The Congress of Vienna



The Balance of Power

The Concert of Europe was a system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power.

Learning Objectives

Define the Balance of Power

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As the Napoleonic Wars came to close in the second decade of the 19th century, the Great Powers of Europe (Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria) started planning for the postwar world.
  • To bring about a balance of power in Europe and prevent further conflict, they developed what became known as the Concert of Europe, beginning with the Congress of Vienna.
  • The Congress of Vienna dissolved the Napoleonic world and attempted to restore the monarchies Napoleon had overthrown.
  • The Congress was the first occasion in history where on a continental scale, national representatives came together to formulate treaties instead of relying mostly on messages between the several capitals.
  • The Concert of Europe, despite later changes and diplomatic breakdowns a few decades later, formed the basic framework for European international politics until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Key Terms

  • balance of power: A theory in international relations that suggests that national security is enhanced when military capability is distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate all others. If one state becomes much stronger than others, the theory predicts it will take advantage of its strength and attack weaker neighbors, thereby providing an incentive for those threatened to unite in a defensive coalition.
  • Great Powers: A sovereign state recognized as having the ability and expertise to exert its influence on a global scale. They characteristically possess military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence, which may cause middle or small powers to consider the Great Powers’ opinions before taking actions of their own.
  • Concert of Europe: Also known as the Congress System or the Vienna System after the Congress of Vienna, a system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power.

Congress of Vienna

As the four major European powers (Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria) opposing the French Empire in the Napoleonic Wars saw Napoleon’s power collapsing in 1814, they started planning for the postwar world. The Treaty of Chaumont of March 1814 reaffirmed decisions that would be ratified by the more important Congress of Vienna of 1814–15. The Congress of Vienna was the first of a series of international meetings that came to be known as the Concert of Europe, an attempt to forge a peaceful balance of power in Europe. It served as a model for later organizations such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945. They included the establishment of a confederated Germany, the division of French protectorates and annexations into independent states, the restoration of the Bourbon kings of Spain, the enlargement of the Netherlands to include what in 1830 became modern Belgium, and the continuation of British subsidies to its allies. The Treaty of Chaumont united the powers to defeat Napoleon and became the cornerstone of the Concert of Europe, which formed the balance of power for the next two decades. The basic tenet of the European balance of power is that no single European power should be allowed to achieve hegemony over a substantial part of the continent and that this is best curtailed by having a small number of ever-changing alliances contend for power.

The Congress of Vienna dissolved the Napoleonic world and attempted to restore the monarchies Napoleon had overthrown, ushering in an era of reaction. Under the leadership of Metternich, the prime minister of Austria (1809–48) and Lord Castlereagh, the foreign minister of Great Britain (1812–22), the Congress set up a system to preserve the peace. Under the Concert of Europe, the major European powers—Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and (after 1818) France—pledged to meet regularly to resolve differences. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace. The leaders were conservatives with little use for republicanism or revolution, both of which threatened to upset the status quo in Europe. This plan was the first of its kind in European history and seemed to promise a way to collectively manage European affairs and promote peace.

The Congress resolved the Polish–Saxon crisis at Vienna and the question of Greek independence at Laibach. Three major European congresses took place. The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) ended the occupation of France. The others were meaningless as each nation realized the Congresses were not to their advantage, as disputes were resolved with a diminishing degree of effectiveness.

The Congress was the first occasion in history where, on a continental scale, national representatives came together to formulate treaties instead of relying mostly on messages between the several capitals. The Congress of Vienna settlement, despite later changes, formed the framework for European international politics until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Conservative Order

The Conservative Order is a term applied to European political history after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. From 1815 to 1830 a conscious program by conservative statesmen, including Metternich and Castlereagh, was put in place to contain revolution and revolutionary forces by restoring old orders, particularly previous ruling aristocracies.

Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria renewed their commitment to prevent any restoration of Bonapartist power and agreed to meet regularly in conferences to discuss their common interests. This period contains the time of the Holy Alliance, a military agreement. The Concert of Europe was the political framework that grew out of the Quadruple Alliance in November 1815.

The goal of the conservatives at the Congress, led by Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria, was to reestablish peace and stability in Europe. To accomplish this, a new balance of power had to be established. Metternich and the other four represented states sought to do this by restoring old ruling families and creating buffer zones between major powers. To contain the still powerful French, the House of Orange-Nassau was put on the throne in the Netherlands, which formerly comprised the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). To the southeast of France, Piedmont (officially part of the kingdom of Sardinia) was enlarged. The Bourbon dynasty was restored to France and Spain as well as a return of other legitimate rulers to the Italian states. And to contain the Russian empire, Poland was divided up between Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

Concert of Europe

The Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System or the Vienna System after the Congress of Vienna, was a System of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power. It grew out of Congress of Vienna. It operated in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the early 1820s.

The Concert of Europe was founded by the powers of Austria, Prussia, the Russian Empire, and the United Kingdom, who were the members of the Quadruple Alliance that defeated Napoleon and his First French Empire. In time, France was established as a fifth member of the Concert. At first, the leading personalities of the system were British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord of France was largely responsible for quickly returning that country to its place alongside the other major powers in international diplomacy.

The Concert of Europe had no written rules or permanent institutions, but at times of crisis any of the member countries could propose a conference. Meetings of the Great Powers during this period included: Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Carlsbad (1819), Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), Verona (1822), London (1832), and Berlin (1878).

An image of a cartoon by Honore Daumier, L’Equilibre Europea, that depicts many people holding up the globe with bayonets.

An image of a cartoon by Honore Daumier, L’Equilibre Europea, that depicts many people holding up the globe with bayonets.

Participants of the Congress

The leading participants of the Congress of Vienna were British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, all of whom had a reactionary, conservative vision for Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, favoring stability and the status quo over liberal progress.

Learning Objectives

Identify the participants in the Congress of Vienna and their representatives

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The objective of the Congress of Vienna was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
  • The leading personalities of the Congress were British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
  • These three leaders in the Congress are known for their conservatism, aimed at creating lasting peace and maintaining the status quo and opposed to liberal progress and nationalism.
  • This conservative agenda has been heavily criticized by many historians who argue that it stood in the way of progress and created the conditions for World War I.
  • Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord of France was largely responsible for quickly returning France to its place alongside the other major powers in international diplomacy after their defeat in the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Virtually every state in Europe had a delegation in Vienna – more than 200 states and princely houses were represented at the Congress.

Key Terms

  • reactionary: A person who holds political views that favor a return to the status quo ante, the previous political state of society, which they believe possessed characteristics (discipline, respect for authority, etc.) that are negatively absent from the contemporary status quo of a society.
  • Napoleonic Wars: A series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, primarily led and financed by the United Kingdom. War broke out as a continuation of the French Revolution, which had plunged the European continent into war since 1792.
  • Klemens von Metternich: A politician and statesman of Rhenish extraction and one of the most important diplomats of his era, serving as the Austrian Empire’s Foreign Minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821 until the liberal revolutions of 1848 forced his resignation. He led the Austrian delegation at the Congress of Vienna that divided post-Napoleonic Europe amongst the major powers.

The Congress of Vienna was a conference of ambassadors of European states chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and held in Vienna from November 1814 to June 1815, though the delegates had arrived and were already negotiating by late September 1814. The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. In a technical sense, the “Congress of Vienna” was not properly a Congress: it never met in plenary session, and most of the discussions occurred in informal, face-to-face sessions among the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia, and sometimes Prussia, with limited or no participation by other delegates.

Major Participants of the Congress

The Congress functioned through formal meetings such as working groups and official diplomatic functions; however, a large portion was conducted informally at salons, banquets, and balls.

