The Congress of Vienna: Redrawing Europe

In 1814, Europe danced to the rhythm of the Viennese Waltz at the Congress of Vienna. Napoleon was defeated, but the new order he created would not go away so quickly.

Apr 20, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History
congress of vienna redrawing europe
Congress of Vienna, by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1815, via the French Ministry of Culture; with Europe in 1815, by Alexander Altenhof, via Wikimedia Commons


Politicians, kings, dukes, a czar, and many lesser lords all came to Vienna to decide the fate of Europe. They all desired to preserve the world as it was before the revolution. They talked, danced, drank, and talked again. It was a party the world had never seen before.


The Congress of Vienna took place from 1814 to 1815. The most influential people of the time met under the leadership of Austria to decide the fate of France and Europe. Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain had different interests which could not be reconciled. Moreover, the French foreign minister, the Prince of Talleyrand, managed to get France into the conference room to have a say. At the time, it seemed as though the peace negotiations would be very complex — maybe even impossible.


Before the Congress of Vienna: How the French Revolution Created Napoleon

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Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, 1830, via


In 1789 the crowds in France attacked the Bastille, the symbol of royal power. We regard this date as the start of the French Revolution. It shocked everybody when the revolutionaries overthrew the crown and then executed the king and his queen. All the crowned heads of Europe felt threatened, and their fear was justified when the French started an offensive war.


Austria, Prussia, and Britain allied for the first time against France to suppress the revolution  initially without success. The revolution continued and eventually created an empire. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte gained supreme power in France, and the Napoleonic wars began.


Napoleon and the New Regimes in Europe

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Joseph Bonaparte, king of Spain, by Robert Lefevre, via

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Napoleon Bonaparte named himself the Emperor of the French in 1804. However, it was a different regime than the old monarchy. The state was not his. It belonged to the people, and Napoleon as the emperor, ruled over them. There was new legislation, including the first civil laws based on the ideas born during the revolution. These same ideas spread abroad with Napoleon’s offensive wars. A similar regime to the French one was created in Spain, where Napoleon’s brother was crowned king.


In some cases, Napoleon created republics under the French protectorate, such as in Switzerland and the new republics in Italy. Furthermore, Bonaparte dissolved the Holy Roman Empire declaring it non-functional. This meant that the Habsburg Emperor Franz II ceased to be the emperor at all because his empire had suddenly vanished.


Allies Against the French

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Napoleon at the Battle at Rivoli, by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, 1844, via Wikimedia Commons


The French revolution scared all the crowned heads in Europe for obvious reasons. They supported the overthrown Bourbon monarch with their strength of arms. Until Napoleon’s first defeat, six anti-french coalitions existed. Its members varied depending on which state had some kind of treaty with France at each moment. Most of them were French allies at some point during the wars, such as Prussia and Austria, for example. But it was not French diplomacy but a simple, pragmatic need that drove them to Napoleon’s side. They signed treaties at the point of French spears but tore them to pieces as soon as possible.


Napoleon tried hard to gain allies but failed to understand his position. He was a pretender for all the kings, emperors, and czars. A destroyer of monarchies and a grave danger to the old regime. Furthermore, he had no pedigree, no right to call himself an emperor, and the strength of his army could not change that. At least as long as his army was far enough from their borders.


Napoleon Defeated

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Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, by Adolph Northen, 1851, via National geographic


Then came the war of the Sixth Coalition. It followed Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812. Here the emperor lost around 400,000 men not due to the continuous small attacks from the clever general Kutuzov but due to cold and hunger. France never recovered from this loss. However, Napoleon built a new army from fresh conscripts, as large as before. But there was one thing he could not regain as quickly — horses. He did not know it then, but every horse that died on the march and was eaten by hungry soldiers added a little to the French empire’s defeat.


Before 1812 all seemed well for the French emperor. He had Prussia on his side and a peace treaty with Austria. He was married to a Habsburg princess and had a son with her. Now every ally defected from the French side. Napoleon suffered his first significant defeat in the Battle of Nations at Leipzig (1812). After a short period of renewed fighting, France was attacked, and Napoleon was deposed by his senior officers, who foresaw the inevitable defeat of their country. The Congress of Vienna could begin.


Main Actors at the Congress of Vienna

the congress of vienna metternich
Portrait of Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, by Thomas Lawrence, 1815, via the Royal Collections Trust


Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, and the Bourbon king returned to the French throne. Now the former allies could pick up the pieces and create a new order. It should have been similar to the old one, but every ruler had their own goals to gain from the ashes. The leading actors were Austria, represented by its first minister Clemens Lothar Metternich; Russia and its eccentric czar Alexander I; the United Kingdom; and Prussia. The Congress of Vienna had started.


