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Europe after Napoleon: what the Congress of Vienna meant for the coalition powers

After Napoleon’s defeat came the haggling over Europe’s future. David Andress reveals how diplomatic talks in Vienna ushered in a new authoritarian order that would change the continent forever

This caricature of those meetings depicts proceedings turning to chaos, thanks to the arrival of Napoleon – freshly escaped from his exile on Elba before 'the cake' (Europe) has even been cut
Published: May 7, 2021 at 9:25 am
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The emperor Napoleon chillingly denounced appeals to avoid renewed general war in late June 1813 with the words: “A man like me troubles himself little about the lives of a million men!” At least, that is, according to his interlocutor, Klemens von Metternich. The wily head of Austrian diplomacy, granted a private meeting with Napoleon in the Marcolini Palace in Dresden, offered this account of the emperor’s scorn in partial explanation of what was to happen next.


As late as the summer of 1813, it was not clear that the whole of Europe would unite against Napoleon. He might have lost more than half a million men in the 1812 invasion of Russia, but his bureaucrats and policemen had dredged up almost as many again from every corner of his empire, and they held firm in central Europe, far away from France.

English gold, which Napoleon continually cursed, might be sustaining a campaign in Spain and subsidising Russia and a newly belligerent Prussia, but Austria remained at least nominally an ally, and the emperor maintained the hope of bullying its ruler Francis, his father-in-law, into continued submission. Austrian diplomacy, meanwhile, driven by Metternich, secured a truce between France and the Russo-Prussian forces that lasted from early June until 10 August, and could have resulted, had the parties been willing, in a general peace.

That it did not, and that within two years Napoleon had been driven into exile twice, leaving France subjected to military occupation, and paving the way for a generation-long conservative clampdown across the continent, was largely due to the character of the emperor himself. Napoleon in 1813 was a ruthless autocrat, so sure of his own superiority that he sent a proxy without a mandate to fill a chair at Metternich’s peace-negotiations, and used the truce period to build up his forces for renewed attacks. When fighting resumed, it all went devastatingly wrong, as the bullied Austrians threw in their lot against him. At the ‘battle of Nations’ in Leipzig in October, many thousands of men died to force a long, slow retreat upon the French. Most of the emperor’s new army was consumed, more by epidemic sickness than in battle.

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One of Napoleon’s bicorne hats

In the early months of 1814, Napoleon still believed, as he had the year before, that all that mattered was a trial of strength, and he could somehow snatch victory. But his own forces were ragged remnants of glory, and his own marshals turned against him. The immediate outcome, Napoleon’s exile to Elba, was a deal between Russia’s Tsar Alexander and the turncoat French diplomat Talleyrand, leaving the defeated ruler far too close to the centre of Europe for British or Austrian tastes. Their concerns were turned aside; Alexander insisting on keeping his word as a self-defined chivalric liberator. Vengeful Prussian claims for massive compensation for years of French military occupation were similarly brushed off.

In the summer of 1814, it seemed as if France was no longer Europe’s problem. Under its restored monarchy, Napoleonic marshals, even Ney, bravest of the brave, had rediscovered ancestral Bourbon loyalties. The officer-class of the continent partied in Paris, enjoying the artistic loot Napoleon had collected from Spain, Italy and Germany, with cries for its return muted by the dazzling spectacle of it all in one place. It was elsewhere that tensions were rising.

Carving the cake

The European powers had been imagining the defeat of Napoleon for a decade. But they had never agreed on what that should mean. Britain and Russia had, for example, discussed positions in 1805 that would have left Austria and Prussia weakened and marginalised in Germany. The fate of populations in northern Italy and Poland, who had been partitioned assorted ways, in some cases several times, in the past 20 years, preoccupied both idealists, and those who cared only for power. The idea of Germany had been transformed by the destruction at Napoleon’s hands of the Holy Roman Empire and its hundreds of micro-territories and privileged lordships. Now the satellite-states that the emperor had grouped into the Rheinbund or Confederation of the Rhine was available for redistribution and reconstitution.

Some things had already been settled. Austria had signed away any claim on its Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) that France had occupied for 20 years, pushing them instead, with the former Dutch Republic, into a new Kingdom of the Netherlands to resist future French northward expansion. In return, Austria gained back territories in northern Italy, including those of the old Venetian Republic that France had encouraged it to grab in the 1790s, only to seize them for itself after Austerlitz. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, was left to enjoy his throne as King of Naples – in part, perhaps, because his wife, Napoleon’s sister Caroline, had been Metternich’s lover some years before.

