Congress of Vienna in 1814.
The show you are about to hear is part 2 of the Congress of Vienna. It won’t make sense if you haven’t listened to part 1. I know my shows are normally stand alones and can be listened to in any order but for the Congress of Vienna, like Waterloo, it had to be a multiparter. Now before we begin, I’d like to do a little community corner. This show is for all you listeners and I’m thrilled to have a lovely community like you. I want to say a huge thank you for the latest iTunes reviews. Play promo for the Pontifacts Podcast.
In December 1813, the British foreign secretary Robert Stewart, better known to history as Lord Castlereagh, had finally been forced to travel to Europe to cut deals with European powers to bring about the end of Napoleon. For years Britain had been seen as a financier and opportunist, despite having a significant force active in Spain and essentially clearing the seas of French shipping. Now Britain had to fully commit to the diplomatic war.
Metternich had badly wanted the British to get more involved in diplomacy and alliances. So Castlereagh did. He planned on re-organising the former Dutch Republic to suit Britain, and worked to get the Prince Regents Daughter Charlotte married to the son of the exiled ruler, William Prince of Orange. Then he planned to get the Prince recognised as the King of the Netherlands, which would ignore the longstanding Dutch Republican tradition, and also get encouraged him to take over Belgium as the French retreated. As Castlereagh said, it looked good on the map. He magnanimously declined the idea that Britain might want to annex Dunkirk for future naval use.
With that Castlereagh moved on to Frankfurt, having a dreadful journey and moaning about the conditions in Germany. He then moved on to meet Metternich. Arriving in Bale he found that the Tsar had departed, but had left instructions that Castlereagh was to meet him before anyone else. Castlereagh, as a British Foreign Secretary, was not going to take instructions from anyone besides the British government. He decided to see Metternich and drive a coach and horses through the formal protocols. The stark contrast between him and the European diplomats and rulers was immense. They were all dressed in highly elaborate military uniforms, aping the styles of Napoleon and the Tsars and Grand Dukes. Castlereagh was dressed in a blue civilian coat with ruffled braid and bright scarlet breeches. He looked, as someone observed, like a dandy footmen. This might have caused people to underestimate him. Castlereagh might have no European experience but he had plenty of political experience including being instrumental along with Lord Cornwallis of American War of Independence fame, in passing the Irish Act of Union which had unified the Irish and English crowns.
He and Metternich seemed to instantly click. Let the others babble and think themselves clever. He and Metternich were going to put themselves in the driving seat. In a private meeting he and Metternich decided the shape of Europe. They paused only briefly to let Castlereagh meet King Friedrich, then went back to deciding how and where millions of people would live their lives.
Well I’ve just thrown a lot of information at you there. Let’s just pause for a moment and think about the staggering implications. The way these men thought is very, very different from the modern idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is very different from the American founding fathers ideal of that phrase. It boils down to a concept that we will see throughout the Victorian period; namely that the people did not have the right to decide the shape and state of their nation. Aristocrats and Kings might have that right by treaty or war. The idea that there was a popular will in Belgium and that the people living there should get to decide whether they were a monarchy or republic was deeply abhorrent to men like Metternich. This wasn’t because he was evil. Far from it. He wasn’t sitting in a secret lair in a volcano telling Mr Bond that the shark tank had been warmed up for him and he was welcome to take a dip. It was because Metternich believed that the old order of Europe was preferable to the chaos that came from the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity. Giving rule to the people would lead to chaos. From chaos would come dictators like Napoleon who would wage wars on unprecendented scale with nothing to check their ambition. It was easy for such men to fool the common people, because the common people were ignorant, idle, excitable and jealous.
I should point out that the claim that the majority of the populations of Europe were ignorant was not universal even in his own time. Still the claim that populations were ignorant is not entirely wrong, it is more incomplete and misleading. Most people in Europe were still illiterate and didn’t travel much so their world view and knowledge was intensely local. They were ignorant of a lot of the wider world. This was not because they were stupid, although many of the aristocracy would have said they were. Rather it was inevitable because universal education, and a mass market free press simply didn’t exist in the way it would in the mid to late Victorian era. Knowledge was concentrated in the aristocracy, and tiny but growing middle classes. I think that Metternich if challenged, would have said something like “well how is a peasant farmer who can’t read and knows only the gossip from the tavern and the sermon in the Church supposed to decide whether his government should adopt a trade treaty with a foreign power that required the surrender of territories and complex negotiations. It would be absurd to ask such a man, versed in the plow and the seasons, to give a considered and rational opinion on events that he can know nothing about and in which he has no training.”
