The Reconstruction of Europe: Talleyrand and the Congress of Vienna, 1814’ 1815. By Guglielmo Ferrero. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $3.50.
A distinguished European historian has found in the situation which confronted the Congress of Vienna—met in 1814 to rescue Europe from the chaos produced by a quarter-century of revolution, war, and dictatorship—a fundamental similarity to that which will be faced by the Western world at the end of the present war. In “The Reconstruction of Europe” accomplished by the Congress, Guglielmo Ferrero seeks to discover the elements essential to any lasting reconstitution of the European order.
The French Revolution was the product of a new orientation of the human mind. But in their efforts to refashion political institutions in conformity with new notions of justice and right, the peoples’ representatives destroyed the monarchy which, in the eyes of the nation, represented legitimate government. The panic which attended this unwanted consequence of their action was transformed into terror when the French people wrongly saw in the Declaration of Pill-nitz a threat of interference by the European Powers. Thus the series of coups d’etat which culminated in the dictatorship of Napoleon was inspired less by the ambition of absolute government than by the fears of illegitimate rulers confronted with impossible tasks, A government which had come into being as the result of an effort to legitimatize opposition found itself, because of its own illegitimacy, unable to tolerate opposition either within or without France. Driven by fear, successive dictatorships employed against every opposition the only weapon that lay within their grasp —force. And yet, by its very success, French dictatorship found itself confronted by fresh oppositions wherever it extended its uneasy dominion.
But with the fall of Napoleon in 1814, “after twenty-five years of terror, the Revolution was heading toward the most unexpected and terrible catastrophe of all—a great war which everyone wanted to end but which no one knew how to end because there was no one with whom to make peace”— since obviously peace could not be made with Napoleon. At this critical moment in history there met in Paris two men whose decisions were to affect the course of European history for a century. In a city ringing with cheers for its deliverer, Talleyrand, the minister of a fallen despot, set before the victorious Czar Alexander the principles upon which the European order might be reconstituted. The eighteenth century law of nations had given way before revolution, military dictatorship, universal conscription, and total war. It was vitally necessary to the peace and security of Europe that the reconstructive work of the peace conference be recognized by all as legitimate. Only then would there be a basis for limiting sanguinary conflict among the European states. The idealistic Alexander embodied Talleyrand’s principles in the Peace of Paris of May 30, 1814.
Had the European statesmen fully understood and accepted Talleyrand’s constructive principles, the task confronting the Congress would still have been enormous. But before the Congress convened in September, competitive self-interest, through confidential negotiations among the Powers, had created fresh difficulties for the conference. With such vividness does Ferrero portray the frailties of statesmen and statesmanship, the false reason and conflicting motives which threatened to wreck the constructive program, that the reader, despite his foreknowledge, is in despair of the outcome. The drama of the Congress is so absorbingly presented that it would be easy to overlook the author’s main concern, which is the problem of reconstruction itself. With that in mind he is more interested in understanding the achievements of the Congress than in stressing its failures; the latter have in any event been amply dealt with in histories of the liberal struggles of the nineteenth century. In his final appraisal, Ferrero credits the Congress of Vienna with having established the basis of an international order which for a century saved Europe from the horrors of a general war, which so localized conflicts “that Europe suffered less than in any other period of its history from the fears which cause mankind to tremble and become frantic, had more confidence than ever before in the present and future” and, as a consequence, experienced an unparalleled era of scientific and material progress.
Ferrero emphasizes the problem of reconstruction at a time when, more than a century after the Congress of Vienna, the Western world must again set about the recreation of a European order. That is why Talleyrand’s constructive principles are stressed and why other considerations which often influenced his actions are put aside. The author believes that Talleyrand’s root doctrine, which was the elimination of revolutionary governments and the establishment in their place of legitimate governments, can and must be utilized in the future reconstruction. He also believes that the only political form possible in Europe today is representative government. However, he refrains from offering any solution of his own. His book, although originally written in French, is addressed to the American people: “if the United States will understand the problem and make an effort to help the great Powers in Europe rediscover the path of order and peace, she will render a tremendous service to herself and to the world.” Ferrero has sought to prepare the minds of his readers for the undertaking which lies ahead and to convince them of the vital importance of working out a solution upon sound principles. He leaves the solution of the problem in their hands.