Welcome back everyone. This has been a difficult episode to choose a topic for. This afternoon I was happily sitting in an english country pub garden, enjoying the sunshine and chatting to my wife about what I should record this afternoon. It should be a fairly obvious choice, after all we’ve just finished the hundred days, and now should be the time to leap into the Congress of Vienna and talk about the politics and the reconstruction of Europe. And it was really the way to set the scene of how Europe and the World was going to be set up politically for the next 48-50 years. My wife said, no that sounds boring. No body likes politics. So we chatted and I said I have this other episode that I’ve got on the go. I’ve always got plenty of topics to talk about and it is another exciting topic. It’s got lots of human drama and all the content we like. She said “there, you should do that one.” I thought to myself well why do we get this idea that the politics is boring or an after thought. Politics isn’t real history or real impact. As you might guess from that, we are going to be doing the politics today.
I think every European school child should have learnt about politics and the Congress of Vienna. Seriously. It is actually possibly the most important series of events in modern history that no one has ever heard of. In many ways, the Napoleonic Wars are only important because they led to this event. Still as the Napoleonic Wars are almost absent from the British educational system, it isn’t really surprising. In fact don’t get me started on how much history is missing from British education. It is quite shocking. Now to give you an idea about what we are covering today, I’m going to read a quote from a book that has been hugely important in terms of sources on this; Rites of Peace by Adam Zamoyski
[QUOTE] The reconstruction of Europe at the Congress of Vienna is probably the most seminal episode in modern history. Not only did the congress redraw the map entirely. It determined which nations were to have a political existence over the next 100 years and which were not. It imposed an ideology on the whole continent, derived from the interests of the four great powers. It attempted to set in stone the agreement between those powers, with the result that their expansionist urges were deflected into Africa and southern Asia. Its consequences, direct and indirect, include all that has taken place in Europe since, including aggressive nationalism, Bolshevism, fascism, the two world wars and ultimately, the creation of the European Union. [END QUOTE]
Rites of Peace Adam Zamoyski intro.
That strikes me as pretty important actually. Honestly, how many of us have heard of it, or know what it was, or what happened? We should. It is a fascinating tail in its own right. Who would rule France after Napoleon? Who would rule Poland? Would there be a Poland? What about the Pope or the Prussians what would they do? Who would control the Baltic or the Mediterranean? Who would end up in power, and who would end up dead? Would Europe continue to fight the wars against principalities and countries that had raged across it for centuries? Or would Europe turn its attention back out across the world? Fighting its proxy wars on other continents and oceans. Politicians and kings squared off. Devious spies, and clever diplomats faced imperial generals or experienced statesmen. Flattery, bribery and corruption vied with high minded principle. Hypocrisy warred with genuine optimism. Had they disposed a tyrant only to create new tyrannies? Clever, ruthless men like Talleyrand destroyed incriminating archives, attempting to shape history itself. It would make such an awesome TV series just for a start. But we don’t hear about it.
I have to say that we can’t cover all the ins and outs of this. It is just too vast and involved and it would lead us so far into the woods, we might never find our way back to a path out again! The Congress wasn’t really a single one off event on a set date. Rather it was a series of positions and negations of the great powers of Europe to decide who and what would be allowed to exist and hold power.
So before we plunge in, I want to give you a few warnings. First is that you must put your C21st baggage at the door. I know you don’t think you have any, that you are here as a rational and completely impartial observer. Well sorry, you aren’t any more than I am, or anyone else is. We all have a set of cultural biases and assumptions that we carry with us. One of the biggest is our instinctive view that there are some universal human rights and moral standards that are so obvious that they are clearly the good we should all be aiming at. Even if your view of human rights as a term is negative, you probably wouldn’t disagree that people have the right to life, liberty and some form of self governance. The precise form liberty or freedom takes to you might vary, but that seems plain. If you want to understand the actions at the congress, you need to understand that this view is extremely modern. Even the concept of war crimes as we understand them simply didn’t exist until after WW2. In 1815, liberty was much more of a concept that meant justice under known law and custom, rather than the libertarian concept of liberty we have today. The idea of the right of self determination based on the will of the general population could be seen as a dangerous affront to liberty, as it was felt the general will could change quickly and even carelessly. Liberty was guaranteed by the fact that it was made up of long established laws and customs, which everyone knew and had accepted for generations. To say you could have a revolution to give liberty to the people seemed to some of the governing class of the time an oxymoron. By overthrowing time honoured systems, you were taking away their liberties and securities and replacing them with anarchy. Changes in the status of nations or territories was supposed to be by treaty, and these treaties usually had to respect established liberties or customs to be successful, otherwise they risked sparking revolt. This is a big reason Napoleon had such a problem dealing with the allies. They saw him as not playing by the rules of the existing game. He and the French revolution were fundamentally overturning the board.
