The Holy Alliance
As Soon as Napoleon Had Been Sent to St. Helena the Rulers Who So Often Had Been Defeated by the Hated "Corsican" Met at Vienna and Tried to Undo the Many Changes That Had Been Brought About by the French Revolution
T HE Imperial Highnesses, the Royal Highnesses, their Graces the Dukes, the Ministers Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, together with the plain Excellencies and their army of secretaries, servants and hangers-on, whose labours had been so rudely interrupted by the sudden return of the terrible Corsican (now sweltering under the hot sun of St. Helena), went back to their jobs. The victory was duly celebrated with dinners, garden parties and balls at which the new and very shocking "waltz" was danced to the great scandal of the ladies and gentlemen who remembered the minuet of the old Régime.
For almost a generation they had lived in retirement. At last the danger was over. They were very eloquent upon the subject of the terrible hardships which they had suffered. And they expected to be recompensed for every penny they had lost at the hands of the unspeakable Jacobins who had dared to kill their anointed king, who had abolished wigs and who had discarded the short trousers of the court of Versailles for the ragged pantaloons of the Parisian slums.
You may think it absurd that I should mention such a detail. But, if you please, the Congress of Vienna was one long succession of such absurdities and for many months the question of "short trousers vs. long trousers" interested the delegates more than the future settlement of the Saxon or Spanish problems. His Majesty the King of Prussia went so far as to order a pair of short ones, that he might give public evidence of his contempt for everything revolutionary.
Another German potentate, not to be outdone in this noble hatred for the revolution, decreed that all taxes which his subjects had paid to the French usurper should be paid a second time to the legitimate ruler who had loved his people from afar while they were at the mercy of the Corsican ogre. And so on. From one blunder to another, until one gasps and exclaims "but why in the name of High Heaven did not the people object?" Why not indeed? Because the people were utterly exhausted, were desperate, did not care what happened or how or where or by whom they were ruled, provided there was peace. They were sick and tired of war and revolution and reform.
In the eighties of the previous century they had all danced around the tree of liberty. Princes had embraced their cooks and Duchesses had danced the Carmagnole with their lackeys in the honest belief that the Millennium of Equality and Fraternity had at last dawned upon this wicked world. Instead of the Millennium they had been visited by the Revolutionary commissary who had lodged a dozen dirty soldiers in their parlor and had stolen the family plate when he returned to Paris to report to his government upon the enthusiasm with which the "liberated country" had received the Constitution, which the French people had presented to their good neighbours.
When they had heard how the last outbreak of revolutionary disorder in Paris had been suppressed by a young officer, called Bonaparte, or Buonaparte, who had turned his guns upon the mob, they gave a sigh of relief. A little less liberty, fraternity and equality seemed a very desirable thing. But ere long, the young officer called Buonaparte or Bonaparte became one of the three consuls of the French Republic, then sole consul and finally Emperor. As he was much more efficient than any ruler that had ever been seen before, his hand pressed heavily upon his poor subjects. He showed them no mercy. He impressed their sons into his armies, he married their daughters to his generals and he took their pictures and their statues to enrich his own museums. He turned the whole of Europe into an armed camp and killed almost an entire generation of men.
Now he was gone, and the people (except a few professional military men) had but one wish. They wanted to be let alone. For awhile they had been allowed to rule themselves, to vote for mayors and aldermen and judges. The system had been a terrible failure. The new rulers had been inexperienced and extravagant. From sheer despair the people turned to the representative men of the old Régime. "You rule us," they said, "as you used to do. Tell us what we owe you for taxes and leave us alone. We are busy repairing the damage of the age of liberty."
The men who stage-managed the famous congress certainly did their best to satisfy this longing for rest and quiet. The Holy Alliance, the main result of the Congress, made the policeman the most important dignitary of the State and held out the most terrible punishment to those who dared criticise a single official act.
Europe had peace, but it was the peace of the cemetery.