This has been a long standing criticism of democracy and remains part of the core debate about representative democracies vs direct democracies vs constitutional monarchies vs more despotic regimes. It is an argument that would burst into flames in the United Kingdom countless times during the Chartist movement, the passage of the reform bill, the corn laws, voting rights for women and many other flash points. The idea that universal mass education, combined with scrupulous press honesty was the key to overcoming the problem was not widely recognised despite the efforts of some of the American founding fathers. The feeling that the people would become an excitable mob had been proved by the French revolution as far as the European ruling classes were concerned. The reign of terror and the horrors of Robspierre were fresh in everyone’s minds. The United States was still too new, too alien to look at as a valid counter example. The aggressive actions of the US against Canada which were one of the major triggers of the war of 1812, seemed to prove that the democracies were inherently warlike. This world view had also dominated Castlereaghs previous actions in Ireland and would do again with dire consequences.
Castlereagh set out Britains vision for the future of Europe. Metternich was in agreement, it jibbed neatly with his own visions and provided ample scope for the necessary wheeling and dealing to get an agreement. It also helped check some of the Tsar of Russia’s increasingly imperious demands. Castlereagh wanted
- A strong Holland to counter balance France.
- Antwerp to never be in French hands.
- The restoration of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies.
- A strong kingdom of Italy, that was free of French influence.
- In return Britain would give up all the French colonies it had taken, except Malta, Mauritius, Reunion, Guadalope and the Saintes Islands. It quite liked those.
- Britain would also return captured Dutch possessions except the Cape.
This would give Britain some of the absolute best naval bases around the world, especially when Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and significantly weaken France. All in all a good end to the war for Britain. But it would be incomplete to characterise everything Castlereagh did as being selfish or arrogant. His job was to represent Britain’s best interests and to do the best for her as he could, not to help the French. Like Metternich he was a reactionary, but only because he believed the old order was the best way of doing things for everyone. This isn’t surprising. He was an Irish aristocrat from an old noble family. His world view was shaped very much by his experience of growing up amongst the Irish nobility in Ireland and this would have shaped his views of the rural population. He wasn’t corrupt, or blood thirsty. His constant efforts were always aimed at making peace on the continent. He knew millions of people had died in decades of war and he wanted a better world. He just viewed that better world as coming from the past rather than arising from some kind of utopian reforms.
The slight difficulty was that the British, uniquely amongst the European powers, didn’t even recognise Napoleon as ruling France. They referred to him just as General Bonaparte. Metternich and many on the continent wanted a sensible peace, probably with France contained within her natural borders rather than her smaller artificial ones that existed pre-revolution. Britain though was like Russia. She wanted Napoleon destroyed. Russia had already alarmed the British by suggesting that the house of Bourbon shouldn’t be restored to France. Tsar Alexander felt that the Bourbon kings weren’t of sufficient quality, and perhaps the French throne should go to the ambitious French Marshal, the traitorous Bearnadotte. The Marshal was keen to be made king, strange for a man who had revolutionary slogans tattooed to his skin.
How on Earth do you square these circles? It was the job of men like Metternich and Castlereagh to try. Many of the opposition in the military simply wanted to march into France, burning, looting and killing. They had lost much during French invasions and wanted revenge. The problem is it becomes an endless cycle. You can always find a reason for revenge, for not making peace. There’s always this outrage, or that battle, or this murder and your side is always just bit more in the right than the other side, and you’ve sacrificed so much so surely you should honour the fallen and carry on the war. What’s that old saying of Batman’s “if you kill a killer, the number of killers in the world stays the same.” It’s why some conflicts in the world just keep going, almost generation after generation; the past becomes the dead hand clamped on the neck of the future. Castlereagh and Metternich were desperate to break this cycle. Worse for them, Tsar Alexander was experiencing a religious mania. He believed he had been granted an intervention by God Himself, compelling him to destroy Napoleon personally. Fanaticism was rearing its head.
Throughout 1814 the diplomatic whirlwind continued. The post Napoleonic world was discussed. Princes and Arch Dukes schemed. Metternich took mistresses, even at one point spending his time writing love letters to a less than constant mistress whilst his colleagues planned how to carve up Saxony and Poland. When one of his former mistresses became a lover of Tsar Alexander, the gossip round the city caused enmity and jealousy to flair up between the two. The hatred became intensely personal. Prussia schemed to acquire parts of Germany. Various Germans came up with opposing visions for Germany; some involving a grand unified Germany, others for increased power to various German regions. Marriages and alliances were formed and reformed as needed. In many ways it was the old order in full flowing. Let’s step back here though and look at this in at a more individual level. This whole situation was supposed to be about creating a fair and lasting political and social settlement in Europe. The lives of millions of people depended utterly on the outcome of these discussions, but it is clear that at least some of the key statesmen involved were letting their personal feelings run riot, especially over mistresses, even if it damaged themselves and their countries. A lot of this took place with a back drop of grand balls, great concerts and firework displays with extravagantly dressed servants and elaborate carriages. Great paintings have been made of these occasions. In many ways the Congress was more of a series of social events that were interrupted by some formal diplomacy.
