Adam Zamoyski says in his introduction (p.xiv) that the literature on the subject is scanty, elusive and one-sided. Noone can say this after having read this magnificent, scholarly and entertainingly written book. 570 pages on essentially three years of diplomacy could have been stodgy, but the writing is extremely lucid, and the minutiae of day-by-day negotiations (sometimes, as over the Saxon question, very repetitive, and just occasionally, as over Swiss affairs, also a little tedious) are seamlessly interspersed with vivid accounts of the personalities involved, of their moods and of the hedonistic and frivolous ways in which they spent their time between negotiations (much of the latter information culled from the reports of Metternich's secret surveillance teams).
Fascinating details include:
1. The ease with which politicians in those days were able to move from employment by one court to employment by another: von Stein from the Prussian to the Russian Court; Hardenberg from the Hanoverian to the Prussian Court (and in office there during Prussia's annexation of Hanover); Gentz from being a civil servant in Berlin to being an agent of the British government and then to taking service in Austria.
2. The intense suspicion between all of Napoleon's opponents. Each constantly feared that others might come to terms with Napoleon at their expense: after all, there had been a long history before Napoleon's invasion of Russia when countries had made just such deals with Napoleon, whose victories had made it possible over and over again for him to play one of his enemies off against another. Even within delegations there were animosities: initially Britain was represented at negotiations by no fewer than three envoys who so obviously detested each other that they were simply ignored by the other diplomats. The English, not well versed in continental politics, were universally considered gauche in manner and women's dress; but eventually Castlereagh took over, and after a while he became one of the key players, and one of the more sensible ones at that.
At one time the allies nearly went to war with each other - but the extraordinary thing is that while the threat of war hung over the Congress, the rival delegates met at balls and other spectacular entertainments every evening.
3. The open and promiscuous randiness of the principals is truly astonishing, as is the readiness of aristocratic and royal ladies to move from bed to bed. So many statesmen had affaires during the Congress: Metternich, who, while he had been ambassador at Napoleon's court, had slept with two of Napoleon's sisters, now fell in love with the Princess of Sagan and wrote her letters as remarkable for their love-struck clichés as for his measureless conceit; Humboldt sought out fat lower-class girls; women threw themselves at the ever-willing Alexander I. There are marvellous chapters (esp. 18, 19 and 21) on what life was like during the Congress of Vienna, how kings away from their courts let their hair down, and how the aura of majesty was dispelled.
4. The immature and headstrong nature of Alexander, who, confident of his huge military might, frequently took unilateral action to the dismay of the other powers. The confidence and skill of Talleyrand. The shameless greediness of Prussia, which exceeded the considerable greed of the other participants.
5. A great deal hung on the moods and personal characters of the principal characters, and this account is certainly a challenge to the structuralist view of history. A powerful final chapter shows how these individuals, backward rather than forward looking, managed to clamp a reactionary settlement on the continent that, so far from producing a stable Europe for a hundred years (a view that Henry Kissinger propounded in the 1950s and 1960s), would create during that time many rebellions, civil and international wars with a heavy cost in human lives.
on 4 February 2008
Adam Zamoyski is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Napoleonic era historians. His Moscow 1812 was brilliant, well-researched, and extremely detailed. Now, Zamoyski has added to the previous book with his latest, Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon & the Congress of Vienna. Beginning almost immediately after Napoleon's final withdrawal from Russia, this book tells the story of the aftermath and the end of the Napoleonic wars. Zamoyski's rich detail is included, unfortunately almost too a fault. While the book is definitely interesting, it gets bogged down to the point where it's extremely slow reading for most casual readers.
Once again, Zamoyski doesn't dwell on the military details of battles, though he certainly doesn't gloss over them, either. Readers wishing for in-depth examinations of the battles of Liepzig or Waterloo will be left wanting. Instead, Rites of Peace covers how these battles affected the greater societal whole in Europe, how the various monarchs handled them and what they wanted to do afterward. Zamoyski introduces all of the major players in European politics, with Metternich (Foreign Minister of Austria) getting a lot of detail. Once Napoleon is defeated, the Treaty of Paris is signed and other problems present themselves.
Zamoyski saves his greatest detail for the Congress of Vienna. Opening in early November, 1814, this Congress (which Metternich figured would last about 6 weeks) lasted upwards of 6 months. Ostensibly, it was supposed to solve all of Europe's pressing problems, but it turned into more of a social occasion and negotiations often dragged on to great lengths to solve small issues. Zamoyski spends an incredible amount of time on the sexual escapades and romantic dalliances of all of the attendees, from the Russian Tsar to Metternich and Talleyrand of France. Zamoyski's able to provide this detail because Metternich had the Austrian police keep close tabs on every delegate and the police reports are extensive.