Austria was represented by Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Foreign Minister, and by his deputy, Baron Johann von Wessenberg. As the Congress’s sessions were in Vienna, Emperor Francis was kept closely informed. Metternich was one of main architects of the balance of power in Europe and approached the matter from a perspective of conservatism. He was a staunch opponent of liberalism and nationalism, favoring instead the preservation of the status quo in the face of the revolutionary challenge. He was also wary of Russian dominance. Critics of his diplomatic agenda paint him as the man who prevented Austria and the rest of central Europe from “developing along normal liberal and constitutional lines.” Had Metternich not stood in the way of “progress,” some argue, Austria might have reformed and dealt better with its problems of nationality, and the First World War might never have happened.

Great Britain was represented first by its Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, then by the Duke of Wellington, after Castlereagh’s return to England in February 1815. In the last weeks it was headed by the Earl of Clancarty after Wellington left to face Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Castlereagh, a conservative like Metternich, had a vision of long-term peace in Europe that united efforts of the great powers. At the same time he was watchful of Britain’s mercantile and imperial interests. He saw that a harsh treaty based on vengeance and retaliation against France would fail, and anyway the conservative Bourbons were back in power. He employed his diplomatic skills to block harsh terms. Bringing France back into diplomatic balance was important to his vision of peace.

Tsar Alexander I controlled the Russian delegation formally led by the foreign minister, Count Karl Robert Nesselrode. The tsar had three main goals: to gain control of Poland, to form a league that could intervene and stop revolutions against monarchies and traditionalism, and to promote the peaceful coexistence of European nations. He succeeded in forming the Holy Alliance (1815), based on monarchism and anti-secularism, and formed to combat any threat of revolution or republicanism.

Prussia was represented by Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, the Chancellor, and the diplomat and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt. King Frederick William III of Prussia was also in Vienna, playing his role behind the scenes. Hardenberg was more liberal than the other main participants, and earlier in his career implemented a variety of liberal reforms. To him and Baron von Stein, Prussia was indebted for improvements in its army system, the abolition of serfdom and feudal burdens, the opening of civil service to all classes, and the complete reform of the educational system. However, by the time of the Congress of Vienna, the zenith of his influence, if not of his fame, was passed. In diplomacy he was no match for Metternich, whose influence soon overshadowed his own. During his late career he acquiesced to reactionary policies along the lines of the rest of the Congress.

France, the “fifth” power, was represented by its foreign minister, Talleyrand, as well as the Minister Plenipotentiary the Duke of Dalberg. Talleyrand had already negotiated the Treaty of Paris (1814) for Louis XVIII of France; the king, however, distrusted him and was also secretly negotiating with Metternich by mail. Talleyrand played a major role at the Congress, where he negotiated a favorable settlement for France while undoing Napoleon’s conquests. He sought a negotiated secure peace so as to perpetuate the gains of the French revolution.

Initially, the representatives of the four victorious powers hoped to exclude the French from serious participation in the negotiations, but Talleyrand skillfully managed to insert himself into “her inner councils” in the first weeks of negotiations. He allied himself to a Committee of Eight lesser powers (including Spain, Sweden, and Portugal) to control the negotiations. Once Talleyrand was able to use this committee to make himself a part of the inner negotiations, he then left it, once again abandoning his allies.

Congress Secretary Friedrich von Gentz reported, “The intervention of Talleyrand and Labrador has hopelessly upset all our plans. Talleyrand protested against the procedure we have adopted and soundly [be]rated us for two hours. It was a scene I shall never forget.”

