A Brief History of the Congress of Vienna

   The delegates at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) were motivated to a surprisingly large degree by the desire to benefit Europe as a whole, and this is reflected in their purpose in calling the Congress together and the settlement they reached. National interest was modified for the sake of the general interest of Europe.

    The Congress of Vienna was held in order to draw up a plan to alter Europe politically and territorially so as to prevent the extensive expansion of any one great power, such as that Napoleon had brought about. Creating a balance of power among the powerful nations of Europe, reinstating conservative regimes, containing France, and reaching an agreement to cooperate with each other were the goals of the Congress, which illustrated the altruistic attitude of the national representatives present and supported the overall purpose of preventing future widespread conflict.

    Although the separate ambitions of the victors at the Congress to gain territory were mostly fueled by naked self- interest, they were forced to compromise in order to establish a balance of power. Alexander I of Russia felt the nation was owed all of Poland while Prussia had designs on Saxony. In the final settlement, however, Russia had to share claim to Poland with Austria and Prussia, and Prussia received only half of Saxony with additional territories in the Rhineland as compensation. In this way, national interest was modified for the sake of maintaining the balance of power, which was in the general interest of Europe.

    Besides the fact that the final settlement at the Congress of Vienna allotted the territory Napoleon had conquered to the victors in such a way as to prevent any one of them from becoming too powerful, the spoils were distributed in order to create a buffer against France. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed, Prussia acquired part of the Rhineland, Switzerland regained independence and the right to neutrality, and Austria dominated Northern Italy according to the terms of the settlement, leaving France boxed in and unable to assert itself. Due to the influence of Prince Talleyrand, France received no punishment more severe than containment, and this benefited Europe in that it kept France from becoming too weak and destroying the balance of power.

    In addition to creating a balance of power and containing France, the final settlement at Vienna demonstrated altruistic designs for Europe in that the Concert of Europe was organized. This was the first international group to attempt to deal with European affairs, the main purpose of the Concert being to preserve the balance of power and protect conservative governments from being overthrown.

    The fact that the Congress of Vienna was conducted with the aim of preventing universal war, which led to proposals of creating a balance of power, establishing "better" conservative governments, containing France and cooperation between the great powers to meet these ends clearly demonstrates that the welfare of all of Europe was a relevant concern. After much deliberation, the delegates succeeded in creating a final settlement which adjusted the selfish goals of the individual nations to acquire large expanses of territory to support the balance of power. The containment of France and the formation of the Concert of Europe were two other aspects of the settlement which maintained the balance of power, thus promoting the good of Europe.


One month before the defeat of Napoleon in April, 1814, his four major adversaries (Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia) had agreed in the Treaty of Chaumont (March 10, 1814) to remain allied until final victory and then to hold a general European congress to secure the peace. In signing the First Peace of Paris on May 30, 1814, with the restored Bourbon monarchy of France, the four great powers reaffirmed their intention to hold such a congress at Vienna. From beginning to end, the Congress of Vienna remained almost exclusively a congress of the great powers, the smaller states being summoned to participate only in the discussion of minor matters which pertained to them individually. A plenary session of all the powers was never held.

The problem of the organizational relationship between the great and the small powers which plagued the diplomats throughout the opening months of the Congress, was soon overshadowed by a serious dispute within the ranks of the Allies concerning Poland. From the beginning of the first informal discussions in Vienna on September 15, 1814, Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia could not agree on the partition of the Polish territory. Tsar Alexander I of Russia had been determined for some time to reconstitute the former Polish state as a Russian dependency. Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, the Chancellor of Prussia, agreed to surrender to Alexander the Polish lands which Prussia had acquired in the eighteenth century if the Tsar would support the Hohenzollern claim to the whole of Saxony. Prince Metternich, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Viscount Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, naturally regarded the Russian and Prussian demands as a serious threat to the balance of power. Above all, Russia would move deeper into Europe than ever before.

The dispute within the Allied camp was particularly welcomed by Talleyrand, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, who for some time had been seeking a voice for France at the Congress of Vienna. He now had his opportunity. In December, 1814, he broached a compromise plan to Castlereagh and Metternich under which Russia would be offered a reduced Poland, and Prussia, a reduced Saxony with some territory in the Rhineland. If Russia and Prussia proved to be slow in accepting the compromise, Talleyrand offered a plan whereby Austria and Great Britain would ally and resist, by force if necessary, the Russo-Prussian stand. Such an alliance, in fact, came into existence on January 3, 1815, but it never had to mobilize its forces because Prussia and Russia decided to accept a compromise solution based on Talleyrand’s suggestion.

