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In Rites of Peace, Adam Zamoyski goes a long way towards filling this gap. He writes elegantly and vividly, and deftly balances the complex details of the negotiations that lay at the heart of the Congress with colourful portraits of the crowned heads, diplomats and generals who conducted them. For the first half of the book, the dominant figure is Napoleon.
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Zamoyski makes the important point that the negotiations over the future shape of Europe that culminated at Vienna in fact began just a few months after the Emperor's disastrous defeat in Russia, as the Austrian chancellor Metternich attempted to broker a compromise peace that would end the bloodshed as soon as possible. For a year diplomatic contacts alternated with bloody battles, as the French were slowly forced back across Europe. Yet Metternich's efforts, which could conceivably have kept a Bonaparte on the French throne, ultimately proved acceptable to no one.
With the Emperor packed off to Elba, the Congress of Vienna could formally begin. It is more difficult to bring alive diplomacy at the negotiating table than on the battlefield, but Adam Zamoyski handles this problem shrewdly, leavening the detail of international politics with entertaining accounts of the social whirl in which they were played out. His treatment of the key territorial questions the Congress faced, and how it resolved them, is incisive, and is aided by numerous very helpful maps.
Lucy Moore reviews Rites of Peace. Here the Congress's record was mixed.
Rites Of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski
It was unable to resurrect an independent Poland, but it did take significant steps towards simplifying the map of Germany. Its greatest error, which Zamoyski underlines, was to give too great a territorial reward to the least principled of the victorious Powers, Prussia, enabling her eventually to challenge the Vienna settlement and forge a united Germany in her own image. Away from the conference table, relaxation was provided by a succession of balls and parties almost every night, and the key political figures enjoyed these to the full.
In particular, they exploited the sexual and romantic opportunities this glittering society afforded. These were legion, since the Congress swiftly became the focus of a unique gathering of beautiful, brilliant and often unscrupulous women. Despite this frenetic background, Zamoyski does not neglect his principal characters. In particular, he restores to his rightful prominence the most important player of all, Tsar Alexander, the real conqueror of Napoleon.
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Zamoyski emphasises Alexander's taste for territorial aggrandisement, but acknowledges the genuine idealism evident in his plans to guarantee future peace. He also charts Alexander's development from generally benevolent altruist to extreme religious mystic - once, when invited to dinner by Alexander, Metternich noticed an empty place at table, and on mentioning this to his host was told it had been laid for Jesus Christ.
Fortunately this was towards the end of the Congress. Zamoyski's final verdict on the Congress is harsh. He concludes that its profound conservatism failed to satisfy the aspirations unleashed by the French Revolution, and above all that it contributed little to a more peaceful Europe.
This is unfair. As Paul Schroeder argues in his major work The Transformation of European Politics, the main aim of the statesmen at Vienna was to preserve the continent from a general cataclysm like the one they had just endured. In this they were successful.
The claim that the Congress gave Europe a century of peace, until August , contains much truth. The Congress of Vienna will continue to stir controversy, simply because its effects were so immense.