The Congress of Vienna
European heads of government were looking to establish long-lasting peace and stability on the continent after the defeat of Napoleon. They had a goal of the new European order—one of collective security and stability for the entire continent. A series of meetings in Vienna, known as the Congress of Vienna, were called to set up policies to achieve this goal. Originally, the Congress of Vienna was scheduled to last for four weeks. Instead, it went on for eight months. Metternich’s Plan for Europe
Most of the decisions made in Vienna during the winter of 1814–1815 were made in secret among representatives of the five “great powers”—Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, and France. By far the most influential of these representatives was the foreign minister of Austria, Prince Klemens von Metternich.
Metternich distrusted the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. Like most other European aristocrats, he felt that Napoleon’s behavior had been a natural outcome of experiments with democracy. Metternich wanted to keep things as they were and remarked, “The first and greatest concern for the immense majority of every nation is the stability of laws—never their change.” Metternich had three goals at the Congress of Vienna. First, he wanted to prevent future French aggression by surrounding France with strong countries. Second, he wanted to restore a balance of power, so that no country would be a threat to others. Third, he wanted to restore Europe’s royal families to the thrones they had held before Napoleon’s conquests.
The Containment of France
The Congress took the following steps to make the weak countries around France stronger:
The former Austrian Netherlands and Dutch Republic were united to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
A group of 39 German states were loosely joined as the newly created German Confederation, dominated by Austria.
Switzerland was recognized as an independent nation.
The Kingdom of Sardinia in Italy was strengthened by the addition of Genoa.
These changes enabled the countries of Europe to contain France and prevent it from overpowering weaker nations.
Balance of Power
Although the leaders of Europe wanted to weaken France, they did not want to leave it powerless. If they severely punished France, they might encourage the French to take revenge. If they broke up France, then another country might become so strong that it would threaten them all. Thus, the victorious powers did not exact a great price from the defeated nation. As a result, France remained a major but diminished European power. Also, no country in Europe could easily overpower another.
The great powers affirmed the principle of legitimacy—agreeing that as many as possible of the rulers whom Napoleon had driven from their thrones be restored to power. The ruling families of France, Spain, and several states in Italy and Central Europe regained their thrones. The participants in the Congress of Vienna believed that the return of the former monarchs would stabilize political relations among the nations.
The Congress of Vienna was a political triumph in many ways. For the first time, the nations of an entire continent had cooperated to control political affairs. The settlements they agreed upon were fair enough that no country was left bearing a grudge. Therefore, the Congress did not sow the seeds of future wars. In that sense, it was more successful than many other peace meetings in history.
By agreeing to come to one another’s aid in case of threats to peace, the European nations had temporarily ensured that there would be a balance of power on the continent. The Congress of Vienna, then, created a time of peace in Europe. It was a lasting peace. None of the five great powers waged war on one another for nearly 40 years, when Britain and France fought Russia in the Crimean War.
Political Changes Beyond Vienna
The Congress of Vienna was a victory for conservatives. Kings and princes resumed power in country after country, in keeping with Metternich’s goals. Nevertheless, there were important differences from one country to another. Britain and France now had constitutional monarchies. Generally speaking, how ever, the governments in Eastern and Central Europe were more conservative. The rulers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria were absolute monarchs.
The rulers of Europe were very nervous about the legacy of the French Revolution. They worried that the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity might encourage revolutions elsewhere. Late in 1815, Czar Alexander I, Emperor Francis I of Austria, and King Frederick William III of Prussia signed an agreement called the Holy Alliance. In it, they pledged to base their relations with other nations on Christian principles in order to combat the forces of revolution. Finally, a series of alliances devised by Metternich, called the Concert of Europe, ensured that nations would help one another if any revolutions broke out.
Across Europe, conservatives held firm control of the governments, but they could not contain the ideas that had emerged during the French Revolution. France after 1815 was deeply divided politically. Conservatives were happy with the monarchy of Louis XVIII and were determined to make it last. Liberals, however, wanted the king to share more power with the legislature. And many people in the lower classes remained committed to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Similarly, in other countries there was an explosive mixture of ideas and factions that would contribute directly to revolutions in 1830 and 1848.
Despite their efforts to undo the French Revolution, the leaders at the Congress of Vienna could not turn back the clock. The Revolution had given Europe its first experiment in democratic government. Although the experiment had failed, it had set new political ideas in motion. The major political upheavals of the early 1800s had their roots in the French Revolution.
Revolution in Latin America
The actions of the Congress of Vienna had consequences far beyond events in Europe. When Napoleon deposed the king of Spain during the Peninsular War, liberal Creoles (colonists born in Spanish America) seized control of many colonies in the Americas. When the Congress of Vienna restored the king to the Spanish throne, royalist peninsulares (colonists born in Spain) tried to regain control of these colonial governments. The Creoles, however, attempted to retain and expand their power. In response, the Spanish king took steps to tighten control over the American colonies.
This action angered the Mexicans, who rose in revolt and successfully threw off Spain’s control. Other Spanish colonies in Latin America also claimed independence. At about the same time, Brazil declared independence from Portugal.
The Congress of Vienna left a legacy that would influence world politics for the next 100 years. The continent-wide efforts to establish and maintain a balance of power diminished the size and the power of France. At the same time, the power of Britain and Prussia increased.
Nationalism began to spread in Italy, Germany, Greece, and to other areas that the Congress had put under foreign control. Eventually, the nationalistic feelings would explode into revolutions, and new nations would be formed. European colonies also responded to the power shift. Spanish colonies took advantage of the events in Europe to declare their independence and break away from Spain.
At the same time, ideas about the basis of power and authority had changed permanently as a result of the French Revolution. More and more, people saw democracy as the best way to ensure equality and justice for all. The French Revolution, then, changed the social attitudes and assumptions that had dominated Europe for centuries. A new era had begun.
Identify the following:
Congress of Vienna
Klemens von Metternich
balance of power
Concert of Europe
Use complete sentences to answer each of the following questions
1. What were the three points of Metternich’s plan for Europe?
2. Why was the Congress of Vienna considered a success?
3. What was the long-term legacy of the Congress of Vienna?
4. From France’s point of view, do you think the Congress of Vienna’s decisions were fair?
5. Why did liberals and conservatives differ over who should have power?
6. What do you think is meant by the statement that the French Revolution let the “genie out of the bottle?”