The Balance of Power and the Congress of Vienna

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The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815)
No event epitomizes the state of Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as well as the Congress of Vienna held between 1814-1815. The culmination of centuries of European political tradition, the Congress was in many ways the last gasp of monarchy in Europe, as the royal houses tried to restore the Europe they once knew and ensure that their way of politics and society would be sustained even in the face of the radical wave of change foreshadowed by the French Revolution. At that time of the Congress Europe was in a state of disarray. The French Revolution that erupted in 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and the subsequent wars had not only proven disastrous for the monarchical powers of continental Europe, but the very basis of their power had been shaken. The cultural hegemony of the old regime, where the concept of the Great Chain of Being had been entrenched in the mind of the average man (whereby commoners were always commoners, nobility were always nobility, and kings ruled by the will of God), had been struck a fatal blow by the diffusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment. (Gulick) Ironically, it was Napoleon, whose coup against the revolutionary French government is deemed by many to have been the end of the French Revolution itself, who was most instrumental in spreading the reforms of the Revolution beyond France. (Lefebvre) At the height of his power Napoleon’s influence exerted itself over nearly all of continental Europe, the only notable exception being Russia. Following his disastrous defeat during the Russian campaign of 1812, Napoleon’s eventual downfall was precipitated by a coalition among the four great powers -- Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Shortly afterwards the Congress of Vienna was conceived and called to redraw the boundaries of Europe, re-establish the dominance of the old regime, and establish a new political equilibrium in the void left by the fallen emperor. Unlike many diplomatic gatherings of today, which from the outset are doomed to degenerate into bitter feuding over old grievances, the Congress of Vienna was in a suitable position to obtain relative success. First, the nobility of Europe were comparatively homogenous, having been raised in a culture of cosmopolitanism -- a background that proved indispensible when possession of territories shifted from nation to nation so often within the proceedings. (Gulick) The common people, more prone to nationalistic tendencies, had not yet seized power and made this form of reciprocal compensation unfeasible. Secondly, for the most part all of the diplomats at the Congress shared an acceptance of the methods of establishing and maintaining a balance of power. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had not undone imperial Europe beyond restoration. In addition, the Industrial Revolution had not yet made an idea that was paramount in the Congress, that power could be measured in land and population, obsolete (Gulick). Congress of Vienna participants came from all of the nations of Europe. Diplomats and leaders even from the smallest duchies arrived for the purposes of enjoying the decadent social scene, and of course, to take part in the landmark Congress. But it soon became clear that from the beginning the four great powers had intended to take all principal matters into their own hands. In fact, the diplomats representing the four great powers -- Metternich and Gentz for Austria, Castlerleagh for Great Britain, Hardenberg and Nesselrode for Prussia, and Czar Alexander I of Russia (who thought it best that he conduct his own diplomacy) had held a series of meetings prior to the official start of the Congress where they established the protocol they would operate by (Kraehe). Mainly that they would take all matters into their own hands, and that France, represented by Talleyrand for the newly restored Bourbon monarchy,...
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