Europe in 1815 and 2015

We do not know for sure what Mr. Putin’s ultimate ambition is. But he has certainly found allies in Hungary, Belarus, Czech Republic and, latterly, Greece.

Two hundred years ago, three events fundamentally shaped European and world history for decades to come, and to some extent down to the present day. The year began with the ratification by the US Senate of the Treaty of Ghent, which crowned the victory of the Americans over the British in the War of 1812. This not only ensured that the American experiment would survive, but that the contest for supremacy in the west had been won by Washington. At around the same time, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile in Elba and re-established himself as emperor of France. Not long after, he was decisively defeated by an allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blücher at Waterloo. This was followed by the conclusion of the Congress of Vienna, which determined the internal order of Europe until the mid-nineteenth revolutions, and the territorial dispensation until the unifications of Italy and Germany.

The Vienna settlement was designed to keep the British in, the Russians out and the French down. France was forced to disgorge all lands acquired between 1789 and 1792, and required to pay a crippling indemnity. Poland remained partitioned between Russia, Austria and Prussia. The Tsar retained most of the massive gains of the past decades, including Bessarabia, taken from Turkey, and Finland, ceded by the Swedes. Piedmont-Sardinia recovered Savoy from France and was enlarged with a view to blocking French designs on Italy. Strategic depth in the peninsula was provided by the Austrians, who were granted Lombardy and Venetia, along with the Republic’s coastal strip in Dalmatia.

The most profound changes, however, took place in the lands of the former Holy Roman Empire—that is in Germany. Austria ceded Belgium to Holland to form the Kingdom of the United Netherlands, intended as a bulwark against French expansion into the Low Countries. Prussia was awarded the Rhineland and Westphalia with the express intention, as Castlereagh put it, of putting her “more in military contact with France,” in order to “provide effectually against the systematic views of France to possess herself of the Low Countries and the territories on the left bank of the Rhine.” It was only with some difficulty that Potsdam managed to fend off the British offer of a large slice of southern Belgium. The myriad of smaller principalities which had been such a feature of German politics before the 1790s were not restored for the most part: Bavaria, Wuerttemberg, Baden, Hanover and a number of other states survived the fall of Napoleon greatly enlarged.

Of the great powers, only Britain made no large-scale territorial gains, though she did retain her colonial booty (including Ceylon and the Cape Colony) and a number of bases including Malta. This restraint was deliberate. As Castlereagh had argued in mid-April 1814, “Our reputation on the continent as a feature of our strength, power and confidence is of more real moment than any acquisition.” He parlayed this standing the Quadruple Alliance of 1815 between Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain. This was designed to coordinate allied response to any future threat to the state system, especially from a resurgent France. Article six of this agreement pledged the parties to “renew their meetings at fixed periods, either under the immediate auspices of the sovereign themselves, or by their respective ministers, for the purpose of consulting upon their common interest, and for consideration of the measures which at each of those periods shall be considered the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations and the maintenance of the peace of Europe.”

The Vienna settlement regulated not only the borders but also the internal structure of much of Europe. Both Britain and the Eastern powers rejected republicanism in favor of the “monarchical principle,” the former preferring constitutional monarchies, the latter tending more towards “corporate” or absolutist systems. Many of the southern and western German states, such as Bavaria and Württemberg, held onto or were granted constitutions; and in Prussia the promulgation of a constitution was much discussed in 1814–1815. In France, an army of occupation was deployed to keep an eye on residual Bonapartism, and to ensure that the indemnity was paid in full. The general intention was to encourage governments which would be both robust enough to withstand revolutionary pressures from below, sufficiently effective to deter external aggressors and yet not so strong as to menace their neighbors.

At the heart of this new order was the German Confederation—Deutscher Bund— which replaced the defunct Holy Roman Empire. It was designed to maintain the European balance by being strong enough to contain Franco-Russian ambitions, yet not sufficiently powerful to develop hegemonic ambitions of its own. The preamble to the constitutive German Federal Act therefore called for a “strong and durable union for the independence of Germany and the peace and equilibrium of Europe.” This was envisaged as a commonwealth of parts as well as the whole; sacrificing any individual state for strategic reasons was expressly prohibited. The eleventh article of the Confederation therefore bound members to provide mutual assistance in the event of an invasion, not to make separate peace with the aggressor and not conclude agreements which threatened the integrity of the Bund. To this end, the defense of Germany was entrusted to federal military contingents from Prussia, Austria and the rest of Germany, Political coordination was to be provided by the Diet at Frankfurt, under the presidency of Austria.

All this amounted to a geopolitical revolution in Europe. The inexorable eighteenth-century Russian march westwards had been barely contained: Congress Poland jutted perilously into Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. Denmark had been destroyed as a Baltic and Scandinavian power; her attention was once more turned southwards. But the greatest shift had taken place in Germany. Prussia, a power of increasingly Eastern orientation during the past hundred years, now became the guardian of the gate against France in the West. Austria, for centuries a Western power intimately involved in the politics of the Rhineland, Burgundy and the Low Countries, now acquired a largely Balkan, eastern European and especially Italian focus. There was also a fundamental transformation in the way the great powers did business. They had learned the virtues of cooperation and restraint during the final stages of the struggle with Napoleon, and this culture continued to permeate diplomacy after 1815. At the same time, the great powers were agreed as never before that what happened inside European states had profound implications for relations between states.

