Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Starting over can be a good thing. Whether you're writing a report again because you changed your topic or moving to a new city to start a new job, starting over can provide the opportunity to take things in a different direction that can be new and exciting. In some ways, the Napoleonic conquest of Europe and his subsequent defeat provided just such an opportunity for the leaders of Europe. Napoleon had redrawn the boundaries of Europe in only a decade, and his defeat provided ample opportunity to start over and redraw the boundaries of Europe to create sustained stability.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a French military officer who was a brilliant military tactician and general, had risen through the military and political ranks during the French Revolution to become emperor of France in 1804. Soon after, Napoleon invaded the rest of Europe, chalking up military victory after military victory and expanding French control over all of Europe and even into North Africa. By 1811, the French Empire controlled or had loyal regimes throughout Europe up to the Russian border.
Napoleon foolishly invaded Russia in the summer of 1812. The Russians retreated, allowing Napoleon's supply line to stretch and his troops to freeze in the harsh Russian winter. Afterward, Napoleon was forced to retreat and experienced several reverses, which caused the French government to depose him as emperor in April 1814 and exile him from France.
However, this was not the last Europe had heard of Napoleon. France's economy had remained weak and the restored Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was unpopular with the people. Napoleon saw his opportunity and seized it. He returned to France in March 1815 and marched an army of disaffected French soldiers into Paris only three weeks later where he was greeted as a hero and proclaimed emperor of France yet again.
Naturally, the former allies immediately formed a new coalition and invaded France. Napoleon's quick mobilization of France was remarkable and made the initial defense of his position possible. However, he suffered decisive defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, which doomed Napoleon's second reign. By July, the allies were back in Paris, and Napoleon was exiled once again, this time to the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.
The decade of Napoleonic and French dominance in Europe left the leaders of Europe with significant questions concerning what post-Napoleonic Europe would look like. In response to the end of the French Empire, the powers that had defeated Napoleon convened the Congress of Vienna in September of 1814 to determine how the territories France had conquered would be divided.
The main objectives of the congress were to divvy up territory in a way that pleased all parties and created a balance of power such that pan-continental conflict would become impossible. Additionally, the congress sought to restore the French Bourbon monarchy, return the borders of Europe as much as possible to its pre-1793 boundaries, and eliminate the possibility of events such as the French Revolution from happening elsewhere in Europe.
Regardless of the desire to return Europe to its pre-1793 boundaries, certain geopolitical conditions made this impossible. For example, the Holy Roman Empire, a loose conglomeration of German and central European states, had ceased to exist after Napoleon's conquest. In its place, the congress created the German Confederation, which consisted of 39 German-speaking states formerly of the Holy Roman Empire.
In addition, Napoleon's France was not the only country that had made gains during the first decade of the 19th century. While Napoleon was conquering central Europe, Russia had pushed Sweden out of Finland and also taken control of Bessarabia from the Ottoman Empire. In the interest of preserving peace, the congress confirmed Russia in these territorial possessions.
Other territorial changes were made as well, and several were made in the interest of creating a 'balance of power' in Europe in which the power of all other states would preclude the aggression of a single state, thereby making aggressive wars, such as Napoleon's, that much harder to successfully execute. For example, within the new German Confederation, Prussian power and territory was expanded westward to provide a powerful opponent on France's eastern border. For partially the same reason, the Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands (ruled by Austria prior to the 1793 French conquest) were reunited under the Dutch House of Orange, further solidifying another state on France's eastern frontier.
As Prussian power was expanded in northern Germany, Austria was given further territory in what is today northern Italy to expand Austrian power in opposition to Prussian power. Poland, which had been annexed out of existence in the late 18th century, was reconstituted but placed firmly under Russian control. France, meanwhile, was stripped of all territorial acquisitions it had made since the beginning of the French Revolution in the 1790s. France, however, maintained all of pre-Revolutionary France, largely due to the achievements and influence of France's representative at the congress, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand.
The results of the congress varied over time. At first the congress appeared to achieve its objectives. No major war was fought in Europe for nearly 40 years after the congress finished its business in 1815, and most states were content with the modest territorial acquisitions they had been given by the congress. Even France, who feared greater retribution for Napoleon's conquests, had little of its pre-Revolution territory stripped and was satisfied with the resulting settlement.
However, as the congress had designed a system that essentially attempted to precariously balance the power of Europe's most powerful states against one another, the failure or weakening of one of these states could possibly ruin the entire thing. Indeed, many states, like Russia and Prussia, still had expansionary ambitions, and when Russia sensed weakness in the Ottoman Empire, it struck in the 1850s.
After making initial demands for concessions for Eastern Orthodox Church members living within Ottoman territory, Russia invaded Ottoman territory in the Balkans in October 1853. The event caused international outrage, and when France and Great Britain rushed to Ottoman aid the following spring, the resulting Crimean War resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, ruining the détente the Congress of Vienna had so carefully constructed.
Napoleon's decade-long conquest of nearly the entire European continent was surprising and deeply alarming to 19th-century European leaders. As such, these leaders set out in the Congress of Vienna to make such another conquest impossible. They hoped to create a military détente throughout Europe by inflating the power of states, such as Austria and Prussia, and eliminating the sources of power of France.
By creating several states all with approximately equal military power and territory, the hope was that the cost of future full-scale wars, coupled with the parity of the major states in Europe, would provide a deterrent for further wars of conquest. This settlement endured for several decades until the decline of one of 19th-century Europe's major states, the Ottoman Empire, upset the balance.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons