Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement

Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement:

The overthrow of Napoleon and the destruction of his revolutionary Empire were accomplished in 1814-1815 by a coalition of European powers, chief of which were Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Britain had been the most constant and persistent foe of the French Revolution and Napoleon: British statesmanship and British money backed every Continental coalition, including the finally successful one; British arms drove the French from Spain and ultimately defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Yet Great Britain could hardly have emerged victorious, had it not been for Russia’s break with Napoleon in 1812 and for Austria’s decisive stand against him on the eve of the “Battle of the Nations” in 1813. It was the combined might of Austria and Russia (and Prussia) which really overwhelmed the Napoleonic Empire.

It was therefore primarily for these powers to arrange the peace settlement. With the doubtful exception of the Tsar Alexander of Russia, all their responsible statesmen were thoroughly conservative. The British government of the time was Tory and especially anxious to conserve traditional institutions, whether at home or abroad, against any recurrence of revolutionary attacks upon them. Though the British monarchy had become strictly limited, it would now cooperate, for common conservative ends, with the absolute monarchies on the Continent. And both Austria and Prussia were ruled by reactionary conservatives. Only Russia had a monarch who professed any liberal principles, but Tsar Alexander was notoriously unstable and was suspected of employing liberalism as a cloak for Russian ambition and aggression.

In the circumstances, conservatives made the peace settlement, and, by reason of what they did to satisfy the well-nigh universal longing for peace, they enjoyed widespread popularity and power for at least fifteen years afterward. The era from 1815 to 1830 was an era of conservative reaction.

The outstanding statesman was Count Clemens Metternich. He personified conservatism, as Napoleon Bonaparte had represented the forces of revolution. Between the two, the contrast was striking.

Metternich, four years younger than Bonaparte, belonged to a noble family that had long been prominent in the Rhineland and in the service of various German princes, including Habsburg Emperors. Attending the University of Strasbourg in his youth, he was disgusted by the mob violence that he witnessed there in the early stages of the French Revolution. After continuing his studies at Mainz, where he had close contact with reactionary French emigres, and sojourning in England, which was then at war with revolutionary France, he went to Vienna and entered the diplomatic service of Emperor Francis. He was impressively handsome and possessed of a clever wit, charming manners, and typically “enlightened” interest in natural science. In 1795 he married the granddaughter of the veteran Austrian diplomatist, Prince Kaunitz; and henceforth his rise was rapid. He represented Austria successively in Saxony, Prussia, and Russia. In 1806 he was named Austrian ambassador to France, and during the next three years, he contrived to ingratiate himself with Napoleon while awaiting a favorable opportunity for Austria to resume its struggle with the French Empire. He thought he detected such an opportunity in 1809, but the ensuing brief campaign, culminating in the decisive Austrian defeat at Wagram, proved him mistaken.

Nevertheless, in 1809 Metternich was made chief minister of Austria under the well-intentioned Emperor Francis I and was soon the dominant figure in Vienna. He was distinctly a “realist”. Though a convinced foe of Napoleon and of the whole revolutionary movement in which the expansion of the Napoleonic Empire was spreading throughout Europe, Metternich was skeptical of such an ideological crusade as Tsar Alexander was beginning to champion. He wanted a restoration of European peace and order through a restored balance of power, and he perceived Russian expansion as great a menace to the European balance of power as in French expansion. Accordingly, from 1810 to 1813 his policy was to play off Napoleon and Alexander against each other. He sponsored the negotiations for the marriage of an Austrian archduchess, Maria Louisa, with the French Emperor. He welcomed the outbreak of hostilities in 1812 between Napoleon and the Tsar, promising to the former the assistance of an army corps of 30,000 men, while assuring the latter that the Austrian forces would not be employed on the offensive. All the time he was keeping the Austrian army on a war footing and maintaining an armed neutrality, ready to throw his weight upon whichever side might finally be in a position to bestow the greater benefits upon Austria. Such was the success of his well-laid plans that the intervention of Austria was the decisive factor in the Battle of the Nations (October 1813) and in the campaign of 1814. Napoleon’s Empire collapsed, and Austria became the foremost power among the victorious allies. Metternich was hailed as the most astute statesman of his age. He was deferred to by the Russians and Prussian monarchs. He was feted by Talleyrand and Louis XVIII. He was given a fulsome welcome on a visit to England. He was named a magnate of the Kingdom of Hungary and a hereditary prince of the Austrian Empire.

