Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

The Great Reaction

They Tried to Assure the World an Era of Undisturbed Peace by Suppressing All New Ideas. They Made the Police-Spy the Highest Functionary in the State and Soon the Prisons of All Countries Were Filled with Those Who Claimed That People Have the Right to Govern Themselves As They See Fit

T O undo the damage done by the great Napoleonic flood was almost impossible. Age-old fences had been washed away. The palaces of two score dynasties had been damaged to such an extent that they had to be condemned as uninhabitable. Other royal residences had been greatly enlarged at the expense of less fortunate neighbours. Strange odds and ends of revolutionary doctrine had been left behind by the receding waters and could not be dislodged without danger to the entire community. But the political engineers of the Congress did the best they could and this is what they accomplished.

France had disturbed the peace of the world for so many years that people had come to fear that country almost instinctively. The Bourbons, through the mouth of Talleyrand, had promised to be good, but the Hundred Days had taught Europe what to expect should Napoleon manage to escape for a second time. The Dutch Republic, therefore, was changed into a Kingdom, and Belgium (which had not joined the Dutch struggle for independence in the sixteenth century and since then had been part of the Habsburg domains, first under Spanish rule and thereafter under Austrian rule) was made part of this new kingdom of the Netherlands. Nobody wanted this union either in the Protestant North or in the Catholic South, but no questions were asked. It seemed good for the peace of Europe and that was the main consideration.

Poland had hoped for great things because a Pole, Prince Adam Czartoryski, was one of the most intimate friends of Tsar Alexander and had been his constant advisor during the war and at the Congress of Vienna. But Poland was made a semi-independent part of Russia with Alexander as her king. This solution pleased no one and caused much bitter feeling and three revolutions.

Denmark, which had remained a faithful ally of Napoleon until the end, was severely punished. Seven years before, an English fleet had sailed down the Kattegat and without a declaration of war or any warning had bombarded Copenhagen and had taken away the Danish fleet, lest it be of value to Napoleon. The Congress of Vienna went one step further. It took Norway (which since the union of Calmar of the year 1397 had been united with Denmark) away from Denmark and gave it to Charles XIV of Sweden as a reward for his betrayal of Napoleon, who had set him up in the king business. This Swedish king, curiously enough, was a former French general by the name of Bernadotte, who had come to Sweden as one of Napoleon's adjutants, and had been invited to the throne of that good country when the last of the rulers of the house of Hollstein-Gottorp had died without leaving either son or daughter. From 1815 until 1844 he ruled his adopted country (the language of which he never learned) with great ability. He was a clever man and enjoyed the respect of both his Swedish and his Norwegian subjects, but he did not succeed in joining two countries which nature and history had put asunder. The dual Scandinavian state was never a success and in 1905, Norway, in a most peaceful and orderly manner, set up as an independent kingdom and the Swedes bade her "good speed" and very wisely let her go her own way.

The Italians, who since the days of the Renaissance had been at the mercy of a long series of invaders, also had put great hopes in General Bonaparte. The Emperor Napoleon, however, had grievously disappointed them. Instead of the United Italy which the people wanted, they had been divided into a number of little principalities, duchies, republics and the Papal State, which (next to Naples) was the worst governed and most miserable region of the entire peninsula. The Congress of Vienna abolished a few of the Napoleonic republics and in their place resurrected several old principalities which were given to deserving members, both male and female, of the Habsburg family.

The poor Spaniards, who had started the great nationalistic revolt against Napoleon, and who had sacrificed the best blood of the country for their king, were punished severely when the Congress allowed His Majesty to return to his domains. This vicious creature, known as Ferdinand VII, had spent the last four years of his life as a prisoner of Napoleon. He had improved his days by knitting garments for the statues of his favourite patron saints. He celebrated his return by re-introducing the Inquisition and the torture-chamber, both of which had been abolished by the Revolution. He was a disgusting person, despised as much by his subjects as by his four wives, but the Holy Alliance maintained him upon his legitimate throne and all efforts of the decent Spaniards to get rid of this curse and make Spain a constitutional kingdom ended in bloodshed and executions.

