On the eve of his invasion of Russia in 1812, the French military commander and emperor Napoleon was notionally at the height of his power, presiding over an empire of 130 departments and 70 million people, but ominous cracks were already appearing in his imperium. From 1811, France experienced a prolonged economic crisis exacerbated by Britain’s economic blockade, poor harvests and the collapse of French textiles and banking industries. While Napoleon abhorred feudalism, he practised wholesale nepotism; his siblings Caroline, Jerome and Louis were either ineffective governors or actively conspired against their brother. His fraught relationship with the papacy had resulted in his excommunication, and his subsequent kidnapping and imprisonment of Pius VII.
The Coalition Fights Back
Britain, whom he dismissed as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, continued to fight Napoleon and paid European coalition members to field armies against him. Napoleon, determined to starve Britain of money and destroy its economy, implemented the Continental System: an embargo on trade with Britain, which prohibited Britain from trading with his empire and its allies. While this caused economic distress to the British economy and fomented internal discontent, it rebounded on Napoleon; the British counter-blockaded and used their naval superiority to prevent US ships from delivering goods to the continent. Napoleon’s demands for compliance with the Continental System ultimately backfired; the refusal of Portugal and Russia to cooperate triggered the Peninsular War (1807–14); Wellington’s victory at Salamanca on 22 July 1822 led to the liberation of Madrid, dashing Napoleon’s designs in Spain. Meanwhile, Russia had enraged Napoleon through its lethargic prosecution of the war with Britain and the ill-fated invasion of Russia in June 1812 precipitated the Empire’s downfall, with coalition victories against Napoleon at Leipzig (1812) and Waterloo (1815).
The years of Napoleonic upheaval and conflict, and the changing alliances, precarious regimes and shifting borders that accompanied the Emperor’s dazzling rise and fall, formed the backdrop to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna was signed on 9 June 1815, with remarkable sang-froid as Napoleon’s still to be defeated army was then converging on Waterloo. Fortunately, Wellington prevailed, so the preceding nine months of high diplomacy and intrigue did not go to waste, while the repercussions of Waterloo would be meted out in a subsequent second Treaty of Paris, a few months later. In 1815, Europe had endured the military domination of one power, Napoleonic France, and was determined to avert its recurrence. Even more heinous than the two decades of war instigated by the French was the threat posed to the established order by the principles of Revolutionary France and Napoleonic imperialism.
Negotiations began at the end of the summer 1814. The French were initially exiled from the ‘top table’ of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia; Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister, became a spokesmen for second-tier attendees like Portugal, Sweden and Bavaria, engineering a deterrent alliance with England and Austria against Russia, which forced Tsar Alexander to the negotiating table over Poland. Russia retained most of the Napoleonic duchy of Poland (called ‘Congress Poland’), but could not unite it with the parts of Poland Russia had already acquired in the 1790s. The Republic of Cracow, a city-republic created by the Congress of Vienna, included the city of Cracow and its surrounding area, and was controlled by Russia, Prussia and Austria. It became a centre for Polish nationalist agitation.
Prussia received the province of Posen and most of Saxony, as well as parts of the Rhineland and northwestern Germany. The new border states of the Netherlands were created as a buffer zone to France. Germany was turned into a confederation of 39 states, replacing the Holy Roman Empire, with the number of German principalities streamlined from 360 to 38. Switzerland was made into a neutral territory, while Austria was given several Alpine territories, Lombardy and the Dalmatian coast. Great Britain was given several overseas territories.
The “System of Peace”
The Congress also sought a new political system within Europe, rejecting the balance of power that had been the result of the Treaty of Utrecht a century earlier, with its opposing military alliances. The new “System of Peace” would be one multilateral power bloc in Europe, which would be maintained and upheld by a series of regular congresses (the Congress System), the first attempt to build a continent-wide order based on active cooperation between the states. This was maintained until 1853, when Russia broke ranks and moved against the Ottoman Empire, initiating the Crimean War. Nevertheless, when the League of Nations was formed a century later it kept the peace for a fraction of the time achieved by the Congress.