This international assembly could be said to have established the system of diplomacy that lasted throughout the 19th century, and a long way beyond. It set out to settle the affairs of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, whom when it began was supposedly safely locked up on the island of Elba. Despite the Emperor’s escape and subsequent attempt at European domination – again – the Congress continued during the Hundred Days (March – to June, 1815) that led to Waterloo. After Bonaparte had been taken to St. Helena (where he died) the whole of Europe could, for the first time in thirty-five years, breathe freely again.
The chief delegates at the Congress were Metternich (Austria); Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington (Britain); Alexander I and others (Russia); Hardenberg (Prussia); Talleyrand (France); and Cardinal Consalvi (The Papacy). The Leader or Secretary-General of the Congress was von Gentz, a Prussian who had served in the Austrian diplomatic service since 1802. He was Metternich’s political adviser.
Most of the major decisions were taken by the four leading victorious states (Austria, Britain, Russia and Prussia), but clever Talleyrand, representing defeated France, found a way into the main sessions of the Congress by playing off rival groups against each other, and making himself indispensable in the voting.
The territorial settlement was embodied in the ‘Final Act’ of 9 June, which is generally better known as ‘The Treaty of Vienna’. There were three important territorial inventions or creations: a United Kingdom of the Netherlands (Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg); a German Confederation, which consisted of thirty-nine vaguely connected states with no central administration; and the free city of Crakow.
Two ‘subject kingdoms’ were created: Lombardy-Venetia (whose king was the Austrian Emperor) and Poland, ruled by the Tsar. The legitimate dynasties were restored in Spain, Naples, Piedmont, Tuscany and Modena. The Congress re-established the Swiss Confederation, providing a guaranteed permanence to Switzerland’s neutrality. Austria not only got Lombardy-Venetia, but Dalmatia, Tyrol, Salzburg and Galicia (not the Spanish Galicia).
Prussia obtained Posen, Danzig and a large slice of Saxony, much of Westphalia and the former Swedish territories in Pomerania. The Norwegians were united to Sweden (not very popular with the Norwegians), and Britain retained Malta, Heligoland, the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), Ceylon (now Sri Lankar), Tobago, Santa Lucia and Mauritious; Britain was also given a protectorate over the Ionian Islands that was effective only until 1863.
Apart from the territorial changes in the Final Act, the Conference made several pronouncements of general importance: it established the principle of free navigation of the rivers Rhine and Meuse; it formally condemned the slave trade and the trafficking of slaves as illegal; it recommended an extension of the rights granted to Jews, especially in Germany; and it settled questions of ambassadorial precedence.
It would be correct to say that the Congress restored political stability to Europe, but often at the unexpected cost of nationalist and liberal aspirations.