Portugal had been without a king since the year 1807 when the royal family had fled to the colonies in Brazil. The country had been used as a base of supply for the armies of Wellington during the Peninsula war, which lasted from 1808 until 1814. After 1815 Portugal continued to be a sort of British province until the house of Braganza returned to the throne, leaving one of its members behind in Rio de Janeiro as Emperor of Brazil, the only American Empire which lasted for more than a few years, and which came to an end in 1889 when the country became a republic.

In the east, nothing was done to improve the terrible conditions of both the Slavs and the Greeks who were still subjects of the Sultan. In the year 1804 Black George, a Servian swineherd, (the founder of the Karageorgevich dynasty) had started a revolt against the Turks, but he had been defeated by his enemies and had been murdered by one of his supposed friends, the rival Servian leader, called Milosh Obrenovich, (who became the founder of the Obrenovich dynasty) and the Turks had continued to be the undisputed masters of the Balkans.

The Greeks, who since the loss of their independence, two thousand years before, had been subjects of the Macedonians, the Romans, the Venetians and the Turks, had hoped that their countryman, Capo d'Istria, a native of Corfu and together with Czartoryski, the most intimate personal friends of Alexander, would do something for them. But the Congress of Vienna was not interested in Greeks, but was very much interested in keeping all "legitimate" monarchs, Christian, Moslem and otherwise, upon their respective thrones. Therefore nothing was done.

The last, but perhaps the greatest blunder of the Congress was the treatment of Germany. The Reformation and the Thirty Years War had not only destroyed the prosperity of the country, but had turned it into a hopeless political rubbish heap, consisting of a couple of kingdoms, a few grand-duchies, a large number of duchies and hundreds of margravates, principalities, baronies, electorates, free cities and free villages, ruled by the strangest assortment of potentates that was ever seen off the comic opera stage. Frederick the Great had changed this when he created a strong Prussia, but this state had not survived him by many years.

Napoleon had blue-penciled the demand for independence of most of these little countries, and only fifty-two out of a total of more than three hundred had survived the year 1806. During the years of the great struggle for independence, many a young soldier had dreamed of a new Fatherland that should be strong and united. But there can be no union without a strong leadership, and who was to be this leader?

There were five kingdoms in the German speaking lands. The rulers of two of these, Austria and Prussia, were kings by the Grace of God. The rulers of three others, Bavaria, Saxony and Wurtemberg, were kings by the Grace of Napoleon, and as they had been the faithful henchmen of the Emperor, their patriotic credit with the other Germans was therefore not very good.

The Congress had established a new German Confederation, a league of thirty-eight sovereign states, under the chairmanship of the King of Austria, who was now known as the Emperor of Austria. It was the sort of make-shift arrangement which satisfied no one. It is true that a German Diet, which met in the old coronation city of Frankfort, had been created to discuss matters of "common policy and importance." But in this Diet, thirty-eight delegates represented thirty-eight different interests and as no decision could be taken without a unanimous vote (a parliamentary rule which had in previous centuries ruined the mighty kingdom of Poland), the famous German Confederation became very soon the laughing stock of Europe and the politics of the old Empire began to resemble those of our Central American neighbours in the forties and the fifties of the last century.

It was terribly humiliating to the people who had sacrificed everything for a national ideal. But the Congress was not interested in the private feelings of "subjects," and the debate was closed.

Did anybody object? Most assuredly. As soon as the first feeling of hatred against Napoleon had quieted down—as soon as the enthusiasm of the great war had subsided—as soon as the people came to a full realisation of the crime that had been committed in the name of "peace and stability" they began to murmur. They even made threats of open revolt. But what could they do? They were powerless. They were at the mercy of the most pitiless and efficient police system the world had ever seen.

