Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation

Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation

The Congress of Vienna, intended to restore order to a Europe desta-bilized by the meteoric rise and fall of Napoléon, was convened in July 1814. Attended by representatives of all of the Continent’s great pow-ers, including Austria, Prussia, Britain, Russia, and France, it had been arranged by the Treaty of Paris, the settlement between the victors of the Sixth Coalition and France. Alongside these major participants, vir-tually every state and aristocratic dynasty in Europe had a delegation in Vienna, with more than 200 separate groups and a horde of representa-tives from individual cities, religious orders, and associations.

Austria’s foreign minister, Klemens Wenzel von Metternich (1773–1859), the preeminent statesman of the age, chaired the Congress. It had three main objectives: to redraw Europe’s territorial borders jumbled by Napoléon’s conquests; to settle lingering political disputes raised by a quarter century of confl ict; and to deal with the destabiliza-tion of central Europe caused by the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.

Despite Napoléon’s escape from Elba and his last desperate gamble at Waterloo in June 1815, the Congress continued uninter-rupted, a sign of its signifi cance. Its Final Act, negotiated in a series of face-to-face meetings between the most prominent delegates and signed in June 1815, set the stage for European affairs for the next century and had important consequences for German history.

The delegates from the most important allied states, Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia, tried initially to exclude France and other, lesser states, such as Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. However, the cunning backroom diplomacy of France’s shrewd representative, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838), thwarted their efforts.

Talleyrand had managed to survive amid the turbulent political intrigue of France, serving Louis XVI, the revolutionary government, Emperor Napoléon, and the restored Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII (1755–1824). Vienna, however, was his masterstroke, and he contrived to insert France among the allies, as a major player in the proceedings.

With Talleyrand and Metternich playing the major roles in the delibera-tions, the Congress of Vienna issued its Final Act on June 9, 1815, just days before Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo.The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna instituted a sweeping range of provisions, remaking the European political and diplomatic land-scape.

Britain gained valuable colonial possessions in Africa and Asia. Russia obtained most of Napoléon’s Polish puppet state, the Duchy of Warsaw, as well as Finland. The House of Orange-Nassau was to rule the reconstituted Netherlands, made up of the old United Provinces and the former Austrian possessions in the southern Netherlands. Switzerland’s neutrality was guaranteed.

In Italy, Victor Emmanuel I (1759–1824), king of Sardinia, was given control of Piedmont, Nice, Savoy, and Genoa. Ferdinand IV, king of Sicily (1751–1825), was given the Kingdom of Naples, and the pope was restored as ruler of the Papal States. The most far-reaching changes, however, were in Germany.

Austria had suffered grievously during the Napoleonic Wars and saw most of these reverses erased. Metternich regained the Tyrol, Salzburg, Lombardy-Venetia in Italy, and key territory in Dalmatia for the Habsburgs. Prussia, having played a key role in the fi nal defeat of Napoléon, gained signifi cant territory: the Hohenzollerns gained much of Saxony, a share of the former Duchy of Warsaw and former Duchy of Westphalia, Swedish Pomerania, and the strategic port of Danzig.

The leading German states of the Confederation of the Rhine, having aban-doned Napoléon after his defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, also obtained territorial concessions. The Congress recognized the wartime acquisi-tions of Baden, Bavaria, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Württemberg, gains confi rmed by the Imperial Deputation of 1803.

Most important, the Final Act established a new German Confederation to take the place of the old empire. This confederation, made up of more than 30 German states, was to be governed by the emperor of Austria, who served as its president. Ironically, its dominant states, Austria and Prussia, old rivals, both drew their strength from the extensive territories they held outside of Germany.

The German Confederation formed from the wreckage of the Holy Roman Empire by the Congress of Vienna was a conservative institution intended to prevent the sort of radical fervor unleashed by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The 38 sovereign states and four free cities that comprised the confederation were only loosely aligned, meeting at an assembly in Frankfurt with the Austrian representative presiding as president.

Metternich, the Austrian statesman and archi-tect of the Congress of Vienna, dominated the German Confederation for its fi rst 30 years. Working to snuff out the spread of the liberal ideals that had ravaged Europe in the Age of Revolution, Metternich issued a torrent of repressive legislation. His Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, for example, shored up the conservative, aristocratic order in Germany by enacting rigid censorship of the press.

In the 1820s, he forged the so-called Holy Alliance, binding the rulers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia to the cause of maintaining autocratic, monarchical control within central Europe.As Metternich labored to uphold the status quo within Germany, however, powerful political, intellectual, and economic trends were fostering the spread of liberal ideologies and pushing Germany toward unifi cation.