Another piece of baggage you probably have is that you might think that honour is just a word. An abstract you can ignore at whim. If you make a promise on your honour today, it means essentially nothing. That wasn’t the case for most of history. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars honour was as real to a gentleman as a credit rating is to us today. Neither are real in the sense of being a thing you can touch, they are both abstracts, yet both can seriously affect real life. If a gentleman gave his word of honour, or swore on his honour, it taken very seriously. This might sound crazy, but as relationships were more face to face and personal, honour was a way of codifying and exercising power without it being overly oppressive or requiring complex laws or contracts. This was, in a strange way, a big problem Napoleon had had. The allies refused to recognise him as a gentleman, and he was not especially honest on his own in many situations. This made the allies feel that he didn’t have the honour required for treatment as an equal. The importance of honour was that it allowed value to be assigned to individuals but to also let them carry out complex transactions with little formality – as a nobleman you didn’t have to get a lawyer and a set of documents and witnesses to carry out every deal or uphold an agreement. You could swear on your honour that you would return a horse for example that had been loaned to you along with a thousand guineas and it was seen as a given. In some ways it almost harks back to older traditions of oath taking or even tribal honour systems.
Insults to personal honour were therefore not just abstract. They could have real world consequences. A man who was called a liar could lose honour. This could translate to reduce social standing. That had real knock on effects. It might be harder to get income or reduce the chances of marriage or getting promotions. Who would promote a man known to be dishonourable after all? This could even affect children. A disgrace serious enough could blacken the whole families name, reducing the marriage prospects of the children – which was of critical importance perhaps even to their very survival. Honour had to be polished and guarded carefully. Insults to honour demanded a personal response, even to the point of a duel.
This concept even scaled up to nations and principalities in a way. A nation that was considered to be acting honourably would be better treated even if unsuccessful, than a more successful but less honourable one perhaps. Of course at both the personal and national level, self interest was still a driving concern. Honour didn’t require complete stupidity or the total abandonment of common sense.
Another piece of modern baggage we will need to get rid of is the idea that the nation state is the fundamental political entity. It certainly wasn’t in 1815. Nations did exist, but they did so alongside principalities, protectorates, independent territories, crown dependencies, duchies, confederacies, alliances, leagues, city states and empires. Allegiance was often much more personal, and the societies more structured. Think of it like having a patch of lands ruled by a King called Bob. King Bob doesn’t own the lands, and the lands themselves aren’t necessarily next to each other. Instead each land has a Duke or a Cardinal, who owe King Bob fealty. Together they make up the Glorious Kingdom of Minionia. In turn they have a load of subjects that owe them allegiance and work land for them. Perhaps they sometimes get together to have a Parliament of some kind to advise King Bob. Probably King Bob dislikes this Parliament and his over mighty lords and merchants who try to constrain his theoretically absolute power. He therefore cracks down on two of his dukes who seem to be a little too big for their boots. One of the disgruntled dukes switches his allegiance to nearby King Stuart. King Bob is outraged, especially when the Duke pays lucrative rents to King Stuart in return for a mercenary company. King Bob and King Stuart soon end up at war, with troops raised from the various territories that owe them fealty or allegiance in some way. At the end of some indecisive fighting, King Bob recognises the switch of the Duke and his lands to King Stuart, whilst King Stuart gifts King Bob with an island in the Carribean that comes with bananas. Neither King is at real risk of losing his throne, and the mutual treaty would probably be a dull transfer arrangement and the individual customs of the individual towns & cities within the territories would be largely unchanged. Neither King is in any way interested in democracy, and the rebel Duke certainly wasn’t a champion of the people. Nor, as you can see, is there a particular nation state here going to war against another nation state. Nor are the people expected to be loyal to an abstract entity like the nation state. Perhaps if the war had gone on too long, the Kings might have aligned themselves with a more powerful political entity like the Russian Empire or the Holy Roman Empire.