Of course, it wasn't all social occasions. The Congress of Vienna consisted of a lot of horse-trading between the powers, with each side trying desperately to get the best deal that would favor them, often at odds with other European powers. Zamoyski does a great job of showing what each faction wanted and how it contrasted with others' plans. Almost every province or duchy in Europe, in addition to the great powers themselves, has representatives at the Congress, and all of them were looking to get a piece of the action. Zamoyski makes all of this fascinating, as we see all the conflicts that arose from these negotiations.
Unfortunately, Rites of Peace does get mired in the social aspects of the Congress. I agree that these issues are relevant, especially when they interfered with the negotiations. But Zamoyski spends so much time on them that many of the personages started to run together, causing some exceedingly slow reading. This is countered by Zamoyski's writing style, which makes these passages much more interesting then they would normally be.
Rites of Peace is well-researched, with many end-notes to take in if you're the type of reader who does that. Zamoyski also provides an extensive bibliography and index as well. Maps are scattered throughout the text to illustrate points, such as the Swiss territorial gains after negotiation, and there is a block of full-color pictures in the middle of the book, giving a face to all of the major personages involved. That's a big plus in a book where personal and romantic issues are so much at the forefront. The book is quite long, however, so be ready for an extended read (as well as the weight, as the hardcover is quite heavy).
All in all, Rites of Peace is an extraordinary examination of the end of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. While it does get slow at times, the amount of detail and the vivid pictures that Zamoyski paints are well worth the effort. Combined with Moscow 1812, Adam Zamoyski has created quite a treat for the history reader.
on 21 July 2008
At a time when most history seems to consist of unconnected trivia suitable only for pub quizzes, it's a relief to find a book by an author who sees history as a process. The book is a study of the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress was one of the most important gatherings of the 19th century, and it set the tone for 'big power' politics for the next hundred years. The way in which it carved up Europe between the victors and losers without consideration for the wishes of the populations also set the parameters for the two World Wars in the 20th century.
But Zamoyski doesn't just deal with the 'dry' politics - he also deals with the social event that was also the Congress of Vienna. Judging from his description and the quotes from reports in the archives of the Austrian police, many of the main participants spent far more time with their assorted mistresses than trying to sort out the problems caused by the Napoleonic wars.
Even before I read this book I always thought that Talleyrand was the consummate politician of the 19th Century. Having read what he achieved in defending France's interests at the congress, I now appreciate just how brilliant he was. No wonder that when he eventually died, most of the people at his funeral were there to make sure he really was dead, with no chance of coming back!
An excellent read.
on 21 July 2007
Adam Zamoyski is a talented writer, and a first-class narrator. His book is both erudite and tells a gripping story. But is is also a book with a politicial mission: Zamoyski's objective is to destroy the idea that the Congress of Vienna - which rearranged Europe after the fall of Napoleon - was the important and long-lasting historic event which we all assumed until now. His view is that it was merely a botched attempt to patch over irreconcilable differences between European powers. The main explanation for the author's unremitting criticism of the Congress of Vienna, which comes across in almost every page of this book, is the fact that Zamoyski's beloved Poland was not recreated at Vienna, and had to wait another 100 years before its resurrection. Correct, but this is history in a typical East European fashion: solid, erudite yet ultimately tainted by personal preferences, mixed with ethnic allegiances and nationalist aspirations.
Zamoyski speaks many languages, and has used them to great effect; this book relies on an impressive array of sources and archival material. But was it really necessary to recount the tale of every mistress, every sexual escapade of the delegates to the Congress of Vienna, mostly transcribed directly from the prurient reports of the Austrian secret police? What exactly do we learn from this? That early 19th century diplomats had their private business affairs and mistresses? We knew it already. That most of them led promiscuous private lives? Again, this is well known. Perhaps the publisher insisted on the inclusion of such "spicy" material in order to increase potential sales. Either way, the padding of the study with constant sex stories and financial scandals does nothing to improve the book's academic credentials.
This is a pity, for Zamoyski remains a talented writer, who could have written a much better book. If you do not intend to know a great deal about the period, Zamoyski's book should be adequate. But, if you are truly interested in understanding Europe's 19th century territorial arrangements, Zamoyski's latest work should be complemented by more serious reading.
This is fascinating account which adds breadth and depth of knowledge for readers who have a general interest in 19th century European history. Zamoyski has created, for the most part an easily read, and enjoyable account of the fall of Napoleon following his armies' retreat from Moscow, the subsequent restoration of the monarchy in France, and the peace conference held in Vienna in 1814, which was hoped to resolve all the political and territorial issues left following the collapse of the French Empire.
This is a colourful account, which shows the splendour and frivolity of most of the monarchs and plenipotentiaries gathered in Vienna, along with their dalliances, personal heartbreaks and hopes, many of which appears to have detracted the key players from focusing on the importance of the diplomatic work at hand.
