Review by Amb. (ret.) Tony Quainton
The Congress of Vienna and its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy after Napoleon by Mark Jarrett, I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1780761169, 522 pp., $117.17 (Hardcover), $22.31 (Paperback), $31.02 (E-Textbook).
The outbreak of the First World War one hundred years ago this summer began the definitive unravelling of the security system created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a process which continued across the ensuing century through two world wars, the creation of the European Union and most recently the dismemberment of Ukraine at the hands of Russia. Professor Jarrett tells the story of how that world was created by a handful of brilliant men intent on undoing the system which France, under Napoleon’s leadership, had tried to put in place over the previous twenty years and on preserving Europe from the threat of future revolution. The book chronicles in detail the congresses (Vienna, Aix la Chapelle, Troppau, Laibach and Verona) and the ambassadorial meetings that came between them. Professor Jarrett examines the issues that preoccupied the four victorious powers in the Napoleonic wars. These issues ranged from the containment of revolution in Naples and Spain to the preservation of the Turkish Empire, the slave trade and Spain’s American territories. At its heart the system, which came to be known as the Concert of Europe, was designed to maintain the monarchical status quo, contain French ambitions, and define the territorial boundaries of the post Napoleonic state system. Professor Jarrett is fascinated by the personalities who worked to achieve these outcome and he describes vividly the relationships among the three principal actors, Viscount Castlereagh of England, Prince Metternich of Austria and Czar Alexander I of Russia.
The book begins with a thumbnail sketch of the various states of Europe on the eve of the Napoleonic era and an analysis of the 18th century intellectual underpinnings of what was first the Holy Alliance and later the Quadruple Alliance as the basis of a new European security system. He reviews the history of Napoleon’s rise to power and the events that led to his eventual defeat. But at its heart this is a book about the efforts to create and sustain a common approach to European security by the European monarchies, to maintain the territorial status quo by guaranteeing after much debate the frontiers of all the European states including those that were redrawn in Germany, France, Italy and Poland to suit the aspirations of the victorious powers. Finally the book explores the reasons for the gradual unravelling of the Congress system over the decade after the Congress of Vienna in the face of efforts to limit monarchical power in Naples and Spain, of the Greek desire to achieve independence, and against the background of the collapse of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas.
This is well-ploughed ground, not least by Henry Kissinger’s in his first book: A World Restored, Prof. Jarrett, however, makes abundantly clear that the prerevolutionary world has not been restored. The Congress system was little more than a holding action against the forces of political change, which continued throughout the century in the revolutions of 1848, 1871, 1905, and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Professor Jarrett adds to this well-documented story an attempt to link the effort to sustain an enduring Congress system to the 20th century efforts to create the League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Union. While the continuities are difficult to tie down, there is no doubt that the victorious monarchies in 1814-1815 sought to create a stable and enduring system in Europe based on a common set of values (largely anti-democratic) and to provide a mechanism for defending those values against revisionist powers, notably France.
They also believed that Europe faced a vast monolithic and well-organized conspiracy , modeled on the Jacobins of the French Revolution, whose goal was to destroy the autocratic monarchical systems which were in place everywhere except in Great Britain and France. As Prince Metternich made clear, he was striving to create “a dam to resist the torrent of revolutions.” The continental monarchs often justified their hold on power in religious terms. Czar Alexander in particular believed that power was God-given and that democracy and revolution were fundamentally morally heinous and contrary to divine law. Like the fear of Bolshevism after the First World War, and of Stalinist communism after the Second War, the leaders of Europe set their polices in such a way as to defeat what they saw as an existential threat. So too in 1919 and 1945 in both the League of Nations and the UN the victors sought to assure their permanent management of the international system and to prevent the defeated power, in both cases Germany, from becoming a threat to the international status quo.
One of the principal issues which the book explores and which the Congress system struggled with was what actions against the post-Napoleonic order would or should trigger collective action against a potential challenge to that order. In 1820 the Russian Foreign Minister Capodistrias framed the issues as follows: “when the internal relations of the state take an offensive character towards neighboring states, there is a right to act efficaciously to contain the contagions.” These works sound remarkably similar to the ideas embodied in the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which argued for the United States’ right to exercise an international police power. It might resonate well in the White House today in confronting the evolving situation in Ukraine. It is easy to state the obligation, but rather more difficult to agree on how and when to act. Professor Jarrett’s book makes this reality clear. He describes in detail the difficulty the European powers found in dealing with the Turks in the Balkans or emerging constitutional monarchies in Naples and Spain.
The book ends with a long list of “what ifs.’ The author speculates that a more relaxed and tolerant attitude to liberal constitutional reform might have obviated many of the tragedies of the ensuing two centuries. However with the experience and the horrors of the French Revolution fresh in the minds of the statesmen gathered at Vienna, it is hard to imagine that any statesman in Europe of the early 19th Century could have envisioned the horrors that lay ahead for Europe in the 20th Century. The leaders were at heart reactionaries. They looked to the past not to the future. They believed that they could restore a world that had existed prior to 1789 and that this restoration was possible by maintaining strong autocratic monarchies. True democratic transformation was not imaginable to any of them, not even to the relatively liberal British, and so they could not think of reform as a useful, indeed necessary, tactic in the toolkit of diplomacy. Professor Jarrett’s book makes clear how limited was their thinking. His is the story of brilliant men trying to manage a system which we now know was doomed to collapse.