The Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System, was established after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It describes the peaceful functioning of an international system based on the balance of power that existed in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Following a series of Napoleonic wars, the European Great Powers saw the need to contain expansionist states, particularly France, and to set up the first system of collective security to guarantee peace on the European continent. The parties agreed to support each other in the event of war or internal conflict under the Treaty of Vienna. The Concert of Europe resulted in 99 years of a relatively peaceful period in Europe.
The Congress of Vienna: Establishing the Concert of Europe
The Napoleonic Wars ended in May 1814. A series of major conflicts between the French Empire, its allies, and the rest of the European powers changed the balance of power in Europe. To address the challenges of the new world order, the European Great Powers (Russia, Great Britain, Austria, and Prussia) initiated a peace conference and invited the representatives of other European states to participate in it. The Congress of Vienna began in September 1814. Representatives from more than 200 European countries, cities, and provinces attended the Congress, chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. The treaty was finalized on June 9, 1815.
The Congress’s goal was to find a long-term solution to the European order after the Napoleonic conquests, to restore the territorial order, and to establish a system that could avoid potential and existing conflicts with diplomatic means. To achieve these goals, the Congress of Vienna aimed to downsize the major powers so that they would balance each other and maintain peace while also acting as guardians for the smaller powers. Restoring old boundaries was not the only goal of achieving world order. More fundamentally, conservative thinkers like von Metternich also aimed to suppress or eliminate republicanism, liberalism, and revolutionary movements that, according to his views, had disrupted and posed a threat to the constitutional order of Europe.
The idea behind the Congress of Vienna was not just to settle the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars but, in a broader sense, to create a new political system in Europe that would differ from the previous world order established in 1713 by the Peace of Utrecht. The old order was based on the balance of power between two opposing military alliances: France and Austria. As history has shown, the Peace of Utrecht could not avoid France’s expansionist aspirations under the rule of Napoleon. A new world order aimed at a “System of Peace” was supported by the political bloc of European powers. To achieve this goal, regular multilateral conferences and congresses were held in various European cities, which resulted in the establishment of the so-called Congress System. The Congress system became a major part of the Concert of Europe, one of the very first attempts in world history to build a peaceful order based on the cooperation of the key players.
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Building the Concert of Europe: The Quadruple Alliance of November 1815
The Congress System, and consequently, the Concert of Europe, were challenged by Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from the island of Elba and his short return to world politics, known as the Hundred Days. Within a few days of Napoleon’s return, the European powers at the Congress of Vienna decided to launch a military campaign to end Napoleon’s rule. A series of attacks and battles occurred that culminated in the decisive Battle of Waterloo, and Napoleon was defeated once and for all. Louis XVIII was restored to the throne in 1814. The allied leaders took the following steps to support the Bourbon monarchy in France and to maintain peace in Europe:
- France was to be temporarily occupied by allied forces for a maximum of five years;
- France was compelled to pay reparations and make territorial concessions in its eastern parts;
- An “ambassadorial conference” was established in Paris to oversee the administration of the French monarchy.
This program was partially carried out by the Congresses of Aix-la-Chapelle, Troppau, Laibach, and Verona.
On November 20, 1815, the Quadruple Alliance was signed between the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, the Emperor of Austria, Franz I, and the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III. Later, the King of France, Louis XVIII, joined the agreement. Except for the Prince Regent of Great Britain, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the Pope of Rome, all other European nations joined. The Alliance intended to prevent French aggression and support the enforcement of the peace system created by the Congress of Vienna.
More importantly, major powers agreed to meet regularly to discuss existing problems on the European continent and to follow the peaceful course of political development according to the 1815 agreement, thus establishing the Concert of Europe. It had no written rules or permanent institutions, but at times of crisis, any of the member countries could propose a conference. France was granted full participation in the proceedings at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, effectively establishing the Quintuple Alliance.
During this period, the Great Powers’ meetings included: Carlsbad in 1819, Troppau in 1820, Laibach in 1821, Verona in 1822, London in 1832, and Berlin in 1878.
The leading personalities of the system were British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. France’s Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was largely responsible for quickly re-establishing France as a significant power in international diplomacy.
Challenges to the Concert of Europe
The Concert of Europe proved to be successful in preventing large-scale wars in Europe. Except for the international Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, there were no large-scale conflicts on the European continent. However, the system faced significant challenges: new waves of independence movements in Europe, domestic unrest within the European states, the Crimean War, and the unification of Germany and Italy in 1871 changed the balance of power in Europe.
