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Napoleonic Europe (1799-1815)

Congress of Vienna and the Hundred Days (1815)

Napoleon's Defeat (1810-1814)

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Summary

On September 1814, the Congress of Vienna began. All the powers of Europe sent delegates to decide the issue of the day: the reorganization of the chaotic Europe Napoleon's conquest had left behind.

The members of the Congress were all afraid of a strong France, so they created strong border states. The Netherlands and the Italian Kingdom of Piedmont were created to this end. Prussia got the left bank of the Rhine, while Austria took territory in northern Italy, including Tuscany and Milan. In Naples, Murat actually kept his throne for a while. The Bourbons were restored in Spain. Restoring Germany to its previous status as the chaotic, fragmented Holy Roman Empire served no one's purposes. Instead, the relatively large kingdoms of Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and Saxony remained as Napoleon created them. However, no unified Germany would emerge. Small states remained for now.

The future of Napoleon's Polish Grand Duchy of Warsaw remained the most problematic issue. Alexander had desired over the territory for years, but Austria and Prussia both had parts of the old Polish kingdom. The Prussians entered an agreement with Russia, under which Russia would support Prussia's bid for Saxony and Prussia would support Russia's bid for Poland; in addition, Prussia would hand over its share of Poland to Russian. Metternich, however, feared that Russia would become too powerful in this deal. To combat the Russian-Prussian alliance, on January 3, 1815, Metternich, Castlereagh, and Talleyrand signed a secret treaty agreeing to oppose the Prussians and Russians. In the end, the Congress of Vienna created a small Poland ("Congress Poland") with Alexander installed as the king. With Russia satisfied, Prussia lost its ally and only was able to get a minor piece of Saxony.

As these details were being ironed out in Vienna, another problem suddenly arose. On March 1, 1815, Napoleon appeared in France, having escaped from exile in Elba. Promising to return France to glory, Napoleon swept through the country and raised an army. Louis XVIII quickly fled, and Napoleon made a last-ditch effort at conquest in a period called the Hundred Days. The Congress of Vienna was shocked, and immediately declared Napoleon an outlaw.

The Hundred Days came to climax and conclusion at the Battle of Waterloo, where the British army under Wellington was joined by a revitalized Prussian force under Blucher. Together, the British and the Prussians managed to defeat Napoleon. A second Treaty of Paris was signed, and Napoleon was exiled much farther away this time, to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, were he lived out the last six years of his life. The four victorious powers (Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia) agreed that no Bonaparte would ever be allowed to rule France again. Even Murat, who previously had been left as king of Naples, was now deposed and the Bourbon monarchy restored.

After the end of the Hundred Days, the finishing touches were put on the Congress of Vienna. Czar Alexander I, still looking for a collective security system that would prevent anyone from ever building such a large European empire again, convinced most European nations to sign a Holy Alliance. Under the terms of this agreement, which was taken seriously by few besides Alexander himself, the nations promised to strive for the Christian virtues of charity and peace.

Commentary

The Congress of Vienna was one of the most important international summits of European history; it determined the future boundaries of Europe, boundaries that still impact Europe today. The major powers of the day dominated negotiations, sending their most eminent statesman. Austria sent Metternich, Britain sent Castlereagh, Russia sent Alexander I himself, Prussia sent Hardenberg, and France sent Talleyrand. Each had nation had its own goals. Prussia wanted to enlarge its territory. Russia wanted Poland, but it also wanted "collective security". And Austria and Britain simply wanted a balance of power that would maintain stability and the status quo in Europe. Although the French Revolution and Napoleonic Rule spread the forces of modernization and change, the Congress of Vienna, which determined the future of Europe beyond Napoleon, was dominated by members of the old regime and aristocracy. Their hope was to design a political landscape wherein no one power could dominate.

The secret Austrian-British-French alliance to stop Russia and Prussia from combining to gain all of Poland and Saxony just shows how complicated the negotiations were. Europe had just spent two decades dealing with the French menace, and already, the anti-French coalition was split up, with Britain actually allying with France! Still, despite the efforts to minimize Russian and Prussian encroachment in Central Europe, both countries did manage to extend their influence west through the Congress of Vienna.

The Congress of Vienna also to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade. All of the major powers agreed to this, but only Britain actually did anything to stop the trade, setting up an anti-slaving naval squadron.

For all the trouble France had caused, the Congress was remarkably mild towards France, which basically got to keep its traditional, pre-Revolution boundaries. The Congress also stopped potentially explosive issues from getting out of hand: the Poland issue could have led to war or further hostility, but it was handled with extreme care by a group of very capable diplomats. The Congress brilliantly established long-term stability in Europe. True, there were some criticisms. Nationalists were not always happy with the established borders that served to maintain the balance of power rather than unifying a given group that shared the same language and culture. Also, the stability the Congress created helped keep reactionary regimes in power and may have slowed social progress, and much of the years between 1815 and 1848 were animated by the interaction of liberal and conservative ideals. But in all, the Congress of Vienna was a success. It created enough powers of similar strength and influence that none of them could go too far without being overwhelmed by a coalition of the others. It mediated numerous tensions and conflicting interest through peaceful negotiations. Furthermore, the Congress created so little hard feeling and dispute that the whole of Europe did not all go to war at once for a century. Not until World War I broke out in 1914 did a massive, Europe-wide conflict occur. In that sense, the Congress of Vienna was a triumph of diplomacy.

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