15th September 1814 was the opening day of the Congress of Vienna, an assembly of many of the crowned heads of Europe, together with politicians from many others, with the aim of sorting Europe out after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
At least, that was the intention. Napoleon had been forced to abdicate at the palace of Fontainebleau on 11th April, after which he was exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of northern Italy. The surrender of France was officially recognised in the Treaty of Paris on 30th May 1814.
However, he escaped from Elba on 26th February 1815, raised a fresh army, and enjoyed his “hundred days” of renewed power until his final defeat at Waterloo, near Brussels, on 18th June 1815.
Despite these events, the Congress of Vienna carried on redrawing the map of Europe, on the assumption that Napoleon would eventually be defeated a second time. Indeed, the “Final Act” of the Congress was only signed on 9th June, several days before the Battle of Waterloo took place. Had that battle had a different conclusion, a lot of time and effort, not to mention expense, would have been wasted.
The Congress was both a diplomatic conference and a celebration. With all those royals and dignitaries descending on the most glamorous city in Europe, it was to be expected that they would enjoy themselves at the same time as restoring the balance of power. There were therefore balls, concerts and banquets a-plenty during the months of the Congress, with the immense wealth of the hosts and their guests being on display and each delegation seeking to impress the rest. A notable event was a concert conducted by Ludwig van Beethoven that included his 7th Symphony.
Despite all the partying, the Congress did succeed in creating a Europe that worked, although the “great powers” of Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia came out of it considerably strengthened, often at the expense of lesser powers. It cannot be said that Europe during the 19th century was entirely peaceful, but at least the boundaries established at Vienna were largely those that existed at the outbreak of World War I, almost exactly a century later.
© John Welford