In an agreement signed on February 11, Poland was repartitioned among Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Prussia received in addition only two-fifths of Saxony, but by way of compensation annexed parts of both the Rhineland and Westphalia. As part of the same agreement, Austria acquired Salzburg, the Tyrol, and territory along the Dalmatian (or Illyrian) coastline. Talleyrand’s solution to the Polish question thus enabled the Allies to heal the breach in their ranks; his diplomacy, moreover, earned for France a greater role at the Congress than it had before, at least until Napoleon’s temporary resumption of power in March, 1815.

Despite their preoccupation with Napoleon during the Hundred Days in the spring of 1815, the Allies and the lesser powers met on June 9 to sign the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna. This treaty encompassed previously concluded bilateral agreements and other measures, together with new arrangements worked out in the Congress itself. Most of the provisions of the Final Act can be subordinated under the headings of “Legitimacy,” “Security,” and “Compensation,” which were the three major principles that dominated the Congress. “Legitimacy” involved the restoration of dynasties deposed during the Napoleonic period, among which were the restoration of Bourbon lines to the thrones of France, Spain, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the House of Orange to the throne of Holland.

    Under the principle of “Security,” the states near or adjacent to France were enlarged to forestall any possible future aggression on the part of that country. Thus Holland received the old Austrian Netherlands; Prussia, as mentioned above, obtained Rhenish and Westphalian territories; and Switzerland was perpetually neutralized and assigned three additional cantons on the French frontier.

    Finally, the principle of “Compensation,” besides embracing the territorial provisions made under “Security,” included Russia’s acquisition of Finland from Sweden, which received Norway from Napoleon’s staunch ally Denmark. Great Britain was compensated with Malta, Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope colony, and Dutch Guiana, among other territories. Austria obtained Salzburg, the Tyrol, the Italian lands of Lombardy and Venetia and districts along the Dalmatian coast. These lands, together with the accession of lesser Hapsburg princedoms in the smaller northcentral Italian states, compensated Austria for the surrender of the southern Netherlands to Holland.

The only major part of the settlement which did not fall within the principles enumerated above was the disposition of the Germanies. In place of the old Holy Roman Empire, which had come to an end in 1806, the Allies established a confederation of some thirty-nine states under the presidency of Austria. The Diet of the German Confederation was composed of diplomats speaking on behalf of their rulers, not of popularly elected representatives. The tradition of disunified German states over which Austria predominated was preserved well into the nineteenth century.

The Vienna settlement brought about the restoration of a conservative order in Europe. To preserve the arrangement, Austria, Great Britain, Russia, and Prussia signed the Quadruple Alliance later in 1815 to establish the Concert of Europe. They were joined by France in 1818. The Concert of Europe sought to preserve the Vienna settlement for at least twenty years through periodic conferences (several of which were held between 1818 and 1822) to deal with liberalist-nationalist challenges to the settlement in Greece, Spain, and the Italies. In the long run these and similar challenges resulted in the dissolution of the Vienna settlement and the end of the Concert of Europe.


The Second Peace of Paris was the final peace treaty made between France and the victorious Allies after the final defeat of Napoleon. It was part of the general settlement made by the Congress of Vienna and can only be understood in relation to that conference. The participants were the same at both conferences, but the Second Peace of Paris was made after the settlement at Vienna. The Second Peace of Paris was also linked to negotiations leading to the Quadruple Alliance, and both agreements were signed on the same day.

The First Peace of Paris consisted of a group of seven treaties which had been signed on May 30, 1814, by the restored French government of the restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, and each of the seven belligerent powers: Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain, Sweden, and Portugal. Basically generous in its terms, this treaty had given to France its boundaries as they had been in existence in 1792 together with some frontier districts and enclaves which added some 450,000 people and 150 square miles. France also regained most of its colonies, except Tobago, St. Lucia, and Mauritius, which had been seized by the British. French posts in India were restored, though without sovereign rights, and France promised to abolish the slave trade in French colonies within five years. No indemnity was imposed, and France was even allowed to keep works of art taken by Napoleon from other countries. This treaty also contained articles which united Flanders to Holland and Genoa to Piedmont as buffer states against possible French expansion.

