“Reads like a novel. A fast-paced page-turner, it has everything: sex, wit, humor, and adventures. But it is an impressively researched and important story.”
—David Fromkin, author of Europe’s Last Summer
Vienna, 1814 is an evocative and brilliantly researched account of the most audacious and extravagant peace conference in modern European history. With the feared Napoleon Bonaparte presumably defeated and exiled to the small island of Elba, heads of some 216 states gathered in Vienna to begin piecing together the ruins of his toppled empire. Major questions loomed: What would be done with France? How were the newly liberated territories to be divided? What type of restitution would be offered to families of the deceased? But this unprecedented gathering of kings, dignitaries, and diplomatic leaders unfurled a seemingly endless stream of personal vendettas, long-simmering feuds, and romantic entanglements that threatened to undermine the crucial work at hand, even as their hard-fought policy decisions shaped the destiny of Europe and led to the longest sustained peace the continent would ever see.
Beyond the diplomatic wrangling, however, the Congress of Vienna served as a backdrop for the most spectacular Vanity Fair of its time. Highlighted by such celebrated figures as the elegant but incredibly vain Prince Metternich of Austria, the unflappable and devious Prince Talleyrand of France, and the volatile Tsar Alexander of Russia, as well as appearances by Ludwig van Beethoven and Emilia Bigottini, the sheer star power of the Vienna congress outshone nearly everything else in the public eye.
An early incarnation of the cult of celebrity, the congress devolved into a series of debauched parties that continually delayed the progress of peace, until word arrived that Napoleon had escaped, abruptly halting the revelry and shrouding the continent in panic once again.
Vienna, 1814 beautifully illuminates the intricate social and political intrigue of this history-defining congress–a glorified party that seemingly valued frivolity over substance but nonetheless managed to drastically reconfigure Europe’s balance of power and usher in the modern age.
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About the Author
A Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree from Cambridge University, DAVID KING is the author of the acclaimed Finding Atlantis. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife and children.
Read an Excerpt
Bread and Circuses
There is literally a royal mob here. Everybody is crying out: Peace! Justice! Balance of power! Indemnity! As for me, I am a looker-on. All the indemnity I ask for is a new hat. —Prince de Ligne
Ornate rococo carriages rumbled through a landscape scorched by twentysome years of revolution and warfare. Dangers lurked everywhere on the poor, unlit roadways. Cutthroat highwaymen preyed on isolated travelers, and inns were hardly safe havens, either, often little better than “murderer’s dens.” Venturing out into the bleak postwar world was for “the fearless, the foolish, or the suicidal.” During the autumn of 1814, it was also for the idealistic and the idle. Hordes of pleasure-seekers would flock to Vienna for an unprecedented pageant.
The occasion was the Congress of Vienna, the long-awaited peace conference to decide the future of Europe. Kings, queens, princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses, diplomats, and about a hundred thousand other visitors would make their way to the central European city, swelling the population by as much as a third. No one, though, it must be said, really had an idea of what to expect. The invitation for the congress had been sent by way of an announcement in the newspaper.
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had ripped Europe apart. For the first time in history, enormous armies based on universal conscription had marched across the continent to wage a “total war.” France had set the standard for this comprehensive mobilization of the people with the famous decree of August 1793:
The young shall fight; married men shall forge weapons and transport supplies; the women will make tents and clothes and will serve in the hospitals; the children will make old linen into lint; the old men will have themselves carried into the public squares to rouse the courage of fighting men.
By the end of the war in the spring of 1814, the suffering had been immense—a terrible ordeal that ruined states, wrecked economies, and ravaged families. As many as 5 million people were dead, and many more had been permanently or seriously disabled. Entire villages had been wiped off the map. Lands had been devastated, laws trammeled, and atrocities committed on a horrific scale.
The many issues arising out of this wreckage were, to be sure, tangled, thorny, and controversial. During the war, the Allied powers had understandably hoped to postpone the many difficult decisions until after victory. Now that Napoleon had been defeated, the only matter that had been officially decided was the question of France, which had been settled back in May 1814, after two months of wrangling following the capture of the capital.
