Chapter 20 Nation-States and Empires in Europe: 1814-1914

Section 1 Restructuring Europe: A Search for Security

With the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Europe reached an important turning point. For more than 25 years, the most powerful political influence on the continent had been the French Revolution. Even though Napoleon did not always uphold the ideals of the Revolution, he carried its influence throughout Europe. Once the major European powers defeated Napoleon, they designed policies that they hoped would restore the pre-revolutionary order, maintain peace in Europe, and prevent or suppress any further danger of revolution.

The Congress of Vienna

According to one observer, “the Congress doesn't advance, it dances.”[4] That witty phrase summed up the festive—and lengthy—Congress of Vienna, held from October 1814 to June 1815. However, the Congress of Vienna was also a serious occasion and between gala events European diplomats met to discuss the future of Europe. 

The participants.  The dominant figure of the Congress of Vienna was the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Klemens von Metternich. Charming and politically gifted, Metternich was so convinced of his own abilities that he once confessed, “I say to myself twenty times a day how right I am and how wrong the others are.”[5] Metternich opposed the ideals of the French Revolution and wanted to restore absolute monarchs to their former power.[6] Most of all, he wanted to guarantee peace in Europe.

File:Prince Metternich by Lawrence.jpeg

Prince Klemens von Metternich, from

            Other powerful European diplomats also played major roles in the Congress. Viscount Castlereagh [kas-uhl-ray],[7] the foreign secretary of Great Britain, paid careful attention to the detailed negotiations.[8] Surprisingly, the representative of defeated France, wily Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, also played an important role.[9]

            The Russian Czar Alexander I of Russia was the most active monarch at the conference. A volatile and unpredictable monarch, he changed his policies and his advisers often, making negotiations more difficult.[10] King Frederick William III of Prussia, who was grateful for Russian help against Napoleon, tended to side with Czar Alexander. Emperor Francis I of Austria, overwhelmed with the responsibility of feeding and entertaining the nobility of Europe, left most of the decisions to Metternich. 

Territorial changes.  The first goal of the Congress was to make sure that France could not start a new war. In May 1814 the victors had already weakened France by taking away territory it had conquered and setting its boundaries to what they were in 1792. Territory was added to the nations bordering France, including the Netherlands and the reunited kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Prussia gained territory along the Rhine River to prevent French expansion there. As a further safeguard, the German states were united into the German Confederation.

            The purpose of territorial reshuffling was not just to reward the victors, but also to establish a balance of power. The diplomats believed that when territory, population, and resources were evenly distributed among nations, no single nation could grow overly powerful.[11] However, the fight over Polish territory threatened to disrupt the balance of power.

            Alexander demanded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which Napoleon had taken from Prussia. Frederick agreed to support Russia’s claim if Prussia were given the German state of Saxony. Castlereagh and Metternich, however, feared Russian expansion into central Europe and did not want Prussia to grow so strong. “I will go to war rather than surrender what is mine!”[12] thundered Alexander, and war loomed as a real possibility.

            Talleyrand stepped in to resolve the conflict. He proposed that Britain and Austria form a secret alliance with France. If Russia or Prussia ever acted aggressively, the three allied nations would band together in opposition.[13] With this safeguard, Castlereagh and Metternich agreed to grant the czar part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Frederick received the rest, along with part of Saxony.

            Another principle that guided the Congress of Vienna was legitimacy, or the idea that a nation should be ruled by those who lawfully possess the right to rule. To the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna, legitimacy meant restoring the monarchies which ruled Europe before Napoleon. The monarchs of Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were restored to their thrones.

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National boundaries of Europe as set by the Congress of Vienna, 1814, from

A Unified Europe

The Congress of Vienna was generally regarded as a success. No major power—not even defeated France—left the conference with serious grievances. The new territorial arrangements and the spirit of solidarity among nations were designed to maintain peace among the states of Europe. This solidarity continued through conferences and diplomatic alliances. This system of diplomatic cooperation came to be called the Concert of Europe

The Holy Alliance.  In September 1815 Czar Alexander invited the rulers of Austria and Prussia to a grassy plateau in France. There, he arranged an impressive ceremony. Brilliant flags fluttered in the wind as 150,000 Russian troops surrounded eight altars.[14] With this display of the symbols of his military might and religious faith, Alexander proclaimed his Holy Alliance.