While delegates to the Congress of Vienna were debating the territorial divisions of Europe, however, Napoleon returned to France from Elba on March 1, 1815. The French army and people rallied to his cause, and the restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, fled into exile once again. Napoleon was soundly defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 by an Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington, ably assisted by a Prussian army under General Blücher. Napoleon’s second period of rule, the Hundred Days, came to an end. He surrendered to the British, who imprisoned him first in England and then on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

Napoleon’s return necessitated a new and harsher peace treaty, since the French nation had broken the First Peace of Paris and again waged war. The fact that only the British and Prussian armies had been responsible for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and that they were the first to occupy France gave these two nations added bargaining power. Louis XVIII was restored once again to the French throne, and Talleyrand was made prime minister of France, but the French were to a large extent excluded from the negotiations taking place at Vienna. The smaller powers played no significant role.

The bargaining extended over a period of four months because Prussia desired a harsh treaty. The misconduct of Prussian soldiers toward the French people also led to friction and objections from Wellington and the British. Some of the smaller German states and the Netherlands supported the Prussian demands. Although Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, Chancellor of Prussia, favored moderation, the Prussian generals largely overrode his influence. The Prussian military sought a large indemnity and the acquisition of Alsace, Lorraine, French Flanders, and Savoy, as well as the return of works of art stolen by Napoleon.

Metternich, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, followed a somewhat hesitant course. He had to tread carefully because of hostile popular opinion in Austria. He may also have been not unwilling to shift his position in order to gain territorial advantages for Austria. His secretary, Friedrich von Gentz, was basically sympathetic to the policies of Viscount Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, and a moderate peace. Tsar Alexander I of Russia remained firmly opposed to any changes except for his endorsement of a moderate indemnity.   Castlereagh and Wellington agreed essentially with Alexander, but they were subjected to counterpressures from British influences at home, where the press, public opinion, the Prince Regent, the Prime Minister (Lord Liverpool), and the Cabinet all sought more punishment for France. There was considerable agitation for the punishment of French military leaders such as Marshal Ney and political leaders such as Fouché who had joined Napoleon after his return from Elba. The arrest and subsequent execution of Marshal Ney tended to quiet the public outcry in Great Britain for punishment.

Castlereagh succeeded in convincing Lord Liverpool and his Cabinet that his policy of “security, not revenge,” was the correct one to follow. He pointed out that a vengeful peace would lead to further French attempts to regain lost territory, and that France should be kept strong and friendly as a possible future ally. As security against possible French expansion he proposed the temporary occupation of France, some minor frontier adjustments, and the dismantling of certain French forts. He also proposed a moderate indemnity and the return of works of art. Metternich agreed basically with Castlereagh, and Alexander was persuaded without undue difficulty to accept this compromise. The Prussians found themselves alone and gave way. Talleyrand, however, would not accept this arrangement, and he resigned. Louis XVIII replaced him with Armand Emmanuel du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, who signed the treaty after obtaining a few minor concessions.

The territorial provisions of the Second Peace of Paris were based on the boundaries of France as they had existed in 1790. Compared to the earlier treaty, this second one took away a small area on the Netherlands frontier, part of the Saar in Germany (including the forts of Saarlouis and Landau which went to Prussia), and part of Savoy (which went to Piedmont). The fortress of Huningen near Basel was demolished. The colonial provisions remained the same as in the first treaty. An indemnity of seven hundred million francs (about 125 million dollars) was awarded to the Allies and 240 million francs were awarded to private creditors. France also had to pay for the upkeep of the Allied Army of Occupation in northern France under Wellington. Some of the art treasures taken by Napoleon were returned to their original owners. The signing of the treaty took place on November 20, 1815.

    Although the Second Peace of Paris was harsher than the first treaty, it was still a comparatively generous peace. The indemnity and occupation payments were not as heavy as they probably should have been, for France itself had suffered little devastation from the Napoleonic Wars. Since French boundaries were restored as they had existed in 1790, France lost little land and even retained a few minor acquisitions. Few defeated nations had ever received such easy terms. Perhaps such leniency may be ascribed to its being the final product of eighteenth century balance-of-power diplomacy rather than the approaching emotional and vengeful nationalistic diplomacy. The decisions made were probably wise, in view of the fact that France did not attempt to expand or regain territory, and soon became part of the European system again.