The three most important men at Vienna were the Emperor Alexander of Russia, Metternich, who represented the interests of the Austrian house of Habsburg, and Talleyrand, the erstwhile bishop of Autun, who had managed to live through the different changes in the French government by the sheer force of his cunning and his intelligence and who now travelled to the Austrian capital to save for his country whatever could be saved from the Napoleonic ruin. Like the gay young man of the limerick, who never knew when he was slighted, this unbidden guest came to the party and ate just as heartily as if he had been really invited. Indeed, before long, he was sitting at the head of the table entertaining everybody with his amusing stories and gaining the company's good will by the charm of his manner.
Before he had been in Vienna twenty-four hours he knew that the allies were divided into two hostile camps. On the one side were Russia, who wanted to take Poland, and Prussia, who wanted to annex Saxony; and on the other side were Austria and England, who were trying to prevent this grab because it was against their own interest that either Prussia or Russia should be able to dominate Europe. Talleyrand played the two sides against each other with great skill and it was due to his efforts that the French people were not made to suffer for the ten years of oppression which Europe had endured at the hands of the Imperial officials. He argued that the French people had been given no choice in the matter. Napoleon had forced them to act at his bidding. But Napoleon was gone and Louis XVIII was on the throne. "Give him a chance," Talleyrand pleaded. And the Allies, glad to see a legitimate king upon the throne of a revolutionary country, obligingly yielded and the Bourbons were given their chance, of which they made such use that they were driven out after fifteen years.
The second man of the triumvirate of Vienna was Metternich, the Austrian prime minister, the leader of the foreign policy of the house of Habsburg. Wenzel Lothar, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg, was exactly what the name suggests. He was a Grand Seigneur, a very handsome gentleman with very fine manners, immensely rich, and very able, but the product of a society which lived a thousand miles away from the sweating multitudes who worked and slaved in the cities and on the farms. As a young man, Metternich had been studying at the University of Strassburg when the French Revolution broke out. Strassburg, the city which gave birth to the Marseillaise, had been a centre of Jacobin activities. Metternich remembered that his pleasant social life had been sadly interrupted, that a lot of incompetent citizens had suddenly been called forth to perform tasks for which they were not fit, that the mob had celebrated the dawn of the new liberty by the murder of perfectly innocent persons. He had failed to see the honest enthusiasm of the masses, the ray of hope in the eyes of women and children who carried bread and water to the ragged troops of the Convention, marching through the city on their way to the front and a glorious death for the French Fatherland.
The whole thing had filled the young Austrian with disgust. It was uncivilised. If there were any fighting to be done it must be done by dashing young men in lovely uniforms, charging across the green fields on well-groomed horses. But to turn an entire country into an evil-smelling armed camp where tramps were overnight promoted to be generals, that was both wicked and senseless. "See what came of all your fine ideas," he would say to the French diplomats whom he met at a quiet little dinner given by one of the innumerable Austrian grand-dukes. "You wanted liberty, equality and fraternity and you got Napoleon. How much better it would have been if you had been contented with the existing order of things." And he would explain his system of "stability." He would advocate a return to the normalcy of the good old days before the war, when everybody was happy and nobody talked nonsense about "everybody being as good as everybody else." In this attitude he was entirely sincere and as he was an able man of great strength of will and a tremendous power of persuasion, he was one of the most dangerous enemies of the Revolutionary ideas. He did not die until the year 1859, and he therefore lived long enough to see the complete failure of all his policies when they were swept aside by the revolution of the year 1848. He then found himself the most hated man of Europe and more than once ran the risk of being lynched by angry crowds of outraged citizens. But until the very last, he remained steadfast in his belief that he had done the right thing.
He had always been convinced that people preferred peace to liberty and he had tried to give them what was best for them. And in all fairness, it ought to be said that his efforts to establish universal peace were fairly successful. The great powers did not fly at each other's throat for almost forty years, indeed not until the Crimean war between Russia and England, France and Italy and Turkey, in the year 1854. That means a record for the European continent.
