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CONGRESS OF VIENNA (1814-1815)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 55 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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CONGRESS OF VIENNA (1814-1815). The fall of Napoleon was only achieved by the creation of a special alliance between Great Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia. By the Treaty of Chaumont of March ro, 1814, these four powers bound them-selves together in a bond which was not to be dissolved when peace was concluded. When Napoleon had been beaten, France conceded to these allies by a secret article of the first Treaty of Paris of May 30, 1814, the disposition of all countries which Napoleon's fall had freed from French suzerainty. This stupendous task was reserved for a general congress, and it was agreed to meet at Vienna. The visit of the allied sovereigns to England and the pressing engagements of the emperor Alexander and Lord Castlereagh delayed the congress until the autumn, when all Europe sent its representatives to accept the hospitality of the impoverished but magnificent Austrian court. Metternich, though he had not yet completely established his position, acted as chief Austrian representative, and he was naturally in his capacity as host the president of the congress. Friedrich v. Gentz acted as secretary both to him and the congress and did much of the routine work. Alexander of Russia directed his own diplomacy, and round him he had gathered a brilliant body of men who could express but not control their master's desires. Of these the chief were foreigners, according to the traditions of Russian diplomacy. Capo d'Istria, Nesselrode, Stein, Pozzo di Borgo were perhaps the best men in Europe to manage the Russian policy, while Czartoriski represented at the imperial court the hope of Polish nationality. Frederick William III. of Prussia was a weaker character and, as will be seen, his policy was largely determined by his ally. Prince von Hardenberg, who by no means shared all the views of his master but was incapacitated by his growing infirmities, was first Prussian plenipotentiary, and assisting him was Baron von Humboldt. Great Britain was represented by Lord Castlereagh, and under him were the British diplomats who had been attached to the foreign armies since 1813, Clancarty, Stewart and Cathcart. Castlereagh brought with him decided views, which however were not altogether those of his cabinet, and his position was weakened by the fact that Great Britain was still at war with the United States, and that public opinion at home cared for little but the abolition of the slave trade. When parliamentary duties called Castlereagh home in February 1815, the duke of Wellington filled his place with adequate dignity and statesmanship until the war broke out. France sent Prince Talleyrand to conduct her difficult affairs. No other man was so well fitted for the task of maintaining the interests of a defeated country. His rare diplomatic skill and supreme intellectual endowments were to enable him to play a deciding part in the coming congress. All the minor powers of Europe were represented, for all felt that their interests were at stake in the coming settlement. Gathered there also were a host of publicists, secretaries and courtiers, and never before had Europe witnessed such a collection of rank and talent. From the first the social side of the congress impressed observers with its wealth and variety, nor did the statesmen disdain to use the dining-table or the ballroom as the instruments of their diplomacy. All Europe awaited with eager expectation the results of so great an assembly. The fate of Poland and Saxony hung in the balance; Germany awaited an entirely new reorganization; Italy was again ready for dismemberment; rumours went that even the pope and the sultan might be largely affected. Some there were who hoped that so great an opportunity would not be lost, but that the statesmen would initiate such measures of international disarmament as would perpetuate the blessings of that peace which Europe was again enjoying after twenty years of warfare. It was not long, however, before the allies displayed their intention of keeping the management of affairs entirely in their own hands. At an informal meeting on the 22nd of September the four great powers agreed that all subjects of general interest were to be settled by a committee consisting of Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain together with France and Spain. At the same time, however, it was decided by'a secret protocol that the four powers should first settle among themselves the distribution of the conquered territories, and that France and Spain should only be consulted when their final decision was announced. This was the situation which Talleyrand had to face when he arrived on the 24th of September. His first step when he was admitted to the European committee, which was in the plans of the allies to act so colourless a part, was to ignore the position of the Four and to assert that only the congress as a whole could give the committee full powers. This would have meant an almost indefinite delay, for how was it possible to decide the exact rights of all the different states to avoice in affairs ? After some heated discussion a compromise was arrived at. The opening of the congress was postponed, and Sweden and Portugal were added to the European committee, but the Four still persisted in the informal meetings which were to decide the important questions. Meanwhile separate committees were formed for the discussion of special problems. Thus a special committee was appointed consisting of the five German powers to discuss the constitution which was to replace the Holy Roman Empire, another to settle that of Switzerland, and others for other minor questions. Talleyrand had, how-ever, already shaken the position of the allies. He had posed as the defender of the public rights of Europe and won to his side the smaller powers and much of the public opinion of Europe, while the allies were beginning to be regarded more in the light of rapacious conquerors than as disinterested defenders of the liberties of Europe. Had the Four remained united in their views they would still have been irresistible. But they were gradually dividing into two unreconcilable parties upon the Saxon-Polish question. Alexander, exaggerating the part he had played in the final struggle, and with some vague idea of nationality in his brain, demanded that the whole of Poland should be added to the Russian dominions. Austria was to be compensated in Italy, while Prussia was to receive the whole of Saxony, whose unfortunate monarch had been the most faithful of Napoleon's vassals. It was Castlereagh that led the opposition to these almost peremptory demands of Alexander. A true disciple of Pitt, he came to the congress with an overwhelming distrust of the growing power of Russia, which was only second to his hatred of revolutionary France. He considered that the equilibrium of Europe would be irretrievably upset were the Russian boundaries to be pushed into the heart of Germany. Thus while willing, even anxious that Prussia should receive Saxony, in order that she might be strong to meet the danger from the East, he was prepared to