The personal and the political were heavily entwined in this milieu. Tsar Alexander, despite the deep religious awakening he had experienced since Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, was also happy to accept the attentions of society hostesses – flattering or frankly amorous – as he progressed westward in the wake of his armies. The Duke of Wellington, new-minted British ambassador to the court of Louis XVIII, cut a similar swathe through Paris (as Metternich had done years earlier in a similar role), and ruffled Bonapartist feathers by taking up with Giuseppina Grassini, a famed operatic singer, and anointed mistress of the emperor.

Unsurprisingly, the diplomatic resolution of Europe’s many issues would take place in an atmosphere of fervid sexual intrigue.

Sovereigns and spies

A congress at Vienna had been agreed in the spring of 1814, in the first flush of victory. Delegates began gathering in September. Metternich had taken special care to plan for their arrival. Hundreds of new informants were recruited among servants, tradesmen and innkeepers, some of whom were specially trained in removing and replacing confidential correspondence, copying keys and all the arts of covert surveillance.
Some among the higher echelons of society volunteered to inform, while even the postal service was turned to the purpose of temporarily purloining diplomatic correspondence when its couriers stopped to change horses. Meanwhile, simply providing the normal complement of domestic service for the crowned heads attending as guests of the sovereign required recruiting an extra 1,500 servants at state expense. It was a vast investment that Metternich was determined should not go to waste.

Vienna’s public buildings were filled for months with intricate rounds of haggling between the powers, and petitioning from the lesser players. From the outset, deliberation was ferociously self-interested. Diplomats and ministers referred to the populations under discussion as ‘souls’, but treated them as so many thousands of taxable and conscriptable bodies to be bartered with. All the many legal titles and personal claims that members of the German nobility had over the extinction of the Holy Roman Empire were steamrollered by the determination of each power to secure advantage.

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Russian ministers declared they would be keeping the whole of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Napoleon’s Polish puppet-state. But some of that territory had been Prussian after an earlier carve-up in the 1790s, and some Austrian. Prussia, meanwhile, opened with a demand to annex the whole Kingdom of Saxony, a key Napoleonic ally, offhandedly suggesting its monarch could be given some papal territory in Italy, currently occupied by Austria, as compensation. Austria wanted the Tyrol and adjacent territories back from Bavaria, who had been gifted them at the peak of Napoleon’s dominance in return for their allegiance. That meant hard haggling over territories further west to be given up in compensation, and both Prussian and British concerns over control of the critical regions along the Rhine to be assuaged.

By the end of 1814, arguments were verging on the confrontational. The arch-intriguer Talleyrand, representing Louis XVIII, succeeded in intruding on the scene, and after some considerable efforts, made France party to a signed alliance with Britain and Austria on 3 January 1815. It seemed far from impossible that the spring would see a war between this grouping and a Russo-Prussian axis. The British minister Lord Castlereagh calculated that there could be a million men in conflict in central Europe within months. Prussia soon wavered, and further rounds of talks involving now five powers ground on through the winter. Castlereagh was joined by Wellington, after he had become so unpopular in Paris there were fears of attacks on his life. There was forward movement – Prussia would take half of Saxony, Russia almost all of the Grand Duchy – but much remained unsettled.

At this point, Napoleon intervened. News of his escape from Elba reached Vienna on 7 March, setting in train an immediate horror of prospective risings across many newly-subordinated territories. This hardened into a determination to resist the emperor’s return that would see over half a million troops committed to immediately converging on France. Even then, Austrian leaders were heard muttering fearfully about the passage of Russian troops near their capital, and carefully-policed movement routes had to be designated.

Nevertheless, the line against Napoleon, declaring him “subject to public vengeance” for his reappearance with “projects of confusion and disorder”, held fast. This stance was further intensified as it became clear that the Napoleon who had returned in 1815 was preaching a very different message to the blustering autocrat of 1813.

Napoleon’s toxic legacy

By late April 1815, Napoleon as emperor had promulgated the so-called Additional Act or Charter of 1815, which took up liberal political concessions made by the restored monarchy, and doubled down on them. Veering sharply away from the tendencies of his own previous reign, Napoleon represented himself as he had 15 years before, as the heir of the French Revolution and its Jacobin egalitarian traditions. Rights were guaranteed, censorship lifted, and in a clear nod to international liberal opinion, French participation in the slave trade was abolished.