The third hero of this waltzing congress was the Emperor Alexander. He had been brought up at the court of his grandmother, the famous Catherine the Great. Between the lessons of this shrewd old woman, who taught him to regard the glory of Russia as the most important thing in life, and those of his private tutor, a Swiss admirer of Voltaire and Rousseau, who filled his mind with a general love of humanity, the boy grew up to be a strange mixture of a selfish tyrant and a sentimental revolutionist. He had suffered great indignities during the life of his crazy father, Paul I. He had been obliged to witness the wholesale slaughter of the Napoleonic battle-fields. Then the tide had turned. His armies had won the day for the Allies. Russia had become the saviour of Europe and the Tsar of this mighty people was acclaimed as a half-god who would cure the world of its many ills.
But Alexander was not very clever. He did not know men and women as Talleyrand and Metternich knew them. He did not understand the strange game of diplomacy. He was vain (who would not be under the circumstances?) and loved to hear the applause of the multitude and soon he had become the main "attraction" of the Congress while Metternich and Talleyrand and Castlereagh (the very able British representative) sat around a table and drank a bottle of Tokay and decided what was actually going to be done. They needed Russia and therefore they were very polite to Alexander, but the less he had personally to do with the actual work of the Congress, the better they were pleased. They even encouraged his plans for a Holy Alliance that he might be fully occupied while they were engaged upon the work at hand.
Alexander was a sociable person who liked to go to parties and meet people. Upon such occasions he was happy and gay but there was a very different element in his character. He tried to forget something which he could not forget. On the night of the 23rd of March of the year 1801 he had been sitting in a room of the St. Michael Palace in Petersburg, waiting for the news of his father's abdication. But Paul had refused to sign the document which the drunken officers had placed before him on the table, and in their rage they had put a scarf around his neck and had strangled him to death. Then they had gone downstairs to tell Alexander that he was Emperor of all the Russian lands.
The memory of this terrible night stayed with the Tsar who was a very sensitive person. He had been educated in the school of the great French philosophers who did not believe in God but in Human Reason. But Reason alone could not satisfy the Emperor in his predicament. He began to hear voices and see things. He tried to find a way by which he could square himself with his conscience. He became very pious and began to take an interest in mysticism, that strange love of the mysterious and the unknown which is as old as the temples of Thebes and Babylon.
The tremendous emotion of the great revolutionary era had influenced the character of the people of that day in a strange way. Men and women who had lived through twenty years of anxiety and fear were no longer quite normal. They jumped whenever the door-bell rang. It might mean the news of the "death on the field of honour" of an only son. The phrases about "brotherly love" and "liberty" of the Revolution were hollow words in the ears of sorely stricken peasants. They clung to anything that might give them a new hold on the terrible problems of life. In their grief and misery they were easily imposed upon by a large number of imposters who posed as prophets and preached a strange new doctrine which they dug out of the more obscure passages of the Book of Revelations.
In the year 1814, Alexander, who had already consulted a large number of wonder-doctors, heard of a new seeress who was foretelling the coming doom of the world and was exhorting people to repent ere it be too late. The Baroness von Krüdener, the lady in question, was a Russian woman of uncertain age and similar reputation who had been the wife of a Russian diplomat in the days of the Emperor Paul. She had squandered her husband's money and had disgraced him by her strange love affairs. She had lived a very dissolute life until her nerves had given way and for a while she was not in her right mind. Then she had been converted by the sight of the sudden death of a friend. Thereafter she despised all gaiety. She confessed her former sins to her shoemaker, a pious Moravian brother, a follower of the old reformer John Huss, who had been burned for his heresies by the Council of Constance in the year 1415.
The next ten years the Baroness spent in Germany making a specialty of the "conversion" of kings and princes. To convince Alexander, the Saviour of Europe, of the error of his ways was the greatest ambition of her life. And as Alexander, in his misery, was willing to listen to anybody who brought him a ray of hope, the interview was easily arranged. On the evening of the fourth of June of the year 1815, she was admitted to the tent of the Emperor. She found him reading his Bible. We do not know what she said to Alexander, but when she left him three hours later, he was bathed in tears, and vowed that "at last his soul had found peace." From that day on the Baroness was his faithful companion and his spiritual adviser. She followed him to Paris and then to Vienna and the time which Alexander did not spend dancing he spent at the Krüdener prayer-meetings.