Now imagine one day, Napoleon bursts onto the scene. He moves swiftly into the area, sweeping aside the patchwork armies of the two Kings. He swiftly deposes both of them, abolishes the old feudal order and sets up a more modern, rational state. A lot of old town councils and regional aristocrats lose power and land that they’ve held for centuries. Long established and restrictive guilds are abolished. A town might find itself grouped into a new region created by merging its territories with a hated rivals. People who believed themselves independent towns found themselves part of new political entities created by Napoleon. The way of doing things that they had grown up with was gone. For some people this was a huge step forward. Many of the old medieval guild systems were highly restrictive. The Jewish populations benefited immensely from Napoleon. He was shocked and horrified to see Jews in ghetto’s, forced to wear the Star of David. It drove him into a rage when he came across it. He acted swiftly to abolish the ghettos and free the Jewish population. So from certain points of view, Napoleon could be a liberator, but he was also a destroyer and these re-orderings of territory usually came with demands for money, loot and manpower for the French armies.
Lets pause and think about what a tidal wave to the political and religious order Napoleon really was. Instead of kings and dukes and emperors fighting limited wars, with territories moved by treaty and agreement, he simply smashed the opposition, dominated those he found useful, unseated those he found useless and swept away the old political orders. He also instituted religious freedoms that shocked conservative and Catholic leaning Europe. This was essential a twin assault on the very fabric of the rulers and their Empires across Europe. By sweeping away the old feudal structures he was attacking the pillars of divine kingship, aristocracy and ancient custom. By attacking the Catholic Church he was attacking the religious glue that often held these disparate territories together.
To the British establishment, this was a direct attack on the order of government and society itself. Already the poor and starving in the English countryside, rural Ireland and recently cleared Scottish Highlands were pressing for reform. For work. For food. How was the British state to respond? Certainly not by giving more power to the people and reforming government. Supposing the British population started to rebel like the Americans had? What if they too declared “No taxation without representation”
The Prince Regent absolutely wasn’t having that, nor were the aristocracy. Britain was anxious. The Royal family was not well regarded, and a key part of Victoria’s rise to immense power and prestige was her ability to turn the page on the actions of the Royal family during this period. Essentially she demonstrated she was fundamentally not like the George’s or their relatives.
Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars the questions facing the great powers were what should the political shape of post war Europe and the world be, and what kind of arrangement should be made in Europe for the future to prevent further wars? The continent was sick of war after decades and decades, and determined to put it behind them.
For Russia, the answer seemed obvious. Tsar Alexander considered himself chosen by God to crush Napoleon to personally lead mankind into a new era of peace. A balance of power between all nations was needed so that no one power could dominate any other, making war too costly, with the Tsar seeing himself as the supreme arbiter of Europe and the Russians as supreme powerbrokers. This would naturally require Russian power to increase, especially towards Constantinople and the Baltic, but also into Poland. The Tsar planned to keep large chunks of it for Russia. That was really the main reason the Russians were so supportive of the Prussians. The Russians also wanted to absorb Saxony, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire till 1806 but in 1814-1815 was under Prussian occupation. Its fate was one of bitter dispute during the congress.
For the Austrians, this was not an attractive option. For them, a strong Prussia and Austria in alliance was needed to buffer against Russia & France, and to protect Austrian territories or an Austro-Franco alliance with a much weakened France buttressing Austria. The Austrians were lucky enough to have the brilliant diplomat, Metternich. Born to an old aristocratic family, he was intelligent, good at setting a goal and doggedly pursuing it. He had studied philosophy, law and diplomacy, and he had a talent with people and getting them to pursue his goals whilst believing them to be their own. He was incredibly charming and very sociable. These are all immense assets to a statesman conducting international diplomacy. By 1806 he was appointed as Austria’s ambassador to France. This gave him an excellent opportunity to study Napoleon first hand and he has provided us with some amazing insights. By 1809 he had risen to be Austria’s foreign minister. He was keen to keep Austria safe and powerful, even if it meant bidding his time. He is quoted as having said
[QUOTE] I foresaw that neither [Napoleon] nor his undertakings would escape the consequence of rashness and extravagance. The when and the how I could not pretend to determine. Thus my reason pointed out to me the direction I had to take in order not to interfere with the natural development of the situation and to keep open for Austria the chances which the greatest of all powers – the power of circumstances – might offer, sooner or later, under the strong government of its monarch, for the much-threatened prosperity of the Empire. [END QUOTE]
Notice that his world view expressed here is purely aristocratic. He has a strong reputation even today as a great foreign minister and diplomat. The Journal of International Relations described him as