Napoleon, of course, crashed to military defeat again in short order. But his swing to the left, almost certainly carried out cynically, left a lasting toxic legacy. It brought about within France the violent, murderous revenge that had been avoided a year before, a ‘White Terror’ of counter-revolutionary thuggery that killed hundreds, and a wider official purge that drove tens of thousands from official employment.

Napoleonic troops that retreated westwards in search of negotiated surrender were disparaged as the “brigands of the Loire”. Over a million allied troops subjected France to an occupation far harsher than that of 1814, now understood to be retribution against a whole people who had rejected that year’s magnanimity. Official vengeance swept up Marshal Ney, shot by firing-squad at the end of the year, and Joachim Murat, similarly disposed of in October, having been transformed from a monarch to a hunted fugitive by his quixotic attempt to raise Italy in Napoleon’s support.

The formal Final Act of the Congress of Vienna was signed just nine days before the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and the powers of Europe concluded their business in the city not long after Napoleon’s final surrender. His brisk and extra-legal dispatch into distant exile reflected their general mood, as outstanding matters were rapidly dealt with. Metternich’s Austria became the arbiter of affairs in a new German Confederation of 39 states, and simultaneously guardian of order in the Italian peninsula.

The pall of reactionary authoritarianism that soon settled over Europe was so thick and suffocating that the British government, imprisoning its own radical leaders after the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester, could pose as a bastion of liberal tolerance.

What killed Napoleon Bonaparte?

Napoleon Bonaparte on his deathbed. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Image)

Repression and revolution

Revolution seemed the only route of redress for idealists and the oppressed, increasingly identifying themselves as ‘nations’ disregarded by the Vienna settlement. A continent held down by secret police and censors obsessed with subversive conspiracies, inevitably, brought forth subversive conspiracies. Southern Italy and Sicily saw failed insurrections in 1820; a little later, Spain fell to revolutionaries seeking the restoration of its liberal 1812 constitution.

The government of Bourbon France cemented its place in the new authoritarian order by launching a military invasion across the Pyrenees in 1823. A hundred thousand men, dubbed ‘Sons of Saint Louis’, successfully restored the absolutist monarchy with the agreement of the Congress powers.

In 1830, France itself fell to renewed revolution, although quickly capped off with a new constitutional monarchy that showed itself eager to suppress further risings. The southern provinces of the Netherlands rose up in the same year and made themselves a new country, Belgium, with a new German monarch of safely conservative tendencies installed as Leopold I. The same man, widower of King George IV’s daughter and uncle of the future Prince Albert, had been offered the throne of newly-independent Greece earlier in 1830, but thought it too unstable. It was later accepted by another German prince, Otto, the second son of the King of Bavaria.

These appointments showed how the monarchical elite of Europe accommodated change when they could not suppress it. But they continued trying to suppress it for as long as they could. The continent erupted in 1848 in the ‘Springtime of Peoples’, but again, outside France, which embarked on a repetitious odyssey of republicanism-turning-to-Bonapartism, revolutionaries were crushed by force across the continent, with Austrian, Prussian and Russian troops intervening wherever necessary to do so.

The end of the Vienna system came, not through challenge from below, but when the leaders of great powers themselves decided that other arrangements, including the carefully-managed stimulation of nationalist sentiments, were more useful to them.

Britain and France went to war with Russia in 1853 when their differences over influence in the Ottoman empire could no longer be negotiated away. At the end of the decade, France clashed with Austria in support of the schemes of another monarchy, Piedmont-Sardinia, to aggrandise itself into a Kingdom of Italy.

Through the 1860s, under the stewardship of Otto von Bismarck, Prussia fought first Denmark, then Austria, en route to securing dominance over the other states of the German Confederation. Bismarck’s schemes were capped off with an engineered war against an over-confident France, resulting in the proclamation of a new unified German empire in the brutally symbolic setting of an occupied Palace of Versailles on 18 January 1871. Thus were the seeds of another century’s conflicts firmly sown.

David Andress is professor of modern history at the University of Portsmouth. He is the author of The French Revolution: A Peasants’ Revolt (Head of Zeus, 2019)


This content first appeared in BBC History Magazine's The Story of the Napoleonic Wars special edition


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