The Congress of Vienna convened on the 14th of November 1814 and over the next seven months the Five Great Powers of Europe, specifically, England, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and France would meet together in Vienna, often in secret or informal meetings, to decide the course that Europe would take following the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. The final settlement of the congress, reached in June of 1815, reflected the Congress’s adopted policy of status quo ante bellum in regard not only to territorial boundaries, but to political policy as well.
This meant that not only did the main objective of the settlement include a remapping of territory and land, but it also included an effort to restore the European continent to the political condition that existed before the French Revolution of 1793 and install a balance of power to ensure that it remained that way. This objective to return Europe to status quo ante bellum was based on three basic political philosophies: Compensation, the idea that states should get back what they had lost, Legitimacy, laws which established the legal government’s right to return to the old régime, and Balance, the idea that if all parts are equal within the whole no one part can upset the balance.
Through the course of the 19th century these philosophies of the settlement in Vienna were largely sustained, however, the political atmosphere that enveloped the European continent throughout the 19th century was steadily sliding towards widespread political and social revolution - evidenced by the sweep of revolutions that enfold Europe in 1848.
This slide towards revolution was recognized by the leaders of the Five Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna, and remembering the Reign of Terror that had befallen France and Louis XVI, not to mention the Napoleonic Wars that followed, they were anxious to stem the revolutionary tide and return Europe to the Ancien Régime.
Thus, many of the polices and alliances that are enacted by the leaders of the European nations in the years immediately following the Congress of Vienna are specifically aimed at sustaining the objective of a return to the Old Order. Examples of such polices and alliances are the Holy Alliance, instigated by Alexander I in which according to Alexander the major powers were “united under Christian morals,” the Quadruple Alliance of 1815, which originally included Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia and expanded in 1817 to include France in 1818, which was given the responsibility for keeping the peace in Europe and maintaining a balance of power, and the Protocol Consecrating the Principle of Intervention, which ensured that if one European state was in danger of a revolution the other states would intervene to put that revolution down in order to maintain the balance of power.
This collective effort to sustain the objective of a return to the old order is commonly called the Concert of Europe, which essentially was the collective name given to the series of meetings by the major powers in Europe throughout the 19th century whose specific goal was to maintain and sustain the main objective of the Congress of Vienna as derived from the philosophies of Compensation, Legitimacy and Balance.
The Concert of Europe is widely considered to have succeeded in their objective of maintaining the original objectives of the Vienna Congress throughout the 19th century. In fact, there is not a war among the Great Powers until the Crimean War in1854 almost forty years after the Congress of Vienna, and the Concert of Europe remains mostly intact until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (Briggs and Clavin 90-91). Furthermore, almost all the revolutions of 1848 are quickly put down as a direct result of the Concert of Europe’s success in upholding the original objectives of the Vienna Congress. In fact, many prominent Europeans supported the Concert.
Among them were the Abbé de Pradt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who both spoke out in favor of the Congress and the success of the Concert and their efforts. However, while the Concert of Europe may have been originally successful in their quest to sustain the objectives of the Congress of Vienna, not everyone favored the idea of the Concert or even the Congress of Vienna. In fact, many noted personas spoke out against it. Frederic Gentz, the German writer and politician, thought that the Vienna Congress was “a waste.” Camillo Cavour, the leading force behind Italian unification, ridiculed the Alliance or Concert with great regularity. Even Robert Castlereagh, one of the instigators of the Concert, eventually called the Alliance “ridiculous” and further quoted by Briggs and Clavin to have said to King George IV four days before he would commit suicide: “Sir, it is necessary to say goodbye to Europe” (50).
In many ways Castlereagh’s forgoing quote is very indicative of the course that the political history of Europe would take following the widespread revolutions that would sweep across Europe from the middle of the 19th century till the beginning of the 20th century. Two great examples of the political ambient that existed underneath the superseding political front of a return to the Old Régime are the establishment of Greece as a independent kingdom, which although acquired a dynastic monarch in 1833 clearly demonstrated the power that a “mobilized… popular support, including support from the peasantry” could have (53), and the 1848 revolution against the Hapsburgs empire, which although put down by the efforts of Windischgratz left a defiant ambient of change and revolution which caused Franz Joseph, the last real emperor of the Hapsburg, to recall the words of Louis XV who said “after us comes the flood.”
This quote most appropriately illustrates the political condition of Europe during the 19th century. Which can accurately be described as a reservoir of change and reform ready to engulf the European continent and held back only by the thin wall or dam that the objectives of the Congress of Vienna had constructed in the ruling class’s effort to stem the flood of political and social reform. Although the “thin wall” of the Congress of Vienna’s objectives would hold for a large part of the 19th century, ultimately, it would crumble as disagreements broke out among the Great Powers and the populace began to rise up with increasing frequency and in larger numbers and reform would “flood” the continent through the later part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Briggs, Asa and Patricia Clavin. Modern Europe: 1789—Present. 2nd edition. London:
Pearson Longman, 2003.
Cole, Robert. Class Lecture. The Congress of Vienna, Compensation, Legitimacy, Balance. Old
Main 201, Utah State University, Logan, UT. 15 Sept. 2008.