Congress of Vienna

Mary Stone | December 25, 2022


The Congress of Vienna (German Wiener Kongress) was a conference of ambassadors of European states chaired by the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, which officially held its proceedings in Vienna from November 1814 to 1815. In fact, the delegations that arrived in Vienna had been negotiating informally since September 1814. The aim of the Congress was to find a solution to secure a long-term peace for Europe by resolving important issues that had arisen after the end of the French and Napoleonic wars. The objectives of the Congress were not simply to restore the conservative order and re-establish the old absolutist regimes, but also to return to the old frontiers and resize the great powers so that they would be able to counterbalance each other and thus ensure the preservation of peace. The leaders present at the Congress were conservatives, opposed to republicanism and revolutionary spirit, trends that threatened the status quo in Europe. France had lost all its recent conquests, while Prussia, the Austrian Empire and the Russian Empire gained important territories. Prussia incorporated the small West German states, Swedish Pomerania and about 60% of the Kingdom of Saxony. Austria received Venice and most of northern Italy. Russia occupied parts of Poland. The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which had appeared on the political map of Europe only a few months earlier, included the territory that had belonged to Austria and which in 1830 would become what is now Belgium.

The overall political context was the defeat of Napoleonic France and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in May 1814, which ended an era of uninterrupted warfare lasting almost 25 years. Negotiations continued despite the outbreak of a new conflict with Napoleon”s spectacular return from exile and his recapture of power during the 100 days from March to July 1815. The Final Act of Congress was signed nine days before Napoleon”s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

The key words of the Congress were “restoration” and “legitimism”. Restoration was the restoration to the throne of dynasties that had been removed by revolutions or other events, and legitimism was a monarchical theory that regarded the right of legitimate dynasties to the throne and their absolute power as a fundamental principle of the state. Congress is often criticised for suppressing national emancipation and liberal-democratic movements. However, there is also the camp of those who point out that the conditions were created for the establishment of long-term relative stability and peaceful conditions in most of Europe.

Strictly from a technical point of view, the negotiations in Vienna were not a congress in the true sense of the word. There was no plenary meeting, most discussions were informal, bilateral, between representatives of the major powers – Austria, the UK, France, Russia and, in some cases, Prussia, with sporadic participation by delegations from other states. On the one hand, the congress was the first occasion in history when representatives of the nations of a continent met to negotiate treaties instead of exchanging messages between capitals. The arrangements established at the Congress of Vienna, despite later changes, formed the framework of European international politics until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The Treaty of Chaumont in 1814 formalised the decisions that had already been taken and would be ratified by the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. These included the formation of a confederated Germany, the division of Italy into independent states, the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain, the enlargement of the borders of the Netherlands to include the territory that in 1830 would become modern Belgium. The Treaty of Chaumont became the basis of a European alliance that ensured the balance of power for decades to come. Other partial solutions had already been found during the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris between France and the Sixth Coalition and the Treaty of Kiel, which resolved the issues over Scandinavia. During the Paris negotiations it was decided that a “general congress” should be convened to take place in Vienna, and that “all the powers on both sides engaged in the present war” should be invited. The congress was scheduled to begin in July 1814.

During the congress, several formal working group meetings were held. However, much of the congress was held informally in the lounges, banquets and balls.

The Four Great Powers and Bourbon France

It was the four great powers that formed the core of the Sixth Coalition. With Napoleon”s final defeat looming, the four powers underlined their common position at Chaumont (March 1814) and negotiated peace terms in Paris (1814) with the Bourbons after the Bourbon dynasty”s return to the throne.

Other signatories to the Treaty of Paris

The following states did not sign the Chaumont Treaty, but signed the Paris Treaty:


Virtually every European state sent delegations to Vienna – over 200 states and princely houses were represented at the Congress. In addition, representatives of cities, corporations, religious organisations and interest groups attended – for example, a delegation of German publicists, who called for copyright and press freedom legislation. The congress became known for its parties. There was a famous joke at the time that the congress did not advance but danced.

