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.