Sunday, 1 February 2015

Europe after the Congress of Vienna

Attack on the Decembrists, 14 December 1825
 by Vasily Timm -
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons
‘Liberty leading the people’ by Eugène Delacroix
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

The  two pictures above demonstrate the contradictory aspects of the period:  the crushing of the Decembrist revolt in Russia in 1825 and the July Revolution in Paris in 1830.

The post-Napoleonic rulers  committed themselves in practice to an attempt to turn the clock back  or at least to preserve the status quo: an aristocratic society,  supported by a middle class (enriched in France by the French Revolution  and in Britain by the Industrial Revolution).

But could the clock  be turned back? New ideas were striking at the roots of the  traditional order.  ‘Conservatism’ and ‘conservative’ were new words  from France. ‘Liberal’ from Spain acquired a new currency as a noun.  ‘Democrat’ and ‘democracy’ began for the first time to be used by some  in a favourable way. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ acquired political meanings.

The  main legacies of the period 1789 to 1815 were
  1. liberal ideas, particularly notions of civil rights, political  constitutions, free political institutions and a free press;
  2. the growth of national feeling
  3. the rise of Russia as a great power.

In Italy, Germany,  Ireland and Poland patriotism and nationalism became inseparably attached to revolution. Self-conscious 'liberals' included university students (especially in Germany), journalists, urban crowds and army officers. Many of them joined radical associations such as the Tugendbund (League of Virtue) and other Burschenschaften (student  fraternities) in Germany, the Carbonari in Italy, and military clubs with constitutional ambitions in Russia.  This is a period of  secret societies and failed revolutions.

Spain and Portugal

In 1812 the leaders of the Spanish resistance had convoked a Cortes or national parliament, elected on a broad franchise. The delegates drew up a constitution with a division of powers, basic civil liberties, equality under the law and a guarantee of property. These delegates were known as ‘liberales’ in opposition to the conservative ‘serviles

The restored Ferdinand VII reneged on his promise to respect this constitution. A coup by liberal army officers in 1820 forced him to swear allegiance to the constitution, but in 1823 France intervened militarily to oust the liberals and restore full power to Ferdinand. Ferdinand then unleashed a reign of terror against Spanish liberals. Hundreds were executed, and thousands were imprisoned or driven into exile.

In Portugal, the restored João VI accepted, then in 1822 repudiated, a liberal constitution. His son, Dom Miguel abolished the constitution in 1828, and persecuted liberals.


After 1815 the 300 principalities that had made up the Holy Roman Empire had gone forever, to be replaced by the 39-state German Confederation. Medium-sized states such as Bavaria, Württemberg and Hanover grew in importance. Prussia and Austria, the two Great Powers of the Confederation, adopted a conservative authoritarian policy, in contrast to the (slightly) more liberal politics of the German states.

The German national movement of 1815-20 was largely made up of young men, many of them university students and/or veterans of the War of Liberation. Its ideals were partly liberal and partly a nationalistic response to the French Revolution. 

At the Wartburg Festival of 1817, commemorating Martin Luther students burned conservative books, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna and sticks used by noblemen and army officers to beat their subordinates. 

On 23 March 1819 a deranged student fraternity member assassinated the playwright August von Kotzebue, an agent in the service of the Tsar. In response Metternich summoned the ministers of the leading German states to Carlsbad, where they proceeded to adopt a series of resolutions  outlawing the Tugendbund and Burschenschaften, introducing strict press censorship and placing German universities under police supervision. In Prussia, the great Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of Berlin University, resigned in protest.


After Vienna the northern provinces of Lombardy and Venetial, the most economically advanced part of Italy, were put directly under Austrian rule, and most of the other states were clients of Austria.

After 1815 the secret society, the Carbonari, supported national independence and a republic. It formed a complex organization of local cells and an elaborate secret ritual. In 1820 and 1821 it launched unsuccessful risings in Naples and Piedmont.

In 1831 the exiled Giuseppe Mazzini founded ‘Young Italy, a group that might have had as  many as 50,000 clandestine members throughout the Italian peninsula.

The Greek War of Independence

From 1821,with the revolt in the Peloponnese,  the cause of Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey became popular among liberals and nationalists elsewhere, including Byron and Delacroix, who painted the Turkish massacre on the Ionian island of Chios that took place in March 1822. Gradually the great powers moved in the direction of intervention on the side of the insurgents. Even Metternich made this case an exception from his usual policy of support for legitimate monarchs.

‘Naval Battle of Navarino’
by Ambroise-Louis Garneray (1827)
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

On 20 October 1827 a combined Ottoman and Egyptian armada was destroyed by a combined British, French and Russian naval force off Navarino Bay on the west coast of the Peloponnese. In 1828 Russia declared war on the Ottoman EmpireIn May 1832, the British Foreign Secretary, Palmerston, convened the London Conference. The three Great Powers (Britain, France and Russia) offered the throne of Greece to the Bavarian prince, Otto of Wittelsbach. Under the Protocol signed on May 7, 1832 between Bavaria and the protecting Powers, Greece was defined as a ‘monarchical and independent state’ though it had to pay an indemnity to Turkey.

Russia and Poland

Alexander I threw off his liberal sympathies, became increasingly reactionary.  From 1816 secret societies spread in the universities, but the political  goals of the conspirators were vague and their numbers were small.  On  Alexander’s unexpected death in 1825, the Decembrist’ revolt of liberal army-officers sought to introduce constitutional  monarchy. After it was crushed, Nicholas I exiled hundreds of the  Decembrists to Siberia and inaugurated thirty years of reaction.

In the eighteenth century Poland had vanished, swallowed up by the three partitioning powers, Austria, Russia and Prussia. 'Congress' Poland, the core Polish territory,  was joined to Russia in 1815 as a 'kingdom' ruled by the tsar.   Following the July Revolution in France, secret societies, whose members were  mostly younger officers in the Polish divisions of the tsar’s armies,  planned a revolt in Warsaw.  It took a campaign from February to October 1831 to suppress the revolt. After it was put down, Poland’s semi-autonomous status was revoked by Nicholas I and Poland was formally  annexed to the Russian Empire.

The Belgian revolt

The kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of  Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg under the rule of William I of Holland,  was an artificial creation set up in 1815 to form a bastion against  France. This was deeply unpopular in Catholic Belgium. 

Following the  July Revolution, street demonstrations in Brussels at the end of August  turned into clashes between demonstrators and royal troops.  By November  there was a provisional government of the newly independent Belgium.  

The European powers could not ignore these developments. The governments of Austria, Prussia and Russia wanted to check the Belgian revolution and preserve the position of 1815. However, Britain and France wanted to prevent intervention and summoned a five-power conference to meet in London in November 1830 just as the elections to the Belgian National Congress were taking place. In December the conference recognized the principle of Belgian independence and in January it issued a protocol proclaiming that ‘Belgium forms a perpetually neutral state’. 

In 1831 Leopold of Saxe-Coburg became King of the Belgians. In 1838 the Dutch accepted the 1831 treaty and recognized Belgian independence. The status of Belgium as an independent and neutral country was finally confirmed by the Treaty of London in 1839.


  1. The Vienna settlement was undermined by wars for independence in Greece and Belgium.
  2. However revolts in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Poland were suppressed.
  3. Among young intellectuals in particular, liberalism and nationalism were challenging the existing authorities.

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