According to the terms of the Treaty of Paris, France’s frontiers were redrawn as they had been on the first of January 1792. This meant that France would have to surrender the vast majority of its conquests, but not, in fact, all of them. Any territory that France had seized by that date twenty-two years before would be retained, including communities in the northeast, Chambéry in Savoy, the former papal enclave of Avignon, and even some colonies in the new world. Thanks to the treaty, France would actually possess more territory and a greater population than it had under Louis XIV, Louis XV, or Louis XVI.
The Allies had hoped that such generous terms would help the new king, Louis XVIII, establish himself on the throne, and at the same time, reintegrate his country peacefully into the international community. That’s also why the victors spared France many of the usual penalties inflicted on a defeated power. There was no indemnity to pay, no foreign occupation army to endure, and no limitation, in any way, on the size of the army. This was, in many ways, a remarkably lenient agreement.
Everything else, however, remained unresolved. The Vienna Congress would have to make some hard decisions about the former empire and its many satellite kingdoms. At stake was virtually all of western Europe, vast realms east of the Rhine, and some highly coveted islands from the Caribbean to the East Indies.
The most difficult of these questions, at least at the beginning, was the fate of Poland. Napoleon had called this country the “key to the vault,” and the so-called enlightened despots of the eighteenth century had tried to seize as much of its strategic territory as possible, carving it up no fewer than three times. By 1795, Poland had completely disappeared from the map, devoured, as Frederick the Great had said, “like an artichoke, leaf by leaf.”
Russia had ended up with the lion’s share of Polish territory, including Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and eastern Poland. Austria had taken the ancient capital of Kraków, along with the rich agricultural region of eastern Galicia and the salt mines of Tarnopol. Prussia had seized Warsaw, Gdánsk, and the strip of territory running north to the sea later known as the “Polish Corridor.” For many, such a cynical and ruthless display of power politics was simply indefensible.
During the war, Napoleon had played on these sentiments, blasting the Polish partitions as “unforgivable, immoral, and impolitic.” He promised the Poles that if they could prove to him that they were “worthy of being a nation,” he would restore their country. But despite the many Polish sacrifices, Napoleon never did more than create the tiny Duchy of Warsaw, and exploit it ruthlessly. The Vienna Congress seemed an excellent opportunity finally to restore Poland, though finding a solution was not going to be easy.
Napoleon, moreover, had been a fertile kingmaker, placing family and friends on thrones all over the continent, from Italy to Holland to Spain. Napoleon had also created brand-new kingdoms in Germany, such as the Kingdom of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony. What were the victors going to do with all the newly minted monarchs desperately clutching their crowns? What, for that matter, was going to happen to the older ruling families who had been ousted in the Napoleonic whirlwind and were now lobbying for a return to their kingdoms? The Vienna Congress was gearing up for an unusual battle royal for the thrones of Europe.
In addition, there was also a controversy brewing about the works of art that had been stolen. In only a few years, Napoleon and his Grande Armée had earned a reputation as history’s most audacious thieves. Countless masterpieces from Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Rembrandt were carted up and carried off by Napoleon’s henchmen. The emperor’s goal was simple: to make the city of Paris, as he put it, “the most beautiful that could ever exist.” The Frenchman in charge of the art confiscations, Dominique-Vivant Denon, acted with a merciless efficiency, and transformed his museum, the Louvre, into an artistic “wonder of the world.”
Now all these sculptures, paintings, jewels, tapestries, and other stolen treasures were once again up for grabs. The French, of course, insisted on retaining their war trophies, and the Allied powers had tentatively agreed, adding a clause to the Treaty of Paris allowing France to keep its loot. But in the autumn of 1814 there was a new call to return the art to its previous owners, and this motion was particularly popular among the heavily despoiled lands such as Italy and the Netherlands.
Indeed along with the official delegations, there were many informal and unofficial representatives, often self-appointed, that came to press their own hopes and projects. As the form of the congress had been vague, many believed that they had a right to participate in the decision making and arrived fully expecting to do so. These private delegations would be selling everything from constitutions to songs. One American entrepreneur, Dr. Justus Bollmann, arrived with a whole portfolio of projects, including a plan to create the first steamship company on the Danube.