[QUOTE] undoubtedly one of the most influential yet controversial figures of European international relations. In many respects, he was before his time, pursuing a realist strategy of power politics decades earlier than this approach dominated the foreign policies of peer countries. Metternich faithfully served the Habsburg Empire for 47 years as its envoy in Saxony, ambassador to Paris, and finally Foreign Minister (Kissinger). Throughout this period, he self-righteously followed a conservative ideology, attempting to ensure stability and the balance of power on the continent. His ultimate accomplishment was indisputably the Congress of Vienna which prevented European war for nearly 35 years and forestalled a major conflict for 99 years (Breunig and Levinger 174). Overall, Metternich was extremely effective in preserving Austria’s power which resulted from his ability to manipulate cunningly the events of 1812 to 1815 by temporarily preserving neutrality and tactically leading peace negotiations. [END QUOTE]
He doggedly played one side off against the other, always preserving the appearance of neutrality or support for France whilst secretly negotiating with the Allies. He was keen that Austria wouldn’t be condemned for breaking agreements with France, but at the same time he made sure that the French received little active support. His guiding light remained the creation of a balance of power in Europe. This status quo was vital to Austria not only for keeping the peace, but also for keeping a very disunited population together. His talent and role in laying the diplomatic ground work to defeat Napoleon was recognised by the British. King George IV paid artist Sir Thomas Lawrence 300 guineas to paint Metternich’s portrait. A staggering sum.
On the downside he was incredibly vain, somewhat pompous, careful not to over commit himself if he didn’t have an escape route, a womaniser, apt to go into mawkish declarations of love and devotion. He had a passionate affair with Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan and sister to Dorethea Duchess of Dino who was having an affair with Talleyrand.
He might not have been overwhelmingly intelligent, but he was a perfect diplomat with charm, farsightedness, ruthlessness, talent, and shrewd wisdom. He would dominate European politics into the 1840’s and is worth remembering. He will come up on the test later.
For the Germans and Prussians, the first true stirring of greater German nationalism could be seen. The fiery passion of Heinrich nom Stein was a bloodcurdling call to arms that linked nationalism not just to a territory or individual ruler, but to an abstract concept of a greater Germany.
Stein was a former knight of the Holy Roman Empire, and he challenged the Prussian King Fredrich’s alliance with Napoleon. Stein was an uptight moralist, and energetic civil servant, who became fiercely nationalistic. Whilst he wanted to see a unified, modern Germany, he recognised only Prussia had the strength and unity to build on. This brought him into conflict with the weak King Fredrich. By a strange quirk of fate, Napoleon recognised his immense administrative talents, but wasn’t aware of Stein’s fanatical German nationalism, so Napoleon forced King Fredrick to accept Stein as his principle administrator. Stein was soon implicated in anti French activity, and was forced to flee to Austria before getting sanctuary with Tsar Alexander. The two men clicked and formed a powerful working relationship.
When the Russians swept westwards after the French retreat of 1812, Stein was put in charge of the German territories. He soon clashed with the Prussian King, especially as Stein not only began reorganising territories to further German reunification, but also began calling for a bloody war of vengeance and reprisal even against Germans who had joined the French.
Finally pressure from Stein and the Tsar resulted in Prussia switching to ally with Russia against France, but the German states remained in turmoil, with Stein making appeals to the people and sweeping away the establish order in many ways reminiscent of Napoleon to an extent that struck some observers as highly hypocritical.
So what does this mean for us? Well, I’m only giving you a very brief sketch here, but as you can see at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the future of Europe was not only unsettled incredibly complicated. I could spend show after show going through all the various changing circumstances. What I want to get across is just how convoluted and chaotic Europe actually was. The aristocracy were trying desperately for stability, but not in a easy, neat nation state way we would understand today. The end result was more akin to putting a lid on a pressure cooker.
So much hinged on the outcome of situations with Prussia and the German states. The Tsar wanted himself as the supreme liberator of Europe with the right to settle European affairs into a balance of power to eliminate all future wars, with Russia as pre-eminent. Russia would need to acquire immense territories in the Bulkans, Poland, and the Crimea. The Austrians wanted a strong core of central Europe that was free of foreign influence. This would require Prussia and Austria to act as the strong central guarantors of and protectors of the region. This would also require a strong France and a strong Russia to counter balance each other. An invasion of France and dismantling her was therefore not something Metternich would wish to see. It was therefore diametrically opposed to the Russian position of the Tsar, but also opposed to the extreme German nationalism of Stein not only because a unified Germany would clearly be the dominant power in Europe. But because if Germany marched into France or the Prussians marched into France to seek dismantle France and seek retribution after Napoleon fell, then this would throw out Metternich’s scheme of a counter weight to Russia.
