Congress of Vienna

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Congress of Vienna

 The delegates at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) were motivated to a surprisingly large degree by the desire to benefit Europe as a whole, and this is reflected in their purpose in calling the Congress together and the settlement they reached. National interest was modified for the sake of the general interest of Europe.

    The Congress of Vienna was held in order to draw up a plan to alter Europe politically and territorially so as to prevent the extensive expansion of any one great power, such as that Napoleon had brought about. Creating a balance of power among the powerful nations of Europe, reinstating conservative regimes, containing France, and reaching an agreement to cooperate with each other were the goals of the Congress, which illustrated the altruistic attitude of the national representatives present and supported the overall purpose of preventing future widespread conflict.

    Although the separate ambitions of the victors at the Congress to gain territory were mostly fueled by naked self- interest, they were forced to compromise in order to establish a balance of power. Alexander I of Russia felt the nation was owed all of Poland while Prussia had designs on Saxony. In the final settlement, however, Russia had to share claim to Poland with Austria and Prussia, and Prussia received only half of Saxony with additional territories in the Rhineland as compensation. In this way, national interest was modified for the sake of maintaining the balance of power, which was in the general interest of Europe.

    Besides the fact that the final settlement at the Congress of Vienna allotted the territory Napoleon had conquered to the victors in such a way as to prevent any one of them from becoming too powerful, the spoils were distributed in order to create a buffer against France. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed, Prussia acquired part of the Rhineland, Switzerland regained independence and the right to neutrality, and Austria dominated Northern Italy according to the terms of the settlement, leaving France boxed in and unable to assert itself. Due to the influence of Prince Talleyrand, France received no punishment more severe than containment, and this benefited Europe in that it kept France from becoming too weak and destroying the balance of power.

    In addition to creating a balance of power and containing France, the final settlement at Vienna demonstrated altruistic designs for Europe in that the Concert of Europe was organized. This was the first international group to attempt to deal with European affairs, the main purpose of the Concert being to preserve the balance of power and protect conservative governments from being overthrown.

    The fact that the Congress of Vienna was conducted with the aim of preventing universal war, which led to proposals of creating a balance of power, establishing "better" conservative governments, containing France and cooperation between the great powers to meet these ends clearly demonstrates that the welfare of all of Europe was a relevant concern. After much deliberation, the delegates succeeded in creating a final settlement which adjusted the selfish goals of the individual nations to acquire large expanses of territory to support the balance of power. The containment of France and the formation of the Concert of Europe were two other aspects of the settlement which maintained the balance of power, thus promoting the good of Europe.


    One month before the defeat of Napoleon in April, 1814, his four major adversaries (Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia) had agreed in the Treaty of Chaumont (March 10, 1814) to remain allied until final victory and then to hold a general European congress to secure the peace. In signing the First Peace of Paris on May 30, 1814, with the restored Bourbon monarchy of France, the four great powers reaffirmed their intention to hold such a congress at Vienna. From beginning to end, the Congress of Vienna remained almost exclusively a congress of the great powers, the smaller states being summoned to participate only in the discussion of minor matters which pertained to them individually. A plenary session of all the powers was never held. 

The problem of the organizational relationship between the great and the small powers which plagued the diplomats throughout the opening months of the Congress was soon overshadowed by a serious dispute within the ranks of the Allies concerning Poland. From the beginning of the first informal discussions in Vienna on September 15, 1814, Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia could not agree on the partition of the Polish territory. Tsar Alexander I of Russia had been determined for some time to reconstitute the former Polish state as a Russian dependency. Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, the Chancellor of Prussia, agreed to surrender to Alexander the Polish lands which Prussia had acquired in the eighteenth century if the Tsar would support the Hohenzollern claim to the whole of Saxony. Prince Metternich, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Viscount Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, naturally regarded the Russian and Prussian demands as a serious threat to the balance of power. Above all, Russia would move deeper into Europe than ever before. 

