Like the peace-makers at the end of every great war, the powers who assembled at Vienna promised the world that its sacrifices would not go for nothing. Napoleon had redrawn the map of Europe according to his own wishes, erasing a country here and creating one there, turning monarchs into paupers and his relatives and henchmen into kings. But the Allies, led by the moralistic and self-mythologizing Tsar Alexander, had vowed that they were fighting to return the principles of justice to international affairs. Mr. Zamoyski, who finds Alexander a repellent but irresistible subject, writes that the tsar “had come to view his struggle with the French Emperor not only as a personal contest, or as a clash between two empires, but as a veritable Armageddon between good and evil.”
The problem was that good did not defeat Napoleon; the armies of three monarchs did, and each of those monarchs had his own vision for postwar Europe. Combining impressive scholarship — “Rites of Peace” cites sources in English, French, Russian and German — and a gift for clear narrative, Mr. Zamoyski unravels the tangle of motives and propaganda to show just what was at stake for each participant in the Congress. France, ironically, had the least to gain or lose. Her borders had been decided on months earlier, when the allied armies entered Paris. Instead, the major problems had to do with Poland and Germany, whose political arrangements had been thrown into complete chaos by the war.
Geographically, the problem at Vienna was roughly the same as the one facing the Allies at Potsdam in 1945. Russia, which bore the brunt of the war against Napoleon, had marched its armies across Europe and was now effectively in control of Poland and much of Prussia. Alexander, who had a messianic dream of restoring Poland to the map as a kingdom under his control, refused to give back the parts of Poland that had formerly belonged to Prussia. As a result, Prussia sought compensation to the west, demanding to annex the independent kingdom of Saxony. Austria, meanwhile, under the wily conservative Metternich, hoped to maintain a balance of power, to rein in Alexander’s ambitions, and to keep Prussia from dominating the smaller German states. It was a thoroughly unedifying spectacle, in which the great powers swapped cities and provinces like horse-traders, while the claims of small nations were ruthlessly ignored.
By the time the Congress produced its Final Act, in June 1815 — after a hiatus for Napoleon’s Hundred Days, a romantic episode to which Mr. Zamoyski devotes little attention — no one could still believe that a fairer world was in the offing. “We are completing the sad business of the Congress,” wrote one diplomat, “which, by its results, is the most mean-spirited piece of work ever seen.” As in 1945, power trumped justice, especially in Eastern Europe. Mr. Zamoyski has little patience for the argument, made by Henry Kissinger in his 1957 study “A World Restored,” that at least the Congress established a workable international system that could guarantee peace.
In fact, he insists, the settlement of Vienna — which frustrated national aspirations in Germany and Italy, and installed “legitimate” autocrats in Spain and elsewhere — guaranteed an endless cycle of repression and revolution, which finally issued in the cataclysmic wars of the 20th century. “The peacemakers of Vienna,” Mr. Zamoyski concludes, “had attempted to reconstruct a European community in total disregard of the direction in which the Continent was moving,” and rulers and peoples alike paid the price.
The lesson of the English/American Revolution is so simple and yet we’ve had so much trouble learning it: governments have to be consensual to be legitimate.