There were delegations coming from Frankfurt, Lübeck, and Prague to protect the rights of Jewish minorities, so recently granted under Napoleon and now at risk of being repealed. One group wanted the congress to launch a crusade against piracy around the world, from the corsairs infesting the Mediterranean to the buccaneers raiding the Caribbean. Representatives of publishing firms came to Vienna to address another kind of piracy, “the gang of robbers known as literary pirates” who unscrupulously preyed “with impunity against authors and publishers.” The hope was to create an international copyright to protect intellectual property.
Everyone, it seemed, had a vision of how the postwar world should best be reconstructed. The problem, however, was that the peacemakers were far more divided than it was imagined. And all the underlying differences, which had been so successfully suppressed in the life- and-death struggle against Napoleon, would now reemerge in Vienna with a vengeance.
The Habsburg capital was a good choice for the world meeting. Geographically and culturally, Vienna was the heart of Europe. Until as late as August 1806, Vienna had been the center of the Holy Roman Empire, the gigantic, ramshackle realm that had been dismantled by Napoleon. After nearly a thousand-year run, looming over central Europe at times with a menacing and other times tottering presence, the Holy Roman Empire was no more. Imperial majesty and grandeur, however, had far from faded.
“The city proper,” one traveler noted on entering Vienna’s gates, “seems like a royal palace.” Grand baroque mansions lined the narrow, twisting lanes that snaked their way through the old medieval center. Spires, domes, towers, and neoclassical columns carved in bright white stone, each roof and facade looked more sumptuous and elaborately adorned than the next. Rows of large bay windows predominated, overlooking one of the greenest capitals in Europe, a fact that was due at least partly to the foresight of the eighteenth- century emperor Joseph II, who had decreed that a tree must be planted for every one cut down.
Vienna had indeed an aristocratic flair that many other cities like London lacked, or like Paris had lost since the revolution. Austrian, Hungarian, and Bohemian aristocrats lived there, often in mansions with their own ballrooms, riding schools, and sometimes even private opera houses. Many French émigrés fleeing the revolution had also settled there, though most were considerably poorer now, and lived in cheaper third- and fourth-floor apartments.
The merchant class, if that term can be used about such a small group, was not that visible in Vienna, and the town’s artisans overwhelmingly geared their production to meeting the demands of court and society, making saddles, harnesses, carriages, clocks, musical instruments, and other luxuries. The biggest source of production was still wine, which always found a ready market in a town where residents, as one historian put it, “lunched until dinner, and then dined until supper.”
The vast majority of the events at the peace congress would take place in the old town, still encircled by its city walls, which ran roughly along the lines of today’s sweeping boulevard, the Ringstrasse. According to legend, the thick stone walls had been constructed using ransom money for King Richard I, “the Lion- Hearted,” who was captured in 1193 on his way to the Second Crusade. In reality, the walls were built and rebuilt almost incessantly over the centuries, as they withstood various sieges, including two particularly frightful ones from the Turks. After the last attack from the French in 1809, the city walls were not being reconstructed, and the remaining bastions would serve at the congress mainly as a fashionable walkway affording some excellent views of the town.
Vienna was built on a large plain where the Danube divides and can be easily forded, as the Romans who founded a camp there in the first century discovered. During the Middle Ages, the small town lay on the exposed eastern rim of Charlemagne’s empire, a fact that survives in the German name for Austria, Österreich. Historically, Vienna has long served as a crossroads between east and west. Crusaders, merchants, friars, and many other travelers would pass through the town, traveling east along its river—the mighty, muddy Danube, flowing on its two-thousand-mile journey from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.
With a population reaching some quarter of a million, and ranked third in size behind London and Paris, Vienna enjoyed a reputation for being a joyous and sensuous, if also irritable and somewhat cranky, place. “Vienna is the city of the world where the most uncommon raptures are experienced,” as the French émigré Baronne du Montet put it. Another admirer, the songwriter Count Auguste de La Garde-Chambonas, who had traveled extensively in his search for adventure, called Vienna enthusiastically “the homeland of happiness.” That autumn, the visitors to the peace conference would see exactly what he meant.
