Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski is not a book to approach lightly. It demands commitment and a willingness to wade through the numerous individuals involved in the Congress of Vienna. Ultimately though it is a great book and at times brings to life an exciting period in European history.
The book opens with the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall and his race back to France after the failed invasion of Russia. The Treaty of Paris helped to end the Napoleonic Empire and the wars, but Europe was left with many unsettled issues such as the status of Poland, who gets what territory and more. The Great Powers of Europe convened several committee meetings in Vienna that lasted for almost a year and discussed a variety of issues facing the continent. My favorite was the Statistical Committee. As Zamoyski explains, “In all the negotiations at the congress the political value of land was calculated not in acres or hectares, but in numbers of inhabitants, commonly referred to ‘souls’” (pg 386). The committee’s job was to verify the figures that the Great Powers were calculating thereby determining the value and the fair distribution of land.
The value of the book is in its retelling of the congress, especially its attention to detail. While this can become monotonous at times with dozens of unfamiliar names, Zamoyski brings out the flavor of the period by not only discussing the official proceedings but also describing the unofficial and at times debauched activities of the participants. Between balls, dalliances, hunts, and eating, it is a wonder they had any time to negotiate the future of Europe. It makes the politicians dealing with the fiscal cliff seem like a bunch of stodgy old monks.
The book also has a different take on the effects of the Congress of Vienna. In political science we tend to teach the Congress as resulting in the establishment of legitimacy of states in Europe and the beginning of stability on the continent. This is in part due to the writings of Henry Kissinger and Paul W. Schroeder. Zamoyski argues that the congress actually had negative effects because it left so many question unanswered, dreams unfulfilled, and completely ignored the rising tide of liberal thought in most of Europe. Although he doesn’t say this directly, in many ways the congress set the stage for the disasters of the next century.
While it is long and only for the determined, if you are interested in the Congress of Vienna and the late Napoleonic era, this is a fantastic work. Very well-written and researched.