FLORENCE – “The tongue is untied, the heart opens and the need to make oneself understood often takes over from the rules of cold and severe calculation,” that is how Klemens von Metternich, the witted Austrian diplomat, described the importance of personal contact with his interlocutors. What Europe needed to overcome the Napoleonic turmoil of the early nineteenth century, was a new balance of power and basic trust. Trust on its turn required intimate gatherings of statesmen. It was this aspect that Henri Kissinger came to praise as a distinctive part of the new Concert of Vienna and the European Concert of Power. In his dissertation, he called the art of restraining the exercise of power.
Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace offers a convincing corrective to this optimistic interpretation of concert diplomacy. The book is a colourful, detailed, and revealing account of the period between Napoleon’s first crippling defeats at Lützen and Leipzich and the summer of 1815. Zamoyski argues that it was not the new form of diplomacy that led the statesmen to the Treaty of Vienna, but the threat of the return of Napoleon and the fact that the Brits could throw more weight into the scales after the ratification of the Peace Treaty of Ghent by the United States.
Furthermore, the aspiration towards stability was elusive. From the outset of the negotiations, Tsar Alexander threatened with force. “I would rather have war than give up what occupy.” Prussia behaved like the hyena of the decaying French Empire. Its delegates in the Austrian capital also represented a major new change in European politics: the proliferation of restless nationalism. Interesting also is that even after Napoleon was banned from the European scene, continental frustrations about British naval hegemony had not vanished. As Adam Czartoryski put it: “The English have always been good at making business march alongside honour.” Ioannis Kapodistrias was more explicit: “There can be no balance of power if one country controls all the seas.” Metternich saw it as follows: “England’s dominion on the seas is no less monstrous than Napoleon’s on the continent.”
Zamoyski’s presents a clear overview of the organization of the Congress of Vienna. Drawing from extensive research, he reconstructs decisive interviews between the delegates, the threats, the guerres de plume, and the masque ball bribery with which some tried to raise the stakes. Like many other conferences, a small core of great powers handled the most strategic matters: Russia, Austria, Britain, France, and Prussia. The other pretenders and petitioners were left waiting in the margins. There were committees of specialists, on slavery, on precedence, and on international rivers, but they were powerless without the backing of the big five.
The discussion of thorny territorial disputes is detailed but not ponderous. One of these tussles, over Saxony, kept France, Austria, and Prussia in a limbo for the whole duration of the Congress. It was literally about which plot of land, which fortresses, how many souls, and how much of the wealth could go to Prussia. The other important conflict was over Poland. Proposals were made and proposals were refused. Alexander clarified his zeal as follows: “The conquest of Poland was carried out principally with the aim of extending the Russian nation’s contacts with the rest of Europe and opening for it a vaster field and a nobler and more prestigious stage on which to exert her power and her talents, and on which to satisfy her pride, her passion and her interests.”
The author has also eye for the context in which the congress took place, the vanity of the monarchs, the imperial pomp, the protocol, and the romances. Even if emperors domineered many of the meetings, the congress was in many ways shaped by public opinions. On other pages, Zamoyski describes the lavishness of the balls and banquets, the hunting parties: “The sovereign’s posted themselves along this space, a few feet apart, and, from time to time five or six beasts were released and forced to pass along the row of sovereigns, who were placed according to rank, so that if the Emperors missed the unfortunate wild boars, the Kings would have the honour, and if they also missed it was the turn of the Princes, then the Dukes, the Field Marshals,…”
Zamoyski does an excellent job in demystifying the Congress of Vienna and the following Concert of Europe. In chapter 33, he eloquently identifies obstacles over which the Concert would soon stumble: the hardening of Russian politics, the trade frictions between England and Prussia, the restlessness of the latter, Austria’s problematic influence over Italy, its tilt towards defensive conservatism, Britain’s rather unpredictable oscillations between isolationism and imperialist assertiveness, the unrest in France and many other countries, the difficult position of the Ottomans,… In light of all these challenges, Vienna becomes more of a fig leaf.
It was Friedrich von Gentz who described this very aptly: “Never have the expectations of the general public been as exited as they were before the opening of this solemn assembly. People were confident of a general reform of the political system of Europe, of the Guarantee of eternal peace, even of the return of the Golden age. Yet, it produced only restitutions decided beforehand by the force of arms, arrangements between the great powers, unfavourable to the future balance and the maintenance of peace in Europe, and some quite arbitrary rearrangements on the possessions of the lesser states, but not one act of a more elevated character, not one measure of public order or security which might compensate humanity for any part of its long sufferings or reassure it as to the future.”