Bread and Circuses
There is literally a royal mob here. Everybody is crying out: Peace! Justice! Balance of power! Indemnity! As for me, I am a looker-on. All the indemnity I ask for is a new hat. —Prince de Ligne
Ornate rococo carriages rumbled through a landscape scorched by twentysome years of revolution and warfare. Dangers lurked everywhere on the poor, unlit roadways. Cutthroat highwaymen preyed on isolated travelers, and inns were hardly safe havens, either, often little better than “murderer’s dens.” Venturing out into the bleak postwar world was for “the fearless, the foolish, or the suicidal.” During the autumn of 1814, it was also for the idealistic and the idle. Hordes of pleasure-seekers would flock to Vienna for an unprecedented pageant.
The occasion was the Congress of Vienna, the long-awaited peace conference to decide the future of Europe. Kings, queens, princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses, diplomats, and about a hundred thousand other visitors would make their way to the central European city, swelling the population by as much as a third. No one, though, it must be said, really had an idea of what to expect. The invitation for the congress had been sent by way of an announcement in the newspaper.
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had ripped Europe apart. For the first time in history, enormous armies based on universal conscription had marched across the continent to wage a “total war.” France had set the standard for this comprehensive mobilization of the people with the famous decree of August 1793:
The young shall fight; married men shall forge weapons and transport supplies; the women will make tents and clothes and will serve in the hospitals; the children will make old linen into lint; the old men will have themselves carried into the public squares to rouse the courage of fighting men.
By the end of the war in the spring of 1814, the suffering had been immense—a terrible ordeal that ruined states, wrecked economies, and ravaged families. As many as 5 million people were dead, and many more had been permanently or seriously disabled. Entire villages had been wiped off the map. Lands had been devastated, laws trammeled, and atrocities committed on a horrific scale.
The many issues arising out of this wreckage were, to be sure, tangled, thorny, and controversial. During the war, the Allied powers had understandably hoped to postpone the many difficult decisions until after victory. Now that Napoleon had been defeated, the only matter that had been officially decided was the question of France, which had been settled back in May 1814, after two months of wrangling following the capture of the capital.
According to the terms of the Treaty of Paris, France’s frontiers were redrawn as they had been on the first of January 1792. This meant that France would have to surrender the vast majority of its conquests, but not, in fact, all of them. Any territory that France had seized by that date twenty-two years before would be retained, including communities in the northeast, Chambéry in Savoy, the former papal enclave of Avignon, and even some colonies in the new world. Thanks to the treaty, France would actually possess more territory and a greater population than it had under Louis XIV, Louis XV, or Louis XVI.
The Allies had hoped that such generous terms would help the new king, Louis XVIII, establish himself on the throne, and at the same time, reintegrate his country peacefully into the international community. That’s also why the victors spared France many of the usual penalties inflicted on a defeated power. There was no indemnity to pay, no foreign occupation army to endure, and no limitation, in any way, on the size of the army. This was, in many ways, a remarkably lenient agreement.
Everything else, however, remained unresolved. The Vienna Congress would have to make some hard decisions about the former empire and its many satellite kingdoms. At stake was virtually all of western Europe, vast realms east of the Rhine, and some highly coveted islands from the Caribbean to the East Indies.
The most difficult of these questions, at least at the beginning, was the fate of Poland. Napoleon had called this country the “key to the vault,” and the so-called enlightened despots of the eighteenth century had tried to seize as much of its strategic territory as possible, carving it up no fewer than three times. By 1795, Poland had completely disappeared from the map, devoured, as Frederick the Great had said, “like an artichoke, leaf by leaf.”
Russia had ended up with the lion’s share of Polish territory, including Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and eastern Poland. Austria had taken the ancient capital of Kraków, along with the rich agricultural region of eastern Galicia and the salt mines of Tarnopol. Prussia had seized Warsaw, Gdánsk, and the strip of territory running north to the sea later known as the “Polish Corridor.” For many, such a cynical and ruthless display of power politics was simply indefensible.
During the war, Napoleon had played on these sentiments, blasting the Polish partitions as “unforgivable, immoral, and impolitic.” He promised the Poles that if they could prove to him that they were “worthy of being a nation,” he would restore their country. But despite the many Polish sacrifices, Napoleon never did more than create the tiny Duchy of Warsaw, and exploit it ruthlessly. The Vienna Congress seemed an excellent opportunity finally to restore Poland, though finding a solution was not going to be easy.