At first, the representatives of the four victorious great powers hoped to exclude France from participating in any negotiations, but Talleyrand managed to insinuate himself with diplomatic skill into the inner circles of the Congress from the very first weeks of the negotiations. He allied himself with a ”Committee of Eight Small Powers” (which included Spain, Sweden and Portugal) for active involvement at all levels of Congress. After Talleyrand succeeded in gaining access to the main negotiations, he left this Committee, abandoning his allies.

The indecision of the great powers as to how to negotiate their interests without provoking a united reaction from the lesser powers led to the convening of a preliminary conference on protocol, to which Talleyrand and the representative of Spain, Pedro Gómez Labrador, were invited on 30 November 1814.

The congress secretary, Friedrich von Gentz, was to note: “The intervention of Talleyrand and Labrador completely upset all our plans. Talleyrand protested against the procedure we had adopted and reprimanded us in earnest for two hours. It was a scene I will never forget.” The embarrassed Allied representatives replied that the document they had submitted on protocol was practically worthless. “If he means so little, why did you sign it?” snapped Labrador.

Talleyrand”s policy, which was governed as much by the desire to defend the national interest as by personal ambition, involved maintaining friendly but not close relations with Labrador, whom the French politician regarded with great confidence. Labrador was later to take notice of Talleyrand: “that cripple, he goes unfortunately to Vienna.” Talleyrand discarded the additional items suggested by Labrador – he was unwilling to hand over the 12,000 afrancesados – Spanish, pro-Franco refugees who had sworn allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte – nor the many documents, books, paintings and other works of art that had been looted from Spanish archives, palaces, churches and cathedrals.

Polish-Saxon crisis

The most sensitive topic discussed at the congress was the so-called Polish-Saxon Crisis. Russia wanted control over most of Poland, while Prussia wanted to occupy all of Saxony, whose king had allied himself with Napoleon. The Russian emperor was to be proclaimed king of Poland. Austria feared this would make Russia too powerful, a view shared by England. As a result, the negotiations came to a standstill. Talleyrand proposed a solution: if France was welcomed into the circle of the powerful, it would support the position of Austria and the UK. The three nations signed a secret treaty on 3 January 1815, which provided for the three to go to war against Russia and Prussia if necessary to prevent the Russian-Prussian plan from being realised.

When the Tsar learned of the signing of the secret treaty, he agreed on 24 October 1815 to a compromise solution that satisfied all parties involved. Russia was given control of the Duchy of Warsaw created under Napoleon, now renamed the Kingdom of Poland, with the Tsar proclaimed King, ruling a state independent of Russia. Russia did not receive the Province of Posen (Poznań), which was ceded to Prussia as the Grand Duchy of Posen, nor Kraków (Cracow), which was proclaimed a free city. Moreover, the Russians were unable to unite the newly occupied areas with the parts of Poland they had already incorporated into the empire in the last decade of the 18th century. Prussia received about 60% of Saxony, renamed the Province of Saxony, with the rest remaining under the control of King Frederick Augustus I as the Kingdom of Saxony.

The Final Act, which included all the separate treaties negotiated up to that point, was signed on 9 June 1815 (just days before the Battle of Waterloo). The most important provisions were as follows:

The Final Act was signed by representatives of Austria, France, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Sweden-Norway and the United Kingdom. Spain did not sign the treaty, but ratified it in 1817.

Other changes

The main results of the Congress, apart from the confirmation of the return of the territories annexed by France between 1795 and 1810, a situation which was also confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, were the increase in the territory of Russia (which occupied most of the Duchy of Warsaw) and Prussia, which received the districts of Poznań, Swedish Pomerania, Westphalia and Rhineland. German state consolidation was confirmed – from the nearly 300 entities of the Holy Roman Empire dissolved in 1806, 39 remained, including four free cities, which formed a much less complex and more easily governable structure. These states formed the German Confederation, a fairly loose political structure under Austria and Prussia.

Representatives of the participating powers in Congress agreed on a large number of territorial swaps. By the Treaty of Kiel, Norway was ceded by Denmark-Norway to the King of Sweden. This transfer was the event that triggered the nationalist movement that led to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Norway on 17 May 1814 and later to the personal union with Sweden. Austria received Lombardy and Venice in northern Italy, while most of north-central Italy went to the Habsburg dynasties – the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena and Reggio and the Duchy of Parma.

