The allied powers gathered in Vienna to negotiate and celebrate after Napoleon’s defeat were self-interested, but they took some tentative steps toward the sort of multilateral negotiations that have characterized international relations in the ensuing centuries.
So concludes Zamoyski, whose previous shelf-benders (Moscow 1812, 2004, etc.) have illuminated various aspects of 19th-century Europe’s military and political landscape. His newest artfully blends geography, politics, military matters and bedroom manners in a highly readable account. Some of history’s most famous men pace the author’s stage: Napoleon, Wellington, Castlereagh, Tallyrand, Metternich and the rising martial star from Russia, Tsar Alexander. In Zamoyski’s capable hands, these are more than mere names. Motives become more understandable, successes more exciting, failures more wrenching. The narrative opens with Napoleon’s bashing by the Russian winter of 1812 and his frantic attempts over the course of 1813 and early 1814 to keep his enemies at bay until he could rebuild the French army. But Alexander, unlike his Prussian, Austrian and British allies, wanted to march into Paris; the tsar saw the struggle in its most primal, good-versus-evil aspect. Still, animated by what he said was a Christian impulse of forgiveness, he made a deal with Napoleon (others wanted him executed) and sent him off to Elba in April 1814. The Congress of Vienna, which began five months later, confronted the victors with some difficult issues: What to do about Poland? Germany? Italy? How and if and why to divide or unite them? What about the Scandinavian countries? And Switzerland? England wanted to abolish the slave trade, but found few listeners. Some wanted to punish France severely; others feared that excessive sanctions would do more harm than good. It wasn’t all work, though. For months the parties ran late into the night, and the delegates played Musical Bedchambers with various women. Then Napoleon escaped…
First-rate popular history with obvious contemporary relevance.