Hosting the congress officially was the emperor of Austria, Francis I, the last person ever to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Born in Florence, Italy, Francis was head of the Habsburg family, Europe’s oldest and arguably most illustrious dynasty, occupying the throne in virtual unbroken succession since the thirteenth century. The single exception to this six-hundred-year dominance was Charles VII of the Wittelsbach family, who ruled briefly in the early 1740s, before the crown reverted to the Habsburgs (or more correctly, as they were known, from then on, the House of Habsburg-Lorraine).
Emperor Francis stood about medium height with high, sharply chiseled cheekbones, snow-white hair, and the infamous Habsburg jaw that jutted out from his bony face. He was only forty-six years old, though he looked considerably older. He had already weathered twenty- two stormy years on the throne, facing first the French Revolution and then Napoleon. Indeed, Emperor Francis looked tired and worn-out, or as one put it, “If you blew hard, you’d blow him to the ground.”
As insiders knew, Francis was popular among the people and the court. He was called “Papa Franz” and “the father of his country,” and was celebrated in music, including Joseph Haydn’s “God Save Emperor Franz!” (the melody still used for the German national anthem). Some family members called the white-haired emperor Venus, the goddess of love. This was admittedly something of a Habsburg eccentricity, though the emperor was a well-known lover of statues, seals, and antiquities, and he looked out with a gaze as dreamy and blank as any ancient sculpture.
When the emperor was not trying to make order out of the managed chaos of the administration, which far too often seemed to run in circles after yet another rubber stamp, Francis enjoyed the music of this great Musikstadt. The emperor played the violin in the family string quartet, sometimes accompanied by his foreign minister, Metternich, on the cello. Francis also liked to make candy, tend to his plants in the palace hothouses, and study the large collection of maps in his library. The emperor possessed a knowledge of continental geography that, among the sovereigns coming to the congress, was unmatched. His large book collection, which at his death reached forty thousand volumes, would form the core of the Austrian National Library.
The headquarters for the social maelstrom of the Vienna Congress would be Emperor Francis’s palace, the Hofburg, or as it was known, the Burg. Originally a functional four-tower fortress built into the old city wall as part of the city’s defenses in the late thirteenth century, the rambling palace had grown to occupy several blocks in the city center as the Habsburg rulers continually added new wings and courts.
Table of ContentsPreface 1
Bread and Circuses 5
Two Princes 15
Illustrious Strangers 24
Dorothee's Choice 34
The Big Four 44
Bartering Destiny 53
"Europe, Unhappy Europe" 63
Spies Are Everywhere! 69
Dancing with the World in Their Hands 78
The People's Festival 89
A Lawless Scramble? 97
Six Weeks of Hell 110
Robinson Crusoe 122
Dinner with the Tsar 131
Pursuing Phantoms 138
The Last Joust 148
"The Glorious Moment" 157
The Cook, the Painter, the Ballerina, and the Diplomat 166
King of the Suburbs 186
The Great Sleigh Ride 201
"Odious and Criminal Traffick in Human Flesh" 211
Before the Cake Was Cut 218
Time to Save the World Again 228
His Majesty, the Outlaw 234
With the Spring Violets 245
Criers of Vive le Roi! Doers of Nothing 252
Conquering the Peace 269
To Conquer or Die 277
La Belle Alliance 287
Shifting Sand 301
List of Abbreviations of Works Frequently Cited 325
Notes and Sources 327
Illustration Credits 418
What People are Saying About This
“King reveals his talent for narrative flow and portraiture in a biography that will thoroughly inveigle history readers.”
“A teeming…personality-rich panorama of the first truly international peace conference.”
“A fascinating tale that shines light on a unique aspect of the relationship between scholarship and nationalism.”
"It would have been more fun to attend the Congress of Vienna than any other political assembly in history. Next best is to immerse yourself in David King's Vienna 1814, which reads like a novel. A fast-paced page-turner, it has everything: sex, wit, humor, and adventures. But it is an impressively-researched and important story that it tells. There was much frivolousness in the Vienna congress, but it did bring peace to Europe and shape the 19th century; and while the deliberations of the Vienna statesmen took place, the fate of the world hung in the balance."