The return of Napoleon from exile in Elba, and the events of the following 100 days leading up to Waterloo, are also covered here, but lightly. What there is is kaleidoscope of players, entertainments, balls. negotiations, and individual and notional vanities. Hard to follow at times, but no doubt no less bewildering for most of the participants at the time.
This was an age when rulers could dispose of the fate of whole peoples at personal whim, where national boundaries and states, as well as who would rule them, were at the gift of autocrats. The identities, rights and lives of the peoples who lived there were of little account in the grand political game.
The author concludes with two magisterial chapters, summing up the effects of the conference, both positive and negative, and going some way to link these to more recent events.
A great book - well researched and written. I enjoyed it and learned a lot
on 11 September 2015
This book follows the author's magnificent 1812 and is a vital piece of the history of Europe between 1810 and 20. The story is mesmerising and all the more so for being true. The author has delivered a mountain of research; the problem is - and why he loses a star - is that it is all included. The quantity of detail obscures the broad flow of the narrative. We cannot see the wood for the trees. Someone might abridge this book to great effect and without a reader losing very much. But that said the book is a tremendous achievement and I now know and appreciate much more than I did before reading it.
on 11 February 2012
having read Adams other book on the 1812 invasion of russia i had high hopes for this book and thankfully i was not in the least disappointed. Adem does an amazing job once again in telling the story of events and has an amazing way of gripping you in something as simple as diplomacy. the book largely picks up were his last one leaves off by describing napoleon arrival in paris after several months on campaign in russia. it then gos on to describe events of the next few years but in a new view as opposed to the usual military view of events he describes the diplomatic intrigue that took place and gives a whole new view to events. his coverage on the congress of Vienna is extensive and there is no end of short stories and scandalous events that many of its participants got up too. as he said in the preface not many really know about what happened at the congress of Vienna and i was amazed myself as just how close they came to war as they argued over the reshaping of the european map. there is a wealth of information in this book that offers a whole new perspective to the napoleonic wars and in its final chapter gives an amazing description of the effects of the congress and indeed the whole legacy of the napoleonic wars. this was a wonderful book and comes highly recommended for those wishing to study the napoleonic wars as it gives a wonderful 'sending off' to them in describing there full effects and what was really happening off the battlefield
on 1 May 2015
'Rites of Peace' takes off where '1812' left, i.e. when Napoleon tried to rebuild his army after its horrible defeat in Russia. It describes the campaigns of 1813 (including Leipzig) and 1814 (Cossacks on the Champs Elysees...) before diving into the Congress of Vienna proper.
In between the dancing and flirting the various diplomats had some time left to make momentous decisions; countries that had been 'bad' (Saxony, Denmark, France) got punished and the victors (Britain, Russia, and even Austria and Prussia) were nicely rewarded. A lot of kings and princes got their job and country back, others had to be disappointed. If you think that a voluminous book about a congress would be boring, think again - and read it, you won't be disappointed.
on 23 March 2010
I really enjoyed this book. It was about a topic that I didn't know much about
and it really brought it vividly to light.
He is an exceptionally good writer.
I would have given this 5 stars but for me personally the subject matter was slightly too thin and it
did get repetitive. It's not the authors fault as all diplomatic history seems that way to me.
Rites of Peace by Adam Zamoyski is an epic. At around 570 pages it is a thorough description of the people, events, and decisions surrounding the Congress of Vienna 1814-1815. Zamoyski provides a very readable account of a defining moment in European history starting with the very throes of Napoleon's France through to his eventual despatch to St Helena and the conclusion of the diplomatic concert that redrew Europe.
Zamoyski draws from a large number of sources especially the personal correspondence of the main actors. The copious letters and notes they drafted provides a treasure trove for historians. Zamoyski points out in his introduction the distinct absence of analytical coverage of the Congress of Vienna and indeed it is a surprisingly sparse field. With so much ink having been devoted to the all-conquering Napoleonic France, the lack of literature on the Congress is quite some gap. Zamoyski has filled the niche incredibly. His is an incredibly easy read for a 570 page treatise on a diplomatic negotiation. The personalities involved burst from the page, their interests and activities giving them rounded personalities.
Much of Zamoyski's work is about the people rather than just their deeds. The most prominent players at the Congress have plenty of pages devoted to them. Metternich, Castlereagh, and Alexander are the leads. Each of them is described in detail, their foibles exposed and analysed, their successes and their intrigues plotted out through the various turns of the negotiation.
While Zamoyski is describing a process and the people involved in it, he has also set out an entire class of person who existed in early 19th century Europe. Much like the generals for hire who fought for various causes in their careers, the statesmen involved appear as an elite and highly mobile cadre often promoting aims for leaders who were not of their own nationality.
