The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Dancing Congress: The Congress of Vienna in 1814

When Tsar Alexander I fainted during his stay in Vienna in 1814, the initial suspicion was that he had been poisoned. Later, it became clear that the Russian sovereign was suffering from extreme exhaustion as a result of excessive dancing. Alexander, immortalised in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was the most influential voice at the Congress of Vienna, a peace conference meant to decide the future of Europe following Napoleon’s defeat. To have a voice, though, is one thing, to use it to any good purpose is quite another.

The Congress Dances, 1815, London, Trustees of the British Museum

Indeed, one wonders how the Russian Emperor or anyone else at the Congress had any time to discuss matters of war and peace. The participants seemed fully occupied by worthy pursuits as hunting, romantic (and not so romantic) liaisons, dining and, above all, dancing at balls. The Tsar of all the Russians, it came out, had danced until the early hours every day for more than a month. The rest of the delegates – the greatest concentration of kings, queens, princes and dukes that Europe had ever seen – seemed no less determined to go down in history as party animals. As Prince de Ligne remarked, “the Congress doesn’t move forward, it dances.”

One tends to thinks of a congress or a conference as an event spanning a few days or a few weeks at the most. The Congress of Vienna went on for almost a year. One ball followed another, fortunes were made and lost gambling, illegitimate children were produced, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince von Metternich, was fighting for the favours of his mistress the Duchess de Sagan no less than for the interests of Austria, the Dutchess managed to go through several lovers in a few months. One does get the impression that the aristocratic ladies were putting “women of easy virtue” out of business. In the meantime, the Austrian imperial family were counting their cutlery. After one of the balls at the Hofburg, the imperial palace, it was discovered that the crème of European society was not above pinching things and 3000 silver tea spoons had disappeared (as nowadays, “disappear” in this context signals the high social status of the thief, in contrast to “steal,” which is what everybody else does).

A ball at the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, 1814.

All this went on for so long that the great arbiters of Europe were either dropping on the feet as the Russian Tsar or getting bored like the King of Prussia, who started openly complaining that no one did anything but amuse themselves. Talleyrand, the main representative of the French delegation, remarked contemptuously that the members of the Congress were “too frightened to fight and too stupid to agree.” Eventually, the Congress did come to a sort of agreement – Alexander added to his titles that of “King of Poland,” the Austrian Emperor got back Venice and the North of Italy and it was universally agreed that revolutions were a bad thing and shouldn’t be allowed, dancing was good and the party for the rich and famous should go on. On the whole, not bad for a settlement hatched in what must have been the very short intervals in-between festivities.

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