What was going through their minds? Why were these personal feelings allowed to interfere so much? Was it a product of the culture of the aristocracies of the time. Where personal feelings and character could be as important to people as actual achievements? Talleyrand certainly didn’t fall into the trap of mistresses distracting him, although he was aggrieved when one of his threw him over for a dashing cavalry officer. Or was it that being aristocrats, they didn’t see a difference between the personal feeling and the public act? Was it a case of being just so self entitled that they simply didn’t care like many modern oligarchs and politicians? Or that they were in a bubble that meant they simply couldn’t see beyond their own lives except in the abstract? What did their staff think? Was this ivory tower group think? Once his ex-mistress had firmly rebuffed him, Metternich did eventually return to business. Still he retained a deep loathing for Tsar Alexander over the incident. Remember these mistresses were often powerful figures in their own right. Duchesses, or high ranking aristocratic girls. They are often mentioned and even well known in a way that modern pop stars are today. They seem to have enjoyed a notoriety that bordered on respectability. They clearly had enough power and agency to change relationships between powerful and dangerous men.
I’m telling you this, not just because it is interesting gossip, but because it is all too easy to over simplify when we look through the historical lens. We say things like “Well it’s strange that the Russians didn’t do x with the Austrians because it really was in their interest.” and then we go on to talk in these abstract terms as if a nation was a real thing with a single consciousness. The reality is far more complicated. Nations are basically a collection of impulses and culture, tied together under a political system rooted in its history. They aren’t a conscious entity and when we use terms like Britain or France, we must remember we are really just using a useful short hand. Looked at this way, it is clear how some of the strange decisions made by nations can be explained, once we root them in the mentality and actions of the individuals involved.
A lot of the tension between Austria and Russia was caused by Tsar Alexander and Metternich hating each other personally. Not that Talleyrand got on any better with the Tsar. The Tsar felt Talleyrand was a dishonest backslider, who quoted legitimacy and international law only as far as it suited him, which was entirely true. But Talleyrand was a smart political survivor. He was quick to play the Tsar off against everyone else.
There’s a great line in the Godfather novel about this. Michael Corleone is talking to his consigliere Tom Hagen. He says “Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell.” It’s a very revealing line. Throughout the book, one of the themes is “hey, its nothing personal, it’s just business.” What Michael Corleone revels in that line is a great truth; power is often intensely personal, even if you dress it up. By calling it business not personal the Mafia could claim to be a step removed. More rational, but that was just the window dressing. It illustrates why the politics of this period really did come down as much to the feelings of the men involved, because there simply isn’t as sharper distinction between the political and the personal as we claim.
Theses antics had not gone unnoticed. Many onlookers complained about the extravagance . One diarist wrote
[QUOTE] These sovereigns who were all brothers when it was a question of annihilating the power of Bonaparte, were apparently united only by necessity, for their own interests and not in the noble aim they proclaimed of bringing happiness to the nations. [END QUOTE] p332 Rites of Peace
In the background of this, a war ravaged Europe faced real questions about how to plant crops, raise cattle and feed itself generally. Armies had stolen food and burnt fields. Grain supplies and markets were disrupted. This was not trivial to a farmer or a peasant labourer. For them, the intensely local concerns of food production and supply meant that grand political diplomacy was something that happened in the abstract. Local politics was in many ways far more important and often trumped any nationalistic feelings.
When Napoleon returned from exile, he threw the delicate balance of diplomacy in Europe into a tailspin. The great power players represented by men like Metternich in Austria, and Tsar Alexander had a vision for the future. So did men like Talleyrand. This vision was in many ways backward looking and very autocratic, but it did at least aim to bring peace to a continent that had been ravage by 20 years of war. Still in an unfortunate quirk of fate for Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington had replaced Lord Castlereagh at the Congress, so he was already in place to work on the immediate military response.
Napoleon’s return had shattered the initial dreams of the congress. The coalition of the willing was assembled. They had committed to bringing him down together. Once Waterloo was over, Napoleon’s fall became inevitable. The question of what came next hung in the balance. Castlereagh had wanted to enact a vision of a peaceful Europe with a balance of power and a proto-United Nations. He was determined to avoid a punitive peace settlement with France that was so harsh it would create future conflict. He was desperately worried about allowing one continental power to gain dominance. What he seemed not to realise was that in setting up a balance of power system with the old regimes in charge, he was guaranteeing that the old order would seek to turn the clock back, making future popularist revolutions inevitable. Prussia wanted revenge more than ever. Russia aimed to replace France and Austria as the ultimate power in Europe, with Poland divided up between the various European powers.