The negotiations took a very long time. The czar wanted Poland. All of it. But that would have threatened Austria, as Russia would have become the most prominent power in central Europe. Prussia wanted Saxony, but mostly the Prussian king wanted what the Russian czar ordered him to want. Without him, he was nothing. The British came to Vienna with one clear goal and were determined to gain it at any cost. The balance of power. They wanted peace; they wanted order, and a peaceful, prosperous Europe for their trade. Who got what and at whose price was irrelevant to the British as long as everybody was happy and nobody was more potent than his neighbor.


Politics, Intrigue, and Love

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Wilhelmine von Sagan, by Josef Grassi, 1799, via Wikimedia Commons


The Congress of Vienna took place over nearly two years. In the mornings, politicians met in conference rooms. The four great powers discussed the demands of smaller countries that could only hold small conferences of their own. They could all eat the best food and enjoyed a banquet every evening. Alexander I was proclaimed a king of the Waltz, and he and his sister enjoyed numerous affairs in Vienna. Politics was done not only in conference rooms but on the dance floor. Prominent ladies held salons, and men and women visited them. Some of the ladies, including the czar’s sister, Alexandra Pavlovna, and two duchesses — Wilhelmina of Sagan, and Napoleon’s sister Carolina Murat — had so many visitors that the secret police had trouble following all of them.


Wilhelmine of Sagan was the femme fatale of the Austrian first minister Metternich. As she admired Russia, she became acquainted with the charismatic Russian czar during the Congress of Vienna. The two men personally hated each other because of this. When they met one day in front of her bedroom door, swords were drawn — an affair which hugely complicated the negotiations.


What To Do with France?

tallyerand the congress of vienna
Prince de Talleyrand, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1817, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


But what were they to do with France? France was to return to its borders from the year 1792 with some minor territorial gains. The restored Bourbon king did not contribute to Napoleon’s defeat, so he was not to have a say in postwar negotiations. And France was to stay defeated. The diplomats at the Congress of Vienna wanted to honor the old and sad custom that peace treaties should look to the past and not the future. Yet France had a trump card with the congress — their foreign minister Maurice de Talleyrand. This skillful diplomat managed to push France among the four powerful states.


Talleyrand got the smaller states on his side, and later as the Russian czar became more and more impossible to deal with, he became a much-needed ally to the others. And so it happened that the defeated state, whose emperor was exiled to the Island of Elba, was part of all the negotiations. But not even that helped to move things forward. The question of Poland and Russia, and Saxony and Prussia, could not be solved by any means. The Russian czar even moved his army to Poland, and peace was threatened. That is until…


Napoleon is Freed and Defeated Again

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The Battle of Waterloo, by Clément-Auguste Andrieux, 1852, Palace of Versailles, via


In February 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte disappeared from his island. In March, he was standing in front of the gates of Paris. His case was not hopeless. The French republicans, anti-royalists, most ordinary people, and nearly all the French soldiers welcomed their emperor with shouts of joy. But what he needed, what France desperately needed, was a period of peace and time for recovery. That would mean international recognition. And the politicians who discussed the future of Europe at the Congress of Vienna did not think of giving him one for a second.


Quite the contrary. After months of fruitless negotiations and threats and quarrels, everybody at the Congress of Vienna was suddenly willing to compromise. The czar accepted the creation of a smaller Poland under his rule and he let Austria keep the province of Galicia. Prussia lost its taste for Saxony. After they resolved the Polish problem, all other matters went smoothly. Everybody was happy; the czar embraced prince Metternich and called him his best friend. Things move faster when war is at your door.


The New Order That Came Out of the Congress of Vienna

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Europe in 1815, by Alexander Altenhof, via Wikimedia Commons


Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and disappeared from history. Bourbon kings returned to France, Spain, and Naples. All the remnants of the republican regimes should have vanished. The so-called Holy alliance was created at the behest of Czar Alexander. The three monarchs — the Austrian emperor, Russian czar, and Prussian king vowed to protect Europe from the danger of republicanism and secularism. No second French revolution was to happen ever again. The world was to stay the same, with the divine right of kings to rule their subjects.


Together they managed to keep the old regime until 1848, when a series of upheavals, revolutions, and little wars occured. The wheel of history would not stop turning, although the men at the Congress of Vienna tried so hard to stop it. One cannot blame them. Europe had seen enough blood and death for one generation. But there were other generations with their own battles to fight.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.