—David Fromkin, author of Europe’s Last Summer
“Deftly paced and engagingly written.”
“King does a superb job of evoking the bedazzling social scene that served as the backdrop to the Congress of Vienna. This is a worthy contribution to the study of a critical historical event long neglected by historians. It should be in every European history collection.”
—Library Journal, starred review
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is a piece of serious scholarship, based on hundreds of sources, with detailed analysis of the facts. It is also highly readable with a cast of hundreds of characters, many of whom were the crowned heads of Europe but who were also mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The whole event becomes somewhat surreal when you learn that the full Congress never met. Yet out of the deliberations of the participants who often worked through informal get togethers at the lavish salons and balls, came arrangements for a post-Napoleon era where some international borders are still recognisable today. Insightful and well-written, this is a story to ponder over and wonder how so much could be achieved affecting so many people.
Oh so good, but drags just a touch.
An excellent account of an important time period! Well researched and documented.
"The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different." Aldous Huxley Do not be confused by this book about the Congress of Vienna in 1814. It reads like a novel, but it is serious history as the almost 90 pages of "Notes & Sources" can testify. The style is easy: perhaps a little simplistic in places, but none-the-less an excellent read. If your politics lean ever so slightly to the left, David King's book will drive you to distraction. It describes in detail how the privileged few, carved up Europe after Napoleon's abdication. It demonstrates the blatant greed and narcissism of Kings, Emperors and their Ministers. We learn about the rich man's wars, but not too much about the poor man's fight. King takes us deeply into the chess game that was European politics, and we can see the mind-set that set Europe ablaze in 1914. Well-behaved women rarely make history. Vienna 1814 confirms that in spades. I never cease to be amazed by man's inability to keep his level of concentration above his navel for more that limited periods. The future of Europe was never allowed to interfere with the latest sexual conquest. A 100 years later, nothing had changed. During cabinet meetings discussing the war in France, H.H.Asquith (Prime Minister), wrote love letters to Venitia Stanley. They were not very effective. She got engaged to one of his staff - but omitted to mention it. There were however two notable exceptions to this broad condemnation of the 'Powers that be'; and they were both English. The first was Robert Stewart - Lord Castlereagh, foreign secretary under Lord Liverpool, and the Duke of Wellington. Castlereagh did his best to get some sense out of the Congress, and was fired for his trouble. The Iron Duke took over and was fortunate that Napoleon skipped Elba and he was able to charge off to Waterloo and win the ultimate battle. The frightening thing about this book is that nothing has changed. The Congress of Vienna was dominated by an aggressive Russia hell-bent on expansion. Replace Tsar Alexander with Mr Putin, and it is apparent that we have not progressed very far in the last 194 years. Rich man's war, poor man's fight - 'twas ever thus.
Well researched, highly readable account of the Congress of Vienna. I was vagely familiar with this conference and the major players, but the profiles provided in this book of Talleyrand, Czar Alexander, Metternich, Napoleon (who was in exile on Elba), and others were clear and interesting. Unknown to me were the long term effects of this summit of royalty and diplomats, on the future of Europe and the world. The conference went beyond a normal 'divide the spoils' mentality after the first defeat of Napoleon and touched on such modern(for the time) topics as, abolition of slavery, freedom of the press, freedom of religion.
If you are interested in the intrigues and concerns of all the monarchies at Vienna following the exile of Napoleon to Elba this is the book for you. A close up look at the plots and ploys of all the powers involved including Republican France. All the main players are here. Their goals and desires...including the role played by important women of the day. You will read of the Congress itself and the heavy burden placed upon Austria who hosted hundreds and hundreds of people, feeding them day after day with incredible meals...to the point the Austrian treasury thought they would bankrupt themselves with the expense. If you enjoy a close look at life and politics in this particular period you will not be unhappy with this work. I, infact, enjoyed it so much I purchased a copy for a friend. You will gain an insight into the mindset of Napoleion's contemporaries and the concerns about a Republican France and why they considered restoring the monarchy to France. You will not be displeased with this work.
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