Concert of Europe: Alliances, Congresses & Wars

This is an elaborate historical painting depicting the Congress of Paris in 1856, marking the end of the Crimean War. It portrays a grand room with opulent decor, including ornate chandeliers, rich draperies, and a classical bust. A group of men in 19th-century attire, including military uniforms adorned with medals and sashes, as well as formal civilian clothing, are engaged in discussion and negotiation around a central table covered with a dark green cloth. The table is furnished with inkstands, quill pens, and documents, suggesting the importance of the diplomatic discussions at hand. Some men are standing while others are seated, highlighting the social hierarchy and the formality of the occasion. The atmosphere conveys a sense of historical significance and the gravity of political decision-making.
The Congress of Paris, painting by Edouard Louis Dubufe depicting the meeting that ended the Crimean War, in 1856. Public domain image.

The Concert of Europe was the international system that emerged in Europe after 1815, when the Napoleonic Era ended. It began at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), which restored absolutist monarchies all over the continent and reinforced the role of Austria, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom and France. These five major powers began to negotiate international issues, attempting to keep disagreements between them at bay and to maintain a balance of power in Europe. They intended to prevent any one power from asserting hegemony over the others, even though each possessed distinct hard power capabilities.

As argued by Anthony Best, this was not a fair arrangement, because it was solely based on great power politics — that is, the interests of the great powers were taken into account, while those of smaller countries were frequently overlooked.

Usually, the five leaders of Europe were against revolutions — after all, many of them had been negatively affected by the French Revolution. Accordingly, they were often at odds with the liberal movements of the time. However, they were not necessarily counterrevolutionaries. In some cases, they did not oppose (or even supported) independence movements, both in Europe and abroad. Yet their tolerance frequently came from political or commercial interests, such as weakening rivals and gaining a foothold in new markets. Because of this, for instance, Britain recognized the decolonization of Latin America and Greece.

According to Eric Hobsbawm, outside Europe’s borders, there was no pretense of equilibrium and consensus. As the Europeans secured colonies in Latin America, Africa and Asia, “nothing stood in the way of expansion and bellicosity”.

Both Henry Kissinger and Eric Hobsbawm, among other authors, emphasize that the Concert of Europe was largely successful in what it proposed: after 1815, the continent would experience the longest period of peace that it had ever had. Although there were wars, they were limited in scope and in goals. Much of this can be explained by the faith in military alliances as a deterrent to confrontations and the tradition of holding diplomatic conferences to solve thorny issues.

The European Alliances

During the Napoleonic Wars, reactionary powers formed one coalition after the other, in an attempt to forestall French expansionism. When Napoleon was finally defeated, two major alliances defined post-war Europe:

  • Holy Alliance (Austria, Prussia and Russia): At the request of Russian Tzar Alexander I, this alliance proposed to uphold the principles of Catholicism and restrain liberal and secular movements. Its members believed they had the right to intervene in other countries, in case revolutionary movements gather strength and threaten European stability. Austria, in particular, was thankful for this group, because it managed to convince its two main rivals, the Prussians and the Russians, to unite against the revolutionary threats. Yet certain authors, such as Edward Burns, claim that the alliance never lived up to its expectations, even though it would engage in some interventions. The United Kingdom, for example, rejected the Holy Alliance because its domestic politics were more liberal and because it rejected interventionism.
  • Quadruple Alliance and Quintuple Alliance (Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom — France later): The Quadruple Alliance had come into existence well before the fall of Napoleonic France. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, it was formalized by the signing of the Treaty of Paris, with the goal to prevent French aggression and enforce the peace settlement. In 1818, at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, France would be invited to join the group, effectively transforming it into the Quintuple Alliance. Even though the original coalition of four countries would secretly renew their anti-French commitments in the same year, the old alliance would become irrelevant.

The Congress System

Following the Congress of Vienna, European powers inaugurated the practice of holding continental meetings whenever there was a crisis to be discussed. These periodic congresses took place in various European cities and were important mechanisms for cooperation among the powers. However, many times, the meetings took an antiliberal undertone, because they endorsed foreign interventions against liberal revolutions that shook Europe during the 1820s, the 1830s and the 1840s. These were the main congresses during this period:

  • Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818): At this meeting, the European countries discussed the war reparations the French owed the victors of the Napoleonic Wars. They agreed to forgo much of the debt, end the occupation of France’s territory, and admit the country into the Quadruple Alliance. From then on, France was to be considered an equal member of the Concert of Europe. In addition, the delegates rejected Russia’s proposal to send troops against revolutionary movements in the continent, and they blocked a British proposal to allow the searching of suspected slave ships in the high seas.
  • Congress of Troppau (1820): This meeting was called upon by the Tsar Alexander I, but it took place in the Austrian Silesia. The five powers held discussions about a revolution that was taking place in Naples. The Carbonari, an Italian secret society, hoped to impose a constitutional government in the region, but they failed to account for foreign discontent. At the congress, the Holy Alliance drafted the Troppau Protocol, which prescribed that revolutionary states would be excluded from the European order and that, if they threaten other countries, an intervention would ensue. Both the United Kingdom and France viewed this document with dismay, and no agreement was reached about the situation in Naples.
  • Congress of Laibach (1821): At this meeting, discussions regarding the Italian Peninsula continued, and a clear split was evidenced among the powers. On the one hand, there were Austria, Prussia and Russia, which firmly upheld the principle of intervening in other countries to suppress liberal movements. On the other hand, both Britain and France believed that certain interventions were justified, but that they should be defined on a case-by-case basis. The Austrians, led by Metternich, wanted to send troops to Naples, while the British representative was vehemently opposed to it. In the end, the Holy Alliance approved Austria’s intervention and the Italians were defeated.
  • Congress of Verona (1822): This meeting dealt primarily with the Trienio Liberal (Three Liberal Years), a constitutional movement in Spain that undermined the rule of absolutist king Ferdinand VII. While France wanted to launch a counterrevolutionary intervention, the British representative was instructed to dismiss any intervention whatsoever. Because of that, the Holy Alliance and France proclaimed that the United Kingdom was in breach of its obligations to the Quintuple Alliance, and the French operation was authorized. In addition, during preliminary encounters, the delegates to Verona discussed the continued Austrian rule over Italy and the beginning of the Greek revolt demanding independence from the Ottoman Empire.

The Challenges to the Concert and the Crimean War

According to Eric Hobsbawm, the Concert of Europe was most effective in the immediate aftermath of the Congress of Vienna (1815). At that time, the prevalence of hunger, poverty, generalized economic crisis and fear of subsequent liberal revolts facilitated an understanding between the powers. Over time, however, these issues lost importance and the powers’ interests diverged.

Because of the Industrial Revolution, the United Kingdom became an economic powerhouse and began to assert its dominance overseas. While the British focused on colonial expansion, they had little patience engage in European affairs. In their view, there was no need for permanent alliances with continental powers, because such affairs could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. This worldview, combined with Britain’s discontent with successive interventions launched by its neighbors, motivated the rise of “splendid isolation”.

While the United Kingdom moved away from the continent, the interests of the five powers began to diverge considerably. Nowhere was this clearer than in the period from 1853 to 1856, when the disputes over Crimea took a bad turn. Russian Tzar Nicholas I wanted to wield more influence in the Orthodox Church and conquer both Constantinople and the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles — which connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Meanwhile, the British did not want to lose their commercial privileges over the Ottomans, who controlled Constantinople, and the French strived to control the Christian Ottomans. Both of them hoped to curb Russia’s ambitions and ensure freedom of navigation through the straits. In 1853, tensions would lead to a war.

The Crimean War’s immediate cause was the religious rivalry between Orthodox Russia and Catholic France. Nicholas I issued an ultimatum, requesting that the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire be placed under his protection. The British put forward a compromise solution, but, when that was spurned by the Ottomans, Russia mobilized its troops. Soon, the Ottoman Empire, alongside Britain, France and Piedmont-Sardinia, declared war against the Russians.

At first, Austria proclaimed its neutrality, but it recanted after enormous pressure from the Allied countries. They managed to defeat Russia and dictate the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1856): a commitment to ensuring the survival of the Ottoman Empire, the neutralization of the Black Sea, and the freedom of navigation through the straits. However, as Henry Kissinger argued, Austria made the wrong choice in abandoning its neutrality. The Austrians neglected their alliance with Prussia and Russia while choosing Britain, which was unwilling to defend them, and France, which was eager to undermine their interests in the Italian Peninsula.

As Britain stayed away from the continent and Austria turned from Prussia’s and Russia’s friend to foe, a new generation of leaders was rising to power in Europe. Powerful authorities such as Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, and Cavour in Piedmont-Sardinia had no interest in defending the Vienna settlement and were looking to advance their respective national interests. At the same time, liberal revolutions that broke out in the 1820s, in the 1830s, and in 1848 also challenged the Concert of Europe. A few decades after the end of the Crimean War, this arrangement would come to an end with the unification of Italy, the fall of Napoleon III, and the unification of Germany, in 1871.


From 1815 to 1871, the Concert of Europe operated as a system of great-power politics in which Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain and France shared power and negotiated solutions to their disagreements. This arrangement provided significant periods of peace in the continent, but it was constantly challenged by liberal movements that were inspired in the French Revolution. Over time, the interests of each of the five powers diverged considerably, culminating in the Crimean War and in the unification of both Italy and Germany. By 1871, the original formula of the Concert of Europe no longer worked. Some historians believe that the Concert began a new era, lasting until the outbreak of World War I, while others posit that it came to an end entirely. In any case, for more than five decades, it worked well enough to prevent total wars like the Napoleonic Wars.




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