Dr. Roy Sandstrom
February 26, 2003
European Balance of Power After Napoleon I
The American Heritage Dictionary defines balance of power to mean the “distribution of power in which no single nation is able to dominate or interfere with others.” 1 Logically this was of great concern to a continent that had just seen one of the world’s greatest conquerors storm all of Europe with little warning. As a result, Europe, namely the greater European powers of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia banded together to form some of the most unified and revolutionary treaties of their time. Through various conferences and international organizations and specifically the Congress of Vienna, Europe was able to control France in the post Napoleonic era and maintain a balance of power in Europe for nearly 40 years.2 I will also discuss additional subsequent institutions similar to that of the Congress of Vienna
The first conference of European powers after Napoleon’s reign was the Congress of Vienna. Held obviously in Vienna, Austria beginning in 1814 and continuing through 1815, the congress was held primarily to create a balance of power that would preserve European peace indefinitely and also to restructure Europe after Napoleon fell. While the congress would eventually become a success in that a balance would be achieved, there would be significant constraints along the way.
While all parties involved wanted a stable balance of power, there was significant disagreement as to what this meant in realistic terms. Britain wanted a state system with various frontiers and stable alignments through out Europe to contain France when necessary. Austria, on the other hand, wanted a state system with frontiers that gave her clear predominance in Central Europe and security against a vast and powerful Russia. The Austrians were far less concerned with France than Britain was because the Austrians knew Britain would control France if necessary. Finally, Russia saw the potential balance of power not as a just equilibrium like most other European powers, but instead as something to be manipulated if at all possible for its own designs and advantages.3
A second flaw of The Congress of Vienna was the method by which the powers at hand restored rulers. They restored old rulers (those from before Napoleon’s reign) when and where they saw fit, and they arranged the territories to satisfy strategic goals and requirements - to “tidy up frontiers or to provide rough justice by way of rewards, compensation, or punishment.” 4 This method virtually ensured continued periodic redistribution of lands in the continent for more than a century.
Another potential problem was the consistent paradox of views among the leading nations. Britain and Austria frequently sided with each other and found themselves juxtaposed with Russian and Prussian thought. This would be over come further into the conference for reasons that will become apparent.
The Congress was eventually successful however, for many reasons. Nationalism was an issue at the time and a potential obstruction, but most European leaders felt peace was far more important than liberal and nationalistic ideas, and as a result neither idea could truly assert itself. Also those involved could clearly be described as realistic. That is, none involved felt they were going to benefit the most from every decision, and it is likely none wanted to, knowing that such a result would place them in a hegemonic role, one much more likely to draw the military attention of other states. As a result none involved adhered to a strict nationalistic ideology and compromise was achieved.
A third and far more important reason was simply the structure of the Vienna Congress. Major decisions were voted on by Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia; however, as mentioned earlier, this was ideal for frequent 50-50 splits in votes. Partially to solve this problem and partially because of a presentation by Prince Charles de Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, a committee of eight consisting of (among others) France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden was added and counted as a collective vote.5
Additionally there were numerous territorial changes. By the end of the congress France had lost all territory conquered by Napoleon, Britain had gained strategic colonies and control of the seas, and France had an army of occupation within its borders. Prussia was given much of Saxony, important parts of Westphalia, and the Rhine Province. The Dutch Republic and the Austrian Netherlands united forming the kingdom of the Netherlands. Norway and Sweden were united under one ruler, and Switzerland became a neutral power. Russia was not left entirely empty handed either; it gained all of Finland and effectively controlled the new kingdom of Poland. To complete the balance Austria regained territory lost along with Lombardia and Venice (portions of Germany and Italy), and France and Spain were restored to monarchies under Louis XVIII and Ferdinand VII respectively. 6
During roughly the same time period (within a year or two), similar institutions were created in Europe. The first, the Holy Alliance, was of little real consequence. The second, the Quadruple Alliance, was of far more significance. The Holy Alliance was a fairly simple idea rightfully attributed to Czar Alexander I. Since June of 1815, the Czar had apparently been under the persuasive influence of a religious visionary in the form of Baroness von Krudener of German-Russian descent. While her intentions were not likely political, it is understood that she instilled in the Czar the idea that religion was again an essential factor to ruling in a monarchy. While this idea was not entirely agreed upon by other powers of the time, they saw no reason to oppose a proposal without consequences.7 Thus, eventually all princes in Europe signed the alliance with the exception of three, who could not for various reasons. George IV of England could not because of constitutional reasons, the pope could not due to religious reasons, and the sultan could not because he was not Christian.8
The Quadruple Alliance was of far more consequence while perhaps less complicated than the Holy Alliance. The Quadruple Alliance, signed nearly a month before the Holy Alliance, was established between Russia, Britain, Prussia, and Austria in March of 1814 to strengthen the alliance against Napoleon I. France would eventually join the coalition after Napoleon was abdicated, effectively forming the Quintuple Alliance. This structuring of European powers would eventually lead to a strict and severe Treaty of Paris on November 20, 1815.
While the Quadruple Alliance, the Congress of Vienna, the Holy Alliance, and even the Concert of Europe are occasionally used interchangeably, they are in fact distinct structures. They do however have a common trait. All revived the concept of a centralized Europe in which the peace and prosperity of the entire continent seemed to take precedence to the individual rights and freedoms of a single state. Interestingly enough, certain parallels can be drawn between the institutions of the early 19th century mentioned here and similar international institutions of the present such as the World Trade Organization, NATO, the World Bank, and of course the United Nations. While the institutions of the 19 century served their purpose for almost a half of a century, only time will tell how long contemporary institutions such as these will preserve the current international balance of power and maintain the peace we have all come to enjoy.
Albrecht-Carrié, René. Ed. The Concert of Europe. Walker and Company, New York: 1968.
Langhorne, Richard. The Collapse of the Concert of Europe. St. Martin’s Press, New York: 1981.
Medlicott, W.N. Bismark, Gladstone, and the Concert of Europe. The Athlone Press, London: 1956
Mowat, R.B. The Concert of Europe. MacMillian and Co., Limited, London: 1930.
Sked, Alan. Ed. Europe’s Balance of Power 1815-1848. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York: 1979.