go to any lengths to resist the claims of Russia. For Austria Saxony was really of more vital interest than Poland, but Castlereagh, despite a vigorous resistance from a section of the Austrian court, was able to win Metternich over to his views. He hoped to gain Prussia also to his side, and by uniting the German powers to force Alexander to retire from the position he had so uncompromisingly laid down. With the Prussian statesmen he had some success, but he could make no impression on Frederick William. Alexander used to the utmost that influence over the mind of the Prussian monarch which he had been preparing since the beginning of 1813. Against Castlereagh be entered the lists personally, and memorandum after memorandum was exchanged. Despite the warning letters of the British cabinet which, dismayed at the long continuance of the American War, counselled caution on a question in which England had no immediate interest, Castlereagh yielded no inch of his ground. But Metternich wavered on the question of Saxony, and December saw the allies hopelessly at difference. It seemed by no means unlikely that the armies which had conquered Napoleon would soon be engaged in conflict with one another. It was Talleyrand's opportunity. As Castlereagh and Metternich began to regard the position as hopeless they began to look upon him as a possible ally. Talleyrand had constantly defended the rights of France's old ally Saxony in the name of the principle which his master Louis XVIII. represented. His passionate appeal on behalf of " legitimacy " was particularly adapted to the necessities of the situation. Alexander was driven into transports of rage by this championship of the ancien regime by one who had been a servant of its bitterest foe. But Castlereagh saw that war could only be avoided if one party was made stronger than the other. The reluctant consent of the British cabinet was obtained and Talleyrand was approached as an equal. He came boldly to the front in the middle of December as the champion of Saxony; and, as Russia and Prussia were still obstinate, Metternich and Castlereagh demanded the admission of France to the secret council. This was refused, and on the 3rd of January 1815 a secret treaty of defensive alliance was signed between France, Austria and Great Britain. For some time affairs hung in the balance, but Alexander could not mistake the tone of his opponents. Gradually a compromise was arranged, and by the end of the month all danger was past. Eventually Austria and Prussia retained most of their Polish dominions, and the latter power only received about two-fifths of Saxony. The rest of Poland was incorporated as a separate kingdom in the Russian dominions with a promise of a constitution of its own. Talleyrand had rescued France from its humiliating position, and set it as an equal by the side of the allies. Hence-forward he made no effort for the rights of the whole congress. Meanwhile other affairs had been progressing more harmoniously under the direction of special committees, which included representatives of the powers specially interested. Switzerland was given a constitution which led it in the direction of its later federalism. In Italy Austria retained her hold on Lombardy and Venetia, Genoa was assigned to the kingdom of Sardinia, while Parma went to Marie Louise, the legitimate heir, Carlo Ludivico, having to be content with the reversion after her death, the congress meanwhile assigning Lucca to him as a duchy; the claims of the young Napoleon to succeed his mother in Parma were only destroyed by the efforts of France and England. The other petty monarchs were restored, and Murat's rash attempt, after Napoleon's return from Elba, to make himself king of united Italy, gave back Naples to the Bourbons, an event which would have been brought about in any case in the course of the next few years (see MURAT, JOACHIM). Holland was confirmed in the possession of Belgium and Luxemburg, Limburg and Liege were added to her dominions. Sweden, who had sacrificed Finland to Russia, obtained Norway. German affairs, however, proved too complicated for complete solution. It was difficult enough to decide the claims of the states in the scramble for territory. Eventually, however, by methods of compromise, this was adjusted fairly satisfactorily. The greater states gained largely, especially Prussia, who was given large accessions of territory on the Rhine, partly as a compensation for her disappointment in the matter of Saxony, partly that she might act as a bulwark against France. Some disputes between Baden and Bavaria remained unsettled, and many questions arising out of the new federal constitution of Germany, which had been hurriedly patched together under the influence of the news of Napoleon's return, had to be postponed for further discussion, and were not settled until the Final Act agreed upon by the conference of German statesmen at Vienna in 1821. Other more general objects, such as the free navigation of international rivers and the regulation of the rights of precedence among diplomatists (see DIPLOMACY), were managed with much address. Castlereagh's great efforts were rewarded by a declaration that the slave trade was to be abolished, though each power was left free to fix such a date as was most convenient to itself. The Final Act, embodying all the separate treaties, was signed on the 9th of June 1815, a few days before the battle of Waterloo. Before the work of the congress was completed Napoleon was again at Paris, and the closing stages were hurried and ill-considered. One negotiation of supreme importance was cut short for this reason. Castlereagh had left Vienna with the hope that the powers would solemnly guarantee their territorial settlement and promise to make collective war on whoever dared to disturb it. This guarantee was to include the Otto-man dominions, in whose interests, indeed, it had been brought forward. Alexander made no objection provided that the Porte would submit all outstanding claims to arbitration. The distance of Constantinople from Vienna and the obstinacy of the sultan would probably have prevented a settlement, but the return of Napoleon rendered all such proposals almost absurd, and the scheme was dropped. Thus the congress of Vienna failed to institute any new system for securing the stability of the European polity, nor didit recognize those new forces of liberty and nationality which had really caused Napoleon's downfall. Following the tradition of all preceding congresses, it was mainly a scramble for territory and power. Territories were distributed among the powers with no consideration for the feelings of their in-habitants, and in general the right of the strongest prevailed. For this reason it has often met with a condemnation that has perhaps been unmerited. It is true that the map of Europe shows to-day but little trace of its influence; but much of its work was determined by conditions over Which statesmen had little control. Europe was not ready for the recognition of nationality and liberalism. What it wanted most of all was peace, and by establishing something like a territorial equilibrium the congress did much to win that breathing space which was the cardinal need of all.
End of Article: CONGRESS OF VIENNA (1814-1815)
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