Sunday, August 16, 2009

Play-By-Play at the Congress

The Congress of Vienna lasted from October 1, 1814 until June 9, 1815. There was much negotiating and talking; progress was sometimes very slow. Despite the starting date, nothing really got done until well into November. There was a several-month delay while Prussia, Russia, and several other countries debated how they would share the territories of Poland and Saxony, two countries which were effectively dismantled at the Congress. There were hundreds of kings, princes, chancellors, secretaries, ministers, and other diplomats at the event. Dorothy Gies McGuigan, at the University of Michigan, gives us an account:

No international gathering of such scope as the Congress of Vienna had ever been held in the history of Europe. No precedent existed for handling the intricate questions of procedure, of organization, of decisions on agenda and credentials.

This event was unique in the history of the world: the first large multiparty summit.

The design of the Congress was Metternich's. It had taken shape in his mind as early as the spring of 1813, when he had proposed peace to France, Russia and England and had won Napoleon's tentative assent to such a congress ... It had been Metternich who had proposed Vienna as a meeting place for the sovereigns as soon as the Battle of Leipzig was won, and it had been he who had written into the Peace of Paris the invitation to "all powers engaged on either side in the present war" to send delegates to Vienna.

Metternich, chancellor for Austria and the Habsburg Empire, had been present when the Peace of Paris, the treaty which ended the Napoleonic wars, was drafted.

From the beginning, Metternich had envisioned the Congress of Vienna not merely as a concert of powers meeting to put back together a Europe splintered by war and conquest but as a glittering Peace Festival to mark the beginning of a new era.

The preceding twenty-five years (ten years of French Revolution and fifteen years of Napoleonic dictatorship) had been so brutal and bloody that Metternich envisioned the Congress of Vienna as ushering in an era of peace: peace maintained by the diplomatic balance of legitimate powers. In fact, the Congress of Vienna succeeded in creating one of the most peaceful epochs in world history.

Certainly neither Metternich nor anyone else had imagined the size of the throng that would gather in Vienna in the sunny days of autumn to be participants or onlookers at the Congress. The idea of an international meeting to shape a new world on principles of moderation justice had captured the imagination of Europe. In the intoxicating air of victory and of peace - the first real peace Europe had known in twenty-five years - everyone was ready for a holiday.

As the discussions dragged on for months, autumn changed into winter. Progress was slow, but agreements were being reached: new boundary lines were drawn on the map of Europe, and new alliances were being formed.

Snow fell all night on the last night of the year, and in the morning the baroque angels on the roofs of palaces and churches stood knee-deep in snow. It seemed a double good omen that New Year's Day of 1815 fell on a Sunday, and that fresh snow covered the world, as if all the scars and shabbiness, the quarrels and violence of an old world and an old year were effectively buried from sight.

Early that morning a courier's carriage, mud-splattered, ice-covered, pulled up to the door of Castlereigh's house in Minoritenplatz. Had had been on the roads since Christmas Eve, carrying to Vienna from Ghent the good news that England had ended the war with America and peace had been signed.

This information boosted spirits in Vienna. Not only could a peace plan for Europe be developed, but it would now include large parts of the rest of the world.

For the first time in many years no war was being fought anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the most important issues to be settled was whether or not there would be a single country known as Germany. In the centuries prior to the Congress of Vienna, that space on the map of Europe, which we now know as Germany, was filled with dozens of small and large kingdoms, principalities, and free cities; they were united by a common German language and culture, but not by a common political structure - each of them was an independent state. Many German-speaking people had the desire to unite these regions (Saxony, Bavaria, Alsace, Lorraine, etc.) into a single country to be known as Germany. Would this happen at the Congress of Vienna? There were also leaders who opposed this move, who did not want a united Germany - these leaders were mainly the rulers of smaller Germanic kingdoms, who would lose power when their territories were united into a larger country.

