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The Congress of Vienna

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Congress of Vienna

The leaders of Europe met in Vienna in September 1814 to restore the balance of power that had been so drastically upset by the conquests of Napoleon. The work of the Congress of Vienna was briefly interrupted when Napoleon returned from Elba, but the leaders resumed work after the Battle of Waterloo and completed their task by June 1815.

Each nation was represented at the Congress of Vienna by a monarch or a prominent military or political figure, as follows:

  • Austria—foreign minister Prince Klemens von Metternich
  • Britain—foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh; Duke of Wellington
  • France—foreign minister Charles Talleyrand
  • Prussia—chancellor Prince Karl August von Hardenberg
  • Russia—Czar Alexander I

The leaders had two main goals. First, they wanted to restore the balance of power in Europe by redrawing or restoring boundary lines. All territory acquired by France under Napoleon was either restored to independence or given to one of the four major powers—Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia. Second, the Congress was concerned not only with restoring the balance of power, but also maintaining it for the future. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, France had emerged as the most powerful nation; at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was clear that some other strong nation must be created as a check on any future French threat of European domination. This led the Congress to agree on the desirability of unifying the German states into one centrally governed nation. By 1819, nearly forty German states had formed the German Confederation, temporarily under the presidency of Austria.

Another aspect of maintaining the balance of power over the long term was the establishment of the Quadruple Alliance. This group, formed of representatives of the Great Powers, agreed that it would meet as often as necessary over the next twenty years to see that the terms of the peace were carried out and to discuss any matters of international concern that might arise. The members of the Quadruple Alliance believed in three principles: legitimacy, compensation, and containment.

Legitimacy

European ideas of the divine right of kings and the special qualities of royal families were very slow to die; the men of the Quadruple Alliance were not democrats, nor did they espouse republican ideals. They strongly believed that royal power properly belonged in the hands of legitimate monarchs. Napoleon stood outside this category because he was not of royal blood and also because he had seized power during a revolution rather than accepting it in an orderly transfer of authority.

Compensation

The leaders agreed that nations that had suffered from Napoleon’s invasions and power grabs should be compensated. To their way of thinking, this meant giving territory rather than money to the victors. As part of the final peace settlement, five nations were given new territory: Austria, Denmark, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden. (Britain was on the winning side but was given no compensation since it had never been invaded.) Most of the Italian provinces were divided among these nations.

Containment

The third principle was that of containment: of arranging matters in a way that would prevent, or at least discourage, future French aggression on the continent. Strengthening the union of the German states was the major step taken toward checking French aggression.

The Quadruple Alliance was the first European attempt to create an inter- national peacekeeping organization. It failed in the long run; its first meeting was also its last. However, its goals were important because they showed the trend that diplomacy was taking in history. Peace conferences after major inter- national wars would occur again in the twentieth century, and serious international peacekeeping efforts would also be undertaken again.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars Practice Test

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