You may ask why I tell you this story in such great detail? Are not the social changes of the nineteenth century of greater importance than the career of an ill-balanced woman who had better be forgotten? Of course they are, but there exist any number of books which will tell you of these other things with great accuracy and in great detail. I want you to learn something more from this history than a mere succession of facts. I want you to approach all historical events in a frame of mind that will take nothing for granted. Don't be satisfied with the mere statement that "such and such a thing happened then and there." Try to discover the hidden motives behind every action and then you will understand the world around you much better and you will have a greater chance to help others, which (when all is said and done) is the only truly satisfactory way of living.
I do not want you to think of the Holy Alliance as a piece of paper which was signed in the year 1815 and lies dead and forgotten somewhere in the archives of state. It may be forgotten but it is by no means dead. The Holy Alliance was directly responsible for the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, and the Monroe Doctrine of America for the Americans has a very distinct bearing upon your own life. That is the reason why I want you to know exactly how this document happened to come into existence and what the real motives were underlying this outward manifestation of piety and Christian devotion to duty.
The Holy Alliance was the joint labour of an unfortunate man who had suffered a terrible mental shock and who was trying to pacify his much-disturbed soul, and of an ambitious woman who after a wasted life had lost her beauty and her attraction and who satisfied her vanity and her desire for notoriety by assuming the role of self-appointed Messiah of a new and strange creed. I am not giving away any secrets when I tell you these details. Such sober minded people as Castlereagh, Metternich and Talleyrand fully understood the limited abilities of the sentimental Baroness. It would have been easy for Metternich to send her back to her German estates. A few lines to the almighty commander of the imperial police and the thing was done.
But France and England and Austria depended upon the good-will of Russia. They could not afford to offend Alexander. And they tolerated the silly old Baroness because they had to. And while they regarded the Holy Alliance as utter rubbish and not worth the paper upon which it was written, they listened patiently to the Tsar when he read them the first rough draft of this attempt to create the Brotherhood of Men upon a basis of the Holy Scriptures. For this is what the Holy Alliance tried to do, and the signers of the document solemnly declared that they would "in the administration of their respective states and in their political relations with every other government take for their sole guide the precepts of that Holy Religion, namely the precepts of Justice, Christian Charity and Peace, which far from being applicable only to private concerns must have an immediate influence on the councils of princes, and must guide all their steps as being the only means of consolidating human institutions and remedying their imperfections." They then proceeded to promise each other that they would remain united "by the bonds of a true and indissoluble fraternity, and considering each other as fellow-countrymen, they would on all occasions and in all places lend each other aid and assistance." And more words to the same effect.
Eventually the Holy Alliance was signed by the Emperor of Austria, who did not understand a word of it. It was signed by the Bourbons who needed the friendship of Napoleon's old enemies. It was signed by the King of Prussia, who hoped to gain Alexander for his plans for a "greater Prussia," and by all the little nations of Europe who were at the mercy of Russia. England never signed, because Castlereagh thought the whole thing buncombe. The Pope did not sign because he resented this interference in his business by a Greek-Orthodox and a Protestant. And the Sultan did not sign because he never heard of it.
The general mass of the European people, however, soon were forced to take notice. Behind the hollow phrases of the Holy Alliance stood the armies of the Quintuple Alliance which Metternich had created among the great powers. These armies meant business. They let it be known that the peace of Europe must not be disturbed by the so-called liberals who were in reality nothing but disguised Jacobins, and hoped for a return of the revolutionary days. The enthusiasm for the great wars of liberation of the years 1812, 1813, 1814 and 1815 had begun to wear off. It had been followed by a sincere belief in the coming of a happier day. The soldiers who had borne the brunt of the battle wanted peace and they said so.
But they did not want the sort of peace which the Holy Alliance and the Council of the European powers had now bestowed upon them. They cried that they had been betrayed. But they were careful lest they be heard by a secret-police spy. The reaction was victorious. It was a reaction caused by men who sincerely believed that their methods were necessary for the good of humanity. But it was just as hard to bear as if their intentions had been less kind. And it caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering and greatly retarded the orderly progress of political development.