The last Congress issue to be hammered out was the future of Germany. The original plan for a federation of German states, drafted in the early weeks of the Congress, foundered on the Saxony-Poland quarrel and the resulting division between Austria and Prussia. In the end Metternich and Wessenberg produced a plan joining the thirty-eight German states in a loose confederation under a Diet at which Austria was to preside. The Diet would draft a set of laws; under one of the articles of the proposal each of the sovereigns was to grant his subjects a constitution.

The solution was a deep disappointment to German nationalists such as Stein and Humboldt, as well as to Austrian imperialists, among them Stadion and Schwarzenberg, who had hoped for the revival of an empire under Habsburg leadership.

In the end, it was a compromise, in which nobody got everything he wanted, and everyone got a little of what he wanted: a typical example of balanced diplomacy in action.

Yet it is doubtful whether a more powerful union could have been forged among the German-speaking countries in 1815. The German kings created by Napoleon and the small princes fought fiercely for their sovereignty. Feelings of particularism were still stronger than those of nationalism: people felt themselves to be Bavarians and Prussians and Saxons before they felt themselves to be Germans. The mutiny of Saxon troops against the Prussian army command in May was but one evidence of the strong bond of loyalty that still existed between subject and King. Metternich's loose German confederation was a beginning.

Finally, the Congress of Vienna created not only a lasting political peace, but began the abolition of slavery, and the extension of civil rights.

More important, crucial questions of human rights appeared on the Congress agenda, and if none was forthrightly resolved, two did appear as recommendations in the final act. The traffic in slaves was condemned rather than abolished. Civil rights for Jewish men in German cities was confirmed where they already obtained and a recommendation was included that they be extended. Both Metternich and Hardenberg had favored the extension of full civil rights to Jews, but other delegates on the German Committee - notably the Hanoverian - had resisted.

The fact that questions of human rights were debated at an international gathering was an important first in history.

And though the voices of the Congress had often been angry, passionate, vituperative, and the hands more than once had been dangerously close to swords, in the end the voice of persuasion and of reason had won out. The most important accomplishment of the Vienna Congress was just that: a powerful demonstration that grave international problems could be resolved through diplomacy rather than through arms.

This was the triumph of Metternich's conservative approach; for this accomplishment, he known, together with Burke, as one of the founders of modern political conservatism. Other conservatives, William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln, would finish the task of abolishing slavery.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Legitimacy and Balance

The diplomat and statesman Metternich is known mainly as the organizer of the Congress of Vienna, but that event was the product of Metternich's diplomat work in the preceding years, and would unfold in his work over the following years - and that work was guiding by the two principles of Metternich's foreign policy: legitimacy and balance. Oxford University's Alan Palmer describes how the Congress of Vienna began:

The people of Vienna had been surprised to learn in June that Emperor Francis was to be host to the peacemakers. Perhaps they had even been a little disconcerted; for this was a new role for the Habsburgs and a new experience for their city.

The emperor Franz (as it is more commonly spelled) had, at Metternich's prompting, organized a peace conference to provide a stable future for Europe in the wake of twenty-five years of violent bloodshed: the ten years of the French Revolution and the fifteen years of Napoleon's dictatorship.

Now in 1814 a cavalcade of of sovereigns and statesmen was about to descend on the city, and it was by no means clear how they were to be accommodated, how their business was to be conducted, or how their retinues were to be fed and foddered through the winter months. There was no formal invitation, merely an announcement that the Congress would open on 1 October. The heads of the five reigning dynasties and of 216 princely families flocked to Vienna.

Europe's power politics were dominated by five superpowers: England, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Here Metternich's diplomatic principles would be put into play: to balance the powers, the boundary lines of European maps, and the political alliances between Europe's sovereign states, would be reorganized so that no one nation could assert itself over the others. This would keep the peace. Those sovereign states were to be ruled by legitimate governments - as opposed to illegitimate governments, like those of the French Revolution, which had neither legal nor moral right to rule. Legitimate governments had the obligation to help each other against attempted overthrow by illegitimate powers; thus peace would be kept as the government helped each other, instead of opposed each other.

