The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon, by Brian Vick

Jeremy Black on a significant study of the far-reaching effects of one diplomatic summit

November 20, 2014

The public culture of diplomacy is the central focus of this valuable work on the Congress of Vienna, a gathering of Europe’s diplomats from September 1814 to June 1815 to undertake negotiations whose legacy would prove to be far-reaching. Drawing on a wide range of manuscript and printed sources, Brian Vick shows that the event defies easy categorisation. Far from the Congress having been the stage for rigid conservatives, as is often presented or implied, Vick shows that it was emblematic of the vitality, porosity and adaptability of conservatism in this period.

That adaptability is demonstrated in the processes and content of the diplomatic world whose most important players would sign the Congress’ final act just days before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In a particularly valuable chapter on salon networks, Vick considers the impact of salon opinion on diplomacy and politics, and the important roles played by women in generating and disseminating such opinion. Despite the salons’ exclusivity, the views expressed there by society’s elite had an impact on the wider public. The latter were also present as consumers of the material culture of the Congress – including portraits and medallions, music and prints – that Vick discusses. Festivities were another medium by which the Congress was publicised, and the press is shown to have played an important role in the marketing and commemoration, and thus the consumption, of the Congress. In part, these factors can be linked to the more liberal aspects of the discussions at the Congress, notably in attitudes toward the slave trade.

The Congress of Vienna also offers a valuable discussion of religious sociability and politics, as with the issue of Jewish rights. One of the subjects of discussion at the Congress was a new constitution for the German states, which would be settled in 1815 toward the gathering’s end. Religious toleration was a key concern, and a clause was inserted to protect, in principle, the rights of Jewish communities. But it was successively watered down in the course of revision and a final decision on its means and extent was postponed until the Federal Diet could convene in Frankfurt. Vick argues that throughout the Congress, the balance of opinion in salons and in the press lay in protecting or even extending Jewish rights. But by the time of the delayed opening of the Diet, the needle of public opinion, at least in print, had begun to swing the other way. In ensuing years, anti-Jewish forces contributed to the weakening of the emancipation movement and the gradual erosion of previous gains in Jewish rights.

Vick repeatedly finds a mixture of humanitarian rights talk, commercial concerns and considerations of power at play during the Congress. It is accordingly seen as an interweaving of liberal and conservative projects, and part of what he ably presents as a broader-ranging attempt to stave off a real, radical revolution by means of compromise and limited reform. He suggests that belief in the existence and rights of nations and peoples shaped the politics of the Congress more than has generally been recognised. His arguments for the emergence of a broad conception of nationhood offer an instructive perspective in which to assess both Napoleon’s failure and later national drives.

This is a thoughtful and significant study that will be of wide-ranging importance for our understanding of early 19th-century Europe, and one that nicely complements Maartje Abbenhuis’ An Age of Neutrals: Great Power Politics, 1815-1914 (2014).

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon

By Brian E. Vick
Harvard University Press, 448pp, £29.95
ISBN 9780674729711
Published 23 October 2014

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