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Monday, April 06, 2015

The Congress of Vienna: Power & Politics after Napoleon by Brian E. Vick

This is a map of Europe after the Congress of Vienna.  You can see much of Poland belonging to Russia

The Congress of Vienna: Power & Politics after Napoleon
 by Brian E. Vick
Published October 13th, 2014
Harvard University Press

  I spent most of December and January listening to the very lengthy free audiobook version of War & Peace.  A plausible sub-title for War & Peace would be "The Invasion of Russia in 1812 by Napoleon, told from the Russian point of view."  The Congress of Vienna is what happened after the end of War & Peace, which ends with Napoleon's disastrous and eventually career ending loss to the "Winter of Russia."   Napoleon left a number of lingering issues in his conquered territories.  He had rearranged borderlines in Germany and Eastern Europe.  Significantly, the issues resolved in the Congress of Vienna would be revisited as part of the World Wars of the twentieth century.  I'm talking about "How to divide up Poland" and "What to do about German principalities that had a Protestant population and a Catholic monarch."

   The major players were the Russian and Austrian Emperors, with the Russians in the stronger position.  Also important were the Prussians.  Less so were the English, the Danes/Swedes/Norwegians and the post-Napoleon French.  The classic historical take on the Congress of Vienna is through the prism of early 19th century international European diplomacy.  You can take the machinations more or less at face value and use it to explain subsequent developments in 19th century European history, or you can critique the events using any number of critical appartati developed by 20th century academics.

  The significance of The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon is that he moves beyond the "power politics" mode of analysis to include interesting discussions of the salon scene of Vienna and the role of "small world" Networks in the formulation of consensus within the Congress. Vick persuasively argues that the salon world, largely run by and for women, was a crucial ingredient of the international negotiations.  He argues that the salon world represents an early or intermediary step on the role the crucial "Public Sphere" of discussion, a term coined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, and that the salons provided an "off stage" where participants could converse more or less freely.

   Vick also devotes sections to a discussion of international human rights issues like the treatment of Jews and the international slave trade.  This emphasis helps dissipate the received idea that the Congress of Vienna was populated by a bunch of self obsessed European autocrats.  Vick's introduction of recent trends in history to a staid subject like the Congress of Vienna is a welcome one, the kind of once in twenty years type of event that is suited to this event.

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