Metternich was opposed to that political movement known as "nationalism":

He rejected the idea that community of language, sentiment or race provided a basis for political unity ... nationalism and liberalism remained equally abhorrent doctrines to him, the product of that French Revolution against which he saw himself in conflict throughout his life. In their place ... he offered a threefold creed: a belief in an essential community of interests which bound together the European States; a belief in the need for vigilance against political excess; and a belief the virtues of a balanced order, both between governments and between classes within society.

At the university, Metternich studied both political science, and the career of his own father, who was likewise a diplomat, and who had made a successful career

seeking in 1791 to play off against each other the rival Belgian patriot factions.

Younger Metternich learned the secret of his father's success in the university's political science lectures:

good government depends for survival upon a balance between extremes ... the concept of a stable equilibrium appealed [to Metternich].

Later in life, Metternich would put these principles into action. Representing Austria and the Holy Roman Empire,

he insisted that Austria's central position on the continent made it essential for her to think, not so much of territorial compensation, as of 'laying the foundations of a European political system' ... only Vienna could establish the equilibrium which Europe needed for her convalescence.

A balance of power, carefully negotiated and administered by Metternich, would heal Europe after twenty-five years of warfare. He saw his employment in the Holy Roman Empire, and later in the Habsburg Empire, as an opportunity to create peace for all of Europe. (The Holy Roman Empire would end in 1806, to be partially replaced by the Habsburg Empire.)

This carefully established balance, enacted in 1815 as the Congress of Vienna finalized its negotiated outcomes, would soon be tested by military actions as the Greeks defended themselves against Islamic occupational troops in the 1820's. European powers were agreed that the Greeks could resist the invaders, but the manner in which the European powers allied themselves to support Greece could lead to unintended effects. The English diplomat George Canning, whose views sometimes were the same as Metternich's,

was pledged to Greek autonomy while he remained convinced that any re-drawing of the map in Eastern Europe, however small in the first instance, would disturb the whole balance of the continent.

The Battle of Navarino (November 1827) would help the Greeks regain their freedom, but struggle would be long and complex.

The Revolutionary Mr. Burke

Edmond Burke is known for his opposition to the French Revolution; in a series of shockingly accurate predictions, he pointed out that it was designed to end in massive bloodshed, political chaos, and social ruin. But Burke wasn't opposed to all revolutions: he specifically applauded the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution of 1776. Connor O'Brien, professor at the University of Dublin, describes Burke's reasoning:

The second English revolution, of 1688, known to its heirs as the Glorious Revolution, was not Utopian at all, but deliberately limited, pragmatic, and pluralist. The double objective was to end the arbitrary and Romanist rule of James II, without reviving the [anti-Romanist trends of Cromwell's first English revolution].

Burke approved of the Glorious Revolution because it was pragmatic: it did not seek to overthrow or change society, but merely the government. It was limited, because it did not seek to change all aspects of government, but merely some of them. And it was pluralist, because in encouraged the Christian concept of religious tolerance.

The American Revolution began out of quite limited grievances and objectives, and certainly without any Utopian agenda. As soon as definite revolutionary purpose emerged, the model was England's Glorious Revolution, with George III cast in the role of James II.

In Burke's mind, the American Revolution was a replay of the Glorious Revolution. The key was limited change to a few aspects of government, rather than smashing both government and society entirely.

The Glorious Revolution was essentially a dynastic and sectarian adjustment. The American Revolution was essentially the secession of colonists from an empire. The first real full-blooded secular revolution, the first large and determined attempt to construct a secular Utopia, after a wholesale destruction of existing arrangements - together with the people who were seen to represent and defend these arrangements, was the French Revolution.

Burke's view could be summarized as: fix it, reform it, don't destroy it. But the French Revolution was an attempt to destroy one civilization and create another in its place. Some historians see the French Revolution as the birth of Fascism.

