This past academic term I taught a class on modern European history (post-1789). If you’re familiar with the general outline of this history, or perhaps learned it in high school or college, you’ll undoubtedly groan at the mention of one of the perennial tent-poles of this particular franchise, the “Congress of Vienna.” You’ll groan because you probably remember it–if at all–as an intensely boring subject illustrated by multicolored maps and studded with dry terms like “balance of power” and obscure names like Talleyrand and Metternich. Like many other things in history that have been badly overcooked until only a tasteless gruel of boredom remains, the Congress of Vienna, which ended 200 years ago next week, has been cruelly misrepresented by generations of history teachers. You can forget the multicolored maps and arcane political details. The real story of the Congress of Vienna is that of an astonishingly protracted, lavish and expensive party which easily qualifies as one of the most obscene “ragers” in recorded history.
First, if you don’t remember that week in history class, you’re probably wondering what was the Congress of Vienna. In 1814, after twenty years of war–fifteen of them caused principally by Napoleon, the tiresomely audacious Emperor of France–diplomatic representatives of the major European powers gathered in Vienna to craft a political settlement to Europe’s troubles that they hoped would prevent any more disasters like the French Revolution or Napoleon. Napoleon himself was, at this time, imprisoned on the island of Elba. Over the next nine months representatives of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and France worked out agreements, some formal, many informal, to preserve collective security and nip future revolutions in the bud. From this description the Congress of Vienna may sound like an endless expanse of dull meetings and political speeches by rich white guys, kind of like a not-so-diverse United Nations. In fact there were no formal sessions. Most of the “work” went on behind closed doors in lavish Viennese salons…and at astoundingly ostentatious dinner parties.
This salon at the Hofburg Palace is now a showpiece for international visitors, but in 1814 and 1815 it doubtless held numerous parties and dignitaries of the Congress of Vienna.
The host for the festivities was Emperor Franz II, the ruler of Austria who had formerly been the Holy Roman Emperor until Napoleon made that 1000-year-old office largely useless. Many of the parties and banquets were held in Franz’s Hofburg Palace and his summer digs, Schonbrunn. With everybody from the Viscount Castlereigh of Britain to Russian Tsar Alexander I in attendance–plus their aides, adjutants, servants, mistresses, lackeys, stenographers and sycophants–Franz needed a lot of space. Nearly every royal palace and posh hotel in Vienna was occupied by illustrious guests and their entourages. Castlereagh alone had 22 rooms in the Dietrichstein Palace near the Hofburg. At Kaunitz Palace one could find Talleyrand, formerly Napoleon’s foreign minister, who managed with much cunning to turn his ceremonial observer status at the Congress (no one planned on giving defeated France anything) into a pretty important role. He also had mistresses, of course, as did nearly all the major participants.
Franz could definitely throw a party. Nearly every night he paid for 50 lavish tables at which the international guests dined in splendor. One of these dinner parties alone called for hams (300), pigeons and partridges (200 each), pheasants (150), rabbits (60), turkeys (20) and even wild boars on skewers. The delegates packed away this booty while gulping tens of thousands of expensive bottles of wine down their engorged gullets as well as plenty of other spirits. The amount of alcohol consumed was staggering. When one considers that the average man in the early 19th century had a yearly alcohol intake several times larger than modern tallies–thus making the prodigious alcoholics of the 21st century look like virtual teetotalers by comparison–this is impressive enough, but consider that these people weren’t average. They were extremely rich, some heads of state, most crowned heads of one kind or another and used to living high on the hog. Indeed records exist of numerous drunken altercations in the streets and salons of Vienna, many involving high-level delegates from various countries.
Talleyrand, Napoleon’s wily foreign minister, was one of the shrewdest diplomats at the Congress of Vienna. He was quite a celebrity around town, evidently.
The crowned heads weren’t the only ones who got into the act. Ordinary people from Vienna and surrounding environs constantly thronged the places where important celebrities stayed, hoping to see a prince or emperor in the flesh. Spies also had a heyday. With all the diplomatic intrigue going on, the opportunity for lucrative traffic in inside information is obvious. Some agents and observers–those who could get in the door–hopped nightly from salon to salon, dinner party to dinner party, sucking down liquor and listening to the chatter among the guests for clues as to how the negotiations were going. From certain police records which have survived, it appears that all the governments represented at the Congress were spying on the others.
The rager, which began in the late summer, continued on until June 1815. In between dinner parties and bedroom intrigues, the delegates did manage to agree on several important treaties–which is usually the part you hear in history class. These treaties, though ruthless and imperfect, managed to keep the general European peace until 1914, just a year shy of a century later. There were a few minor outbreaks, such as the Crimean War of the 1850s and the wars of German unification in the following decade, but the kind of vast bloodletting that consumed Europe between 1793 and 1814 was postponed a remarkably long time.
The partying at the Congress of Vienna was rudely cut short by Napoleon, who returned to Europe just in time to suffer an epic clowning from the Duke of Wellington.
Except, of course, for one minor glitch. In the early days of 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba, caught a ship to France and threatened to start the whole nightmare all over again. The European powers, meeting at Vienna, were quick to try to crush him. The Duke of Wellington hastily left Vienna to take command of a British-Prussian army, which ultimately defeated “Boney” at Waterloo, Belgium on June 18, 1815, just nine days after the final Congress of Vienna treaties were signed. By then everyone was pretty much partied out. Franz and the Austrian government were still paying off the expenses of the Congress parties years later.
Though it’s important in European history, it’s a shame that the Congress of Vienna story has typically been framed in such dull terms, as opposed to the much more fun story of the gathering as the world’s biggest party. That’s beginning to change, however. In 2008 historian David King wrote an excellent book on the Congress called Vienna 1814 which emphasizes the party aspect and has commanded attention recently as we’re in the 200th anniversary of the event. Writers like King prove that history is rarely the dull, dry-as-dust subject that lives in silent classrooms. Sometimes it’s a party, literally.