The Congress of Vienna: Reconfiguring Europe Between Dances, Trysts and Hangovers

The Congress of Vienna: Reconfiguring Europe Between Dances, Trysts and Hangovers

Congress of Vienna 1814The Congress of Vienna, convened in late 1814, was one of the first instances of international cooperation, and an extraordinarily — and surprisingly — successful one at that. The gathering, agreed to as a result of the Treaty of Paris drawn up earlier in the year, drew more than 200 diplomats from all of Europe's nations except Turkey. Now that Napoleon Bonaparte, the unpopular Emperor of France, was in Elba contemplating his future — albeit involuntarily — the Allies wanted to redraw Europe's map in a way that would ensure a lasting peace. Such an enormous goal required carefully considered decisions about which newly liberated French holdings rightfully belonged to whom.

Presiding over the meeting was Prince Klemens von Metternich, its Austrian host. There were three other dominant nations: the oafish Emperor Alexander I represented Russia, Prince Karl August von Hardenberg was Prussia's delegate, and Lord Castlereagh (Robert Stewart) represented Britain. They decided that France, Spain, and the lesser powers would have no vote in critical decisions. However, France's personally ambitious and shrewd diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, persuaded the meeting's four leaders to allow France to have equal footing with them in the negotiations. It would turn out that his vote was frequently the tie-breaker.

Let the Fighting Begin
Considering they were allied in their mission and in their contempt for Napoleon should not suggest they were not adversarial. Spain and Portugal were at odds over the province of Olivenza; the Austrians, French, and British ganged up against Russia and Prussia over the disposition of Poland and Saxony; Spain and France sparred; Russia's Alexander I bullied and repulsed most of the other participants; Saxony's King Frederick Augustus was bitter about the decision that forced him to cede a third of his territories; Prussia was greedy; and Prussia's delegation distrusted the Brits, French, and Austrians over their secret military pact against possible Russian aggression.

Because of the contentious infighting, what was originally planned to be a four- to six-week summit lasted about nine months. Even at that the participants never came together as a whole; rather, the Congress comprised a lengthy series of committee sessions. It's no wonder fatigue distracted the assorted envoys.

Let the Revelry Begin
Since many of the representatives brought friends and family, their need for distraction from their tense negotiations quickly turned Vienna into the scene of a festival with roughly the same rules as Woodstock. The city needed more clothing stores, pubs, liquor suppliers, wigmakers, tailors and seamstresses, entertainers, hotel rooms, and accommodating women. Author David King (Vienna 1814) called the Congress of Vienna "the most audacious and extravagant peace conference in modern European history."