Those of you who are reading ahead are probably able to see the glimpses of the causes of World War 1 & 2 already. The history of Europe since 1812 is almost the story of the rise of Germany. Also, whilst a peaceful balance of power sounds nice and a good goal to work for, it requires a large degree of fixed, static politics; reform and change is not well suited to a balance of power system. That might be fine to the ruling elite and seem a self evident good, but for the losers in the system it was a horrific prospect as change and reform was ruled out.
Metternich also had to accept that the real spanner in the works of all European diplomacy was Britain. Metternich initially wanted France to make a peace settlement that would keep Napoleon in power, but without his military empire. After the disaster the French had suffered in Russia, well surely Napoleon would have sought a good peace, with the deal slightly in Austria’s favour. But Napoleon was only willing to negotiate on his own terms since he recognised that his own power base was built on his military victories. Metternich was secretly negotiating with the allies at this point anyway.
Still a peace would have actually worked out well for France. If before 1812 she had withdrawn from Spain, parts of Italy and the smaller states, kept her limited territorial gains along the Rhine, the loot of the Empire, then maybe France would have come out of the Napoleonic Wars incredibly well. Napoleon could have then restructured France how he wanted and maybe focused on building a long range navy that could have challenged Britain in the wider world in the arena’s of trade and empire building. And Russia would have been kept in check by the prospect of future conflict with Austria and France if they stepped out of line. Napoleon was never going to agree to the terms and Metternich had no desire to replace a powerful France under Napoleon with a powerful Russia under Tsar Alexander.
Of course for any peace to work the British needed to agree. The British were the great financiers and power brokers of the Napoleonic Wars. This was vexing to Metternich who considered the British self interested, arrogant in the extreme, and of only marginal importance in Europe outside of bankrolling the wars. The British hated the French with a passion born of centuries of war in general, and a fury for France effectively causing Britain to lose the American War of Independence in a humiliating fashion, and nearly sparking a chain reaction that almost saw Britain lose her Empire, face an uprising in Ireland and nearly be invaded. Added on top was the British aristocracies absolute loathing of everything to do with the French revolution in general and Napoleon in particular. It was fair to say that British French relations between 1770 & 1815 were as bad as they had been at any tother point in history nearly. They wouldn’t even talk to Metternich, and they viewed the Austrians as pro-French despite all evidence to the contrary. The British did view the Russians as natural allies, which was awkward for the Russians who viewed the British as supreme rivals. Some Russians were so worried about British naval power that they were hesitant to pursue the retreating French in 1812 because of concerns about British power in the Mediterranean and South Asia.
The British appointed a new Foreign Secretary in 1812, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh to deal with the diplomatic situation. He was a clever man, persistent, highly talented. He was dominant in British politics both in England and Ireland. He was able to quickly identify problems and describe them clearly, a vital trait in diplomatic circles. He was not without his flaws though. He had no experience with diplomacy. He was entirely ignorant of European affairs. He was dogmatic in his political principles, adhering strictly to those of his political idol William Pitt, and he was supposed to be very unimaginative. I’m not entirely sure how to square this view which comes across quite strongly in some sources, with other sources where some historians with the immense ambition, complexity and long levity of his diplomatic system. He was involved in suppressing a revolt in Ireland that was leaning towards a revolution. It forced him to bend his reformist principles, so whilst he acted with mercy as far as he could, and he pushed for Catholic emancipation, he came out of Ireland with a reputation for dishonesty.
His private life was scandalous, and he had wounded a fellow cabinet minister in a duel over political betrayals. He refused to trust Metternich as far as he could throw him at first. Whilst on the one hand that was understandable, on the other it was a pretty poor way to start a diplomatic revolution.