Napoleon, moreover, had been a fertile kingmaker, placing family and friends on thrones all over the continent, from Italy to Holland to Spain. Napoleon had also created brand-new kingdoms in Germany, such as the Kingdom of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony. What were the victors going to do with all the newly minted monarchs desperately clutching their crowns? What, for that matter, was going to happen to the older ruling families who had been ousted in the Napoleonic whirlwind and were now lobbying for a return to their kingdoms? The Vienna Congress was gearing up for an unusual battle royal for the thrones of Europe.
In addition, there was also a controversy brewing about the works of art that had been stolen. In only a few years, Napoleon and his Grande Armée had earned a reputation as history’s most audacious thieves. Countless masterpieces from Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Rembrandt were carted up and carried off by Napoleon’s henchmen. The emperor’s goal was simple: to make the city of Paris, as he put it, “the most beautiful that could ever exist.” The Frenchman in charge of the art confiscations, Dominique-Vivant Denon, acted with a merciless efficiency, and transformed his museum, the Louvre, into an artistic “wonder of the world.”
Now all these sculptures, paintings, jewels, tapestries, and other stolen treasures were once again up for grabs. The French, of course, insisted on retaining their war trophies, and the Allied powers had tentatively agreed, adding a clause to the Treaty of Paris allowing France to keep its loot. But in the autumn of 1814 there was a new call to return the art to its previous owners, and this motion was particularly popular among the heavily despoiled lands such as Italy and the Netherlands.
Indeed along with the official delegations, there were many informal and unofficial representatives, often self-appointed, that came to press their own hopes and projects. As the form of the congress had been vague, many believed that they had a right to participate in the decision making and arrived fully expecting to do so. These private delegations would be selling everything from constitutions to songs. One American entrepreneur, Dr. Justus Bollmann, arrived with a whole portfolio of projects, including a plan to create the first steamship company on the Danube.
There were delegations coming from Frankfurt, Lübeck, and Prague to protect the rights of Jewish minorities, so recently granted under Napoleon and now at risk of being repealed. One group wanted the congress to launch a crusade against piracy around the world, from the corsairs infesting the Mediterranean to the buccaneers raiding the Caribbean. Representatives of publishing firms came to Vienna to address another kind of piracy, “the gang of robbers known as literary pirates” who unscrupulously preyed “with impunity against authors and publishers.” The hope was to create an international copyright to protect intellectual property.
Everyone, it seemed, had a vision of how the postwar world should best be reconstructed. The problem, however, was that the peacemakers were far more divided than it was imagined. And all the underlying differences, which had been so successfully suppressed in the life- and-death struggle against Napoleon, would now reemerge in Vienna with a vengeance.
The Habsburg capital was a good choice for the world meeting. Geographically and culturally, Vienna was the heart of Europe. Until as late as August 1806, Vienna had been the center of the Holy Roman Empire, the gigantic, ramshackle realm that had been dismantled by Napoleon. After nearly a thousand-year run, looming over central Europe at times with a menacing and other times tottering presence, the Holy Roman Empire was no more. Imperial majesty and grandeur, however, had far from faded.
“The city proper,” one traveler noted on entering Vienna’s gates, “seems like a royal palace.” Grand baroque mansions lined the narrow, twisting lanes that snaked their way through the old medieval center. Spires, domes, towers, and neoclassical columns carved in bright white stone, each roof and facade looked more sumptuous and elaborately adorned than the next. Rows of large bay windows predominated, overlooking one of the greenest capitals in Europe, a fact that was due at least partly to the foresight of the eighteenth- century emperor Joseph II, who had decreed that a tree must be planted for every one cut down.
Vienna had indeed an aristocratic flair that many other cities like London lacked, or like Paris had lost since the revolution. Austrian, Hungarian, and Bohemian aristocrats lived there, often in mansions with their own ballrooms, riding schools, and sometimes even private opera houses. Many French émigrés fleeing the revolution had also settled there, though most were considerably poorer now, and lived in cheaper third- and fourth-floor apartments.
