3.2 Ideologies of Change

Ideologies of Change

The Concert of Europe

Matejko, Jan. "First Congress of Vienna." c. 19th century.
Matejko, Jan. “First Congress of Vienna.” c. 19th century. Wikimedia. January 2, 2007.

Following Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, a Congress system arose, sometimes called the Concert of Europe, whereby the great powers – now defined as Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Russia, and later France (with several smaller powers) agreed to meet regularly to work out issues of foreign policy instead of destroying Europe with war. This Congress system came from the Treaty of Vienna following the first of these Congresses – the Congress of Vienna that was held from September 1814 to November 1815. The ideas that drive the emerging system find their roots in the French Revolution and its aftermath.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars profoundly shook Europe. The French Revolution was seen by the European great powers as both threatening and, increasingly as it progressed, morally repulsive, but at least it had largely stayed confined to France. From the perspective of elites, Napoleon’s conquests were even worse because everywhere the French armies went the traditional order of society was overturned. France may have been the greatest economic beneficiary, but Napoleon’s Italian, German, and Polish subjects (among others) also had their first taste of a society in which one’s status was not defined by birth. The kings and nobles of Europe had good cause to fear that the way of life they presided over, a social order that had lasted for roughly 1,000 years, was disintegrating in the course of a generation.

Thus, after Napoleon’s defeat, there had to be a reckoning. Only the most stubborn monarch or noble thought it possible to completely undo the Revolution and its effects, but there was a shared desire among the traditional elites to re-establish stability and order based on the political system that had worked in the past. They knew that there would have to be some concessions to a generation of people who had lived with equality under the law, but they worked to reinforce traditional political structures while only granting limited compromises.

As you read and watch the video clips that follow, look for the answers to these questions: How would you outline the social and political world of Vienna? How did the Congress go about establishing a balance of power? Why is it called a Monument to Conservatism?

“Congress of Vienna.” The Pope and the People: Saints and Sinners—The History of the Popes. 1997. Films on Demand. 1:42.


By its conclusion, the Congress of Vienna had redrawn the map of Europe with the goal of preventing France from threatening the balance of power again. But unlike the conference that ended the First World War a century later, the Congress of Vienna did not impose a huge penalty on the aggressor. Once it had been agreed to place Louis XVIII, the younger brother of the executed Louis XVI, on the throne of France, the powers that had defeated Napoleon had the good sense to see that it would be illogical to punish the French (not least because the French might opt to have yet another revolution in response). Much of the credit was due to a wily diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, himself a former official under Napoleon, who convinced the other representatives to include France as an equal partner rather than an enemy to punished. Instead, the victors deprived the French of their conquests and imposed a modest indemnity, but they did not dismember the country. They did, however, redraw the map of Europe.

The powers that defeated Napoleon had a few specific goals at the conference. They sought to create a lasting conservative order in France itself. They hoped to restrain French ambition and stave off the threat of another revolution. They sought to reward themselves with territory taken from weaker states like Poland and the formerly independent territories of northern Italy. And, finally, they devoted themselves to the suppression of future revolutionary movements.

The Congress System was devoted to peace, stability, and order. While Great Britain was content with any political arrangement that prevented a disruption like the Napoleonic wars from occurring again, the more conservative states were not: led by the Russian Tsar Alexander I, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France (the latter under its new Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII) joined in a “Holy Alliance” that promised to put down revolutions wherever they might occur. Now, war was to be waged in the name of dynastic sovereignty and the conservative political order, not territorial ambition. In other words, the next time France invaded Spain and Russia invaded Hungary, they did so in the name of restoring foreign conservative monarchs to their “rightful” position of power, not in order to enrich themselves.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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