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The Congress of Vienna Revisited

PARIS – Two hundred years ago, on September 25, 1814, Russia’s Czar Alexander I and Friedrich Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia, were greeted at the gates of Vienna by Austria’s Emperor Franz I. The start of the Congress of Vienna ushered in the longest period of peace Europe had known for centuries. So why has its anniversary all but been ignored?

True, the Congress of Vienna is mostly viewed as marking the victory of Europe’s reactionary forces after the defeat of Napoleon. Yet, given today’s growing global confusion, if not chaos, something like “Proustian” nostalgia for the Congress may not be out of order. Here, after all, was a meeting that, through tough but successful negotiations, reestablished international order after the upheavals caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Can we apply any of its lessons today?

To answer that question, we should consider not just the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, but also the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, each of which in its own way brought to an end a bloody chapter in European history.

The treaties signed in 1648 concluded nearly a century of religious warfare by enshrining the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”). The Congress of Vienna reinstated the principle of the balance of power, based on the belief that all parties shared a common interest transcending their respective ambitions, and re-established the Concert of Nations, which for two generations stopped territorial and ideological revisionism of the type seen from 1789 to 1815. By contrast, the Treaty of Versailles, too harsh to be honored and too weak to be enforced, paved the way for World War II.