Alexander I, emperor and autocrat of all the Russias, from

            In this diplomatic alliance, the Christian nations of Russia, Austria, and Prussia agreed to “remain united” as brothers and to “lend each other aid and assistance”[15] against internal threats. Alexander believed that Christian principles would prevent political upheavals better than mere diplomacy. He urged that all European rulers sign the Holy Alliance, pledging to rule as Christian princes. Those who signed agreed as “fathers of families… to protect Religion, Peace and Justice.”[16]  

The conferences.  Most European nations—with the exception of Great Britain, the Papal States, and the Ottoman Empire—joined the Holy Alliance. A few months later, the four major powers that had fought against France agreed to meet regularly “for the purpose of consulting upon their common interests” and to consider measures for "the maintenance of the peace of Europe."[17]

            The first postwar conference took place in 1818. Austria, Britain, Russia, and Prussia agreed to withdraw their troops from France. The four powers, known as the Quadruple Alliance, recognized that foreign troops were causing discontent in France. The alliance members decided to offer France their support against another revolution, and they invited France to become a leading member of the Concert of Europe.[18]

            The main architect of the Concert of Europe was Metternich. For Metternich, the principles underlying the Concert of Europe were: 

“Liberty for every Government to watch over the well-being of its own people; a league between all Governments against factions in all States;… respect for the progressive development of institutions in lawful ways…. Such are happily the ideas of the great monarchs: the world will be saved if they bring them into action—it is lost if they do not.”[19] 

Metternich's ideas influenced European diplomacy for the next 30 years. However, a new wave of revolutions soon threatened the Concert of Europe.

Further Revolution

To stamp out the fires of revolution and reform in his own country, Metternich clamped down on the universities. In 1819, German university students demanded liberal reforms and the unification of all the German states. Student Heinrich von Gagern explained the scholars’ position:

“We want Germany to be considered one land and the German people one people…. We want a constitution for the people that fits in with the spirit of the times and with the people’s own level of enlightenment, rather than what each prince gives his people.”[20] 

            Metternich felt that the universities were forming “a whole generation of revolutionaries.”[21] To stop them, he called together leaders of the German Confederation at Carlsbad to adopt the Carlsbad Decrees, which prohibited any political reforms that conflicted with absolute monarchy.[22] They placed students and faculty members under strict watch for revolutionary activity. The decrees also established censorship of newspapers and formed a secret police.

            However, Metternich could not stop the growing calls for change throughout Europe. In May 1820, a revolt in Spain forced King Ferdinand VII to restore the constitution he had abolished. In July rebels in Naples forced the king to grant a constitution, while in August, a revolt erupted in Portugal.[23] Metternich saw these revolts as a European emergency. Despite British protests, Austria, Prussia, France, and Russia agreed to send an Austrian army to stop the revolt in Naples. In 1823 they sent a French army to Spain, brutally crushing the revolt there.[24]

            Great Britain could not agree with such military intervention. Britain depended on trade, and meddling in the internal affairs of other countries might hurt British commerce. In addition, Britain was a constitutional monarchy that had long ago rejected absolutism. After George Canning became the British foreign minister in 1822, Britain withdrew from the Concert of Europe.

            The revolution that broke out in Greece showed beyond all doubt that the Concert of Europe was unable to prevent revolution. Greek nationalism had been building since Greek traders learned about the ideals of the French Revolution,[25] and in 1821 the Greeks rose against the Ottoman Empire. The Holy Alliance, declaring that the Turkish sultan was a legitimate ruler, refused Greek pleas for aid. However, many Europeans enthusiastically supported the Greeks. Lord Byron, the British poet, died fighting for Greek independence.[26]

            Eventually, Russia, Great Britain, and France pressured the Ottoman sultan to give in. By the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, Greece became an independent state. Greek independence demonstrated the first real failure of the Metternich system in Europe. It showed that the sense of nationalism and liberalism encouraged by the French Revolution could not be suppressed forever.

Section 1 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

balance of power

Carlsbad Decrees

Concert of Europe

Congress of Vienna

Holy Alliance


Quadruple Alliance 

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:



Grand Duchy of Warsaw

1.      MAIN IDEA  What were the main goals of the Congress of Vienna?

2.      MAIN IDEA  How did the Concert of Europe attempt to keep peace in Europe?

3.      GEOGRAPHY  What role did geography play in keeping peace in Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Era?

4.      WRITING TO PERSUADE  Imagine that you are a German student. Write a letter to Metternich to persuade him to lift the Carlsbad Decrees.

5.      SYNTHESIZING  How did Europeans attempt to restore peace and stability after the defeat of Napoleon? In answering this question, consider the role of (a) Congress of Vienna, (b) Concert of Europe, (c) Holy Alliance, and (d) Carlsbad Decrees.