Metternich was quite aware of the division in Europe between “revolutionaries” and “reactionaries”, between “Left” and “Right”. He was a “reactionary”, and he was thoroughly convinced in 1814-1815 that a strong conservative Austrian Empire should be the pivot of a restored balance of power in Europe and the bulwark against divisive and disturbing forces of revolution. It was Austria that had directed the first external attack against the French Revolution. It was Austria that had administered the final blow to the upstart Napoleon. It was Austria which should use its increased power and prestige to lead Europe back into the unity and peace which had been rudely broken by revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Metternich’s first care in 1814 was to restore, as far as practicable, the political and territorial status quo in 1792. The treaty of Chaumont (March 1814), which he helped to negotiate, prolonged for twenty years the alliance of the four victorious great powers- Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. In May 1814, he signed the Treaty of Paris, whereby the four great powers, together with Spain, Portugal, and Sweden, made formal peace with France, restored the French frontiers as they had been before the revolutionary wars, and provided for the holding of a congress of all the European powers to arrange a general peace settlement.

It was a recognition of the decisive part played by Austria and of the commanding personality of Metternich that Vienna was chosen as the scene of this international congress. And to Vienna repaired in the autumn of 1814 such an array of titled dignitaries as Europe had never previously beheld in one place. Six sovereigns were there: Tsar Alexander of Russia, curiously mingling idealism with ambition; Emperor Francis I of Austria, polite and cautious; Frederick Willaim III of Prussia, at once timid and obstinate, and quite fascinated by the seeming Christian benevolence of the Tsar; the King of Denmark; the King of Bavaria; the King of Wurttemberg. Great Britain was represented by the sagacious Lord Castlereagh and the “iron” Duke of Wellington. Alexander was attended by Capo d’Istria (a Greek), Baron vom Stein (the Prussian patriot), Count Nesselrode (of German blood), and Prince Adam Czartoryski (the Pole). Frederick William of Prussia was assisted by Hardenberg and Humboldt. Sweden, Spain, Portugal, the princes of the Netherlands and of Sardinia, and the minor potentates of Germany were all represented. France was represented by the astute and insinuating Talleyrand- ex-bishop, ex-revolutionary, ex-Bonaprtist, now agent of the Bourbon Louis XVIII, and French patriot always. And last but not least, Metternich was there, discharging with grace and dignity the obligations that devolved upon him as host of the imposing congress. With the exception of the Tsar, who indulged in fine though vague words in praise of liberalism, all the authoritative spokesmen were staunchly conservative.

The congress was a pageant. In conformity with the best usages of polite 18th-century society, the monarchs and their aristocratic ministers and attendants at Vienna splendidly accompanied their negotiations with a profusion of stately banquets, elegant concerts, and formal dances.

But the Congress of Vienna was really not a “congress” at all. Metternich had the idea that the four victorious great powers- the signatories of the Treaty of Chaumont- would decide all matters among themselves and then present their decisions for merely perfunctory ratification by the other powers in Congress assembled. But Talleyrand, as subtle a master of diplomacy as Metternich, was resolved that France should not be excluded from the counsels of the great powers. At first, Talleyrand threatened to nullify the program of the “Big Four” by invoking the treaty of Paris in favor of a full and free congress of all the powers, and for this threat, he knew he had the backing of Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and the lesser powers. Before long, however, Talleyrand was able to take advantage of cleavage among the “Big Four”; he played an important role in composing their differences, and in due course was admitted to their counsels. In the circumstances, no “congress” was formally held. Informally, negotiations went on steadily at Vienna throughout the winter of 1814-1815. Sometimes the negotiations were among the “Big Four”; some times, among the eight signatories of the treaty of Paris; sometimes, among the German princes by themselves; and most commonly toward the last, among the “Big Five”- Austria, Russia, Prussia, Great Britain, and France.

What caused the early cleavage among the “Big Four”- the thorniest problem with which the “congress” of Vienna was confronted- was the question of the disposition of Poland and Saxony. In 1813, before the Battle of the Nations, Tsar Alexander had promised Prussia and Austria that he would assure them the destruction of the Napoleonic grand duchy of Warsaw and that they would share with him in the repartition of all Poland. After the battle, however, he changed his mind. Prompted by Czartoryski, he decided that he wanted the whole of Poland for himself; in recognition of the principle of nationality he would reconstitute the old state of Poland; he would grant it a liberal constitution; and he would utilize its resources for strengthening Russia’s military and economic position. With his end in view, he proposed that Austria should be compensated by annexation in Italy, and Prussia by the absorption of Saxony (whose King had been Grand- Duke of Warsaw and a most faithful ally of Napoleon). He overran Poland with Russian troops and then presented his proposals to the “Big Four” in Vienna. King Frederick Willaim III speedily assented: he liked to defer to the Tsar anyway, and the bait of Saxony was most tempting.

But Metternich, alarmed by the prospect of Russia’s permanent intrusion into central Europe, was decidedly hostile, and Castlereagh, distrustful of Russia in general and of Alexander in particular, made common cause with Metternich. A deadlock ensued between Russia and Prussia, on one side, and Austria and Great Britain, on the other; and for a time war seemed imminent among the “Big Four”. Eventually, Castlereagh with Talleyrand’s support, arranged a compromise. Prussia got part but not all of Saxony, and the Tsar got the greater part of Poland, though Galicia was retained by Austria, and Posen and the “corridor” by Prussia. Thus the King of Saxony was punished and Poland was re-partitioned, with the largest portion- so-called “Congress Poland”- going this time to the Russian Tsar.