    The dispute within the Allied camp was particularly welcomed by Talleyrand, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, who for some time had been seeking a voice for France at the Congress of Vienna. He now had his opportunity. In December 1814, he broached a compromise plan to Castlereagh and Metternich under which Russia would be offered a reduced Poland, and Prussia, a reduced Saxony with some territory in the Rhineland. If Russia and Prussia proved to be slow in accepting the compromise, Talleyrand offered a plan whereby Austria and Great Britain would ally and resist, by force if necessary, the Russo-Prussian stand. Such an alliance, in fact, came into existence on January 3, 1815, but it never had to mobilize its forces because Prussia and Russia decided to accept a compromise solution based on Talleyrand’s suggestion. 

 In an agreement signed on February 11, Poland was repartitioned among Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Prussia received in addition only two-fifths of Saxony, but by way of compensation annexed parts of both the Rhineland and Westphalia. As part of the same agreement, Austria acquired Salzburg, the Tyrol, and territory along the Dalmatian (or Illyrian) coastline. Talleyrand’s solution to the Polish question thus enabled the Allies to heal the breach in their ranks; his diplomacy, moreover, earned for France a greater role at the Congress than it had before, at least until Napoleon’s temporary resumption of power in March, 1815. 

    Despite their preoccupation with Napoleon during the Hundred Days in the spring of 1815, the Allies and the lesser powers met on June 9 to sign the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna. This treaty encompassed previously concluded bilateral agreements and other measures, together with new arrangements worked out in the Congress itself. Most of the provisions of the Final Act can be subordinated under the headings of “Legitimacy,” “Security,” and “Compensation,” which were the three major principles that dominated the Congress. “Legitimacy” involved the restoration of dynasties deposed during the Napoleonic period, among which were the restoration of Bourbon lines to the thrones of France, Spain, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the House of Orange to the throne of Holland.

    Under the principle of “Security,” the states near or adjacent to France were enlarged to forestall any possible future aggression on the part of that country. Thus Holland received the old Austrian Netherlands; Prussia, as mentioned above, obtained Rhenish and Westphalian territories; and Switzerland was perpetually neutralized and assigned three additional cantons on the French frontier.

    Finally, the principle of “Compensation,” besides embracing the territorial provisions made under “Security,” included Russia’s acquisition of Finland from Sweden, which received Norway from Napoleon’s staunch ally Denmark. Great Britain was compensated with Malta, Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope colony, and Dutch Guiana, among other territories. Austria obtained Salzburg, the Tyrol, the Italian lands of Lombardy and Venetia and districts along the Dalmatian coast. These lands, together with the accession of lesser Hapsburg princedoms in the smaller north-central Italian states, compensated Austria for the surrender of the southern Netherlands to Holland.

The only major part of the settlement which did not fall within the principles enumerated above was the disposition of the Germanies. In place of the old Holy Roman Empire, which had come to an end in 1806, the Allies established a confederation of some thirty-nine states under the presidency of Austria. The Diet of the German Confederation was composed of diplomats speaking on behalf of their rulers, not of popularly elected representatives. The tradition of disunified German states over which Austria predominated was preserved well into the nineteenth century. 

    The Vienna settlement brought about the restoration of a conservative order in Europe. To preserve the arrangement, Austria, Great Britain, Russia, and Prussia signed the Quadruple Alliance later in 1815 to establish the Concert of Europe. They were joined by France in 1818. The Concert of Europe sought to preserve the Vienna settlement for at least twenty years through periodic conferences (several of which were held between 1818 and 1822) to deal with liberalist-nationalist challenges to the settlement in Greece, Spain, and the Italies. In the long run these and similar challenges resulted in the dissolution of the Vienna settlement and the end of the Concert of Europe.


  1. What major powers were represented at the Congress of Vienna? Minor powers?

  2. What were the major goals of the Congress of Vienna?

  3. How realistic were the goals?

  4. How well did they meet the goals?

  5. What was the outcome of the Congress of Vienna?

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