Another class of person featured heavily in Zamoyski's work is the ambitious socialite woman. Zamoyski's tale is not just of the great men who changed the world around them but also the women who sought to profit and enjoy themselves along the way. At times the work reads a little less like a dedicated historical analysis and more like a breathless celebration of scandal and gossip. The number of balls and illicit encounters threaded throughout the work sometimes outweighs the limited progress the negotiations make.
Indeed, Zamoyski may have been better off not replicating all of the soiree information and devoting a little more to the negotiation. It is ultimately the diplomatic dance that makes the Congress of Vienna a special moment in time rather than the socialising it has become notorious for.
The various phases of diplomatic action are the most fascinating parts of the work. The initial phase of battlefield diplomacy as Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain attempt to move themselves into the right positions as they converge on Paris. Of course it is Russia who gets to Paris first, setting the tone for the next couple years of negotiation battle. Alexander of Russia is the primary figure, his decisions seemingly often influenced only by his latest whim, the archetype of the monarch as despot unaware of the implications of his actions.
Getting to Paris first really seems to have given Alexander a first mover's advantage he never relinquished. For all his dancing and later mysticism, he is really the dominant figure of the Congress by Zamoyski's analysis. His obstructionism frustrates his allies in the later phases of negotiation, especially in securing his unusual aims for Poland as a nation under his rule as Russian Emperor.
The phases of the Congress itself often read like the worst excesses of the UN in the modern environment, small issues derailing the best of aspirations, and dogma getting in the way of progress. Zamoyski is particularly positive about the skills of French delegate Tallyrand. It is Tallyrand who displays by far the most skill in negotiation, clearly using techniques still credible today. Of all the participants, it is only Tallyrand who coes out with credit under Zamoyski's analysis. He is somewhat scathing about pretty much everyone else. In particular the British diplomats do not seem to fare well, clumsily failing to take advange of opportunities especially in the early going and finding themselves out-played frequently.
Of all the many characters present though it is the King of Württemberg who comes in for by far the most criticism. It is not clear exactly what Zamoyski has against him but every description is a rendition of Württemberg as a contemptuously obese monster.
It is all these second tier characters though which make Rites of Peace so excellent. The comprehensive coverage of the many issues at stake and the players involved works so well. The issues which carried on throughout much of the discussion seem never to have really been resolved. The Polish, Saxon, and Dutch questions were never really dealt with. Taking decisions on these kind of major issues requires serious leadership of a type that seems not to have been present at the Congress.
What was present though was pioneering diplomatic process. This must have been down to the combination of Metternich and Congress facilitator Gentz. The setting up of sub-committees to handle various lesser points in smaller groups is the way such matters have been dealt with ever since. It would have been nice to have seen a little more of how these sub-committee played out rather than their being reported on generically. The description of negotiators from States such as Spain and Portugal being difficult and obstructive when they owed their very existence to those they were being difficult to is a snapshot in time that could be entirely contemporary today.
The step-change in the pace of negotiation comes with the return of Napoleon and the Waterloo campaign. It all seems a bit of a rush compared to the turgid speed of the main negotiations. Zamoyski also rushes it a little, not giving a huge amount of space to the final decisions following Waterloo.
Once the discussions are over, Zamoyski's conclusion is really quite negative. Having been slightly critical of various actors throughout, especially of their personal failings, Zamoyski's own analysis in the final chapter is entirely negative. The Congress he has researchd and written about so outstandingly is a failure. It fails to solve the underlying issues within Europe, sets Britain firmly on a non-European track, leaves the fate of lesser nations such as the Poles at the mercy of others, sets Austria up for failure and Prussia up for militarised expansion. The most interesting element of Zamoyski's final analysis is the major disruption of the bonds between people and their rulers. Parcelling populations out undermines stability.
Zamoyski alludes to some of the other failings of the Congress, especially the abandonment of non-major powers. The great powers of Europe make decisions for themselves but their sacrifice of places like Genoa is really unforgivable. One legacy of the Congress which Zamoyski does not really recognise is that it put in place a system to defend the interests of Nation States against more localised interests. Today the international environment still suffers from the ubiquity of State in decision making to the exclusion of everything else. The Congress snuffed out so many great historical peoples, especially the City-States. The death warrant of Genoa, various Cantons in Switzerland, the Papal States, the Sovereign Order of Malta, and the Hanseatic cities was explicitly signed by the Congress, cementing the power of the nation over that of the city or anything other governmental unit.
The Congress of Vienna is a significant point in history, a possible precursor to the League of Nations, United Nations, and European Union. It is a moment in history that saw a change of eras. The people involved are fascinating and Adam Zamoyski has brought them to life magnificently. His very readable history has shone a light on the Congress, bringing it to the mainstream and providing outstanding desription of the unfolding of one of the greatest episodes of negotiation the world has ever seen.