In this lesson, we explore the major changes that were made to the boundaries and political apparatuses in European states after the fall of Napoleon, most notably in the German lands and in the Low Countries.
Coming back from summer break can be tough for students. Not only do they have to get their minds ready for learning after three months of relaxation, but they also are dealing with the rigors of a whole new grade and curriculum. In this way, politics in some European states after the fall of Napoleon was just like entering a new grade; after over a decade of warfare, European politicians had to deal with internal politics yet again, only this time in an altered political arena.
Congress of Vienna
Napoleon was defeated and deposed from the French throne in April 1814. Though he did have a brief return in 1815 before being defeated again, by the fall of 1814 the rest of Europe was determining the best way forward for the continent. The Napoleonic Wars had thrown the entire continent into a state of flux - Napoleon had nearly conquered all of Europe before foolishly invading Russia, and he had redrawn its borders to suit his own political needs, creating various client states and annexing territory to France.
The rest of Europe addressed these problems at the Congress of Vienna, a meeting between several important European leaders from September 1814 to June 1815. There, the leaders determined to create a European balance of power, which would make events like the French Revolution and Napoleon's subsequent conquest of Europe impossible in the future. They attempted to do this by reducing France to its borders prior to 1793 and empowering Prussian power and territory on France's eastern border.
However, certain European political realities made a total return to Europe's pre-1793 borders impossible. For example, the Holy Roman Empire, which had existed for over a millennium prior to Napoleon's conquests, had ceased to exist. Moreover, annexations and conquests by other countries during Napoleon's wars, such as the conquest of Finland by Russia, would not be easily surrendered. In matters such as these, other political settlements had to be concluded.
Germany was perhaps the state that changed the most as a result of the congress. After all, the Holy Roman Empire, a state that had loosely governed most German territories since 800 A.D., no longer existed. In its place, the leaders of Europe created the German Confederation. The confederation consisted of 39 loosely affiliated German-speaking states that had all previously been part of the Holy Roman Empire.
The German states within the confederation remained entirely autonomous of one another. There was no central authority that governed all of the German states and no uniform judiciary - the courts and laws of each state remained in effect in each separate state. Indeed, the states of the confederation were only united for mutual defense against future aggression.
The two most powerful states within the new confederation were Prussia and Austria. The leaders of both Prussia and Austria were staunchly opposed to the rise of German nationalism, a movement they saw as akin to the French nationalism that had led to the French Revolution and Napoleon's invasions of Europe. They feared the growth of nationalism would foster the formation of a greater German state, which would undermine the power of their traditional monarchies. As a result, leaders of many German states signed the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819. These laws suppressed the growth of nationalism throughout Germany by censoring radical political pamphlets and disbanding various radical student organizations, which often instigated pro-nationalist demonstrations.
Though these laws and other measures suppressed German nationalism for a time, they could not eliminate the movement. In 1848, for example, a nationalist uprising swept across the German states. Liberal thinkers and middle-class nationalists alike held massive demonstrations across Germany and forced some reform upon their monarchical overlords.
In one particularly radical area, a provisional German National Assembly was set up in Frankfurt in March 1848. Though it achieved some of its radical ideas, the revolution was violently suppressed in Prussia, and by May 1849, the National Assembly dissolved itself. After the restoration of the confederation's power, the confederation sustained until a war between Prussia and Austria led to the creation of a new German Confederation in 1866 and the eventual proclamation of the German Empire in 1871.
The Netherlands also underwent significant changes as well after the Napoleonic Wars. As part of the Congress of Vienna, the northern Netherlands and southern Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) were reunited in 1815. William I, the patriarch of the ruling Dutch House of Orange, was proclaimed king of the combined country. Under William, the country continued to make strides toward industrialization and became once again an important center of European commerce, as it had been prior to its conquest by Napoleon.
Reuniting two halves of a country that had been properly separated for over a century proved increasingly difficult. For example, while the northerners were primarily Dutch speakers, the southerners spoke equal parts Flemish and French. In addition, there was a slightly larger population in the north, which largely subverted the political interests of the south to those of northern voters in the Dutch constitutional monarchy. For example, William I's attempt to make Dutch the national language of the entire country was heavily opposed in the south.
As a result, by 1830 the southerners were ready to break away from the north yet again. War broke out between William's forces and the southern rebels later that year, despite British attempts to mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis. Though the fighting largely stopped after 1833, Belgium did not officially separate from the Netherlands until 1839.
The end of Napoleon's reign in France and the Congress of Vienna also had a significant impact on France. After over two decades of revolution, conquest, defeat, and social unrest, the leaders of the Congress of Vienna did their best to reset France to her borders and political structures that existed prior to the breakout of the French Revolution. The Bourbon Monarchy was restored, and King Louis XVIII was crowned King of France, the brother to Louis XVI who was beheaded during the height of the Revolution. In addition, France was stripped of all her conquests that were made after the execution of the king, including territory that had long been disputed on its eastern border with various German and Italian states.
Though nearly all of Europe was affected by the decisions made at the Congress of Vienna, it was in these three areas where the congress' decisions were felt the most. In Germany, the loosely aligned German Confederation was set up largely to inhibit the growth of nationalism within the German states and preserve the traditionally powerful monarchies in Austria and Prussia. Likewise, in France the monarchy was reinstituted as the congress tried its best to pretend the quarter century of French revolutions and conquests had never occurred.
The absence of a suitable monarch in the southern Netherlands caused the Congress of Vienna to simply add that land to the possessions of the northern Netherlands, a settlement that proved so unsound that Belgium declared independence only 15 years later. These factors and movements that began playing out immediately after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, from the growth of nationalism to the monarchies' conservative reaction, largely dictated European politics in the ensuing century.
After this lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Identify the work of the Congress of Vienna to restore some semblance of political stability after Napoleon's defeat
- Recognize the work to keep nationalism from overrunning the German Confederation
- Understand the need for the Netherlands to split
- Detail the desire to keep France in permanent check