Austrians Celebrate 200th Anniversary of the Congress of Vienna (6/9)     Print Email

By Michael D. Mosettig, former foreign editor of PBS News Hour, writing from Vienna

VIENNA -- Austria's capital finally has an anniversary worthy of celebration after a year of mordant commemorations of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I that reduced this city from the center of an empire to a struggling backwater and more recently of the end of World War II when the country was a mostly willing appendage of Nazi Germany.

In exhibitions and conferences, tourists and residents alike are being reminded that two hundred years ago the world's most powerful leaders gathered here at the Congress of Vienna to restore the European order after 25 years of upheaval created by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. What is proving more difficult is trying to find applicable lessons for current European leaders from a long ago diplomatic gathering, even one that brought  together diplomats who still occupy celebrated, and controversial, places in the historical galaxy -- Austria's Prince Clemons Von Metternich, France's Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Britain's Viscount Robert Castlereagh and Prussia's Prince August Hardenberg.

The diplomats and their monarchs -- Francis I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia -- had assembled months before when they thought they had finally defeated and imposed peace, and exile, on Napoleon. The June anniversary seems more fitting since it takes into account the hurried final days of Congress’ business until a military coalition was quickly reassembled to vanquish a returned Napoleon once and for all at Waterloo later in the month. The Congress then returned briefly to wrap up its business of fixing borders, creating some new states, quashing the aspirations of other putative nations and establishing by some accounts the ground work of a century free of continental war.

That favorable appraisal gained increasing historical currency as 20th century Europe descended into two massive wars that killed millions and saw global power pass to the United States. And in a coincidence of a historian who would go on to make history, a German-born, Harvard academic Henry Kissinger began arising from Cambridge obscurity by the late 1950s with his path-breaking account of the congress, “A World Restored.”

Kissinger's assertion that the Europeans gathered to re-establish order on the continent, that they were not in a peace conference, was largely accepted by the participants at the most recent Vienna seminar. At the same time they acknowledged that the diplomatic arrangements that followed --the Quadruple Alliance and the Holy Alliance--created an often reactionary, anti-democratic order that was ultimately doomed to fail amid rising nationalisms and desires for self-rule. Even the official title of the seminar sponsors, Princeton University's Liechtenstein Institute for Self-Determination reflected the ongoing historical and intellectual arguments surrounding the Vienna Congress, since self-determination was the last thing on the minds of those assembled 200 years ago to re-impose divine right monarchical rule on Europe's population. Self-determination would be the touchstone of the Versailles peace conference and treaties a hundred years later, now largely regarded as a failed interlude between two world wars.

Appropriately, the seminar took place in one of the Liechtenstein principality’s Grandpalais in Vienna, a beautifully restored building so vast that a lavish carriage sits in the ground floor front salon with plenty of room to spare. But two days of discussions were a reminder that the lessons of history for the present are highly elusive.

Most pertinent to current news was the argument raised by Austrian diplomats that the realism displayed at the Vienna Congress should have been currently paralleled by the presence of Russia at the G7 summit taking place in nearby Bavaria. Sharply countering was former EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, now a Princeton professor. He argued that Russia removed itself from the ranks of what used to be the G8 by its violations of international law, including the Helsinki Final Act, with its seizure of Crimea.  Barroso and his ambassador to Washington, Joao Vale de Almeida, also revealed how close President Obama and other G8 leaders came to abolishing the grouping after it was superseded by the G20 as the world's principal economic forum to deal with the global financial crisis. The leader who insisted the G8 should continue was Russia's Vladimir Putin who said the major powers needed a venue, where China was not present, to discuss China.

In popular legend and imagery, the Congress of Vienna, is remembered as an unending social gathering of endless soirées, balls and dinners and pursuit of mistresses. The Congress Dances was the aphorism that still sticks, but as one seminar participant noted, the combination of late nights following days of hard committee work reflected an endurance that few modern statesmen and women could match.

The final acts of the Congress are less remembered but still lasting, including abolition of the slave trade, freedom of navigation on European rivers and permanent neutrality for Switzerland. Amid seminar discussions on the value of Swiss neutrality, participants were too polite to note that post-World War II Vienna provided the backdrop for a line of cinematic dialogue that has set Switzerland's image  in popular culture for more than a half century. In the Orson Welles classic, The Third Man, the cynically criminal Harry Lime reminds Holly Martins that 30 murderous years of the Borgias also yielded great art, while five hundred years of peace and democracy in Switzerland produced only the cuckoo clock. But the movie's haunting imagery of bombed out Vienna under four-power military occupation is long gone. Beautiful Baroque and Rococo buildings along with an abundance of cultural offerings draw millions of tourists from around the world. This city of 1.8 million (or metropolis of 2.6 million) ranks at or near the top of the world's livable cities in numerous surveys. And with the collapse of Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe, Vienna has regained a place as a banking and commercial center of the old Habsburg dominions. Not exactly a world restored, certainly not for Austria's 180,000 Jews murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis, but an increasingly lively and more cosmopolitan regional capital.