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The Congress of Vienna
By 1814, the European nations had suffered severe consequences from the horrific Napoleonic Wars and other conflicts. During Napoleon’s first exile, a meeting of European leaders gathered in Vienna, Austria to forge a new Europe. Austria’s Klemens von Metternich (1773-1858) led the meeting. The goal was to restructure the political map of Europe and bring stability to the continent. Other leaders present were Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord of France (1754-1838), Robert Steward of Britain (1769-1822), and Czar Alexander the 1st of Russia (1777-1825).
The French Revolution and other movements argued for freedoms, like the freedom of speech, representative governments, and an end to monarchies. Yet, Metternich and others argued these movements simply led to chaos, mob rule, and a plague of violence throughout Europe. Metternich argued that a return to absolute monarchies would create stability. He asserted this system would halt more revolutions and wars from manifesting in the future.
Conservative Reactionaries were those who felt the remedy to cure the problems that came from the Enlightenment Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars was to return to the old system of absolute monarchies. Liberals were those who felt that, despite the chaos that came from the movement, the Enlightenment’s priorities of individual rights, representative governments, and the like should be a part of Europe’s future. While Conservatives and Liberals differed on these areas, one thing most nations agreed on was steps should be taken to ensure France never tried to conquer all of Europe again.
The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had devastated Europe. The Congress of Vienna did not want severely to punish France for fear of antagonizing the nation to pursue future conflicts. Yet, the Congress wanted deliberately to take steps to ensure France was never positioned to try and conquer Europe again. One major step toward this endeavor was creating buffer states that bordered France and could challenge the nation, if it expanded again. The buffer states included a stronger Kingdom of the Netherlands, several areas in the German Confederation combined as a group, and a renewed independent Switzerland. This new political map of Europe looked more like Europe did before the Napoleonic Wars.
The Conservatives wanted to restore the past monarchies. By in large, they did so. Yet, the power each nation gave to their monarchs differed from nation to nation. For instance, the Enlightenment desire to restrict the power of monarchs could not be stopped in Britain in France. In these nations, Constitutional Monarchies were formed. This meant the monarchs had to share power with legislative leaders and were limited in power by constitutions. Austria, Prussia, Russia, and others took a conservative approach and restored absolute monarchs. While Britain and France took a more liberal route, all nations recognized the monarchs of each area as authentic and deserving of power, a practice called legitimacy.
Austria, Prussia, and Russia had each taken a conservative route with absolute monarchs. They formed a group called the Holy Alliance. This group championed a Christian religious identity and the old system of absolute monarchs. While Britain and France had taken a more liberal path by establishing Constitutional Monarchies, all nations faced the risk of revolutions rising up again. To protect themselves from future revolutions, the Concert of Europe was formed between the nations that had various monarchies. They asserted that, if revolution broke out again, in any area, they would unite to crush the rebellion.
In the absence of Napoleon, the brother of King Louis the 16th, Louis the 18th, took control of France. Yet, many feared this would usher in the old institutions that were challenged by the Enlightenment, such as absolute monarchies. Napoleon utilized this opportunity to assert he wanted to remove the monarchy from France to continue to the French Revolution. He returned and took power declaring himself to be emperor. The members of the Congress of Vienna pledged to stop Napoleon and refused to allow him to regain power.
Furious that he had escaped his exile, Britain launched an invasion of mainland Europe. At a village in Belgium called Waterloo, they attacked Napoleon’s forces. At the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, to help Britain, the Prussians also invaded. Napoleon was eventually defeated and had to give up power. Once again, Napoleon was exiled, this time to St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. His rule had brought with it the deaths of millions and horrific wars that plagued the European people. He died in exile and never again was able to gain power in Europe.
Some areas in Europe were left not controlling their own nations, because they had massive foreign control of their area too. This led to nationalistic desires of autonomy for people groups like the Greeks, Poles, and others. To further protect themselves from nationalistic uprisings, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia formed the Quadruple Alliance. They agreed to put down any nationalistic uprisings, never allow Napoleon to regain power, and uphold the declarations of the Congress of Vienna. This group met periodically to discuss the security of Europe and determine if the plans of the Congress of Vienna were being carried out. This group became official in November of 1815, partially as a reaction to Napoleon’s last attempt for power.
The Congress of Vienna, for the most part, did achieve the security it desired. Yet, this did not stop future rebellions that championed independence and the implementation of Enlightenment ideals. For instance, the Greeks tried to rebel against the Ottoman Empire control of their nation. Outside of Europe, many of the Spanish Colonies in the Western Hemisphere rebelled against Spain. These areas did eventually win their independence. However, generally, stability was achieved between the most powerful nations of Europe lasting all the way until the mid-1800s, when the Crimean War started in 1853 against Russia.