The Congress of Vienna was a series of meetings involving most of the European heads of state held in Vienna, the capital of the Austrian empire, between September 1814 and 9 June 1815. The purpose of the Congress was to redraw the map of Europe after years of chaos resulting from the Napoleonic and French revolutionary wars (1792–1814). Its proceedings were initially dominated by the four powers of the victorious allied coalition that had defeated Napoleon. Britain was represented by foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh (Robert Stewart). Prussia was represented by foreign secretary and chancellor Prince Carl von Hardenberg, Russia by Czar Alexander I (1777–1825), and Austria by Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), who emerged as the architect of the Congress. The defeated French were represented by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (1754–1838).
Although Metternich acted as host, there was no formal opening of the Congress, and meetings began in September as delegations arrived. While the major states debated the key issues, delegates from lesser European states dealt with issues such as navigation rights and attended lavish receptions held by the Austrian government. The Congress dissolved after the signing of the Final Act, 9 June 1815.
With his armies defeated Napoleon Bonaparte resigned as emperor of France on 11 April 1814 and went into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. Allied armies occupied Paris and the prerevolutionary Bourbon dynasty was restored to the throne of France. Louis XVIII (brother of the beheaded Louis XVI) became king, with Talleyrand as foreign secretary. The four allies signed a peace treaty with the new French government on 30 May 1814 known as the First Peace of Paris. Under the terms of the treaty France’s borders were rolled back to what they had been in 1792.The final clause in the treaty also specified that all states engaged in the current war should meet in Vienna to resolve outstanding territorial issues.
Metternich’s major objective at the Congress was to ensure that France was surrounded by states strong enough to contain any future French attempts at expansion. Metternich wanted to create a balance of power in Europe that would maintain stability. The Congress of Vienna went on to formalize many territorial arrangements previously agreed upon by the four major allied states. The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which included Belgium and Holland, was created as a strong state on France’s northeastern frontier. The Italian state of Piedmont-Sardinia played a similar role on France’s southeastern frontier. In central Europe Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine was abolished and replaced by thirty-nine German states grouped loosely together as the German Confederation, with its capital in Frankfurt. The Confederation included German-speaking areas of Prussia and Austria. It also superseded the three hundred-plus German states that had existed under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire prior to the French revolution. Prussia was given land on the west and east banks of the Rhine River in order to garrison an army that could march quickly on France in case of an emergency. Austria was meant to have the dominant role in the German Confederation and the Austrians were given presidency of the Confederation. Austria was also to be the dominant power on the Italian peninsula. Austria retained possession of the wealthy northern Italian province of Lombardy and was granted control over the neighboring and equally wealthy province of Venetia. Members of the Austrian royal family, the Habsburgs, were placed on most of the thrones of the remaining Italian states to ensure Austrian dominance and keep the French out.
The Congress recognized British possession of several important overseas territories conquered during the Napoleonic wars. Britain gained the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, Malta in the Mediterranean, the Cape Colony of southern Africa, the island of Ceylon off India’s southern tip, the islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, and Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean, and the islands of Saint Lucia, Trinidad, and Tobago in the Caribbean. Many of these possessions were economically lucrative and gave Britain control over key shipping routes.
The Congress acknowledged the status of Switzerland as an independent and neutral state. Finally, territorial changes were undertaken in Scandinavia. The king of Denmark, too long an ally of Napoleon, lost his possession of Norway to Sweden. Sweden, in turn, was forced to give Finland to Russia.
The Poland– Saxony Dispute
A disagreement over eastern Europe very nearly disrupted the Congress. Alexander I made clear that he wanted to gain control over all of Poland, including Polish provinces previously ruled by Prussia. By way of compensation, the Prussians were to be given the wealthy German kingdom of Saxony. The Austrians and British protested, fearing the growth of Prussian and Russian power in central and eastern Europe. The dispute soon escalated to serious proportions. Talleyrand saw an opportunity to split the victorious alliance and regain French influence in Europe. He sided with the British and Austrians, and on 3 January 1815, the three powers signed a secret alliance. Each signatory pledged 150,000 troops in the event of war. However, Europe had suffered enough war and a compromise was found. Russia gained most, but not all, of Poland. Prussia gained about 40 percent of Saxony, with the rest remaining independent.
The Final Act and Long-Term Impact
In late February Napoleon escaped from exile and landed in France on 1 March 1815. Napoleon forced Louis XVIII to flee Paris, raised an army, and went to war again with the allies. However this had little impact on the Congress of Vienna. The Final Act was signed on 9 June, and Napoleon was defeated for the last time at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
Most historians agree that the Congress of Vienna created a durable peace in Europe. Although wars broke out among individual European states in the nineteenth century, there was no general war until 1914, a reflection of the fact that no one power left Vienna with unresolved grievances. Britain was arguably the big winner, having won dominance over shipping routes all around the globe, setting the stage for Britain’s remarkable imperial expansion in the nineteenth century.
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