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The Dancing Congress

Vienna 1814

by David King
Harmony, 2008

The ostentatious displays of wealth that the French Revolution had raged against was on full display as innumerable emperors, kings, and nobles came together to reorganize Europe. And yet, as the magnates of the continent gathered with their enormous fortunes and enormous egos, no indulgence could be excessive enough nor any banquet magnificent enough to help this assemblage step out from beneath the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte or forget the man to whom they had collectively groveled, not so very long ago.

One may look high and low throughout history and be hard pressed to find a man as exciting, complicated, devilish, and brilliant as Bonaparte. He is one of the select few who can not only claim to have changed the world he lived in but also that which followed him. Such people are often controversial and polarizing, and it should come as no surprise that historians usually break into two camps concerning Napoleon: tragic hero or bloodstained tyrant. But whether one sees him as a latter-day Alexander the Great or as a Genghis Khan, the one thing nobody writing about the early 19th century can do is ignore him. Many of the rulers meeting in Vienna in 1814 knew him personally, either as a former conqueror, ally, or family member (he was Austrian Emperor Francis’ son-in-law) who had since the mid-1790’s shaken Europe to its core. Setting the stage for his new history, Vienna 1814, David King describes the state of world at the Congress’s outset:

The suffering had been immense – a terrible ordeal that ruined states, wrecked economies, and ravaged families. As many as 5 million people were dead, and many more had been permanently or seriously disabled. Entire villages had been wiped off the map. Lands had been devastated, laws trammeled, and atrocities committed on a horrific scale.

Bonaparte’s defeat at Leipzig earlier that spring at the hands of the sixth coalition of nations brought against him and his subsequent abdication in the Treaty of Fontainebleau had given Europe its most promising prospects of peace in decades. Those gathered that fall in Vienna hoped to capitalize on the rare opportunity to make peace the perpetual condition of mankind. However, King observes, the attendees’ motivations weren’t all so altruistic or high minded:

Such were the distinguished and worldly leaders who would come together for the unforgettable nine-month drama of the Vienna Congress – the greatest and most lavish party in history. They would plot, scheme, jockey for position, and, in short, infuriate each other as the competed in affairs of state and the heart. One participant, the young songwriter Count Auguste de La Garde-Chambonas, described the spectacle:

A kingdom was cut into bits or enlarged at a ball; an indemnity was granted in the course of a dinner; a constitution was planned during a hunt… Everyone was engrossed with pleasure.

Or as the Prince de Ligne, an attendee at the conference, wryly quipped, “the congress does not move forward, it dances.”

Calling this series of meetings a congress may be misleading, since at no time did a body of delegates ever sit in any type of formal session. Very early on, those nations that had led the fight against Bonaparte and bankrolled his downfall, the Great Powers (Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Austria) claimed all decision-making power as their own and agreed that they, like the modern day UN Security Council, would act virtually unilaterally in all things, redrawing borders, re-instituting or deposing sovereigns as they pleased. Eventually Prince Talleyrand, the wily survivor and French ambassador representing the restored Bourbon monarchy, succeeded in engineering his country’s inclusion among the Great Powers by threatening a revolt of the smaller, excluded states (whom he shortly thereafter abandoned in any case). Throughout the Congress, representatives of these smaller nations would be reduced to lobbying their betters at salons and dinner parties; inglorious, perhaps, but at least there was ample opportunity.

Throughout the book, King shepherds the reader through a wide variety of competing personalities and agendas, the sheer volume of which makes this is no mean feat; the Congress’s attendance sheet reads like a list of early 19th century Europe’s who’s-who. However, most of his focus falls on a few important movers and shakers: the host, Austrian Emperor Francis, along with his chief minister, the renowned diplomat Prince Metternich – the titular President of this so-called Congress. Talleyrand we’ve already encountered, while the unpredictable Tsar Alexander and the Duke of Wellington (a late arrival) also added their celebrity to the proceedings. The gravitas of that fall’s visitors to Vienna certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the locals, as this excerpt conveys:

Catering to the whims of their houseguests for an uncertain length of time would sometimes be exasperation. Vienna wits soon put these difficulties in perspective, while also poking fun at the early impressions made by the celebrated guests who would so readily accept Emperor Francis’s generosity:

The Emperor of Russia: He makes love for everyone.
The King of Prussia: He thinks for everyone.
The King of Denmark: He speaks for everyone.
The King of Bavaria: He drinks for everyone.
The King of Wurttemberg: He eats for everyone.
The Emperor of Austria: He pays for everyone.

