While the final hectic scenes of Napolean’s escapades were still being played out, far broader issues were being discussed by the general diplomatic assembly which had congregated in Vienna. Never before had so many rulers and principal ministers met to hammer out a comprehensive peace settlement. Those men involved in the Congress of Vienna had a monumental task in front of them: that of piecing Europe together once more and of seeking to establish conditions which would give this work of reconstruction a reasonable chance of survival.
The principal figures at Vienna included some of the most remarkable everbrought together under one roof. There was the unstable Tsar Alexander I from Russian, the enigmatic Austrian Metternich, the cool, calm Caslereagh representing Britain, the Frenchman Talleyrand and King Frederick William III and his chancellor, Hardenberg leading the Prussian delegation. All these men wanted what was best for their own country, but they also tried to keep to certain fundamental principles and these determined the overall complexion of the final treaty.
In order to prevent another major war, the Vienna peacemakers wished to create a European ‘balance of power’, as well as containing the nation regarded as most likely to spark off such a war, France. Another principle, specifically linked to Talleyrand, was that of legitimacy. However, after Talleyrand had ensured the restoration of the Bourbons to France, this principle was on the whole forgotten. Two principles which the delegates at Vienna were strongly criticised for not adhering to more closely were those of liberalism and nationalism, but whether or not these criticisms are entirely justified is an interesting question.
The Belgians were one of the first peoples to achieve their liberation from foreigners, only to be placed without their consent, under the rule of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There was however thought to be no alternative at the time as Belgium was situated perilously close to an aggressive and expansionist France. Independence was by no means a unilateral desire in Belgium itself, and had it not been for the House of Orange’s disregard for the terms layed down by the diplomats at Vienna, Belgium might have been content to remain under foreign rule for longer than the fifteen years following the Congress.
Nationalist feeling in Germany was slightly stronger than that in Belgium, but the chances of a unified Germany were even more remote than those for an independent Belgium. It is fair to say that the unification of Germany was not in the realm of practical politics in 1815. For the representatives of Austria and Prussia, such a notion would have meant negotiating their countries out of existence, and Talleyrand would have been none too happy at the prospect of a super-power landing on his doorstep.
However, what was possible in 1815 was a German Confederation which replaced the Holy Roman Empire and although federalism was accepted as the basis for its organization, the Confederation was, in fact, little more than an alliance of practically sovereign states. The act setting up the Confederation required the rulers of the German states to establish constitutions, a fact which should have pleased the European liberals.
The people of the Italian states who wanted a united nation had little reason to be pleased, as Italy was given over more completely to the rule of the foreigner than ever before. It is not too difficult to justify the diplomats at Vienna’s decision to hand northern Italy over to Austria; after all it was in the Italian campaign that Bonapartism was born and later on, it was in Italy that Napoleon III conducted his only successful European campaign. So, if Italy had been granted independence, it is unlikely that France would have waited too long before taking advantage of the situation.
Although a Kingdom of Poland was created at Vienna, it was taken for granted by everyone that this territory would be Russian in all but name. Tsar Alexander wanted to create a client-state which would enable him to extend Russian influence farther into Europe than ever before. Many liberal thinkers throughout the following century felt that the treatment of Poland had been unfair, but at least it saved Alexander the trouble of invading Poland, as he no doubt would have done had not it not been given to him as a satellite state.
Again, the peace-makers at Vienna can be defended in their actions concerning the treatment of Norway, where they transfered the Norwegians from Danish to Swedish rule. Norway was allowed her own government, parliament, army and navy and the fact that this settlement endured until 1905 and was then ended peaceably, is sufficient evidence that the Norwegians did not feel too hard done by.
Indeed the fact that no country felt too hard done by is probably the reason that the settlement is credited by some for keeping the peace for the next forty years and preventing a major conflict for the following century. The Vienna settlement should not be regarded as having of itself prevented a major war in Europe, rather it contained in none of its provisions the seeds of a future war between the major powers. What did prevent a major war until 1914 was the determination of the great powers that there should not be such a war and the fact that the settlement involved no major injustice to any of them made this task easier.
At the time that the treaty was signed, nationalist feelings in Germany and Italy were not all that strong and when these two countries did eventually succumb to the nationalists desires, over fifty years had passed. The diplomats in 1815 would most probably have made a big mistake in granting unification to the German states or the Italian states as at the time no one was ready for such a dramatic step, least of all the men signing the settlement.
Perhaps the greatest critiscism it is possible to level at the settlement is that it sought to keep the clock stopped at 1815 for the next half-century, many people have argued that it was just a little too unwilling to accept change. The powers at Vienna did not appear to perceive the strength of the rising force of nationalism and Metternich clearly states his views on change when he declared that democracy could only “change daylight into darkest night”, and referred to the ideas of the French Revolution as “the disease which must be cured”.