King (Finding Atlantis, 2005) paints a lively portrait of the lavish, months-long parade of banquets, love affairs and social competition held at the close of the Napoleonic wars.
With Bonaparte restlessly planning his escape from Elba, the four victorious Great Powers also needed to reconstruct war-battered Europe and set a lasting peace, the mechanics of which were better covered in Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007). They met in glittering Vienna, the elegant Hapsburg capital, beginning in October 1814. Austrian foreign minister Prince Metternich, England’s Viscount Castlereagh, Prussian king Frederick William III and Tsar Alexander confronted France’s “double-edged sword,” Prince Talleyrand, who had engineered Napoleon’s ascent to power, then defeat, and couldn’t be trusted. With five million people dead and Europe devastated after two decades of war, hard decisions had to be made about the former French empire and its satellites. The dangerous characters of Metternich and Talleyrand jump off these pages, alternating with glimpses of Napoleon plotting his comeback, and his second wife, Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor, returning to Vienna to pine (briefly) for her exiled husband. Amid a flurry of secret diplomacy and espionage, principles for reconstructing Europe were established. Russia gained Poland, Finland and Bessarabia. Austria retained the Tyrol, Dalmatia and Istria, which brought it deeper into the Balkans and eventually embroiled it in World War I. Prussia got the Rhine and Saar territories, which aided its stunning 19th-century economic growth. Britain seized strategic islands and helped lock Europe into a balance of power. Moreover, King emphasizes, the Vienna Congress frequently broke new ground: Its participants discussed such humanitarian issues as civil rights for Jews, condemned the slave trade, restored stolen art, combated literary piracy and established the diplomatic hierarchy still in place today.
A teeming, bloated, personality-rich panorama of the first truly international peace conference.