The primary focus of the British remained trade, industry, oversea’s expansion and an obsession with Ireland. They had initially only entered the wars when the French got control of Antwerp, threatening British naval interests. If Napoleon had left the northern channel ports alone, it is likely the British would have ignored him, whilst taking in French refugees and maybe paying for the odd armed uprising. The British often bankrolled the wars but didn’t put troops on the ground until comparatively late. They had a small operation in Portugal, which then got larger in Spain, but they didn’t suffer anything like the other continental powers fighting Napoleon, although they did often bankroll conflicts since they could maintain a smaller standing army at home because of the geographical isolation, and by spending on troops of other nations or principalities on the continent, she was saving her own army from having to be increased and fight directly.
This caused a lot of resentment in Europe, where they felt Britain was making bank by snatching up French ships, confiscating trade goods, and seizing French colonies, whilst not taking any real risks herself. She was seen as profiting from the war, investing in prolonging it, and getting rich off the conflict; a good little war indeed. This meant that despite her bankrolling the coalitions, and her intense commitment to the wars against France, when Castlereagh was appointed, Britain was actually diplomatically quite isolated. In fairness, Britain had suffered a run of military disasters, and was focused on securing her Empire in India and the Mediterranean. If France would kindly not invade her, or cut off trade with the continent, then the British had other things to worry about like the war with America, no matter how much most of them loathed the French.
Castlereagh had thrown himself into coalition building with vigour in 1813, and it was largely thanks to him that the initial alliance was signed with Russia. He quickly grasped the vital importance of the principle that members of the coalition couldn’t sign separate peace agreements with Napoleon since that risked weakening them and isolating Britain. This of course meant that many secret treaties were signed behind the scenes. Russia was particularly keen to carve up chunks of Poland and retain it after the war by offering the Prussians German territories in place of the Polish ones that Russia had seized from Prussia. This should give you a good hint why Napoleon had a lot of very dedicated Polish troops including one of his finest Marshals. Napoleon couldn’t create a Polish Kingdom, but he came close.
The British position remained highly intransigent. They wanted Napoleon gone. This wasn’t negotiable. They didn’t have any real interest in the complexities of the European situation in the way that Austria was invested. Metternich spent much of 1813-1814 playing a careful balancing game of keeping Austria out of direct confrontation with France and also keeping the Russians and Prussians in the fight, but stopping them getting too powerful until he could broker a peace on Austrian terms. This made him deeply unpopular with many Austrians. He was enraged when some of them tried to drum up support for a guerrilla insurrection in Italy against the French and he was exasperated when he caught a British agent trying to smuggle funds to them in Austria. He kindly returned the courier to Castlereagh and suggested better diplomacy in future. It was especially worrying for him as the French were beginning to suspect he was playing both sides and had him under observation.
1813-1814 passed in a strange whirl of war and armistice, careful moves shaken by disasters. Napoleon seemed both brilliant and inept. Diplomacy worked magic for both sides, then bad luck dashed careful arrangements. Napoleon’s declining fortunes eventually lead him to recognise an independent and neutral Switzerland. A historic event, but one designed to secure French borders. The Swiss had been very favourable to Napoleon especially after he swept away a lot of the old feudal chains on the people, making them free and equal citizens before the law. Tsar Alexander was happy with Swiss neutrality and didn’t want it violated, whilst Metternich busied himself trying to create a revolt in Switzerland to restore the Ancien Regime, causing the Tsar to erupt in fury. Metternich didn’t care and wasn’t about to throw out the allied invasion plans simply to keep the Tsar happy or to respect the infant Swiss nation, so he arranged for the allied attack on France to continue through Switzerland. This would cause a permanent enmity between the Austrian’s and Russian’s.
It had the byproduct of making the fanatical Stein see Austrian influence in Germany as being untrustworthy and dangerous to German morals. It strengthened his views that only a pure unified Germany was acceptable.
I know some of you are thinking; well this is great, but is it really influencing the Victorians? Yes, yes it absolutely it. You can already see that the building blocks for the rise of Germany are being put in place. The mutual resentments on the continent that will lead to wars, alliances and the scramble for colonies oversea’s were all being mixed into the brew here. Napoleon hadn’t even been deposed in 1813, but you can see the outline of the some of the causes of World War One and Two. I think I should emphasise again that a lot of nations in Europe really aren’t anything like as old as they claim, and a lot of the borders are a bit more arbitrary than they would like to admit. With the exception of France, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Armenia and Russia, a lot of European nations have not had their borders or citizenships well defined for a very long rim at all, and they have been very changeable. This set up, post war, world would mean that absence of conflict in Europe and the balance of power meant that the nation states that were growing in power could no longer expand within Europe and had to look oversea’s for their expansion.
