One of the most famous images of the Congress of Vienna is Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s enduring portrait of the representatives, including the Duke of Wellington and Austrian Prince Metternich, gathered around a table. It isn’t hard to imagine them working diligently on a territorial dispute, but as David King explains in his non-fiction work Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, the biggest misconception about the event is that it was a Congress at all! Although many European delegates arrived for the Congress, it never sat as one. In fact, most of the business was discussed in private informal sessions between the Big Four (Austria, Russia, Britain, and Prussia) and France, or during decadent feasts and balls. One attendee, Prince de Ligne, who was known for his wit, famously commented “Le Congres danse, mais ne marche pas” (The Congress dances, but does not progress).
King’s book not only details the lavish feasts and balls, it also examines the romantic affairs that took place during the nine month Congress and looks at intelligence gathering in 1814. I was especially captivated by the description of Prince Metternich’s network of spies, who frequented salons (drawing rooms where the intellectual, political, and social elite gathered to converse) and intercepted letters, reading, copying, and re-sealing them, before delegates began to catch on and took measures to prevent intelligence from falling into Austrian hands.
King spends most of the book detailing the frivolity and excesses of the Congress but, despite its imperfections, ultimately concludes that the Congress of Vienna did have a positive and lasting impact on European history. The peace treaty signed on June 9, 1815 resulted in what Henry Kissinger called the longest period of peace Europe has ever known. It was also “the first international peace conference to discuss humanitarian issues” and resulted in a condemnation of the slave trade, and discussions on literary piracy and the civil rights of Jews.
Purely by chance, I began reading Vienna, 1814 during the preparations for the G20 summit in Toronto, and couldn’t help considering similarities between the two events, both of which were paid for by the hosting country and seemed to involve unnecessary excesses. Fortunately, the G20 didn’t last nine months, although it also seems to have accomplished a great deal less than the Congress of Vienna did.
History has provided a dynamic set of characters in the handsome Russian Tsar Alexander, French delegate Talleyrand, who had helped Napoleon gain power but resigned in 1807 because he did “not wish to become the executioner of Europe”, and Metternich, who likely arranged the marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. With such strong personalities involved, it is no wonder that bickering over who entered a room first gave rise to the myth that Metternich had cut extra doors into his office so representatives could enter at the same time!
The personalities are there but it is King who brings them to life as characters by describing their physical presences as well as their temperaments and quirks. Instead of simply stating what historical figures discussed, King uses letters and other sources to extrapolate conversations between characters. The result is a researched work of non-fiction, complete with endnotes, that reads like a novel. I found the book to be so engaging with its balance of nineteenth century gossip and politics that I’m surprised there isn’t a film, or at least a documentary, based on the book!
The one area where the author fell a little short was in his examination of the long and short term consequences of the Congress of Vienna. He does note that it created a lasting peace using a system where leaders met periodically to work out their differences, through what diplomatic historian Charles Webster called the first ever attempt “to regulate international affairs during a time of peace”, but I felt that the book would be better served by a more detailed look at the consequences of the Congress. This was my only criticism of an otherwise informative and fast-paced read though.
Verdict: A great popular history book that will inform and entertain with its balance of gossip and history.