The pope”s control over the Papal States has been restored. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was given back its main continental possessions and was also given control of the Republic of Genoa. In the south of the peninsula, Joachim Murat, Napoleon”s brother-in-law, initially remained on the throne of the Kingdom of Naples, but his support of Napoleon during the 100 Days led to his removal from power and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty through King Ferdinand IV.

A United Kingdom of the Netherlands with enlarged borders was formed for the House of Orania, a kingdom made up of the former Republics of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands and the former Austrian-controlled territories of the Southern Netherlands. There were other less significant territorial changes – territorial gains for the German kingdoms of Hanover (which received East Friesland from Prussia and some smaller regions in northwest Germany) and Bavaria (which received the Palatinate Region and territories in Franconia). The Duchy of Lauenburg was transferred from Hanover to Denmark, and Prussia annexed Swedish Pomerania. Switzerland increased its territory and its neutrality was guaranteed. Swiss mercenaries played a key role in European wars for several hundred years – Congress made every effort to put an end to this warlike activity. During a series of wars, Portugal had lost the town of Olivença to Spain and made efforts at the Congress to get it back. The Portuguese were historically the oldest ally of the British, and with their support they obtained the return of the town, enshrined in Article 105 of the Final Act, which stated that the participants in the Congress ”considered the occupation of Olivença illegal and recognised the rights of Portugal”. Portugal ratified the Final Act in 1815, but Spain refused to sign it, making it the most important reaction against the decisions of the Congress of Vienna. In the end, the Spanish finally decided that it was better to be part of Europe rather than maintain a singular position, and on 7 May 1817 accepted the provisions of the treaty. However, the town of Olivença and the surrounding region were not returned to Portugal, and this issue remains unresolved to this day. The British received parts of the West Indies ceded by the Netherlands and Spain and retained control of the former Dutch colonies of Ceylon and Cape Colony, as well as the islands of Malta and Heligoland. By the Treaty of Paris in 1815, the British gained protectorate over the Ionian Islands and the Seychelles.

The Congress of Vienna established a new order in which Europe was under the control of four powers: Austria, Prussia, Russia and England. In order to preserve the old dynastic regimes, disregarding the wishes and aspirations of nations who wanted to create their own national states, the monarchs of Prussia, Austria and Russia created in 1815 the Holy Alliance, a pact of mutual assistance between the European absolute monarchs against revolutionary unrest, which until 1823 allowed all European liberal or national movements to be suppressed. The Treaty of the Holy Alliance was signed on 26 September 1815 by Tsar Alexander I of Russia and brought together Emperor Francis I of Austria and King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia. Although the text of the ”Holy Alliance” was ambiguous and did not provide any practical details to prevent a new European conflict, but merely urged mutual support based on the Christian dogmas of love of mankind and the existence of one God for all peoples, the treaty is particularly significant as it marks the attempt by the Great European Powers to end major conflicts. “The ”mystical air” of the treaty was suggested by Tsar Alexander I, but the very important practical role was played by Austria”s Chancellor Metternich, whose work is the ”New Europe”, which is based on the great principles of legitimacy, but is also an attempt to achieve a more rational map of Europe and to organise the ”Concert of Europe”. The victorious Great Powers claimed the right to intervene to maintain the pseudo-European balance achieved in Vienna and to keep France, that “cave from which the wind blows and spreads death over the social body”, under observation. The Congress of Vienna opened a new era in the history of the continent, ending France”s last attempt to impose its hegemony over Europe. From the point of view of European security, the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 was an absolute novelty, the first attempt at a political security body. Without concluding a formal treaty, through the institution of the Congress, the major European powers reached a consensus to respect each other”s interests, each within their own borders and adjacent areas of interest, i.e. spheres of influence in the modern sense of the term. The consensus of the Great Powers, i.e. Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, was to be recorded in history as the ”Concert of Europe”, which was intended to ensure the maintenance of a balance of power in Europe and, against this background, to ensure stability and peace.