The natural place came to be in South Asia or Africa because expansion in Europe was no longer possible. So in many ways this would help focus Europe outwards in the age of Victorians and mean that Britain, instead of having to worry about continental wars, would now be able to focus on her wider world interests. This was a huge step change. European stability had an immense impact but it also meant that democratic reform, or political reform, or social reform, were all to be kept under wraps for this early period. This would help push pressure for reform in the early Victoria era and some of the mass migrations that would help shape the world.
Eventually the manoeuvre’s had to come to a head. Metternich had three of the heads of state in one place, so the coalition could make quick decisions, but as usual the British were absent. British law of the time prevented the King or Prince Regent travelling oversea’s unlike the Tsar or King of Prussia. The British didn’t even have a representative and viewed everything Metternich did as dishonest, especially as the always efficient British spy network had got access to all of Metternich’s secret papers. In fairness to Metternich he somehow had to hold together the largest diplomatic alliance in the history of Europe and keep it pointed at the greatest military commander of modern history, despite wildly different agenda’s.
Still there was one brutal fact that was compelling the British to actually get more involved in diplomacy. They had already been shocked and disbelieving when British envoy’s had found Europeans didn’t view British goals and actions in a favourable and friendly way as was assumed in London. As is a repeated failing in British history, British statesmen acted in what they thought was a genuine and noble way, and simply couldn’t understand how anyone else could have a different view of their actions. The British were incapable of seeing things from someone else’s point of view. But the brutal fact I mentioned was something that always forces people to concentrate; money. The 20 years of war had cost the British over £700,000,000. That is a staggering sum of money especially in 1815. Absolutely staggering. This is more, from what I can see of my reading than they had spent during WW1. It showed just how enormously wealthy the British actually were, but a lot of this was the result of Britain being able to militarise the national debt but even the seemingly unlimited wealth of trade, slavery, looting, coal, the spinning jenny and cotton mills had limits. War with America, with France, and with many other powers, was becoming too expensive.
So in December 1813 Castlereagh and his family battled storms and snow to cross the channel and arrive in the Netherlands. Metternich had previous wanted the British to get more involved in European diplomacy, and he was about to get his wish although he probably regretted it sometimes. For the first time in a long time, the British were about to really flexi their muscles on the continent and start dictating the New World Order. The British would be a supreme power players in the European order for years to come.
British vision on the continent might have been limited, but when it came to the wider world, the British were well aware that they were the supreme naval power. This in turn made them the supreme European power in the wider world. The United States was still an infant nation, with immense potential, but a very small navy. The British had recently conquered Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon. They were the main power in India and the elimination of the French meant the riches and resources of the entire Indian sub continent were laid before them. European rulers were envious. Indian rulers who followed events in Europe would be very aware that the British were now the main European power. The network of naval bases would allow them to intensify that hold. Better still for the British, there was now no French naval action in the far East to impede trade. This would play into the hands of the East India Company.
Nothing would persuade any British statesman that any post war settlement should restore French influence in India.
Please note that when I’m talking about India here, I’m using a very modern short hand. India of the early C19th was made of a number of proud states or Empires with some long histories. The Shikh state of the Punjab in particular would demonstrate a military capacity on a par with the British, and Sikh soldiers were some of the finest & bravest in the world.
With French oversea’s ambitions destroyed, and most continental powers focusing on the continent, the principle points of interest for the British in Europe remained the Mediterranean and entrance to the Black Sea. These were of great concern to Russia, which wanted civilian and military shipping access to the Mediterranean. You might notice that this remains a thread in C20th history and even modern Russian relations.
This would impact on the ailing Ottoman Empire, and further complicated matters. Naturally the Austrians were concerned as Russian expansion on the shores of the Black Sea and Crimea would impact their territories in the Bulkans.
Battlestar Galactica fans might be tempted to say “all this has been before and will be again.”
I hope you are beginning to see that European diplomacy can become very tangled, very quickly. Mutual distrust, wildly different goals, mismatched ambition and resources, plus concepts of national honour meant that things were going to be really tricky. You can see why the British appointing someone like Castlereagh with no knowledge or experience of Europe could be exasperating to the other parties.
But for now, we’ve had a real belter of an episode. There’s a huge amount of background information I’ve give you here. Next time we will deal with the actual nuts and bolts of events and look at some of the people who were involved in a bit more detail.