The members of the Congress of Vienna honestly and sincerely believed that "the Revolutionary Principle had led to the criminal usurpation of the throne by the former emperor Napoleon." They felt that they were called upon to eradicate the adherents of the so-called "French ideas" just as Philip II had only followed the voice of his conscience when he burned Protestants or hanged Moors. In the beginning of the sixteenth century a man who did not believe in the divine right of the Pope to rule his subjects as he saw fit was a "heretic" and it was the duty of all loyal citizens to kill him. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, on the continent of Europe, a man who did not believe in the divine right of his king to rule him as he or his Prime Minister saw fit, was a "heretic," and it was the duty of all loyal citizens to denounce him to the nearest policeman and see that he got punished.

But the rulers of the year 1815 had learned efficiency in the school of Napoleon and they performed their task much better than it had been done in the year 1517. The period between the year 1815 and the year 1860 was the great era of the political spy. Spies were everywhere. They lived in palaces and they were to be found in the lowest gin-shops. They peeped through the key-holes of the ministerial cabinet and they listened to the conversations of the people who were taking the air on the benches of the Municipal Park. They guarded the frontier so that no one might leave without a duly viséd passport and they inspected all packages, that no books with dangerous "French ideas" should enter the realm of their Royal masters. They sat among the students in the lecture hall and woe to the Professor who uttered a word against the existing order of things. They followed the little boys and girls on their way to church lest they play hookey.

In many of these tasks they were assisted by the clergy. The church had suffered greatly during the days of the revolution. The church property had been confiscated. Several priests had been killed and the generation that had learned its cathechism from Voltaire and Rousseau and the other French philosophers had danced around the Altar of Reason when the Committee of Public Safety had abolished the worship of God in October of the year 1793. The priests had followed the "émigrés" into their long exile. Now they returned in the wake of the allied armies and they set to work with a vengeance.

Even the Jesuits came back in 1814 and resumed their former labours of educating the young. Their order had been a little too successful in its fight against the enemies of the church. It had established "provinces" in every part of the world, to teach the natives the blessings of Christianity, but soon it had developed into a regular trading company which was for ever interfering with the civil authorities. During the reign of the Marquis de Pombal, the great reforming minister of Portugal, they had been driven out of the Portuguese lands and in the year 1773 at the request of most of the Catholic powers of Europe, the order had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV. Now they were back on the job, and preached the principles of "obedience" and "love for the legitimate dynasty" to children whose parents had hired shopwindows that they might laugh at Marie Antoinette driving to the scaffold which was to end her misery.

But in the Protestant countries like Prussia, things were not a whit better. The great patriotic leaders of the year 1812, the poets and the writers who had preached a holy war upon the usurper, were now branded as dangerous "demagogues." Their houses were searched. Their letters were read. They were obliged to report to the police at regular intervals and give an account of themselves. The Prussian drill master was let loose in all his fury upon the younger generation. When a party of students celebrated the tercentenary of the Reformation with noisy but harmless festivities on the old Wartburg, the Prussian bureaucrats had visions of an imminent revolution. When a theological student, more honest than intelligent, killed a Russian government spy who was operating in Germany, the universities were placed under police-supervision and professors were jailed or dismissed without any form of trial.

Russia, of course, was even more absurd in these anti-revolutionary activities. Alexander had recovered from his attack of piety. He was gradually drifting toward melancholia. He well knew his own limited abilities and understood how at Vienna he had been the victim both of Metternich and the Krüdener woman. More and more he turned his back upon the west and became a truly Russian ruler whose interests lay in Constantinople, the old holy city that had been the first teacher of the Slavs. The older he grew, the harder he worked and the less he was able to accomplish. And while he sat in his study, his ministers turned the whole of Russia into a land of military barracks.

It is not a pretty picture. Perhaps I might have shortened this description of the Great Reaction. But it is just as well that you should have a thorough knowledge of this era. It was not the first time that an attempt had been made to set the clock of history back. The result was the usual one.

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