Other Participants

  • Spain – Marquis Pedro Gómez de Labrador
  • Kingdom of Portugal and the Algarves – Plenipotentiaries: Pedro de Sousa Holstein, Count of Palmela; António de Saldanha da Gama, Count of Porto Santo; Joaquim Lobo da Silveira.
  • Sweden – Count Carl Löwenhielm
  • Denmark – Count Niels Rosenkrantz, foreign minister. King Frederick VI was also present in Vienna.
  • The Netherlands – Earl of Clancarty, the British Ambassador at the Dutch court, and Baron Hans von Gagern
  • Switzerland – Every canton had its own delegation. Charles Pictet de Rochemont from Geneva played a prominent role.
  • The Papal States – Cardinal Ercole Consalvi
  • Republic of Genoa – Marquise Agostino Pareto, Senator of the Republic
  • Bavaria – Maximilian Graf von Montgelas
  • Württemberg – Georg Ernst Levin von Wintzingerode
  • Hanover, then in a personal union with the British crown – Georg Graf zu Münster.
  • Mecklenburg-Schwerin – Leopold von Plessen

Virtually every state in Europe had a delegation in Vienna – more than 200 states and princely houses were represented at the Congress. In addition, there were representatives of cities, corporations, religious organizations (for instance, abbeys), and special interest groups (e.g. a delegation representing German publishers, demanding a copyright law and freedom of the press). The Congress was noted for its lavish entertainment: according to a famous joke it did not move, but danced.

A drawing of the participants of the Congress of Vienna, seated or standing in a lavishly decorated parlor room.

Participants of the Congress of Vienna: 1. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington 2. Joaquim Lobo Silveira, 7th Count of Oriola 3. António de Saldanha da Gama, Count of Porto Santo 4. Count Carl Löwenhielm 5. Jean-Louis-Paul-François, 5th Duke of Noailles 6. Klemens Wenzel, Prince von Metternich 7. André Dupin 8. Count Karl Robert Nesselrode 9. Pedro de Sousa Holstein, 1st Count of Palmela 10. Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh 11. Emmerich Joseph, Duke of Dalberg 12. Baron Johann von Wessenberg 13. Prince Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky 14. Charles Stewart, 1st Baron Stewart 15. Pedro Gómez Labrador, Marquis of Labrador 16. Richard Le Poer Trench, 2nd Earl of Clancarty 17. Wacken (Recorder) 18. Friedrich von Gentz (Congress Secretary) 19. Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt 20. William Cathcart, 1st Earl Cathcart 21. Prince Karl August von Hardenberg 22. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord 23. Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg

Territorial Changes in Europe

The goal of the Congress of Vienna was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other and remain at peace.

Learning Objectives

Outline the borders that changed in Europe after the Congress of Vienna

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Final Act, embodying all the separate treaties created at and around the Congress of Vienna, was signed on June 9, 1815, ushering in major territorial changes to Europe to create a balance of power between nations.
  • France lost all of its territorial conquests from the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Russia gained much of Poland, while Prussia added smaller German states in the west, Swedish Pomerania, and 40% of the Kingdom of Saxony.
  • The Congress created a Confederated Germany, a consolidation of the nearly 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire (dissolved in 1806) into a much less complex system of 39 states.
  • The Italian peninsula became a mere “geographical expression” divided into seven parts: Lombardy-Venetia, Modena, Naples-Sicily, Parma, Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany, and the Papal States under the control of different powers.

Key Terms

  • Duchy: A country, territory, fief, or domain ruled by a duke or duchess. The term is used almost exclusively in Europe, where in the present day there is no sovereign duchy (i.e. with the status of a nation state) left.
  • Hundred Days: The period between Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba to Paris on March 20, 1815, and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII on July 8, 1815, (a period of 111 days). Napoleon returned during the Congress of Vienna. On March 13, seven days before Napoleon reached Paris, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw. On March 25, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom, members of the Seventh Coalition, bound themselves to put 150,000 men each into the field to end his rule. This set the stage for the last conflict in the Napoleonic Wars, the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the restoration of the French monarchy for the second time, and the permanent exile of Napoleon to the distant island of Saint Helena, where he died in May 1821.
  • Holy Roman Empire: A multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also came to include the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.

The Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) dissolved the Napoleonic world and attempted to restore the monarchies Napoleon had overthrown, ushering in an era of conservatism. Under the leadership of Metternich, the prime minister of Austria (1809–48) and Lord Castlereagh, the foreign minister of Great Britain (1812–22), the Congress set up a system to preserve the peace. The goal was not simply to restore old boundaries but to resize the main powers so they could balance each other.

France lost all its recent conquests, while Prussia, Austria, and Russia made major territorial gains. Prussia added smaller German states in the west, Swedish Pomerania, and 40% of the Kingdom of Saxony; Austria gained Venice and much of northern Italy. Russia gained parts of Poland. The new Kingdom of the Netherlands had been created just months before and included formerly Austrian territory that in 1830 became Belgium.

Territorial Changes

The Final Act, embodying all the separate treaties, was signed on June 9, 1815, (a few days before the Battle of Waterloo).

The Congress’s principal results were the enlargements of Russia, which gained most of the Duchy of Warsaw (Poland), and Prussia, which acquired the district of Poznań, Swedish Pomerania, Westphalia, and the northern Rhineland. The consolidation of Germany from the nearly 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire (dissolved in 1806) into a much less complex system of 39 states (four of which were free cities) was confirmed. These states formed a loose German Confederation under the leadership of Austria and Prussia.
The Congress also confirmed France’s loss of the territories annexed between 1795–1810, which had already been settled by the Treaty of Paris.

Representatives at the Congress agreed to numerous other territorial changes. By the Treaty of Kiel, Norway was ceded by the king of Denmark-Norway to the king of Sweden. This sparked the nationalist movement which led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Norway on May 17, 1814, and the subsequent personal union with Sweden. Austria gained Lombardy-Venetia in Northern Italy, while much of the rest of North-Central Italy went to Habsburg dynasties (the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, and the Duchy of Parma).

The Papal States were restored to the Pope. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was restored to its mainland possessions and gained control of the Republic of Genoa. In Southern Italy, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, was originally allowed to retain his Kingdom of Naples, but his support of Napoleon in the Hundred Days led to the restoration of the Bourbon Ferdinand IV to the throne.

A large United Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed for the Prince of Orange, including both the old United Provinces and the formerly Austrian-ruled territories in the Southern Netherlands. Other, less important territorial adjustments included significant gains for the German Kingdoms of Hanover (which gained East Frisia from Prussia and various other territories in Northwest Germany) and Bavaria (which gained the Rhenish Palatinate and territories in Franconia). The Duchy of Lauenburg was transferred from Hanover to Denmark, and Prussia annexed Swedish Pomerania. Switzerland was enlarged and Swiss neutrality was established. Swiss mercenaries had played a significant role in European wars for several hundred years; the Congress intended to put a stop to these activities permanently.

During the wars, Portugal lost its town of Olivença to Spain and moved to have it restored. Portugal is historically Britain’s oldest ally and with British support succeeded in having the reincorporation of Olivença decreed in Article 105 of the Final Act, which stated that the Congress “understood the occupation of Olivença to be illegal and recognized Portugal’s rights.” Portugal ratified the Final Act in 1815 but Spain would not sign, and this became the most important hold-out against the Congress of Vienna. Deciding in the end that it was better to become part of Europe than to stand alone, Spain finally accepted the Treaty on May 7, 1817; however, Olivença and its surroundings were never returned to Portuguese control and this question remains unresolved.

Great Britain received parts of the West Indies at the expense of the Netherlands and Spain and kept the former Dutch colonies of Ceylon and the Cape Colony as well as Malta and Heligoland. Under the Treaty of Paris, Britain obtained a protectorate over the United States of the Ionian Islands and the Seychelles.

A map of the national boundaries within Europe set by the Congress of Vienna.