The bill for hosting a nine month party, packed with gaudy spectacles designed to dazzle those accustomed to dazzling spectacles is not something I’d like to be handed when the festivities were over. Here King is able to give the reader a taste of these regularly, lavish banquets:

The waiters, a ‘broad and noisy phalanx,’ struggled with the ‘murderous crush’ of the masked guests and gate-crashers. It is not know what exactly the Festivals Committee served that night, but a catering record survives for a similar grand ball for the same number of guests at the congress that called for some 300 hams, 200 partridges, 200 pigeons, 150 pheasants, 60 hares, 48 boeuf a la mode, 40 rabbits, 20 large white young turkeys, and 12 ‘medium-sized wild boar.’ Among many other things, there was also an assortment of roasted, baked, and cold meats, and other delicacies, including 600 pickled and salted tongues.
The Confectionary supplied a range of pies and pastries, as well as almond, pistachio, chocolate, Seville orange, and French puff pastry gateaux. There were between 2,500 and 3,000 liters of olla soup, 2,500 assorted biscuits, 1,000 Mandl-Wandl (oval-shaped pastries with an almond filling), 60 Gugelhpf (sponge cakes), and other cakes and sweets. Almond milk, lemonade, chocolate, tea and many kinds of wine were also available, including Tokay and Meneser. Filling the empty wine-glasses and replenishing the dishes on the buffet tables must have seemed a never-ending task.

With the wine freely flowing the reader can get a feel for the infectious spirit of this scene and can easily imagine the hardy laughter that would surely fill such a room. To his credit, David King is able to infuse Vienna 1814 with the cheer and humor that is so often missing in historical writing. This is a breath of fresh air because those aspects of humanity are the soundest common link we share with our ancestors. In this history King is able to capture society’s love of witty repartee, of irony, and of sharing juicy gossip, all of which is immediately recognizable to the modern funny bone. Here he relays a salon favorite,

One member of the British embassy, Ambassador Lord Stewart, had already gotten involved in a traffic dispute with the driver of another carriage…The event made the round is Vienna’s salons. According to one rumor, the British ambassador almost ended up tossing the coachman into the Danube. Police agents also followed the case, though they learned that it was actually the coachman who was close to pummeling the ambassador.

What had happened was that after the near accident, Lord Stewart, who had apparently “emptied some bottles of Bordeaux” shouted obscenities, clinched his fists, boasted at his record as a boxer, and challenged the other man to a fistfight. The cabdriver, who evidently did not understand English, grabbed the whip and cracked him in the face. Bystanders broke up the scuffle, and police arrived on the scene before in turned worse, though the officers refused at first to believe that the loud drunk was really a high-ranking member of the British delegation.

Despite the debauched and carefree face of the conference, it also possessed a sober and austere side. For instance, there was the pervasive police presence in Vienna and not just to ensure the security of the visiting sovereigns. The Austrian police files are an interesting source King uses throughout the book that illustrates the often limited trust the Great Powers had in each other. According to King, during his reign, Emperor Francis’ had increased the “the cloak-and-dagger budget by a staggering 500 percent.” Spies were everywhere during the conference, reporting on everything. In this passage King is able to use police dossiers to reconstruct a day (or more accurately, a night) in the life of an Austrian agent:

After a night at the theater, Agent ** [this is how the agent is identified in police files; his true identity is lost to history] paid a visit to the tsar’s physician, always a good source for understanding the mood of the Russian embassy, and then he topped it off at a palace ball. Afterwards, he went from “one salon to another” in search of entertainment and information, arriving back home at five in the morning.

As Agent ** circulated in high society, or tried to catch a carriage ride with someone well placed, other agents were finding valuable information in the taverns and restaurants. The delicatessen Jean de Paris on Herrengasse was on popular place to swap gossip as the guests “titillated their palate and ruined their stomach.” Spies also continued their work posing as servants, or purchasing information from them. Chambermaids, footmen, porters, and coachmen remained the eyes and ears of the Austrian police.

