2) To what extent, if at all, was it possible to roll back the French Revolution with the Congress of Vienna? Was a complete rollback even desirable? Why or why not?
1. Introduction
Whether a complete rollback of the French Revolution (Revolution) was desirable yields no simple answer, but it is apparent that the Congress of Vienna had rolled back the doings of the French Revolution in form but not in substance. To that end, this paper will first discuss what the congressmen stood for mainly between 1815 and 1848 in response to the legacies left behind after the era of the Revolution; before scrutinising the success and appeal, or lack thereof, for a complete rollback.
2. Conservative Backlash
(Superficial) Restoration of the Political Regime
Following the unrest of the French Revolution was the period of 1815-1848, or the “Era of Metternich”, seeking to restore the balance of power in Europe that was tipped over during the French Revolution. One of reaction, the alliance amongst Austria, Britain, Prussia, Russia, led by Austrian Chancellor Metternich, saw the need for a general reconciliation of European affairs and Napoleon’s legacy. With that came along a redrawing of the map of Europe, the restoration of old rulers and the reassignment of territories as established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Prussia and Austria, for example, expanded their existing territories with the reassignment, even Poland became part of Russia; and in France, the Bourbon monarch was restored as “legitimate” rulers of the French since 1792 to undo the dynastic changes introduced by Napoleon and suppress the rising liberal, nationalist rebels that favoured greater political, intellectual and economic freedom for the individual. To preserve these resettlements, the Concert of Europe, a series of conferences attended by the Crown heads of Europe, served as a platform for the rulers to solve political problems diplomatically before they grew out of proportion. There is no doubt that the age of Metternich, characterised by support for political absolutism, suppression of nationalistic ambitions and forcible preservation of the status quo, kept Europe in check through collective effort and systematic changes, albeit forceful.
No Restoration of Ideals
However, the efforts of the Congress of Vienna did not roll back the Revolution insofar as it was apparent that the revolutionary nationalist sentiments had already been sown throughout Europe. While the period of 1815-1848 saw Europe in a period of temporary peace, it is not to say that it was a time free of revolutionary stirrings and sentiments in support of nationalistic ideals. This is especially evident by the stirrings of Revolution in 1830 and the full scale revolutions of 1848. Despite successful revolutions that led to the independence of Greece and Belgium in 1830, similar unrest persisted in the same year with the 1830 French Revolution after Louis XVIII promulgated a Charter that made France a constitutional monarchy and accepted equality before the law and the Napoleonic Code. His successor, Charles X, on the other hand was a staunch reactionary who sought to roll back the gains of the Revolution and moved towards a more absolutist regime once again. By 1830, discontentment with reaction and suppression of nationalistic ambitions had reached explosive proportions: Charles X published his July Ordinance restricting further the freedom of the press; dissolving the new Chamber to which a liberal majority had been elected; promulgating a new electoral law narrowing the suffrage, and calling for new elections which would presumably result in the return of a reactionary majority. This escalated to a vote of no confidence and his abdication, bypassing the “legitimate” Bourbon line with the Duke of Orleans and laid the grounds for the 1848 Revolution, a continent-wide revolution most notably arising in France, the Italian and German states, Hungary. Indeed, stirrings and unrest following 1830 saw the propagation of the seeds of nationalism amongst people, especially the middle class, who were evidently pushing back against a more absolutist regime envisioned by the congress. They were a force to be reckoned with but obviously overlooked by the Congress of Vienna.
3. Appeal of the Congress of Vienna
While Metternich and other rulers believed in the power of the congress to establish peace and order in Europe, particularly where its legislative sovereigns and an international balance of power could not be challenged by the forces of liberalism and nationalism or a single state, the same vision was not shared by the emerging bourgeoisie who favoured exactly the opposite. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars unleashed forces that shook the foundations of European society. Napoleon had spread ideas of democracy, liberty and equality, and planted the seeds of representative government across Europe. Metternich had retarded liberalism but had failed to eradicate the influence of the French Revolution, especially in the midst of unrest and conflict that created further discontentment at the bottom of the regime.
5. Conclusion
The Congress of Vienna was organised with good intentions of preserving peace in Europe, albeit a reactionary one. While no major conflict was realised, there was clearly a great deal of unrest, especially amongst the emerging middle class that was disenfranchised and thus repulsed the Congress and the old order. Given that a backward change in political form could not contain, let alone undo, people’s shifting attitudes towards political liberation, rolling back the gains of the Revolution with the Congress of Vienna was possible at a superficial level and to a small extent, and only desirable in the eyes of the conservatives and not that of the people.
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