Congress of Vienna: The national boundaries within Europe set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815

Diplomatic Consequences of the Congress of Vienna

Despite the efforts of the Great Powers of Europe to prevent conflict and war with the Congress of Vienna, in many ways the Congress system failed by 1823. The rest of the 19th century was marked by more revolutionary fervor, more war, and the rise of nationalism.

Learning Objectives

Describe the diplomatic consequences of the Congress of Vienna

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Congress of Vienna and the resulting Concert of Europe, aimed at creating a stable and peaceful Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, succeeded in creating a balance of power and peaceful diplomacy for almost a decade.
  • The Great Powers, the main participants of the Congress, also formed the Holy Alliance and the Quadruple Alliance, treaties to further the conservative vision of the Congress.
  • However, by 1823 the diplomatic system developed by the Congress by which the main powers could propose a conference to solve a crisis had failed.
  • In 1818, the British decided not to become involved in continental issues that did not directly affect them and did not support the Tsar in his vision to prevent revolution.
  • No Congress was called to restore the old system during the great revolutionary upheavals of 1848; thus, nationalism and liberalism began to triumph over the conservatism of the Congress system.
  • The diplomatic alliances that formed out of the Congress were shattered during the Crimean War, in which Russia was defeated by the other Powers.

Key Terms

  • Crimean War: A military conflict fought from October 1853 to March 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. The immediate cause involved the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Holy Alliance: A coalition created by the monarchist great powers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia. It was created with the intention to restrain republicanism and secularism in Europe in the wake of the devastating French Revolutionary Wars.
  • Quadruple Alliance: A treaty signed in Paris on November 20, 1815, by the great powers of United Kingdom, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. It renewed the use of the Congress System, which advanced European international relations.

International Relations and Diplomacy

With the Concert of Europe, the territorial boundaries laid down at the Congress of Vienna were maintained, and even more importantly there was an acceptance of the theme of balance with no major aggression. Otherwise, the Congress system failed by 1823. In 1818 the British decided not to become involved in continental issues that did not directly affect them. They rejected the plan of Tsar Alexander I to suppress future revolutions. The Concert system fell apart as the common goals of the Great Powers were replaced by growing political and economic rivalries. Artz says the Congress of Verona in 1822 “marked the end.” There was no Congress called to restore the old system during the great revolutionary upheavals of 1848, which called for revision of the Congress of Vienna’s frontiers along national lines.

The Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, People’s Spring, Springtime of the Peoples, or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. These diverse revolutionary movements were in opposition to the conservative agenda of the Congress of Vienna and marked a major challenge to its vision for a stable Europe.

The revolutions were essentially democratic in nature, with the aim of removing the old feudal structures and creating independent national states. The revolutionary wave began in France in February and immediately spread to most of Europe and parts of Latin America. Over 50 countries were affected, but with no coordination or cooperation between their respective revolutionaries. According to Evans and von Strandmann (2000), some of the major contributing factors were widespread dissatisfaction with political leadership, demands for more participation in government and democracy, demands for freedom of press, demands made by the working class, the upsurge of nationalism, and the regrouping of established governmental forces.

The uprisings were led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes, and workers, which did not hold together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. Significant lasting reforms included the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, and the introduction of parliamentary democracy in the Netherlands. The revolutions were most important in France, the Netherlands, the states that would make up the German Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century, Italy, and the Austrian Empire.

Before 1850 Britain and France dominated Europe, but by the 1850s they had become deeply concerned by the growing power of Russia and Prussia. The Crimean War of 1854–55 and the Italian War of 1859 shattered the relations among the Great Powers in Europe. Victory over Napoleonic France left the British without any serious international rival, other than perhaps Russia in central Asia.

The Crimean War (1853–56) was fought between Russia, who tried expanding its influence in the Balkans, against an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. Russia was defeated.

In 1851, France under Napoleon III compelled the Ottoman government to recognize it as the protector of Christian sites in the Holy Land. Russia denounced this claim, since it claimed to be the protector of all Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. France sent its fleet to the Black Sea; Russia responded with its own show of force. In 1851, Russia sent troops into the Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia. Britain, now fearing for the security of the Ottoman Empire, sent a fleet to join with the French, expecting the Russians would back down.

Diplomatic efforts failed. The Sultan declared war against Russia in October 1851. Following an Ottoman naval disaster in November, Britain and France declared war against Russia. Most of the battles took place in the Crimean peninsula, which the Allies finally seized. London, shocked to discover that France was secretly negotiating with Russia to form a postwar alliance to dominate Europe, dropped its plans to attack St. Petersburg and instead signed a one-sided armistice with Russia that achieved almost none of its war aims.

The Treaty of Paris, signed March 30, 1856, ended the war. It admitted the Ottoman Empire to the Concert of Europe, and the Powers promised to respect its independence and territorial integrity. Russia gave up a little land and relinquished its claim to a protectorate over the Christians in the Ottoman domains. The Black Sea was demilitarized and an international commission was set up to guarantee freedom of commerce and navigation on the Danube River.

After 1870 the creation and rise of the German Empire as a dominant nation restructured the European balance of power. For the next twenty years, Otto von Bismarck managed to maintain this balance by proposing treaties and creating many complex alliances between the European nations, such as the Triple Alliance.

The painting depicts 15 men sitting and standing around a lavish parlor room.

Congress of Paris: Diplomats at the Congress of Paris, 1856, settling the Crimean War; painting by Edouard Louis Dubufe.

The Holy Alliance and the Quadruple Alliance

As an extension of the vision of the Congress of Vienna, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian and Russian Empires formed the Holy Alliance (September 26, 1815) to preserve Christian social values and traditional monarchism. The intention of the alliance was to restrain republicanism and secularism in Europe in the wake of the devastating French Revolutionary Wars, and the alliance nominally succeeded in this until the Crimean War (1853–1856). Every member of the coalition promptly joined the Alliance, except for the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy with a more liberal political philosophy.

Britain did however ratify the Quadruple Alliance, signed on the same day as the Second Peace Treaty of Paris (November 20, 1815) by the same three powers that signed the Holy Alliance on September 26, 1815. It renewed the use of the Congress System, which advanced European international relations. The alliance first formed in 1813 to counter France and promised aid to each other. It became the Quintuple Alliance when France joined in 1818.

Much debate has occurred among historians as to which treaty was more influential in the development of international relations in Europe in the two decades following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In the opinion of historian Tim Chapman, the differences are somewhat academic as the powers were not bound by the terms of the treaties and many of them intentionally broke the terms if it suited them.

The Holy Alliance was the brainchild of Tsar Alexander I. It gained support because most European monarchs did not wish to offend the Tsar by refusing to sign it, and as it bound monarchs personally rather than their governments, it was easy to ignore once signed. Although it did not fit comfortably within the complex, sophisticated, and cynical web of power politics that epitomized diplomacy of the post Napoleonic era, its influence was more lasting than contemporary critics expected and was revived in the 1820s as a tool of repression when the terms of the Quintuple Alliance were not seen to fit the purposes of some of the Great Powers of Europe.

The Quadruple Alliance, by contrast, was a standard treaty and the four Great Powers did not invite any of their allies to sign it. The primary objective was to bind the signatures to support the terms of the Second Treaty of Paris for 20 years. It included a provision for the High Contracting Parties to “renew their meeting at fixed periods…for the purpose of consulting on their common interests” which were the “prosperity of the Nations, and the maintenance of peace in Europe.” A problem with the wording of Article VI of the treaty is that it did not specify what these “fixed periods” would be, and there were no provisions in the treaty for a permanent commission to arrange and organize the conferences. This meant that the first conference in 1818 dealt with remaining issues of the French wars, but after that, meetings were arranged on an ad hoc basis to address specific threats such as those posed by revolutions.