Still Waterloo had changed things. The British, particularly Wellington were now the supreme diplomatic power in Europe. In hindsight, we might say how instrumental the Prussians were in turning the tide, but to the powers at the time, Waterloo was Wellingtons victory. In the popular myth of the day, he had stood alone against the best the French could offer and beaten them before the other powers could help. If you’ve listened to my previous episodes you’ll know this isn’t true, but it isn’t entirely wrong either. It is just incomplete.
The Tsar realised that he had to get to Wellington if he was to salvage his idea’s of Russian dominance. The Tsar, like many others wanted to see the Duc D’Orleans succeed Napoleon, but Wellington was known to be close friends with Louis XVIII. Wellington moved quickly to put Louis back on the throne. He summoned Talleyrand and Fouche. Talleyrand was quickly bought off with £10,000 from British secret service funds (or at least the forerunner of the Secret Service). Fouche was bought off when Wellington strong armed Louis to accept Fouche into government. This might seem pretty appalling to us at first glance. The British were deciding on who would rule France, and the shape of European peace, but it should be noted that by pursuing Castlereaghs plan the British were trying to put European affairs before their own, by passing up a once in a lifetime opportunity. Napoleon and many others were stunned. They expected the British to ruthlessly carve up France, steal colonies, force concessions and gained immense commercial and financial benefits, but the British refused to take advantage. Almost every European power gained immense territory and many other treasures, but Castlereagh wanted “security not revenge.” He was genuinely having the courage of his convictions.
Not that the British didn’t behave badly in many ways. The British treated Napoleon appallingly in his exile. Wellington essentially allowed Marshal Ney to be executed after a show trial. Difficulties at home politically meant that Castelreagh had trouble persuading Parliament to accept his various treaties, especially when they might involve Britain guaranteeing Russian power in the Balkans and Middle East and provoke conflict with the Ottoman Empire.
The Castlereagh settlement was for a Quantripple alliance, with regular congresses. It was doomed as a mechanism for European peace. The British were turning inward now that the Napoleonic threat was over. For them, the alliances had been to bring prevent Britain and Ireland being invaded by the French, bring down Napoleon, and turn back the effects of the French revolution. Castlereagh wanted a highly autocratic grand system where the great powers could meet and debate international affairs to prevent conflict and settle all disagreements by negotiation. But Britains inward turn and worries over the financial implications of the war meant they had little interest in further European affairs.
For Russia, the alliances were just to help them gain power in Europe and enforce the will of the great powers on smaller states. This wasn’t because the Tsar was evil or the Russians were somehow bad. They were seeking to establish their own territories and role in a world that often didn’t give Russia either diplomatic respect or deal with them consistently. But it caused immense resentment amongst those smaller states near Russia, who felt threatened by Tsarist expansion.
For Austria the goal was to prevent any liberal movements and to create a stable patch work of static European states. Eventually the naked self interest of the other powers meant Castlereagh began to refuse to attend the congresses after 1815. He had worked so hard to secure the peace, but Britain was in turmoil at home whilst the Great Powers regarded him as a stiff necked idealist. There was no way the system of congresses could cope with rapidly changing international affairs or deal with the pent up liberal movement that was desperate for democracy, freedom and liberty.
The question to ask ourselves is “was it a success?” Well that’s actually quite complicated to answer. We have the benefit of hindsight. It seems to have succeeded on its own terms in many ways . There was no major continental war for decades but it couldn’t re-establish the old regime or lay the foundations for a transition to the mass industrial democracies.
Historian Pavel Murdzhev says
[QUOTE] it served as a foundation that simultaneously maintained a long term balance of power, yet failed to recognise the burgeoning spirit of nationalism that would ultimately upset the peace of Europe. [END QUOTE]
The next few years would be very hard for Europe. Whilst Europe on the mainland attempted to turn the clock back, the British attempted to carry on as if the French revolution had never happened. The British aristocracy viewed the British system having triumphed over any other in the world as demonstrated by the triumph in the Napoleonic Wars . The ruling aristocracy wanted the old order to carry on and creating a land fit for heroes for the returning soldiers, or reforming a tottering political system, was the last thing on their minds. A dysfunctional monarchy and a utterly corrupt parliament meant that for many British people, dark times were ahead. Join me next time as an act of Nature will change the course of history.…..Get in touch