The merchant class, if that term can be used about such a small group, was not that visible in Vienna, and the town’s artisans overwhelmingly geared their production to meeting the demands of court and society, making saddles, harnesses, carriages, clocks, musical instruments, and other luxuries. The biggest source of production was still wine, which always found a ready market in a town where residents, as one historian put it, “lunched until dinner, and then dined until supper.”
The vast majority of the events at the peace congress would take place in the old town, still encircled by its city walls, which ran roughly along the lines of today’s sweeping boulevard, the Ringstrasse. According to legend, the thick stone walls had been constructed using ransom money for King Richard I, “the Lion- Hearted,” who was captured in 1193 on his way to the Second Crusade. In reality, the walls were built and rebuilt almost incessantly over the centuries, as they withstood various sieges, including two particularly frightful ones from the Turks. After the last attack from the French in 1809, the city walls were not being reconstructed, and the remaining bastions would serve at the congress mainly as a fashionable walkway affording some excellent views of the town.
Vienna was built on a large plain where the Danube divides and can be easily forded, as the Romans who founded a camp there in the first century discovered. During the Middle Ages, the small town lay on the exposed eastern rim of Charlemagne’s empire, a fact that survives in the German name for Austria, Österreich. Historically, Vienna has long served as a crossroads between east and west. Crusaders, merchants, friars, and many other travelers would pass through the town, traveling east along its river—the mighty, muddy Danube, flowing on its two-thousand-mile journey from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.
With a population reaching some quarter of a million, and ranked third in size behind London and Paris, Vienna enjoyed a reputation for being a joyous and sensuous, if also irritable and somewhat cranky, place. “Vienna is the city of the world where the most uncommon raptures are experienced,” as the French émigré Baronne du Montet put it. Another admirer, the songwriter Count Auguste de La Garde-Chambonas, who had traveled extensively in his search for adventure, called Vienna enthusiastically “the homeland of happiness.” That autumn, the visitors to the peace conference would see exactly what he meant.
Hosting the congress officially was the emperor of Austria, Francis I, the last person ever to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Born in Florence, Italy, Francis was head of the Habsburg family, Europe’s oldest and arguably most illustrious dynasty, occupying the throne in virtual unbroken succession since the thirteenth century. The single exception to this six-hundred-year dominance was Charles VII of the Wittelsbach family, who ruled briefly in the early 1740s, before the crown reverted to the Habsburgs (or more correctly, as they were known, from then on, the House of Habsburg-Lorraine).
Emperor Francis stood about medium height with high, sharply chiseled cheekbones, snow-white hair, and the infamous Habsburg jaw that jutted out from his bony face. He was only forty-six years old, though he looked considerably older. He had already weathered twenty- two stormy years on the throne, facing first the French Revolution and then Napoleon. Indeed, Emperor Francis looked tired and worn-out, or as one put it, “If you blew hard, you’d blow him to the ground.”
As insiders knew, Francis was popular among the people and the court. He was called “Papa Franz” and “the father of his country,” and was celebrated in music, including Joseph Haydn’s “God Save Emperor Franz!” (the melody still used for the German national anthem). Some family members called the white-haired emperor Venus, the goddess of love. This was admittedly something of a Habsburg eccentricity, though the emperor was a well-known lover of statues, seals, and antiquities, and he looked out with a gaze as dreamy and blank as any ancient sculpture.
When the emperor was not trying to make order out of the managed chaos of the administration, which far too often seemed to run in circles after yet another rubber stamp, Francis enjoyed the music of this great Musikstadt. The emperor played the violin in the family string quartet, sometimes accompanied by his foreign minister, Metternich, on the cello. Francis also liked to make candy, tend to his plants in the palace hothouses, and study the large collection of maps in his library. The emperor possessed a knowledge of continental geography that, among the sovereigns coming to the congress, was unmatched. His large book collection, which at his death reached forty thousand volumes, would form the core of the Austrian National Library.
The headquarters for the social maelstrom of the Vienna Congress would be Emperor Francis’s palace, the Hofburg, or as it was known, the Burg. Originally a functional four-tower fortress built into the old city wall as part of the city’s defenses in the late thirteenth century, the rambling palace had grown to occupy several blocks in the city center as the Habsburg rulers continually added new wings and courts.
Excerpted from Vienna, 1814 by David King. Copyright © 2009 by David King. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.