Why are bills in Congress so long
"The Congress of Vienna was a huge step forward"
The Congress of Vienna began 200 years ago. How important are the topics that were discussed back then, still today?
Today's Europe is - if you will - a grandchild of the Congress of Vienna. 1814/15 is an extremely important moment for the reorganization and foundation of Europe after the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Congress of Vienna is an important element of the chain that ultimately led to a United Europe - and therefore still deserves attention today.
What was the aim of the Vienna Congress - and what was the result?
After 25 years of war, permanent border shifts, the disappearance and the establishment of new states, the aim of the Congress of Vienna was to build a new Europe. At that time, contemporaries really looked at a Europe that resembled a broken vase, but whose individual parts could not simply be put back together because some of them - the individual states - no longer existed in this form. So the idea was to build a completely new geographical Europe that would take into account history and all the changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. They deliberately did not want to act like a carpet bazaar, but instead adhered to certain rules when negotiating. And the common denominator at the time was the recognition of the legitimacy of the rulers as those who would negotiate this reorganization.
The Congress of Vienna: Between negotiating and celebrating.
25 years after the French Revolution, the monarchs were suddenly in charge again. Does this not mean that Congress stands for a step backwards rather than for progress?
If you look at the Congress of Vienna with today's eyes, there are of course an extremely large number of points that can be criticized. That’s out of the question. But at that time the powerful in Europe tried to find something in common, because that is what negotiations are ultimately about, and this was that a great many monarchs had remained on their throne. We tend today to believe that they tried to undo everything that the French Revolution achieved, but this is not entirely true. After all, based on the resolutions of Vienna, they had to give their states a constitution. That may seem normal to us today, at that time there was hardly a state in Europe that had a serious constitution.
There are two major achievements of the Congress: the reorganization of Europe and - this is often forgotten - the creation of international law through what has been called the European concert. This is what the union of the major European powers meant to get the continent's problems under control. In a sense, this was a forerunner of the United Nations Security Council, because it was here that decisions were made that also affected all those states that had not signed the Vienna Final Act. This applies, for example, to the ban on the slave trade. So it was far from just about reversing the French Revolution.
Another myth is that the Congress of Vienna was only celebrated. In your book you quote Prince von Ligne's famous sentence: "Congress doesn't work, it dances." What is it about this saying?
The sentence is correct the moment the Prince von Ligne pronounces it. At this point the negotiations had stalled. And it is also true that the King of Austria, who hosted the world, prepared a series of evening events to celebrate the return of peace - and to keep the congress participants happy. Because the great negotiations took place between only eight states, the winners of the war plus France, which had lost the war. However, hundreds of delegations had come and they had to be employed. So they organized balls. But that is quite common. Look at today's international congresses, for example the G8 summit. In addition to the official meetings, there is a fringe program for the delegations and accompanying persons - of course not as exuberant as in Vienna back then, but one shouldn't reduce the congress from then to the balls either.
Was there really a reorganization of Europe in the end?
Europe has actually been reshaped and reorganized. For example, the Netherlands was founded, this state had not existed before, the map of Italy was completely redrawn - and then the big topic of the congress was of course Germany. In the end, the German Confederation was founded as a vague interest group in which there were no uniform rules - under the rule of Austria. In 1815 no one could have imagined that in the end it would be Prussia that would take over the supremacy.
Your book ends with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which you call the "new Congress of Vienna". What parallels and also differences do you see between these two agreements - both of which created a new order after the great wars?
In my opinion, people were much more intelligent in 1815 than in 1919. Of course, at the Congress of Vienna there were also the great powers leading the discussion, but they did not simply impose their world order on the others as was the case in 1919. In 1919 the vanquished were not given any say in the matter; they were called in when the contracts were ready. There were no negotiations - only among the winners. But the vanquished were not allowed to have their say, as was still the case in 1815.
At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned the Congress of Vienna as a first step towards a united Europe. What parallels are there with today's EU?
What was called the "European Concert" at the time was actually the first time in the history of Europe that individual powers said: We have to stop waging war against one another and instead talk to one another, because they understood that Europe was becoming itself At the beginning there were only four countries: Russia, England, Austria and Prussia. Then France and Italy came in. And this worked - even if there were wars afterwards, for example between France and Germany - but they did not completely ignite In this respect: Yes, the Congress of Vienna is the first step towards a Europe that talks to one another, discusses and tries to solve its problems in a way other than war.Today we can no longer imagine how wars can be waged against one another in Europe It wasn't that long ago, it wasn't until the 1950s that we gave each other kisses as a greeting instead of fighting you waged war for hundreds of years to solve problems. This is of course a huge step forward. And the first step there was the Congress of Vienna.
Interview conducted by Sarah Judith Hofmann
The French historian Thierry Lentz is director of the Fondation Napoléon based in Paris. His new book "1815. The Congress of Vienna and the reorganization of Europe" is now published in German by Siedler.
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