Because Burke had supported the American Revolution, some people expected him to also support the French Revolution.

In Burke's view, however, the colonists had deserved support, not because they had asserted abstract rights ... but for resisting the withdrawal of liberties which they had long enjoyed as British subjects.

In this understanding of the American Revolution, George Washington and the other Founding Fathers were defending an established social order, while George III of England was attempting to introduce something new and different. The Founding Fathers were defending their traditional rights under the Magna Charta, but King George III was trying to institute a new system in which those rights would be taken away.

By contrast, the French Revolution was attacking a long-standing society; Burke saw this in its reliance on the writings of Rousseau. Burke wrote:

Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action ... True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing in the appearance, they have totally discarded.

Burke goes on to examine Rousseau's life: fathering many illegitimate children, and refusing to support them or their mothers in any way, he sent these infants to squalid orphanages, where they would soon die of childhood diseases. Burke equates Rousseau's personal failings with the institutional failure of the French Revolutionary government, which would execute thousands of unarmed innocent citizens.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Metternich Changes Things!

At Drew University, Prof. John von der Heide wrote a book assessing Metternich's influence on world history. In the late 1790's and early 1800's,

Metternich rose to fame in a prolonged contest with Napoleon and prevailed. He went on to create a stable international arrangement on the European continent that would last for more than thirty years.

Other historians would assert that Metternich's arrangement would last for almost a century, not merely thirty years. In either case, a decisive moment happened in the 1790's, when Metternich visited England, and met Edmund Burke; although the two men differed greatly in their political theories, they would both become known as leaders of the conservative movement in their time. Burke

upheld monarchy and denounced natural right ... Burke attacked the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Burke had supported the American Revolution, and its Declaration of Independence; he saw them as fundamentally different: seeing the American colonies as basing their quest for independence on the clear historical rights of citizens as set forth in the Magna Carta, but the French Revolution as being based, not on the overthrow of a government, but on the overthrow of a society:

To Burke historical precedent, custom, and tradition were the practical foundation for law and government. Metternich admired what he saw of Great Britain's government, and Burke's defense of the established order. Burke also wrote on "the similitude throughout Europe of religion, laws and manners." Metternich's subsequent defense of a state system was reinforced by Burke's thinking. Metternich would share the conservative thinker's view that the power of France should be contained.

Oddly, Metternich would approve of England's parliamentary system, a prototype of democratic republicanism as it would take root in America, while rejecting the same system for his own native country. In the wake of twenty-five years of violence (between ten years of French Revolution, and fifteen years of Napoleon's dictatorship, millions would die), Metternich was interested in a political peace which would ensure safety for all of Europe. He

was sure that no power by itself could maintain the peace. A harmonious coalition had defeated Napoleon, and harmony would be vital to protecting the fruits of victory. A balance of power in central Europe was necessary for Austria above all, it seemed to Metternich.

In post-Revolutionary, post-Napoleonic Europe, to protect innocent lives, legitimate governments were necessary. Revolutionary France, and Napoleonic France, had been only too willing to sacrifice lives for political gain. Metternich wished to value human life above national power politics: he was firmly against nationalism:

Restoring the House of Bourbon in France was more in step with Metternich's regard for, and understanding of, legitimacy.

Metternich, of course, is most widely known for organizing the Congress of Vienna. This international gathering would preserve peace in Europe for decades into the future.

The Final Act, singed on June 9, 1815, had concluded the Congress of Vienna and redistributed the territory in accordance withe Big Four's wishes and transformed "compensation" and "legitimacy" into practical policy.

In the century after the twenty-five years of bloodshed, as in the century before, the major powers in Europe would be England, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and France. France's temporary humiliation (hence the reference to the "Big Four") would be reversed by the skills of Talleyrand, France's representative at the Congress of Vienna. But Spain, Poland, Sweden, and Holland were relegated to a second-string status.