The "Dancing" Congress of Vienna: An Attempt to Rewind the Clock

The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna circa 1800

Ah, Vienna! The name of that storied city conjures up visions of delicious pastries, waltzes, and elegance. But the city didn’t always have that image. Vienna, though a perfectly nice city before 1814, was transformed into a brilliant social mecca in the fall of that year.

What helped change that city’s image is what also changed the face of a conquered Europe following the Napoleonic Wars - The Congress of Vienna. 

This September marks the 203rd anniversary of this gathering of diplomats who came together to answer the question of “now what?” once Napoleon had abdicated his throne in defeat and was safely put away on Elba (or so everyone thought). 

The purpose of the Congress was to hash out an effective way to balance the powers of Europe to prevent future imperialistic power grabs and wars, like the one that had just ended.

The aristocrats, nobles, and royals convening in Vienna also badly wanted things to go back to the way they were before revolutionary fervor gripped Europe.

Ambassadors of every European nation attended, but the representatives from Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, Austria, and France pretty much ran the show. 

The Congress of Vienna, by Jean Godefoy, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hosting the negotiations was Klemens von Metternich, Foreign Minister for the Emperor of Austria, Franz I.

Other notables who attended were Viscount Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain (Castlereagh later left and was replaced by Wellington) and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, a handsome and well-liked monarch. The summer before the Congress convened Alexander was in London, where he was the toast of the town as the populace celebrated Napolean's defeat and exile.  

Prussia sent its Chancellor, Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, though the King of Prussia (Frederick William III) was often there, too.  

Representing France was the clever and rather unscrupulous Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, known simply as Talleyrand(I’ll write more about him in this Friday’s post.)

The delegates started gathering in Vienna in late September 2014, and the Congress officially opened on October 1 (though some sources say it was November 1). Deliberations lasted until June 9, 1815, when the Final Act was signed. 

While Congress was sitting, Vienna became a glittering social scene for the enjoyment of its attendees and their entourages. The city’s social calendar was packed with operas, banquets, and balls. In November Beethoven performed his Symphony No. 7 in a concert attended by no less than the King of Prussia and two empresses.

An observer on the scene, the Duchesse d’Abrante, described Vienna during this time as “a place of enchantment and delicious pleasure,” and another witness to the festivities, Charles-Joseph, the 7th Prince de Ligne, commented that le congrès ne marche pas, mais il danse (roughly translated, "the Congress of Vienna isn't working, but it's dancing”). 

But Napoleon cast a long shadow over the proceedings. That spring, while the diplomats talked and partied in Vienna, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and sailed to mainland Europe. (He didn't have to go far – Elba is only six miles off the Tuscan coast of Italy.)

Once Napoleon landed at the Gulf of Juan (on France’s Côte d’Azur) he wasted no time gathering an army and marching on Paris. On March 13, 1815, seven days before Napoleon reached Paris, the diplomats in Vienna declared him an outlaw. But that didn't stop him.

An early 19th-century depiction of Napoleon on Elba

On June 18, less than two weeks after the Congress of Vienna ended, Napoleon made his last, unsuccessful stand against Wellington in a field near a small Belgium town, in what came be known as the Battle of Waterloo.

Here are some highlights of what the Congress of Vienna accomplished, in spite of Napoleon’s pesky interruptions:

  • Poland disappeared from the face of the map, with both Russia and Prussia getting pieces of it.
  • Germany and Italy were sectioned off, neither one the whole countries we know today.
  • Prussia’s gains, which in addition to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw included Swedish Pomerania, over half of Saxony and most of the Rhineland, upped its status as a world power.
  •  Austria’s share of the spoils included an enlargement of the Hapsburg Empire and access to the Mediterranean Sea. Austria’s newly-acquired land holdings included the kingdom of Venetian Lombardy (in what is now Italy) and Dalmatia (in Croatia, where those spotted dogs come from).  
Dalmatian dogs were wildly popular during the Regency.
It was fashionable to have one trotting alongside your coach
as you wheeled through Hyde Park. They also guarded stables.

France and Britain’s gains were not as flashy. Britain may not have gotten any land in Europe, but it did get protection for its shipping lanes and kept enough of its holdings around the world to become a dominant colonial power. 

France, even though it was technically a defeated country, made out pretty well thanks to Talleyrand’s diplomacy. France had to return some of the lands Napoleon took from its neighbors, but the nation retained its position as a world power as the monarchy was restored under King Louis XVIII.

So much for the French Revolution.

In all, the Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe, based on its pre-revolutionary border arrangements, and the continent stayed much the same until the First World War. Here is an informative animation illustrating how the map of Europe changed as a result of the Congress of Vienna.

Some historians regard the Congress of Vienna as a conservative reaction to the revolutionary and liberal ideas that had been sweeping across Europe, which began with the Enlightenment movement in the 18th century and culminated in two revolutions - the French and the American. The Congress of Vienna was intended to bolster the status of the old monarchies and reinforce their power. 

And it did just that.

Other critics credit the Congress of Vienna with creating stability in Europe and a peace that lasted until the early 20th century. However, that peace lay just on the surface – underneath it the currents of change were still moving, leading to an inevitable outcome.

I’m no historian, but in my opinion, you can’t hold back change forever – its momentum is too strong. Despite all the discussions and treaties worked out during the fall, winter and spring of 1814-15 in Vienna, the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers on topics such as liberty, tolerance and constitutional government refused to die.

Before 1920 political change transformed most of Europe despite the best efforts of the Congress over a hundred years earlier to stem the tide. 

Emperor Napoleon III, the last monarch of France, lost his throne in 1870. In 1917, Russia was convulsed by a revolution that toppled its monarchy. The next year, 1918, saw the Hapsburg dynasty come to an end under its last ruler, Charles I. And about that same time (1918-19) the Prussian nobility lost their political clout when their monarchy was abolished due to the German Revolution and the creation of the Weimar Republic in the aftermath of WWI, though Prussia wasn't formally dissolved until 1947. 

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

JFK in West Berlin, 1963

Those are the words of another consummate politician, John F. Kennedy. He said them in a speech to a crowd in Frankfurt in 1963, about 370 miles in physical distance and 149 years in time away from the Congress of Vienna. And I think those words are just as relevant today as they were in 1963, and would have been in 1815.

The timeless nature of change - just another one of history’s paradoxes, in the Regency and every era.


Sources for this post include:
  • Our Tempestuous Day, a History of Regency England, by Carolly Erickson, William Morrow & Co., New York, 1986
  • Events That Changed the World: 1800-1820, the Nineteenth Century, Jodie L. Zdrok, Book Editor, Greenhaven Press, Missouri, 2005
  • Rites of Peace, The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, by Adam Zamoyski,, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2007
  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency, 1811-1820, by J.B. Priestley, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1969
All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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