The Greek War of Independence was one of the first major challenges to the system. Greece was at that time under Ottoman rule. As the Greeks were Christians, the Russian Empire saw an opportunity to position itself as the protector of its fellow Christians and their independence. Initially, other major powers abstained from interfering. However, as the situation became increasingly entangled in the tense Russian-Ottoman relations, it threatened to destabilize the balance of power. As a result, Great Britain took on the responsibility of mediating the process, and on April 4, 1826, the Protocol of St. Petersburg was signed. It stipulated that Greece would remain under the rule of the Ottoman Empire but would have its own elected authorities.
Eventually, Greece succeeded in gaining independence in 1830. However, the disagreement between major European powers was one of the first signs of the decline of the concert system.
This controversy was intensified by the Belgian Revolution for independence in 1830, which was discussed at the London Conference. Prussia, Austria, and Russia saw the status quo in Europe as being threatened, while France backed the revolution.
Belgium (Southern Netherlands) and the Northern Netherlands (the Kingdom of the Netherlands) were merged to establish one state at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. King William I ruled a newly formed state. Catholics resented the Protestant king’s interference in clerical affairs and desired more liberty. The revolution began in Brussels in 1830. William I sent the military to suppress the mass protest, but they were pushed out on September 27, 1830. Following this uprising, Belgium and the Northern Netherlands separated, and on October 4th, 1830, a temporary government proclaimed independence.
The 1848 Revolutions were a wave of republican uprisings against European monarchies that started in Sicily and eventually expanded to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Overall, the main aims of the uprisings were liberal reforms, free press, and improving the conditions of the working class. In the short term, the governments were able to suppress the uprisings. However, in the long term, the monarchies of Russia, Austria, and Hungary were pushed to put an end to serfdom.
The Crimean War lasted from June 14, 1853, to March 30, 1856. The war was fought between the Russian Empire on one side and the alliance of the United Kingdom, the Second French Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Russia demanded the division of the Middle East into spheres of influence; it wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire, turn the Black Sea into Russia’s internal sea, seize the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, and strengthen itself in the Balkans.
Although the main part of the military conflict occurred on the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula, a front line was also opened in the Caucasus. The war began over a disagreement about protecting Christians in Ottoman-ruled lands. To prevent Russian expansion on the Black Sea, the allied forces invaded Russian Crimea. Russia suffered a complete defeat in the Crimean War. At the end of 1855, negotiations began in Vienna and finally ended in Paris. In 1856, Russia was forced to agree to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Paris. Under the treaty, Russia lost the Danube and Bessarabia and was deprived of the right to own a military fleet and military bases on the Black Sea. Serbia, Wallachia, and Moldova came under the protection of European states.
It is widely believed that the cooperation and diplomacy of major powers during the Treaty of Paris to resolve the conflict displayed the success of the Concert of Europe.
In the 19th century, the unification of Italy and the proclamation of the creation of the German Empire once again shook the established order of the Concert of Europe. Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini led the Risorgimento (1848–1871), a period of political and social changes that led to the consolidation of the different states on the Italian Peninsula into a single political entity, the Kingdom of Italy. In contrast to Italy, Otto von Bismarck combined diverse provinces into a single political body in 1871 and formed the North German Confederation. Bismarck proclaimed the creation of the German Empire on January 18, 1871.
The emergence of two significant political entities in Europe altered the balance of power. Germany aimed to construct a new system in which it played a bigger role as the new dominant force of continental Europe.
The Legacy of the Concert of Europe
Over time, the Concert of Europe disintegrated. The process of its demise was slow, and the challenges it faced throughout the 19th century had consequences later on. The Concert was weakened and finally destroyed by the beginning of World War I.
The history and characteristics of the Concert make it an ancestor of the League of Nations, whose principal goal was to maintain world peace. However, the Concert also represented the opposite of an international organization as it lacked written rules of conduct and formal mechanisms and was based solely on a vague consensus among European monarchies.
Nevertheless, the Concert of Europe can be considered a conscious and reasonably successful attempt to establish a stable and peaceful system of interstate relations. It managed to sustain its main goals: Great Powers maintained their power, successfully opposed revolutionary movements in Europe, weakened the forces of nationalism, and avoided any major military conflicts on the European continent in the interim period of the Crimean War and the Wars of German and Italian unification.