As a result of these and other informal negotiations at Vienna, as well as of a considerable variety of special arrangements which had been made elsewhere before the congress, a “Final Act” was signed in June 1815, embodying what is commonly called the peace settlement of Vienna.

The general principle underlying the Viennese settlement was Metternich’s. It was the restoration, so far as practicable, of the boundaries and reigning families of the several European countries as they had been prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was consonant with a restored “balance of power” in Europe and also with the principle of “legitimacy” which Talleyrand was exploring in order to save France from territorial spoliation and to enable his vanquished country still to play an influential role in the counsels of Europe.

Accordingly, the treaties of Vienna recognized the restoration of the Bourbons in France, in Spain, and in the Two Sicilies of the house of Orange in Holland, of the house of Savoy in Sardinia and Piedmont, of the Pope to his temporal possessions in central Italy, and of various German princes whose territories had been included in the Confederation of the Rhine. Likewise, Austria recovered the Tyrol and other lands of which it had been despoiled, and the loose Swiss confederations were restored under a guarantee of neutrality.

The principle of “legitimacy” was considerably compromised by the necessity of providing more or less arbitrary “compensations”. In the course of the Napoleonic wars, Great Britain appropriated, along with certain French and Spanish trading posts, the important Dutch colonies of Ceylon and South Africa and a part of Guiana. These colonies were confirmed to Britain.

To compensate the Dutch, and to erect a stronger state on the northern frontier of France, the southern (Austrian) Netherlands was joined with the northern (Dutch) Netherlands under the rule of the restored Dutch Prince of Orange, now recognized as King of the United Netherlands, despite the fact that nearly two and a half centuries of political separation had augmented the economic and religious differences between the two regions.

Sweden, as compensation for the cession of Finland to Russia and of Pomerania to Prussia, secured Norway from Denmark, whose protracted alliance with Napoleon seemed to merit a severe punishment.

Prussia’s gains were especially significant. It recovered all the German territories of which it had been despoiled by Napoleon, and in addition, it acquired Swedish Pomerania, two-fifths of Saxony, the whole of Westphalia, and most of the Rhineland. These cessions were intended to make Prussia a bulwark against France, but in the long run, they did more. They provided it with mineral resources of the greatest economic importance during the ensuing century, and in conjunction with its surrender of “Congress Poland” to Russia, they tended to transform Prussia from a half-Slavic, thoroughly agricultural state into the leading industrial state of Germany.

As Prussia and the Netherlands were enlarged and strengthened on the northeastern and northern frontiers of France, the Viennese settlement ratified the enlargement and strengthening of the kingdom of Sardinia, Savoy, and Piedmont were restored, and Genoa was added.

In the territorial and constitutional settlement of Germany neither Austria nor Prussia found it advantageous to insist too rigorously upon “legitimacy”. Both opposed any restoration of the two-hundred-odd ecclesiastical states and petty principalities which had been suppressed in 1803, and no serious effort was made to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire which had expired in 1806. Baron vom Stein, it is true, urged the unification of all Germany under the supremacy of a single power, but Metternich and the princes of South Germany opposed it, and King Frederick William III of Prussia was hesitant. The outcome was a compromise: the creation of a loose “German Confederation”, embracing the thirty-eight remaining states, with a Diet composed of delegates of the reigning sovereigns, presided over by Austria. The member states were left free to manage their own affairs, although they might not enter into an alliance with a foreign power either against the Confederation as a whole or against a fellow member. The Confederation was placed nominally under the guarantee of all the European powers, but actually the attitude of the lesser German princes enabled Asutria to direct it from the outset.

Certain special provisions of the peace settlement reflected the humanitarianism of the 18th-century “enlightenment”. For example, it included a declaration favoring the abolition of the slave trade, arrangements for the free navigation of international rivers, and additions to international law.

Altogether, the peace settlement of 1814-1815 was a remarkable achievement. Never before had statesmen been faced with such complex and manifold problems as those created by the revolutionary upheaval which had convulsed Europe continuously from 1792 to 1815. Yet the statesmen at Vienna, in a surprisingly short time, succeeded in composing the many divergent interests and ambitions among them and reaching a settlement which, with only minor alternations, endured longer than any general peace settlement before or since.

It was, of course, a conservative, and what was deemed by liberals a “reactionary”, success. It involved nevertheless a minimum of ideological passion and a maximum of realism. While taking precautions against the possible renewal of French aggression by strengthening the buffer states of Prussia, the Netherlands, and Sardinia, it refrained from penalizing defeated France, and actually utilized it as a counterweight, in the restored balance of power, against newly threatening Russian aggression. No wonder that the conservative peace settlement at Vienna enhanced the popular conservative reaction during the ensuing years.

Important Links:

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Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
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Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
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