I had thought Zamoyski’s book was just on the Congress of Vienna, but I should have taken a better look at the subtitle, which is accurate.

Zamoyski starts the action in December 1812, with Napoleon racing into the Tuileries just after news of the disaster in Russia. From here, you get, over the course of several chapters, a bare outline of the fighting through Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814.

Instead, Zamoyski looks at the peace process during this time. Both sides would rather not go through the expense and destruction of nearly a year and a half of fighting, but neither side was willing to give everything that the other desired either, so the fighting continued, until Napoleon’s shrinking army could not control the situation any more.

The Peace of Paris stops the fighting, but brings questions of what post-Napoleonic Europe is going to look like. The past quarter-century had seen conquests, annexations, partitions, and whole new political entities galore. The new potentates wanted to keep what they had been given, and the old wanted what had been taken away back.

So, a congress is scheduled in Vienna to sort this out, with the main focus of attention being Germany since the old Holy Roman Empire is gone, and it isn’t coming back. There is a stopover in London, which isn’t nearly as edifying as hoped, and points to the fact that nothing will be easy in Vienna.

From there, we get a real blow-by-blow account of the proceedings. With a host of nobility and their upper-crust representatives present, the full story is an entitled soap opera that could turn into a comedy if the subject wasn’t so serious. Zamoyski dives into the steamier (and seedier) side of the proceedings, giving a fairly well-rounded picture of the social scene, and how the emotions opened up by this affected the congress itself.

The thing that comes up during this, but doesn’t quite get enough immediate emphasis is that this isn’t—and isn’t really supposed to be—a fair-minded body of statesmen trying to get the fairest result out of a host of unfair history. This is the four biggest powers (five, once France gets into the proceedings) largely dictating to everyone else. Of course, it’s not like the major powers could easily agree to much of anything, which causes the entire process to become protracted and generate high feelings in everyone involved. This is the bulk of the book, and feels a bit interminable, but nowhere near as much so as the actual was for those involved.

Eventually outside events that everyone is aware of intervene again, and Vienna watches as Napoleon is found to slipped his exile on Elba, and heads to France rather than the expected Naples. After the Hundred Days, there is a renewed round of wrangling—France is potentially on the chopping block again, and does indeed loose a few bits of territory. But, the major problems had already been worked out, so the main work is merely to keep the more aggressive allies (notably Prussia) from doing too much damage.

All the way through, this is told in an entertaining style, and very clearly. It is as clear a book as you will find that has such a large primary and secondary cast. Zamoyski’s conclusions are a bit surprising. At the time, the congress was considered something of a failure, and certainly pointed up the vanity of people involved to their public detriment. Zamoyski agrees with this assessment, and fights against the later perceptions as having guaranteed European peace for most of a century. And he has some very good points, though I think he doesn’t give enough credit to how stable Europe was in the period compared to the 25 years previous. But, he does say that if the congress did not live up to its promises, there’s also no clear alternative that would have necessarily been better. And, it did pave the way towards better models such as Versailles (which at least, with major exceptions, tried to reference what the actual populations wanted), and the United Nations.