The Congress of Vienna (October 1, 1814 - June 9, 1815) was a conference of Europe's powers convened to redraw the continent's political map after the defeat of Napoleonic France during the previous spring. The discussions continued despite the ex-Emperor Napoleon I's return from exile and resumption of power in France in March 1815, and the Congress's Final Act was signed nine days before his final defeat at Waterloo. Technically, one might note that the "Congress of Vienna" never actually occurred, as the Congress never met in plenary session, with most of the discussions occurring in informal sessions among the Great Powers.

The Congress was concerned with determining the entire shape of Europe after the Napoleonic wars, with the exception of the terms of peace with France, which had already been decided by the Treaty of Paris, signed a few months earlier, on May 30, 1814.

At the congress, Britain was represented first by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, after February 1815, by the Duke of Wellington, and in the last weeks, after Wellington left to meet Napoleon, by Lord Clancarty. Austria was represented by Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Foreign Minister, and by his deputy, Baron Wessenberg. Prussia was represented by Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, the Chancellor, and the diplomat and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt. Louis XVIII's France was represented by its foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Although Russia's official delegation was led by the foreign minister, Count Nesselrode, Emperor Alexander I for the most part acted as his own foreign minister. Initially, the representatives of the four victorious powers hoped to exclude the French from serious participation in the negotiations, but Talleyrand managed to skillfully insert himself into their inner councils in the first weeks of the negotiations.

Because most of the work at the Congress was done by these five powers (along with, on some issues, the representatives of Spain, Portugal, and Sweden, and on German issues, of Hanover, Bavaria, and Württemberg), most of the delegations had nothing much to do at the Congress, and the host, Emperor Francis of Austria held lavish entertainments to keep them occupied. This led to the Prince de Ligne's famous comment that "Le Congrés ne marche pas; Il danse." (The Congress does not walk, it dances).

The most contentious subject at the Congress was the so-called Polish-Saxon Crisis. The Russians and Prussians presented a proposal whereby much of the Prussian and Austrian shares of the partitions of Poland would go to Russia, which would create an independent Polish Kingdom in personal union with Alexander as King, in personal union with Russia. In exchange, the Prussians would receive as compensation all of Saxony, whose King was considered to have forfeited his throne because he had not abandoned Napoleon soon enough. The Austrians, French, and British did not approve of this plan, and, at the inspiration of Talleyrand, signed a secret treaty on January 3, 1815, agreeing to go to war, if necessary, to prevent the Russo-Prussian plan from coming to fruition.

Although none of the three powers was particularly ready for war, the Russians did not call the bluff, and an amicable settlement was soon worked out, by which Russia received most of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw as a "Kingdom of Poland" (called Congress Poland), but did not receive the district of Poznan (Grand Duchy of Poznan), which was given to Prussia, or Cracow, which became a free city. Prussia received 40% of Saxony, with the remainder returned to King Frederick Augustus I.

The Congress's principal results, apart from its confirmation of France's loss of the territories annexed in 1795 - 1810, which had already been settled by the Peace of Paris, were the enlargement of Russia, (which gained most of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw as a "Kingdom of Poland" under the Tsar) and Prussia, which acquired Westphalia and the northern Rhineland. Germany was consolidated from the nearly 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire (dissolved in 1806) into a much more manageable thirty-nine states. These states were formed into a loose German Confederation under the leadership of Prussia and Austria.

Representatives at the Congress agreed to numerous other territorial changes. Norway was transfered from Denmark to Sweden. Austria gained Lombardy-Venetia in Northern Italy, while much of the rest of North-Central Italy (The Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, and the Duchy of Parma, went to Habsburg dynasts). The Pope was restored to the Papal States. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was restored to its mainland possessions, and also gained control of the Republic of Genoa. In Southern Italy, Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, was originally allowed to retain his Kingdom of Naples, but following his support of Napoleon in the Hundred Days, he was deposed, and the Bourbon Ferdinand IV was restored to the throne. A large United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created for the Prince of Orange, including both the old United Provinces and the formerly Austrian-ruled territories in the Southern Netherlands. There were other, less important territorial adjustments, including significant territorial gains for the German Kingdoms of Hanover and Bavaria, and recognition of the Portuguese claims to the Olivenza district.

Not directly a part of the Congress, but associated with it, was the Holy Alliance, the brainchild of Alexander, in which the various sovereigns of Europe agreed to abide by Christian principles. Although widely derided by most of the statesmen at the Congress (Castlereagh called it "a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense" and Metternich a "loud-sounding nothing"), all of Europe's sovereigns agreed to it, except for the Pope, who would not form such an agreement with so many heretics; the Sultan, who was not particularly interested in Christian principles; and the Prince-Regent of the United Kingdom, who could not agree to such a treaty without ministerial involvement (he did sign on in his role as Regent of Hanover). Later, the Holy Alliance became associated with the forces of reaction in Europe, and particularly with the policies of Metternich.

The Congress of Vienna was frequently criticized by 19th Century (and more recent) historians for ignoring national and liberal impulses, and for imposing a stifling reaction on the continent. This criticism, indeed, was already voiced by the Whig opposition in England as soon as the Congress had concluded. In the twentieth century, though, many historians have come to admire the work of the statesmen at the Congress, whose work, it was said, had prevented another European general war for nearly a hundred years. Among these is Henry Kissinger, whose doctoral dissertation was on the Congress of Vienna.

Further Reading

  • Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (derived from his doctoral dissertation)
  • Enno Kraehe, Metternich's German Policy, Vol. 2: The Congress of Vienna, 1814-1815
  • Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity: 1812-1822.
  • Paul Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848
  • Sir Charles Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh 1812-1815: Britain and the Reconstruction of Europe