Why did the Congress of Vienna fail to stop future European wars

A meeting of diplomats at the Congress of Vienna in 1815

The Congress of Vienna was a gathering of representatives of European kingdoms that was presided over by the Austrian Chancellor Klemens Von Metternich. The Congress was held in Vienna from 1814 to 1815. The goals of the Congress were to secure peace and stability in Europe and to ensure that revolutions did not destabilize the Continent, as they had in the previous 25 years.

The Congress was initially able to establish an international system to prevent a general war, for several decades. However, it was to lay the ground for future wars in Europe, as it ignored the rise of nationalism among the peoples of Germany, Italy, Poland and others.


From 1789 until the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Europe was devastated by war and revolution. After the French Revolution, in 1789, the great powers in Europe, including Prussia, Austria, and Britain had tried to destroy the new Revolutionary government in Paris.[1] The Monarchs of Europe believed that the French Revolution with its democratic and republican values was a threat to their power. They formed a coalition and they jointly invaded France. The French Revolutionaries fought off the invasion and even went on the offensive.[2]

The French Revolutionary government was unstable and eventually, Napoleon made himself the first leader of the government and in 1801, Emperor of the French. Napoleon, one of the most brilliant military strategists of all time, conquered most of Europe by 1805. However, by, 1814, Napoleon had suffered a series of defeats and had been forced to abdicate. He did make a brief return to power in Paris but was quickly defeated by the coalition at Waterloo in 1915.

Those who gathered at the Congress of Vienna had experienced a generation of conflict and revolution. They were determined to ensure that France or any revolutionary government would drag Europe into war again. The Congress was also very committed to ensuring that the coalition of kingdoms that had defeated Revolutionary France and Napoleon, remained allies and did not become enemies. There were long-standing tensions between all the kingdoms over border disputes and it was feared that the allies could turn on each other to secure territories.[3]

Proceedings of the Congress

Map of Europe after Congress of Vienna

The Congress was attended by all the kingdoms who had fought together in the coalition. It was a particular challenge for the Austrian Chancellor to organize the Congress.[4]

The four main powers, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Great Britain were to dictate the future of Europe and they had the power to re-draw borders and transfer territories.[5] Eight other kingdoms were expected to take little or no part in the Congress and merely to agree to the demands of the four major powers. In 1815, France send a representative to negotiate on behalf of the recently restored French king’s behalf. The French representative was the willy Charles de Talleyrand. He was a very skilful diplomat and negotiator and was eventually able to secure the right of France to join the ‘four great powers’ and helped to reshape the map of Europe. The participants agreed on a number of treaties on some of the outstanding issues facing them and these were all gathered together in the Final Act (1815). This series of documents was to determine the map of Europe for the next forty years.

The Decisions of the Congress

The Congress made several important decisions, the big winners in the Congress were the four major powers, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria. As the greatest powers at the Congress, they were able to use their influence to further their own interests. The great powers or the ‘Big Four’ were all able to secure new territories for themselves and they all ‘enlarged their empires at the expense of lesser nations’.[6] The Big Four monarchies all benefited in the following ways. Russian was given much of Poland and it was allowed to keep the Duchy of Finland, which it had seized from Sweden in 1809.[7] Prussia received most of the wealthy German province of Saxony and also some Polish territories.

Great Britain was granted several colonies that it had taken from the French and others during the wars. It received modern-day South Africa and Sri Lanka from the Netherland and various islands and ports in Africa and Asia from the French.[8] The Austrian Empire did particularly well at the Congress. It received much of Northern Italy and the Tyrol. Various Hapsburg princes related to the Austrian Emperor were granted small kingdoms in Italy. The various German states were formed into the German Confederation and this was under the leadership of Austria.[9]

The Congress agreed to restore many kings and princes who had been expelled by France during the wars, such as the Bourbon Kings in the Kingdom of Naples. France was to retain nearly all of its historic territory and many colonies and this was due to Talleyrand’s brilliant diplomacy and the wish to maintain a balance of power among the kingdoms of Europe, to prevent one power from dominating the other kingdoms.

Outcome of the Congress

The Congress sought to preserve the peace in Europe and to ensure that none of the major powers in Europe fought another major war. It redrew the map of Europe in order to establish a balance of power among the major powers in order to preserve peace. In this regard the Congress, under the guiding hand of Metternich, broadly, achieved its aims. There were no major wars between European powers until the 1850s and this only occurred on the periphery of Europe in Crimea. However, Congress failed to take account of the countless ‘National Questions’ in Europe. This was the controversy over the right of a people such as the Poles to have their own nation.

Many of the peoples of Europe were becoming increasingly nationalistic. They believed that they were destined to live in a nation-state, which would guarantee their freedom and prosperity. Increasingly, Germans wanted to live in a German state, as did Italians and other nationalities, in the years after the Congress. The Congress of Vienna ignored the claims of the various nationalities. Metternich famously rejected any notion that the Italians should be granted a separate nation.

The participants in the Congress, were suspicious of nationalism as they associated its revolution, but by failing to address the increasing demands of nationalists in Europe, they were actually fanning the flames of nationalism.[10] This was to have a disastrous effect on Europe and the demand for nation-states, resulted in major wars between powers in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, from the 1860s onwards.


The Congress of Vienna ended the Napoleonic Wars in a way that was generally acceptable to all the major powers in Europe, even the defeated French. The Congress changed the map of Europe in order to ensure a stable balance of power on the Continent. It achieved its goals and it established general peace on the continent for some 40 years. The participants in the Congress, who were all representatives of monarchs had a deep distrust of nationalism because it was associated with revolution and republican values and they ignored the demand of nationalities such as the Poles. The failure to accommodate nationalist sentiments in the Congress ultimately led to the growth of nationalism and this was to destabilize Europe, in the later nineteenth and well into the twentieth century.


  1. Zamoyski, Adam (2007). Rites of Peace: the Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 257
  2. Zamoyski, p. 234.
  3. Zamyoski, p. 78.
  4. Chapman, Tim (1998). The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815. London: Routledge, p. 56.
  5. Chapman, p. 157.
  6. Schroeder, Paul W (1996). The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848, p. 518.
  7. Zamyoski, p. 156.
  8. Chapman, p. 145.
  9. Zamoyski, p. 171.
  10. Zamoyski, 234.

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