The Congress System:
Great Power Diplomacy 1815-30
“The Concert of Europe is the term used to describe various attempts made by the major powers to co-operate, after 1815, in settling possible causes of conflict between themselves in order to prevent the possibility of another large-scale war.” Stephen J Lee, Aspects of European History
The Congress System and the Concert of Europe-
-both terms apply to the period of attempted co-operation among the Major Powers following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. The basic idea behind this co-operative venture was that, having defeated France through concerted effort, the Powers might best maintain the peace they had created at Vienna through sustained co-operation. Initially, this collaborative exercise was conducted through the medium of periodic meetings:
- at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818
- at Troppau in 1820
- at Laibach in 1821
- at Verona in 1822
Such meetings gave rise to the term ‘Congress System’, and were an ambitious attempt to conduct international diplomacy across the conference table. During the 1820s the Congress System collapsed. Britain refused to attend the meetings, believing that the original purpose of the co-operative process had been betrayed by Powers who sought to use their combined strength for selfish ends. Austria, Russia and Prussia were subject to their own rivalries and found it difficult to co-operate effectively on the issues which faced them.
Encouraged by the religious zealot Baroness von Krüdener, Alexander looked to involve his fellow sovereigns in a moral and spiritual association based on Christian principles.
From the Declaration of the Holy Alliance-26 September 1815
“..they are animated to protect Religion, Peace and Justice.”
The Holy Alliance was signed by most European sovereigns with the exception of the Sultan of Turkey, the Pope and the Prince Regent- who according to the British constitution, did not possess the authority to endorse such a treaty.
At first only Alexander took the Holy Alliance seriously.
Castlereagh called it ’ a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.’ The Austrian Emperor signed it only to avoid offending the Tsar. Metternich described it as ‘a loud something nothing’
However, as revolutionary outbreaks began to disturb the European peace after 1820, the Alliance was redefined and directed against those who would dare to challenge the existing political order.
Signed between the four wartime allies.
Looked to maintain the settlement with France and to guard against a revival of Bonapartism.
Most significant aspect of this Alliance was contained in Article VI. - To facilitate and to secure the execution of the Second Peace of Paris -to consolidate the connections which at the present moment so closely unite the Four Sovereigns for the happiness of the World - the High Contracting Parties have agreed to renew their meetings at fixed periods. This made provision for the calling of periodic meetings to discuss issues in which the Powers shared a common interest. __
After 1815 then, there were two rival alliances each with the declared purpose of promoting international co-operation. However, both were vague when it came to defining their precise functions and the scope of their operations. This lack of clarity proved to be one of the major causes of the Congress System’s demise.
The Powers divide 1815-18
The Powers had lost their one unifying cause.
France, until recently the dominant force in Europe, was now defeated, contained and isolated. The years after 1815 were to witness an Anglo-Russian contest to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of French hegemony. In this atmosphere the mood of international co-operation began to recede as the Powers looked to align themselves with one or other of the contenders for European supremacy.
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