Hannes Richter

The Dancing Congress

Hannes Richter
The Dancing Congress

By Julian Steiner

Vienna was home to four heads of state, diplomats from 18 European countries, and a great number of courtiers, secretaries, and ladies from September 1814 to June 1815. The Congress of Vienna, the largest summit of heads of state and diplomats until then, reorganized Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and set the stage for about 100 years of peace on the continent and made Vienna the political and social capital of Europe for nine months.

Chaired by the Austrian state chancellor, Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, negotiators from the four great powers – Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and Russia – met with their French counterparts, mostly in Metternich’s own palais at the Ballhausplatz, to establish a new balance of power in Europe. While all parties agreed on the fact that the power of the traditional monarchies should be restored and another revolution on the continent prevented, all monarchs brought their own distinct interests to the negotiating table. Both the Austrian and Prussian delegations were seeking dominance among the Germanic countries after the Napoleonic wars.

While the Russian Tsar Alexander wanted to keep Poland as a whole under his reign and gain power in Central Europe, Prussia wanted its Polish territories back and Austria wanted to prevent an imbalance of power in Europe. France, though the defeated party, was not only granted a seat at the negotiating table, but treated as an equal partner. The victorious powers also assured the newly instated king Louis XVIII the borders of 1792 and that France would not face reparation payments after the devastating wars. At times, colliding interests and personal animosities between some negotiators (Metternich and Tsar Alexander are said to have shared a deep rivalry) delayed the progress of the negotiations. Out of necessity, this led to a novelty in international negotiations: For the first time, the Congress of Vienna formed commissions focusing on certain topics, such as German issues, slavery, or European territorial disputes.

The Congress never actually met as a whole in a plenary session until the signing of the Final Act in June of 1815. All discussions where limited to small groups and at times held informally at one of the many galas, dances, and dinners. The Viennese high society held numerous social events during the Congress, which led the aristocrat Charles Joseph de Lingne to say the famous quote: “Le Congrès ne marche pas, il danse.” (The Congress does not go forward, it dances). This stereotype about the Congress has stuck until today. However, a lot of political gain was made at the social events and many unexpectedly played a big role in the success of the negotiations.

Three women are said to have had a significant influence on the main negotiators: the Russian Princess Catherine Bagration, the Austrian duchess Wilhelmine of Sagan, and Dorothea Talleyrand-Périgord, the niece of French delegate Charles-Maurice of Talleyrand-Périgord. Both, Bagration and Sagan even lived in the same building, the Palais Palm, within walking distance of the Ballhausplatz. The main figures of the Congress are said to have met for political smalltalk either in the left wing of the building at dinners held by Catherine Bagration or on the right side at Wilhelmine of Sagan’s parties. But the building is not the only thing the two women had in common.

Both are said to have had affairs with Austrian state chancellor Metternich and Russian Tsar Alexander I while in Vienna, and both lobbied for their respective countries. Dorothea Talleyrand Périgord was very close with her uncle, who knew how to use her beauty for his political advantage. The Viennese people appreciated the presence of the Congress, not only because it brought the European “high society” to their city. Many rented out their houses to international nobility, like Bagration and Sagan, others took their carriages out as horse-drawn taxis or served as butlers at the many parties.

The most valuable good in Vienna at the time, however, was information. The Austrian department for police and censorship paid well for all knowledge on the negotiators, their interests, and their private lives. The negotiators made modest progress until March 1815, when Napoleon landed in Southern France and marched straight to Paris for his “Hundred Days,” his second tenure as Emperor until his ultimate defeat at Waterloo later that year. Instead of dissolving the Congress, like Napoleon had expected, the delegates remained in Vienna and agreed upon the Final Act.

The document was signed by the delegates from Austria, Russia, Prussia, Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Sweden on June 9, 1815, nine days before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Apart from the territorial reorganization of Europe, the Congress also reached three main consensuses: Slave trade was condemned, a German Confederation of 38 states was formed under the Presidency of the Austrian Emperor, and freedom of navigation was institutionalized on many European rivers, such as the Rhein and the Danube.

The Final Act also shaped many diplomatic processes and how the diplomatic corps is organized today. While the final act of the Congress of Vienna did not prevent the horrors of two World Wars in the 20th century, it did establish a long lasting peace on the European continent and focused the attention of the entire world on Vienna. The city and its 250,000 people not only enjoyed the spectacle, it did also bring a healthy amount of pride to the Viennese.

This is another element that has not changed in the course of the past 200 years. Austria is still building bridges in the modern world and Vienna and her almost two million inhabitants today are still proud to host important international meetings, be it the Vienna Congress of 1814/15, the KennedyChrustchew nuclear disarmament negotiations in the 1960s, or most recently the P5+1 talks with Iran in June and July of 2015.