Other stresses further hindered progress and cultivated disunity between the delegates – “leaders were bickering over who entered or left a room first, who sat where at a dinner, who signed a document first.” Protocol and the honor the era tied to precedence was a sticky issue between kings, emperors, and those representing them. King gives us another laughable, although admittedly untrue, example by telling how Metternich supposedly had several extra doors cut into his office so disputes of this kind could be settled by the parties leaving at the same time.

More substantive disputes also caused the proceedings to bog down. Poland and the Kingdom of Saxony emerged as the “aching tooth” of the Congress. Russia desired a Polish puppet state to act as a buffer with Western Europe, while Prussia coveted the geographically connected territory of Saxony. Since their interests entwined, the Prussian King and the Russian Tsar agreed to support each other to attain these ends. The problems were that (A) the King of Saxony, languishing in a Prussian prison, refused to yield his territory and (B) even if he had consented, France and Austria were too wary of Prussia rising as a central European power to allow it. At the same time, although Great Britain desired to check future French ambition by creating an “iron ring” that included a strong, but not overly so, Prussia, it shared French and Austrian worries that a Russian dominated Poland and a cozy Russo-Prussian relationship would upset the balance of power in Europe. The result was a tense stalemate: France, Britain, and Austria on one side, secretly formed a pact, pledging to go to war in order to stop Russo-Prussian ambitions, while those two powers indicated that since their armies already occupied the territory in question, they would simply declare it so, challenging the other three to do something about it. The peace conference seemed poised to implode, and King reminds us that despite the gaiety of the nightlife, hard work was needed to avoid war:

They danced, of course, but they also carried substantial workloads. In an attempt to reach an agreement in early February, Castlereagh (a British representative) was toiling “day and night.” Prussia’s Hardenberg was working himself to exhaustion, often collapsing in his chair, falling asleep at his desk, and, at times, breaking down into tears. Metternich, too, felt glued to his desk, “like a convict on his chain.”


Klemens Wenzel von Metternich
by Thomas Lawrence (1773-1859)
It’s impossible to say how frail and tentative the agreements they hammered out may have proven, given how frustrated the allies had become with one another, if something incredible not just then happened.Like a thunderclap, the news struck Vienna that Bonaparte had escaped Elba and returned to France. As he marched for Paris, Bourbon flags were struck and tri-colors unfurled, and the monarchs of Europe could again imagine they heard La Marseillaise floating upon the winds, reminding them what it was to be afraid. The forces Louis XVIII sent against Bonaparte seemed to melt away, as they did in this scene recounted by King, which just so happens to be one of my favorite moments in recorded history:

The commander had orders to stop ‘Bonaparte’s brigands,’ and he was determined to obey. Napoleon’s army approached, led by his Polish lancers and the Old Guard…Napoleon himself rode to the front of his troops, dismounted, and advanced straight ahead in line of fire of the king’s solders. “There he is, fire,” the royalist commander ordered. Napoleon then shouted, “Soldiers of the fifth [regiment], I am your Emperor. If there is any one among you who would kill his Emperor,” Napoleon continued as he opened his greatcoat, “here I am.” The tense silence was broken with the shouts, “Vive l’Empereur!” the soldiers deserted and joined him.

By March 20, 1815, just 23 days after coming ashore, Napoleon Bonaparte once again controlled France. He hadn’t needed to fire a shot.

Unfortunately for him, he was unlucky in his timing. Had he known how close the Congress was to adjourning and the scramble that would follow when the many sovereigns and plenipotentiaries retired to their distant corners of the continent, he undoubtedly would have waited. A month later and opposition would have been much less organized. As it was, the allies’ fear of him as a shared common enemy proved to be just the tonic the frazzled Congress needed to unify them. The fact that the monarchs were still in close proximity with one another, several in the same palace, and could easily meet to coordinate was a fatal disadvantage for Bonaparte. Here King lays out how easily the seventh coalition came together:

About half past seven, he [Metternich] gave up his tossing and turning, and opened the dispatch. It was a letter that he would never forget. The commissioner on Elba, Neil Campbell, reported that Napoleon was nowhere to be found… The Austrian foreign minister sprang out of bed, threw on his clothes, and raced over to the Hofburg to inform Emperor Francis. By eight in the morning, they were deep in discussion… He had a meeting with the tsar over in the Amalia wing of the palace at 8:15 and then hurried across the inner court to meet with the king of Prussia. By nine that morning, he was back at the Chancellery for a meeting with Austrian field marshal Prince Schwarzenberg. “It was in less than an hour,” he boasted with some exaggeration, “that war was declared.”

