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Congress System

Key events



Differences of the European Powers in the congresses during 1818-1822

Origin of the Eastern Question



European diplomacy and the Congress System, 1815-56: a brief survey

The Vienna settlement 1814-15

- To keep peace in Europe after the downfall of Napoleon.

Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg were united in the kingdom of the Netherlands. Lombardy-Venetia was controlled by Austria. The German Confederation of 39 states was established under the presidency of Austria. Prussia received Posen, Danzig and parts of Saxony, Westphalia and Pomerania. Britain gained overseas territories, Malta, Heligoland and the Cape of Good Hope. The Pope regained the Papal States. Norway was united with Sweden. Russia gained Finland. Switzerland became independent.

To prevent revolutions, legitimate rulers were restored in France, Spain, Naples, Tuscany and other parts of Italy. Free navigation was established on the rivers Rhine and Meuse. The slave trade was condemned. The rights of Jews were extended.

Aims of the settlement

Austria (Metternich), Britain (Castlereagh and Wellington), Prussia (Hardenberg) and Russia (Alexander 1) were determined to settle Europe after the years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Talleyrand was admitted to represent France.

The settlement was a series of compromises. France was contained but not harshly punished. Russian expansion in eastern Europe was feared and limited. Austria gained influence in Germany and Italy. Prussia extended its territories. Britain's main interests were overseas. Minor states were treated as pawns. Some were combined to form larger states. Former rulers were restored. But nationalist feeling was thought unimportant, even dangerous, by the major powers.

The Vienna settlement has been seen by some historians as a sensible arrangement. It was the best that could be expected in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, preventing war until 1854. Others have seen Vienna as showing the self-interest of the major states. Some of the terms were soon to cause trouble, especially as nationalism spread through Europe and people sought independence, e.g. in Italy, Germany and Belgium.

The Congress System

The Congress System was an attempt to maintain peace and order through the combined influence and actions of the major states. Some historians believe that the term 'System' is inaccurate because there was nothing systematic about the meetings and that they were individual responses to crises. Others see the congresses as a significant attempt to resolve tensions.

Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia formed the Quadruple Alliance and agreed to maintain peace (the Concert of Europe). But the major powers had different aims. Austria and Russia favoured intervention against revolutions; Britain did not wish to intervene in internal disputes.

Congresses were held to resolve disputes. At Aix-la-Chapelle, France was admitted to the Quintuple Alliance; the occupation of France ended. Troppau was a response to revolts in Spain, Portugal, Piedmont and Naples. Britain opposed intervention. At Laibach, Austria and Russia were ready to send soldiers against Italian revolts. Britain again opposed intervention. The Greek revolt caused disagreements. Britain (represented by Canning) withdrew at Verona when French troops were used against rebellion in Spain. Only Austria, Prussia and Russia met at St Petersburg (1825), an unsuccessful attempt to resolve their problems.

Revolutionary movements

Soon after 1815, nationalist movements developed to threaten stability. Metternich was particularly concerned to stabilise the Austrian empire with its many races. The German Diet, encouraged by Metternich, passed the Carlsbad Decrees (1819) to suppress liberal groups. There were more reactionary measures in the 1830s. In Italy, the Risorgimento ('Resurrection') movement developed. Following the failure of the 1830 revolution to unite Italy, Mazzini founded the 'Young Italy' movement (1831). Belgium became independent (1831) and its neutrality was confirmed (1839). Poland rebelled against Russia (1830 and 1846). Greece won its independence from the Turkish empire in 1830. A revolution against the absolute policies of Charles X of France resulted in his abdication and the monarchy of Louis Philippe.

The Eastern Question

The Eastern Question was a particularly tangled problem in which the interests of all of the major European powers and the Turkish empire were concerned. It began well before the nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth century. There is a direct link between the Eastern Question and the troubles in the Balkans which were to cause the First World War.

A declining Turkish empire ('the sick man of Europe') controlled much of the Balkans and Middle East. Russia wished to gain direct access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles and to protect the rights of Orthodox Christians in the Muslim Turkish empire. Austria had its own empire in the Balkans and did not favour the growth of Russian power. Britain feared Russian expansion into the Mediterranean and Middle East because of its own interests in the region and in the route to India. France wished to secure the rights to protect Christian holy places in Palestine.

After 1815, British and French suspicions of Russia increased. Successive treaties, e.g. the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (1833) and the Straits Convention (1841), did not resolve the problem. The Crimean War broke out in 1854 with Britain, France and later Piedmont joining the Ottoman empire against Russia. Although Austria opposed Russia, it did not intervene.

In the Peace of Paris (1856) Russia surrendered its claims to land and the protectorate of Orthodox Christians, Turkey allowed disputed regions some self-government and the Black Sea was closed to all (particularly Russian) warships.

It was an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the Eastern Question. Turkey continued to decline. Russia maintained its ambitions in the region and the peoples of the Balkans sought independence from Turkey. Britain continued to suspect Russian motives.

The Crimean War also had important internal effects on countries. Alexander II, the new tsar of Russia, became convinced of the need for reform. Austria was isolated. Napoleon III of France was encouraged to pursue a bold foreign policy, leading to conflict with Austria and Prussia in 1860s. Piedmont had taken a small, but important, step to the leadership of Italy and completed its unification later.

Key events

1814 Downfall of Napoleon. Congress of Vienna

1815  Vienna settlement. Quadruple Alliance. Holy Alliance

1818 Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle

1820 Revolutions in Spain, Naples, Portugal. Congress of Troppau

1821 Revolt in Greece. Congress of Laibach

1822 Congress of Verona

1829 Treaty of Adrianople

1830 Greek independence

1831-9 Belgian independence

1841 Straits Convention

1854-6 Crimean War

1856 Peace of Paris


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