It was the most distinguished political assemblage in European history. Its dominant members were naturally the major victors in the war of the nations: Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain; but there were also delegates from Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, the Papacy, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg…; and defeated France had to be reckoned with, if only because she was represented by the wily Talleyrand. The proceedings would illustrate two not quite contrary principles: that guns speak louder than words, and that physical force is seldom victorious unless manipulated by mental power.
Russia was represented primarily by Czar Alexander I, with the largest army and the greatest charm. With the help of Count Andreas Razumovsky (patron of Beethoven) and Count Karl Robert Nesselrode he proposed that Russia receive all Poland as reward for leading the Allies from hesitation on the Niemen and the Spree to victory on the Seine; and Prince Czartoryski, representing Poland by Alexander’s permission, supported the proposal in hope that the reunification of Poland could be a step toward independence.
Prussia was represented formally by King Frederick William III, more actively by Prince von Hardenberg, with Wilhelm von Humboldt as philosopher in attendance. They demanded a fit reward for the martial leadership of “Vorwärts” Blücher and the sacrifice of Prussian lives. Alexander agreed, and—conditional on Prussia’s withdrawal of claim to her former piece of Poland—offered Frederick William all of Saxony, whose King (then imprisoned in Berlin) deserved this denudation for having given the Saxon Army to Napoleon; and Freiherr vom Stein thought this a gentlemanly solution.
Austria claimed that its declaration for the Allies had decided the war, and that it should get a generous helping at the victors’ feast. The exclusion of Austria from Poland was intolerable; and the appropriation of Saxony by Prussia would throw out of all proportion the European balance of power between north and south. Metternich deployed all his patient, devious subtlety to keep Austria from being reduced to a second-class Power. Emperor Francis II aided his Minister for Foreign Affairs by softening his guests with entertainment. His Treasury had emerged from the war with one foot in bankruptcy; he risked the remainder by intoxicating his guests with wine and champagne, and dulling them with Neanderthal meals. The halls of the imperial palaces sparkled almost nightly with lavish festivals. Actors and actresses, singers and virtuosos were engaged to entrance the potentates and their retainers; Beethoven shook the city with “Die Schlacht von Vittoria.” Fair women wore fortunes on their dresses or in their hair, and displayed as much of their software as a decent respect for Cardinal Consalvi would allow. Mistresses were available for titled seekers, and courtesans supplied the needs of minor notables. The town gossips had trouble keeping account of the Czar’s amours.4
Alexander won the women and lost the diplomatic war. Metternich sought allies against him among the delegates of the minor Powers. He argued that the principle of legitimacy forbade such spoliation of a king as Russia and Prussia proposed in Saxony. They agreed, but how could they talk principle to a Russia that had 500,000 troops quartered on her western front? Metternich appealed to Lord Castlereagh, who spoke for England: Would not England be uneasy with Russia reaching through Poland and allied with a Prussia swollen with Saxony? What would this do to the balance of power east and west? Castlereagh excused himself; Britain was at war with the United States, and could not risk a confrontation with Russia.
So Metternich turned as a last resort to Talleyrand. He had angered the Frenchman by excluding France, along with the lesser Powers, from the private conferences of the “Big Four,” and deferring to November 1, 1814, the first united assembly of all the attending states. Talleyrand made common cause with other excluded delegations, and was soon accepted as their spokesman. So fortified, he began to speak of France as still a first-class Power, ready to raise and supply an army of 300,000 men. Metternich, who might have seen this as a threat, saw in it a possible promise. He solicited Talleyrand’s help against Russia; Talleyrand secured Louis XVIII’s consent; the two diplomats won over Castlereagh now that peace had been made with America. On January 3, 1815, France, Austria, and Great Britain formed a Triple Alliance for mutual aid in maintaining the balance of power. Faced with this new consortium, Russia withdrew her claim to all Poland; and Prussia, having regained Thorn and Posen, agreed to take only two fifths of Saxony. Talleyrand received most of the credit, and boasted that his diplomacy had changed France from a beaten beggar to again a major Power.
After almost nine months of bargaining, the assembled dignitaries, by the “Act of the Congress of Vienna” dated June 8, 1815, redistributed the soil of Europe according to the ancient principle that to the victors belong the spoils—if the victors are still strong enough to take them. Britain kept Malta as her sentry post in the central Mediterranean; she established her protectorate over the Ionian Islands as guards over the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean; she returned some, kept some (notably Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope) of the French and Dutch colonies she had taken during the war. She recovered control of Hanover, and arranged a close understanding with the new kingdom of the Netherlands, which now embraced both “Holland” and “Belgium,” and therefore the mouths of the Rhine.
Poland suffered a new partition, with some improvement. Prussia received the regions around Posen and Danzig. Austria received Galicia. Russia received the grand duchy of Warsaw, which was changed into the kingdom of Poland under the czar as its king, and with a liberal constitution.
Prussia came out of the war with gains that prepared her for Bismarck: in addition to two fifths of Saxony she received Swedish Pomerania and Rügen, and most of Westphalia; Neuchâtel in Switzerland; and a predominant influence in the German Confederation which now replaced Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. Saxony retained three fifths of its former terrain, and recovered its King. Austria added, to her pre-Congress lands, Salzburg, Illyria, Dalmatia, the Tirol, and the “Lombardo-Venetian kingdom” in northern Italy. The Papal States were returned to the Papacy; Tuscany reverted to the Hapsburg-Bourbon rule. Finally, in a bow to Christianity, the Congress condemned the trade in slaves.
During December and January, 1814–15, the Congress considered proposals for further dealings with Napoleon. Surely (some delegates suggested) that excitable man would not long rest content to be sovereign of tiny Elba. And that island was uncomfortably close to Italy and France. What deviltry might he stir if he should escape? Various proposals were made to the Congress to send a force to Elba, seize Napoleon, and deport him to a farther and safer isolation. Talleyrand and Castlereagh thought so; Czar Alexander objected, and there the matter rested.5
The Congress was nearing its close when, early on the morning of March 7, Metternich was awakened by a message marked “Urgent.” It was from the Austrian consul at Genoa, and informed the Minister that Napoleon had escaped from Elba. The delegates, notified, agreed to defer the ending of the Congress and to remain at Vienna until some united action could be agreed upon. On March 11 further word came that Napoleon had landed near Antibes. On March 13 the Congress, through its “Committee of the Eight,” pronounced against Napoleon a ban declaring him an outlaw whom anyone might kill without fear or hindrance of the law. The Congress had completed its programs, but—though the delegates now dispersed—it remained technically in session until June 19, when it was notified that Napoleon had been overwhelmed at Waterloo the day before. The Congress thereupon declared itself officially at an end.