Events came to a head on June 6, 1815, near Waterloo in modern Belgium, where Bonaparte, hoping to dissuade further efforts to organize against him, threw the dice one more time, and chose to offer battle. Here King does some of his finest work, constructing a gripping account of one of the most important battles in Western history, fully encompassing the high drama of the moment without burdening it with dry, unwieldy military jargon.

By this point in Vienna 1814 however, the reader will hardly be surprised by that fact, since King’s engaging and entertaining reconstructions of the frivolity and opulence of Romantic society proves to be his strong suit throughout the work. He walks us through a playground for the super rich, and his description keeps fresh what a less skilled wordsmith might have allowed it to stagnate. King presents an enthusiastic recounting of an age that may be disregarded by scholars as unimportant because the book lacks earth-shattering revelations or controversial new theories. However, his mission in this history is not to analyze the adroitness of the diplomacy employed at the Congress but rather the humanity of the diplomats themselves: their affairs – their stresses – their duplicity – their optimism and in this he is triumphant.

Its best that his goals are confined to that end because it’s the enjoyable tour of the age that makes Vienna 1814 worthy and recommended reading. However, in his epilogue, as soon as he reaches for more and tries to lay out the Congress’ legacy, I feel he stumbles. There he begins harmlessly enough, listing some of the meeting’s enduring accomplishments: the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland, for instance, or the early condemnation of slavery. The basis for the unification of Germany as well as that of international law and modernly recognizable protocol for an international body can all be laid at the Congress’ door.

But then, the closest he can bring himself to criticizing the Congress is the recognition that the Great Powers largely acted out of self interest, or as a Spanish participant put it, “the big fish devour the small.” King’s judgments on the Congress are so overwhelming positive that he fails to see that overall it was a reactionary, regressive steamroller that foolishly sought to put the genie back in the bottle, wishing to reverse the democratic and nationalistic forces unleashed by the French and American Revolutions. The Congress’ choice to prop up dynastic empires over foreign populations would ultimately clash with those impulses that now coursed throughout Europe and the world. King calls such observations “anachronistic”: I call it not seeing the forest for the trees. He believes nationalism to be irrelevant in this era, given false importance by later historians writing in an age where those sentiments ran hotter, yet in his own epilogue he records incidents that refute that conclusion. King alludes to attempted revolutions to establish a republic in Spain in the 1820’s as well as South America’s wars for independence, led by Simon Bolivar. He acknowledges that Polish passions for a truly independent nation-state led to a doomed revolt in 1830, the same year that France overthrew a Bourbon monarch for the third time. A year later Belgium broke away from the Kingdom of the Netherlands establishing itself as an independent state, just as Greece was in the process of doing the same. For reasons unbeknownst to me, instead of connecting the dots, King offhandedly dismisses these events as some of the loose ends the Congress failed to tie up.

In his conclusion he states, “most important, the congress established peace – a genuine peace that lasted much longer than any of the delegates would have imagined…it is significant that no conflict would actually explode and drag all the Great Powers to war for a full one hundred years.” Whatever short term stability resulted from the Congress can be attributed to the Great Powers agreement to intervene in a state’s domestic politics in order to resist, as King puts it, “revolutionary or illegal changes to the peace settlement,” and “pledged to use force, if necessary, to defeat any such challenge.” This frustration of popular, nationalistic expression can hardly be characterized as a “genuine peace,” since its clear that enough disaffection persisted in order to fuel insurrections against the imposed order throughout the subsequent decades. Instead of opening up avenues for the peaceful emergence of constitutional governments, the Congress of Vienna tried to eradicate the volatile forces of liberty, but only succeeded in placing them under high pressure, making them all the more dangerous. This nursed a viper in the bosom of Europe which would lead to larger more destructive conflagrations in the twentieth century and bloodier, more violent revolutions. This is my greatest critique of King’s work and one that I doubt he would have expected and one which he may have hoped to sidestep. Nonetheless, his failure to adequately address or refute this argument does not make it go away. Therefore it remains, the darkness belying the gilded aesthetic of the dancing Congress.

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Thomas J. Daly graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Rowan University in New Jersey. He dreams of one day hosting his own program on the History Channel.