Review by Peter Kingdon Booker
I have just finished reading “Rites of Peace” by Adam Zamoyski, subtitled “The Fall of Napoleon & the Congress of Vienna” (Harper Perennial paperback 2007). I had known little of this peace conference except that it came at the end of the Napoleonic wars (almost) and that it served as an anti-model for the Conference at Versailles in 1919.
First the book. Yes, it is worth reading. It is well illustrated and comprehensive. The blurb on the front says, “Outstanding – a delicious, triumphant feast of a book” Simon Sebag Montefiore. This is a sentiment that goes over the top. Why then is it worth reading? It gives a comprehensive account of the venality behind the decisions made by the policy makers. In Tsar Alexander, we learn of the major disadvantages of hereditary autocracy. He regarded himself as the saviour of Europe. First he made promises which required other people to cooperate before he could keep them; second he set his policy around keeping Poland within the Russian Empire; third he allowed his attention to be occupied by the numbers of beautiful women who flocked to the biggest party in Europe ; fourth he got religion. A little later he developed some sort of bipolarity or persecution mania. He was untrustworthy and the biggest problem for the other negotiators. Another and more chilling aspect of the negotiations was the trading of “souls” who were to comprise the subjects of any particular kingdom. There was no thought of what the souls themselves might think – they were traded about like so many noughts on a balance sheet. It is strange in retrospect that monarchs were more interested in the numbers of souls in a particular territory than the area of the territory itself.
What is the best bit in the book? Apart from the many pictures, Zamoyski shows in all their gory and occasionally minute detail the intricate negotiations and the personal relationships on which the settlement was founded and how the unscrupulous turned up to have fun at others´ expense. But the best bit by far is the final chapter where Zamoyski comes into his own by interpreting the history that he has described in chronological order. Where he shows how and why the great work of the congress came to naught.
What about the British? They were openly mocked at the beginning of the Congress, not least because of their outdated dress sense. They had been outside the mainstream of European society for some 25 years and appeared outlandish. Prince Schwarzenberg said of Lady Castlereagh, “ She is very fat and dresses so young, so tight, so naked.” The British were universally disliked because they alone had not suffered under the heel of Napoleon´s boot, and because of the massive injections of cash they had made to subsidise their allies fighting, Britain had grown wealthy on the rest of the world. Despite the generosity (as the British saw it) with which they had treated their allies, there is nothing so designed to forge resentment as gratitude.
Did I enjoy the book? It is one of those books that I enjoy having read and so I enjoyed finishing it. I found out why no-one else has bothered to write about this crucial part of European – and world - history. It is very detailed and interspersed as it is with the detailed descriptions of the partying and personal relationships, it might be perceived as complex.
But I was pleased that I persevered with it. The final chapter begins with a telling quotation written by one of the principal negotiators. “Never have the expectations of the general public been as excited as they were before the opening of this solemn assembly. People were confident of a general reform of the political system of Europe, of a guarantee of eternal peace, even of the return of the golden age. Yet it produced only restitutions decided beforehand by force of arms, arrangements between the great powers unfavourable to the future balance and the maintenance of peace in Europe, and some quite arbitrary rearrangements in the possessions of the lesser states, but not one act of a more elevated character, not one measure of public order or security which might compensate humanity for any part of its long sufferings or reassure it as to the future.”
This is why it has not been written about before. It was a missed opportunity, turgid and useless, an attempt to stuff the genie back into the bottle. As there were no rules or constitution, it became a procedural shambles where only might was right. Many lesser states were still smarting from the outcome decades later, and in Switzerland there were even in 1965 public demonstrations against one of the outcomes of the Congress of Vienna. There were thousands of petty nobility and private individuals who never received justice. Even at the time there were few defenders of the outcome of the Congress, now a byword for injustice, incompetence, intrigue and disreputable practice.
Lately joining those few, the most vigorous defender of the Congress has been Henry Kissinger, in his doctoral thesis of 1957. He argued that Europe needed a new legitimacy to replace that destroyed by the French Revolution and by Napoleon and that the new legitimacy of the Congress provoked a peace lasting for a hundred years. But this view does not stand up to scrutiny. There were many wars in the 19th century: in Spain, Italy and Greece in the 20s, in Belgium and Poland in the 30s, civil wars in Spain and Portugal, and a near civil war in Switzerland. The Crimean War, the France – Sardinia war of 1859; Denmark, Prussia and Austria 1866; France - Prussia 1870; Britain´s stand-off with Russia in The Great Game in central Asia and this is not counting the 72 separate campaigns of Queen Victoria´s Empire. The work of the Congress did not survive the fall of the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1830, revolt against Dutch rule in Brussels and the November revolution in Warsaw. The two most cherished of the Congress outcomes had vanished – Alexander´s autonomous Kingdom of Poland and Britain´s barrier against the French in the Low Countries. The year of the revolutions (1848) saw the German solution and the Austrians´ position in Italy completely unravelled; and of course the nephew of the ogre became Emperor of France in 1852.
Neither did the legitimacy that Kissinger proposes exist at all. The great powers had arranged things to their own pattern and benefit with no regard to any of the minor powers let alone public opinion. Any change promoted by the lower classes in any European country was expressly likened to disease and other healthy powers had the duty to interfere and prevent such change. There was on the other hand no restraint on the powers of any of the absolutist rulers. The upshot was that any political change had to be outside the agreements and therefore by violent revolution. The Congress alienated anyone who had the remotest sympathy with liberalism or revolutionary ideas, which included most of the educated people in Europe. After the fall of the Bastille and during the reign of Napoleon I, many had felt that there was scope for radical change in Europe, and so when the English radical William Hazlitt heard of the outcome of Waterloo, he opened a bottle not to celebrate but to drown his sorrows. The statesmen who represented the powers totally disregarded the emergent force of nationalism, when this new force released after the French Revolution should have been plain even to the dullest of them.
While Britain and Russia could indulge their appetites at imperial expansion, Austria was left in a state of impending dissolution; Prussia needing a war to round off her territories; while France, left resentful and requiring to right the wrongs done to her, tried her luck again in 1859, in 1870 and 1914.
Just before and during the Congress, the Chief of Police in Vienna, Hager, set up a most intricate secret police machine, and it is largely from the records of the observations made by them that this book has been constructed. The secret police with all its snooping and opening of letters is one of the least likable bequests to the world of an unlikable Congress, and its spawn in Prussia, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are a blight on the history of the world. The institutionalized repression of the reimposed ancien régime even made for some people a hero out of Napoleon I.
One of the few amusing comments which stands out concerns the death of Napoleon (at the end of May, 1821). When the messenger announced to the new king of Great Britain, George IV, “Sire, I have to tell you that your greatest enemy is dead!”, King George, whose attention was quite absorbed with the difficulties concerning his unruly queen, responded “No! By God, is she?”
Could they have done better at Vienna? There is no law which says that if they had done the reverse that the outcome would have been better. Although the outcomes of the negotiations were transitory, the Congress of Vienna was a watershed in attempting a new way of settling international affairs, and international conference has now “become part of the furniture of world affairs”. It may be that the first attempt of its kind was necessarily flawed, and that it was an essential first step in a learning process.
There are no chestnuts in this book, old, hoary or of any kind. It is all potato, and could be read and enjoyed by potato eaters anywhere.