Napoleon had finally been defeated and forced to abdicate on April 11, 1814, by the combined might of a Quadruple Alliance of Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Austria, with the help, finally, of most of the lesser European powers. His empire, which had at one time encompassed most of Europe, had collapsed in a rush that left physical destruction and enormous political turmoil in its wake. The political disarray was a matter not only of order among states but also of internal order within states. The French were without a ruler, until the coalition of powers who had brought down Napoleon restored the brother of Louis XVI to the French throne: Louis XVIII.
Not only France needed to re-constitute its internal government, but also a number of other nations, which had been overrun by Napoleon, and had lost their internal structure. Historian Charles Mee continues:
The aristocrats - the monarchs, the princes, and the plenipotentiaries who still held their positions after the defeat of Napoleon, or resumed them - were frightened of what the revolution had loosed. They were intent upon restoring not only order among nations but among classes. They mean to restore a concerted and collaborative aristocracy to the rule of Europe.
The treaty that ended the war included Article 22 that called for a congress to be held in Vienna, beginning October 1, 1814, to engage in a general settlement of European affairs.
These negotiations would be delicate and complex:
Since none of the powers was strong enough to impose its will on the others, the situation was ideal for the practice of diplomacy - in which the success of each negotiator would be contingent upon, among other things, the position, strength, will, perceptiveness, persuasiveness, dexterity, and deviousness of all. This was the ground for personal diplomacy that diplomats relish.
These discussions would not be a matter of straightforward simple logic and calculation, but neither would they be inflamed by passion and emotion. The formative idea for much of the congress would be the concept of balancing power among the countries of Europe. Even this would not be a simple mathematical exercise, because Metternich saw that the
idea of equilibrium was too mechanical, too focused on a balance of the external relations among nations. Metternich believed a balance of power must exist not only externally among nations but also internally among factions and classes. The external and internal equilibria buttressed each other; they could not be separated without threatening the survival of the whole society.
He believed, too, that the only acceptable outcome for the congress would be a "legitimate" settlement. By legitimate, however, Metternich meant ... a settlement in which all the powers felt they had a vested interest, and so would commit themselves to maintain the settlement out of conviction, not force. Legitimacy was what the powers would agree was legitimate.
The complexity of these situations meant that sometimes, a diplomat would need to conceal his own intentions and goals, and make it seem as if others were forcing him to do what he secretly wanted to do. The future of the kingdom of Saxony was on the table: should it remain independent, or be absorbed into other nations?
The complexities involved in these calculations can only barely be suggested. The diplomats worked with hundreds of dependent variables that changed from day to day, all of them contingent upon all the others.
At the same time, the delegates had to struggle, as Metternich understood so well, with the calculations of domestic politics. While Metternich might be prepared to sacrifice Saxony, he would have to do it with extreme care, and without anyone crying out, since his biggest political antagonists in Austria were opposed to sacrificing Saxony and might defeat his entire policy if he were to expose this one element of it prematurely.
With patience (the talks went on for months), it worked:
Finally, on October 22, Metternich allowed himself to be persuaded to agree to Prussia's possession of Saxony, but only in the event that the united front against Russia was successful.
Metternich thereby obtained Prussia's help in putting pressure on Russia. The frustratingly slow pace of the negotiations quickened, when it was learned that Napoleon was attempting to make a comeback.
Despite Napoleon's best efforts to insinuate his representatives into the negotiations at Vienna, and to divide and confuse the powers there, in fact his reappearance caused the diplomats in Vienna to unite. And just two weeks after Napoleon arrived in Paris, the duke of Wellington was in Brussels to take command of a new allied army there.
The nations were rallied to the cause of defeating Napoleon, and quickly agreed to combine their military forces. Napoleon's attempted comeback ended quickly. Re-energized and encouraged, the congress resolved many diplomatic debates quickly.
Even the tertiary issues were now promptly settled. A Swiss confederation of twenty-two cantons was formed; its neutrality, and the inviolability of its territory, was guaranteed.
The arrangements formulated in Vienna would shape Europe for the next century. Until World War One, these treaties would keep Europe largely peaceful.
What had been achieved? The Congress of Vienna confirmed the leaders of Europe in the belief that no one power could be allowed to dominate the Continent and that all powers, certainly all the major powers, must work together to preserve the peace and the status quo - seeing themselves as contingent parts of a larger balance of powers on the continent.