When Napoleon boarded ship as a prisoner of the English, he did not carry in his
baggage the problems he had produced on the European continent. The year 1815 is,
therefore, not so much a turning point in modern history as it is a dramatic moment in
a period of political turmoil. And so the hero departed a broken man, but the
revolutionary age went on. Nevertheless, the imperial expansion and military
conquest that were the brutal characteristics of the Napoleonic Era were not continued.
Indeed, the period extending between the last volley fired at Waterloo and the first
fired in World War I was marked by an unusual absence of European-wide war. This is
not to say that the military was given no opportunity to exercise its talents or that there
were no significant political altercations. The direction of turbulence was inward. The
revolutionary political and economic activities of the first half of the nineteenth century
were particularly of a domestic and civil sort. They were communal concerns more than
diplomatic affairs. Their effect was therefore greater on social structure than on
The European State System
The few dramatic changes made in this period were territorial, not operational.
The European state system retained a remarkable consistency in its operating principles
since it issued forth in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). First, in general structure it was
pentagonal in shape: five major states in competition. France, England, and Austria
were the ones that persisted in general state form throughout the period; but the other
two varied. Prussia was enlarged and transformed into Germany during the nineteenth
century, while Spain, of major European significance in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, was replaced by Russia in the nineteenth century.
The international behavior of these competing states was regulated by a simple
theory consonant with the general thinking of the day. "Balance of power," as the
principle of European diplomacy was called, seemed to be a translation of basic
mechanics, as described in Newtonian physics, to the world of international politics.
Likened to a scale, but of obviously enormous proportions, Europe was theoretically
assured a condition of equilibrium if the contending forces were properly balanced
against one another. By the calculated weighing of the four major continental powers,
just such a state of equilibrium might be reached. Or so it was posited in diplomatic
As might be guessed, the one power most capable of shifting its weight around,
of moving from one side of the diplomatic scale to the other, whenever politics seemed
to tip precariously, was Great Britain. And, indeed, not only did British diplomats
adhere to the concept, but they also frequently used their nation as balancer,
particularly in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the commerce and the
navy of Great Britain predominated in world affairs, and when the island kingdom had
no continental territorial interests.
Balance of power was thus primarily a status quo form of politics, the attempt or
the tendency of the European state system to maintain international affairs much as
they were and to check any single power from reestablishing its hegemony, its
dominance, over the Continent. That Great Britain was the main force behind the three
major military coalitions that fought the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon
is an indication of how the balance of power system worked. Some critics have
suggested that the balance was so well maintained that major war was averted after
Napoleon; and they equally argue that the balance had become so delicate in the first
years of the twentieth century, when Europe was divided into rival alliance groups, that
the slightest jar would upset the entire system.
Credit for the one hundred years in which wars were restrained and peace most
often maintained has been granted to the diplomats who gathered at Vienna to arrange
their world after Napoleon had been forced to leave it. The Congress of Vienna, which
extended through the winter of 1814-1815, was a glittering affair--and an immediate
source of Vienna's later reputation as the city of "wine, women, and song." Although there was a great deal of reveling, the participants soberly attempted to reassemble a Europe shattered by twenty years of military activity.
The work of the diplomats was far-ranging, but particularly fixed on assurance
that the expansionist tendencies attributed to France would be held in place. The first
order of business was the containment of France, and this was achieved by surrounding
that nation with enlarged or new states, like Prussia and the Netherlands, that might
serve as buffers. Equally important was the effort to find a maintainable balance. It has
been suggested that the work of the Congress was carried out with such wise
consideration that no single nation was so generously satisfied and no single nation so
badly abused that resentment or desire for retaliation led to grand war.
Yet the results of the Congress would also be called reactionary by later critics,
for the peacemakers opposed the ideology of the French Revolution and the political
effects caused by it. It was Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), minister of the
Hapsburg Empire and the major architect of the Congress of Vienna, who particularly
feared revolution and was determined to see that it did not again inflame Europe.
Metternich wished to maintain a "Concert of Europe," a system of international
conferences held when needed for the purpose of cooperative regulation of
international affairs. Following upon the Congress of Vienna, there was a series of
additional conferences held between 1818 and 1822 that gave some semblance of reality
to his plan. Of them all, the conference of 1820, held at Troppau in Austria, was the most
significant, for it upheld the right of international intervention into the domestic affairs
of a nation in order to check revolution.
Broadly sketched, the international affairs of the era 1815-1848 were directed by
a coalition of conservative states against the liberal sentiment, institutions, and practices
exported by the French revolutionaries. Nationalism, republicanism, constitutionalism:
these were the clearly related ideologies undermining the foundations of monarchical
NEXT: The Age of Revolution