Within the German states, an increasingly wealthy and vocal bourgeois class was pushing for liberal reforms, as they had dur-ing the era of Enlightened Absolutism. These reforms, often based upon Napoleonic policies in the Rhineland, included the establishment of laissez-faire economic policies, the protection of free speech rights, and even the formation of constitutional governments within the individual states that made up the confederation.

The most successful of these demands, pushed by Germany’s rising business class, called for the removal of impediments to trade within the confederation. Germany’s businessmen sought the end of restrictive guild monopolies within German cities, the adoption of a common currency and system of weights and measures throughout the confederation, and the abolition of the rapacious river and road tolls and customs duties that crippled commerce.

Facing stiff economic competition from the British, German merchants faced hundreds of complicated and expensive customs and tolls that hampered domestic trade. By the 1830s, the commercial class had made signifi cant strides in meeting this last goal, the reduction of customs barriers within Germany, with the aid of Prussia, efforts that helped lead to the eventual unifi cation of the German nation.

Since the Congress of Vienna had not addressed economic activity within the newly created German Confederation, in 1818 the Prussians had established a customs union to facilitate trade among their own scattered territories. This Prussian-dominated Zollverein, or Customs Union, gradually expanded as more and more German states joined between the 1820s and 1860s.

By 1835, it had come to encompass most of the states of the German Confederation, including leading constituents like Baden, Bavaria, Saxony, Thuringia, and Württemberg. The Zollverein stimulated the German economy and fostered rapid industrialization. Between 1840 and 1860, steel and coal production climbed sharply in Germany, and German factory output increased exponentially.

The fl ood of manufactured goods produced by German factories caused the expansion of the middle class, breeding ground for nationalist and liberal ideals. As the Zollverein expanded, the Prussians were careful to exclude their Austrian rivals, however, sowing the seeds of German unifi cation under the Prussian aegis. The German Customs Union was intended to promote trade within the confederation by reducing trade barriers, but economic integration gradually began to foster a sense of shared German identity within the member states.

The development of nationalist sentiment among Germany’s lib-eral intellectuals and educated professionals also cultivated dreams of unifi cation. This liberal intelligentsia was deeply infl uenced by the writings of authors such as the Prussian philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803).

Herder’s passionate nationalism was based upon the German people’s shared language and historical experience, steeped in romantic visions of medieval Germany. His infl uential cultural nationalism served to foster a desire for unifi cation in the decades after his death. Meanwhile, the painful experience of the Napoleonic Wars taught the Germans that their disunited principalities were no match for a unifi ed France, bolstered by ardent nationalist fervor.

These nationalistic impulses were amplifi ed by a diplomatic crisis in the Rhineland in 1840. The fi rst murmurs of modern German nation-alism had surfaced during the Napoleonic Wars, in opposition to French occupation. Consequently, when the foreign minister of King Louis-Philippe’s (1773–1850) France issued statements regarding his country’s Rhine border, it aroused fears of a French invasion of the Rhineland.

The result was an outburst of German nationalistic fervor in print and song, as presses churned out patriotic newspapers, including the Deutsche Zeitung, and crowds sang stirring “Rheinlied” songs such as “Die Wacht am Rhine.” Another of these nationalistic hymns, the “Deutschlandlied,” which opens with the line “Deutschland über alles” (Germany above all), would one day become the national anthem of a united Germany.

These patriotic expressions served to spread national-istic sentiments throughout the German populace in the decade before the March Revolution of 1848.As these liberals and nationalists agitated for political reform and advocated German nationalism, conservative forces sought to maintain the status quo.

Perhaps no one was more opposed to these radical ideas than Metternich, since in the multicultural Austrian Empire, Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Serbs outnumbered Germans. Thus, the Austrian Empire would not fi t easily into a united Germany, where inclusion was based upon shared German culture and language. Accordingly, Metternich sought to maintain the German Confederation, loosely integrated and dominated by Austria.

Ironically, the haughty Austrian aristocrat’s aversion to German unifi cation was shared by many of the farmers, craftsmen, and workers who made up Germany’s lower classes. Without a voice in politics, and impoverished by the spread of industrialization in the region after 1815, these laborers had little interest in German unifi cation and clung to the parochial institu-tions that had sustained their forefathers: village, family, and guild.

Despite these objections, powerful political and economic forces were sweeping Germany, emboldening the businessman and bureau-crats, jurists and academics, who advocated liberal reforms and parlia-mentary government. These educated men of the bourgeoisie viewed a unifi ed German “Fatherland” as a better vehicle for realizing these aims than the hidebound, aristocratic regimes of the confederation.

Among these liberals, who sought more representative government, there was a range of political views. While many moderate liberals advocated con-stitutional monarchy, the more radical ones called for the establishment of a German republic governed by a parliamentary democracy. This growing agitation among the German bourgeoisie eventually boiled over, causing the revolution of 1848.