation with Austria acting as the presiding power. He was ultimately successful in this, as many of the middling German states found Prussia's enhanced strength and size a threat to their relative independence. They accepted Metternich's proposal of a German Confederation playing Austria off of Prussia. Although Austria presided over this new Germany, Habsburg influence remained a shadow of its former importance.

Italy provided a particular dilemma for Metternich and the other statesmen. The peninsula was under French control for almost two decades. The House of Savoy that ruled Piedmont-Sardinia had been in exile since 1802. Furthermore, Napoleon excluded the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties from the peninsula. Many of the Italian states were absorbed into his kingdom of Italy or the Italian departments of imperial France. Metternich wanted Austria to be compensated for its wartime efforts by the annexation of Lombardy and Venetia to the empire. In return, he accepted Russian expansion in Poland and Prussian acquisitions in Germany. Metternich also placed extended members of the Habsburg dynasty in Modena, Parma, and Tuscany. This arrangement worked to balance a potentially pro-British Naples, as well as an independently minded Piedmont-Sardinia, which had traditionally been a thorn in Austria's side.

The congress completed much of its work by the spring of 1815; however, Napoleon's escape from Elba and return to the French throne led to the temporary postponement of the final act. Talleyrand had initially secured France's position as an equal among its former enemies. He retained

French borders as of 1792, including Nice and Savoy and territory taken from the west bank of the Rhine. The Hundred Days (March–June 1815)—Napoleon's return—seriously undermined what Talleyrand had achieved the previous year. The allied powers took the opportunity to strip France of captured lands, accepting only those borders of 1789. Furthermore, France had to suffer allied occupation until it paid an indemnity of 700 million francs to the coalition.

The final treaty, reached in March, was not signed until June 1815. It included 110 articles that embodied both the grand and the petty interests of the participating powers. Austria, Great Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden were the primary signatories. Their accession to the treaty presented the other states with a fait accompli. At the conclusion of the congress, Tsar Alexander proposed to Frederick William III and Francis I of Austria (r. 1804–1835) a "Holy Alliance" of sorts, which he based on the conservative principles of the three Christian monarchs. Concomitantly, the major powers—to the exclusion of France—agreed to monitor events in Europe in order to preserve the newly established "equilibrium."

The Congress of Vienna produced a relatively viable and lasting peace in Europe for the next century. Although the doctrine of revolutionary suppression did not last beyond midcentury, the concept of diplomatic negotiation and territorial compensation to limit state expansion was quite successful in restraining European conflicts and mitigating their consequences. What made the congress unique, however, was that its participants agreed to this new system of international relations as a principle and did not define it solely by their immediate desires.

See alsoAlexander I; Castlereagh, Viscount (Robert Stewart); Concert of Europe; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Hardenberg, Karl August von; Holy Alliance; Metternich, Clemens von; Napoleon.


Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822. Boston, 1973.

Nicolson, Harold. The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity, 1812–1822. Reprint. New York, 1974.

Schroeder, Paul. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Webster, Charles. The Congress of Vienna, 1814–1815. London, 1963.

Frederick C. Schneid

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Congress of Vienna

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Congress of Vienna