Saturday 11 July 2015

Book Review: Rites of Peace - Zamoyski

Adam Zamoyski's account of the Byzantine horse-trading of Napoleonic era diplomacy and intriguing proves remarkably readable.

As ever Zamoyski is, by and large, pretty pithily concise, nearly always managing to keep even the most serpentine and potentially dull intricacies of politics and administration sufficiently exciting to maintain interest. His narrative of the reconstituting of Europe by the victors of the Napoleonic wars is pepped up by a large cast of colourful characters - a 'cast list' would've been useful, and a glossary wouldn't have gone amiss either - as well as by the rumblings of conflict and the creaking of bed springs (many and varied were the types of 'congress' in Vienna at this point in time!).

Of the three Zamoyski titles I've read so far, the others being 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow and Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe, this was by far the toughest: let's face it, the Byzantine contortions and horse-trading of international diplomacy don't make for light, easy, or even very stimulating reading. But the shambolic so-called Congress of Vienna was both interesting - or perhaps intriguing would be a more apt word? - and of course very important, so hats off to Zamoyski for rendering a readable English language account.

Le Gateau de Rois: a French satirical print showing
the Ancien Regime kings slicing up the European
cake at the Congress of Vienna.

Some reviewers of this book (e.g. several I've read on the Amazon UK website) have criticised this book on account of what they regard too much weight being given to the seamier aspects of this narrative, in particular the sexual stuff. I've read that some feel this cheapen's the account. They certainly help make it more readable! But there's not as much of this sort of salacious stuff as some of those reviewers imply.

It's also been said that Zamoyski, being of Polish extraction himself - and Polish nobility, no less! - gives either the Polish aspect of the story too much weight, or is otherwise off-balance in some partisan way. In fact, in my view, he stays remarkably balanced and on-topic throughout, devoting as much time and space to the fate of Saxony as Poland, for example, and even sticking resolutely with the diplomatic threads through the turbulent and exciting '100 Days'.

A more sobre image of the congress, as the protagonists
liked to see themselves: dignified men of power!
(Metternich lounging at centre, Talleyrand at right,
facing the viewer)

I believe I agree with his underlying idea that post-Vienna Europe was a doomed King Canute-like attempt to hold back - or 'arrest', in Zamoyski's terms - the general direction of socio-political movement that had preceded and to some degree continued within Napoleonic Europe. This also suggests, although such speculations for the most part fall outside Zamoyski's ambit, that Napoleonic Europe, despite all the conflicts of the period, was a less retrograde entity than the Europe Vienna sought to reinstate.

Nearly all the central protagonists who comprise the 'architects' of the Congress, from Tsar Alexander via Wellington to Metternich, are reactionary 'ancien regime' types, and, as many contemporary observers noted, including some of the participants, appeared to be carving up the new Europe according to old interests, and just as self-interestedly (even more so, perhaps?) as Boney had, and yet with less consideration of the ordinary 'souls' over whom they ruled, and who they would trade like so much cattle during the Congress.

Le Congr√®s s'amuse: a French satirical caricature of The
Congress of Vienna, by Forceval. The central trio are
Francis II of Austria, Czar Alexander, and Wellington.

The only thing that ultimately united the major powers was fear of change driven from 'below'. This stance underpinned not only their roles in the Napoleonic wars but also their pursuit of the peace: whether it was the mob-rule of 'Jacobin' France or the despotism of the Corsican 'upstart' Buonaparte (his enemies and detractors would nearly always use the more Italianate Corsican spelling of his name), any and all perceived threats to their own supposed 'legitimacy' were to be crushed. 

Looking at the napoleonic Wars from this vantage point, I feel inclined to join Hazlitt in reaching for the post-Waterloo wine to drown sorrows rather than celebrate.

In the end I think I broadly agree with Zamoyski's analysis, which, in very simplistic terms, sets out the Congress as retrograde and doomed to failure in the long run. The revolutionary or enlightenment genie was out of the bottle, and there was little the Kings Canute could do - thought they tried their level best - to reverse that tide. Certainly they held up, even temporarily reversing in places, the general movevement of the post-Enlightenment tide, but ultimately they failed to stem it. Looking back now we see that they've all been washed away. 

Intriguingly only England, chief banker (and, arguably, chief agitator) to the Napoleonic Wars, and a force for conservatism throughout, remains a monarchist nation amongst the chief Great Powers that attended the Congress of Vienna.


NOTES, etc:

The wiki entry on the Congress of Vienna.

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