Social structure of states

The decisions of the Congress of Vienna represented the last revival of feudalism in Europe. Subsequent struggles in the states of this continent were between the old aristocratic regime and the new democratic regime. These struggles imposed the principle of equality in place of privileges and old hierarchies, and clerical and royal dogmatism was replaced by freedom of thought and expression, while economic immobility was replaced by free competition.

At the forefront of many revolutionary social movements was the bourgeoisie, which was interested in all these changes.

After 1848, as a result of the development of industry, a new social class made its presence felt on the political scene: the workers. Dissatisfied with their living conditions, they began to organise, first in trade unions and then in parties, to gain economic and political rights, often opposing the interests of the bourgeoisie.

The Congress of Vienna has been criticized from the 19th century to the present day for ignoring national and liberal tendencies and imposing a stifling reactionary policy on the European continent. The Congress was an integral part of what was to become known as the Conservative Order, in which the liberties and civil rights associated with the American and French Revolutions were abandoned in exchange for achieving a balance of power, peace and stability.

However, in the 20th century there were many historians who came to admire the politicians who attended the Congress, whose diplomatic efforts prevented the outbreak of a major European conflict for the next nearly a century (1815-1914). Among them was Henry Kissinger, who wrote about the achievements of the Congress in 1954 in his doctoral work A World Restored. Historian Mark Jarrett considered that both the Congress of Vienna and the Congress System marked “the true beginning of our modern age”. He argued that the Congress System was a system of planned conflict management and was the first realistic attempt to create an international order based on consensus rather than conflict. “Europe was ready to accept an unprecedented degree of international cooperation in response to the French Revolution,” Jarrett wrote. Historian Paul Schroeder believes that the old “balance of power” formula was in fact highly destabilising and deeply inequitable. He believes the congressional negotiations eschewed the old formula and instead established rules that produced a lasting balance for the first time. The Vienna Congress was the first in a series of international meetings that came to be known generically as the European Concert, which was an attempt to create a peaceful balance of power in Europe. The Congress was a model for later organisations – the League of Nations in 1919 and the UN in 1945.

Even before the start of the Paris Peace Conference in 1918, the British Foreign Office published a history of the Congress of Vienna to instruct its delegates to reach at least as good a deal.

On the other hand, the main decisions of the Congress were taken by the four great powers and many other European states were unable to assert their rights in Vienna. The Italian peninsula became the best geographical expression of the Congress” problems, being divided into seven parts: Lombardy-Venice, Modena, Naples-Sicily, Parma, Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany and the Papal States, each controlled by a different power. Poland remained divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria, with the largest part, the Kingdom of Poland, placed under Tsarist control.

The arrangements made by the four Great Powers were aimed at finding solutions to any future disputes that would avoid the outbreak of wars like those that had devastated the continent for the past 20 years. Although the Congress of Vienna saved the balance of power in Europe, it could not control the spread of revolutionary ideas across the continent that would lead three decades later to the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848.


  1. Congresul de la Viena
  2. Congress of Vienna
  3. ^ a b c Olson, James Stuart – Shadle, Robert (1991). Historical dictionary of European imperialism Archived 12 April 2021 at the Wayback Machine, Greenwood Press, p. 149. ISBN 0-313-26257-8
  4. ^ Artz, Frederick B. (1934). Reaction & Revolution: 1814–1832. p. 110.
  5. ^ fr Albert Malet, Jules Isaac, Révolution, Empire et première moitié du XIX-ème siècle, Librairie Hachette, 1929, p. 404
  6. ^ a b c Olson, James Stuart – Shadle, Robert (1991). Historical dictionary of European imperialism, Greenwood Press, p. 149. ISBN: 0-313-26257-8
  7. ^ a b Mark Jarrett, The Congress of Vienna and Its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy after Napoleon (2013) pp. 353, xiv, 187.
  8. ^ In Gabriele Nicolò, Duecento anni fa si chiudeva il Congresso di Vienna, Osservatore Romano del 9 giugno 2015.
  9. ^ Albert Malet e Jules Isaac, Révolution, Empire et première moitié du siecle XIX, edizioni Hachette, 1929, p. 404.
  10. ^ [a b c] Wienkongressen i Nationalencyklopedin, band 19 (1996)
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