The Treaty of Ghent, which brought the war between Britain and the United States to a formal close attracted much less contemporary attention than the Congress of Vienna. Its implications were to be no less revolutionary in the long run, however. A stalemated Britain returned disputed territory around the Great Lakes. The United States had survived its first major trial of strength with a major power since independence.

Before we compare 1815 and 2015 a generic warning is in order. They did things differently two hundred years ago. Mental horizons were shaped by the experiences of more than twenty years of war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and much of what we take for granted today in the way of social and political liberalism would have seemed strange to protagonists. The two scenarios are also conceptually far apart. 1815 saw a new institutional departure with the inauguration of the Concert of Europe; today, there is no new architecture—though one is sorely needed, as we shall see below—and instead we are preoccupied with the health of existing instruments such as NATO and the European Union.

There are also, however, very significant similarities. Year 1815 was a start and an end point: it marked the conclusion of a long period of warfare, and the start of a durable peace between the great powers, at least. The past year, by contrast, has been marked by the end of the post-Cold-War settlement with the Russian annexation of the Ukraine. It represents the end of a peace, rather than the end of a war, as in 1815. Whether it also marks the start of a new struggle is not clear. The likelihood is that the incipient cold war will intensify, and prolonged armed confrontation—if not actual war—along NATO and the EU’s eastern flank cannot be ruled out.

That said, if we ask what began in 2014–2015, the historian must answer glibly that it is too early to tell. Only the perspective of time will tell us which of the remarkable developments we have seen over the past year—the Russian assault on Ukraine, the rise of ISIS or the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists will shape our futures. It may even be that some hitherto unobserved, or disregarded, event will appear decisive in retrospect.

We do not know for sure what Mr. Putin’s ultimate ambition is. His planned Eurasian Union is certainly a fundamental challenge to the democratic order established in Europe and its wider neighborhood after the fall of the Wall. Pessimists see it as the harbinger of a prolonged standoff between the Kremlin and the West. Optimists see in Mr. Putin a new Alexander I, the Russian Tsar who claimed a powerful role for Russia in the new European Congress system after 1815. Are Russia’s aims ideological or territorial or both? For example, there are some signs that Mr. Putin sees himself as the avatar of an alternative to Western modernity based on nationalism and a rejection of decadence. He has certainly found allies in Hungary, Belarus, Czech Republic and, latterly, Greece. In that case, the next decade may resemble more the period after the concert of Europe split in the 1830s into a Western constitutionalist camp, led by Great Britain and France, and an Eastern autocratic camp, made up of Prussia, Russia and Austria.

The legacy of 1815 for the European Union is equally ambiguous, and depends on whether we are comparing it to the Congress System or the German Confederation. Napoleon’s failure to mobilize the European continent he dominated for so long more effectively against his remaining enemies, Great Britain and the Tsarist Empire, graphically showed the limits of his “hegemonic” integration project. Hitler fared no better in 1940–1944, when he found that the economic resources of Fortress Europe much reduced from their pre-war potential on account of the continent being unplugged from the global system. Likewise—without in any way wishing to compare Napoleon, Hitler and Chancellor Merkel!—German coercive austerity politics is depressing rather than raising the economies of the periphery.

In this sense, the looser consensual bonds of the Concert of Europe were better suited to international harmony, which might suggest that the EU would better row back on closer political and thus fiscal integration. That said, the German Confederation did not work: rather like the current EU, it showed itself unable to deal with severe internal and external challenges, and was eventually replaced by the more tightly organized Bismarckian Reich. In the present context it would mean full political union of the continent to mobilize it against Russian aggression.

The lessons of the battle of Waterloo for today, on the other hand, are more straightforward, and more helpful for the project of European integration. It was fought as a coalition campaign in which the Duke of Wellington operated in concert with Prussia’s Marshal Blücher, and if they had failed to stop Napoleon, Austrian and Russian armies were already hastening to the scene from Central Europe. The Duke’s own army was a multi-national microcosm made up of Britons (that is English, Irish, Scots and Welsh) as well as Belgians, Dutch, and various sorts of Germans. No formation epitomized more than the King’s German Legion, made up of George II’s Hanoverian subjects who signed up in the British army, using English as their principal language of command, to fight Napoleonic tyranny. European military integration within an English-speaking coalition army which brings Germans to the front, now isn’t that a legacy of 1815 that we could use two hundred years later?

Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is a Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and President of the Project for Democratic Union, which advocates a full political union of the eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject.

Author of “Europe: The struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present day” (Penguin Press, 2013) and “The longest afternoon: The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo” (Penguin Press, 2014), which is about the King’s German Legion as prototype for a future European army.

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