On this date in 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute had its premiere in Vienna. For those of you who don’t know, The Magic Flute is famous for incorporating a great deal of Masonic symbolism into both the music and plot of the opera. (Both Mozart and the librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were Freemasons.) The Masons were and are a secret society, and the subject of many conspiracy theories. In fact, it was only six years after the premiere of The Magic Flute that Augustin Barruel published a book claiming the Freemasons had engineered the French Revolution as a plot to overthrow the Christian religion and established governments of Europe.
While Freemasonry has sometimes had a political edge, it is hard to see it, and Mozart, as the secret agents behind something as complicated as the French Revolution and the subsequent upheaval in European politics and society. But there really was a conspiracy in Vienna. But not in 1791, no, not with Mozart and The Magic Flute. It began almost exactly 23 years later. It was an open conspiracy, which is to say that everyone knew about it, even though only a few people made the decisions, and they did so in secret. It was called the Congress of Vienna, and it ran from the end of September, 1814, until June of 1815.
Between 1789 and 1814, revolutionaries and Napoleon with his armies had overthrown or changed almost every government in Europe. With his defeat, the victorious great powers, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg monarchy, had to decide how much they were going to punish France for its role in these events, and to redraw the political boundaries of Europe. Metternich, the foreign minister for the Habsburg monarchy, whose realms of Austria and Hungary (and associated territories) had been badly battered during the Napoleonic Wars, wanted the great powers to meet in Vienna, the Habsburg capital, as a way of restoring the prestige of the Habsburgs. Oh, and it would make it easier for Metternich to control the proceedings. The other major powers agreed, and so the Congress opened as foreign ministers and other diplomats gathered in late September, 1814.
Many states had been drastically altered, created, or abolished in the years since 1789. Almost all of them sent emissaries to Vienna to plead their causes before the great powers. They hoped to take part in the deliberations. In that, they were to be disappointed. The great powers handled the negotiations among themselves.
There was one exception, though. France as the defeated power had not been invited to Vienna. Desperate to avoid being punished for their role in the Napoleonic Wars, the French put their trust in Talleyrand, a man of dubious morals and flexible political beliefs, and sent him to Vienna. Talleyrand did not let them down. A wily, intelligent man, he played off the great powers against each other, got admitted to the negotiations among the great powers, and saved France from being significantly punished.
The great powers treated political questions according to two major principles. First, there had to be a balance among the great powers. Second, they preferred “legitimate” regimes, which is to say regimes that had existed before 1789, regimes whose authority was based on tradition and hereditary power, not ethnic identity or democratic elections. So they reimposed the reactionary Bourbon monarchs on France, split up Poland between Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburgs, and enacted many other similar measures.
It was not all business at the Congress. There were so many diplomats in town, all trying to make alliances and gain the attention of the great powers, that someone or other was throwing a ball, reception, or other party almost every day, and every night as well. Vienna became a constant social whirl. And sometimes the social life spilled over into the negotiations. Both Metternich (who was 41) and Talleyrand (who was 60) were noted lady-killers, and they both had their eyes on members of the same family: the Countess of Sagan (the former Duchess of Courland) and her daughters. Metternich had been bedding the Countess’s daughter Wilhemina. But she broke off with him during the Congress, which disturbed him so much he made several significant diplomatic mistakes. Talleyrand was more fortunate. He had loved and lost the Countess years before. But her daughter
Dorothea had made an unhappy marriage with Talleyrand’s nephew. She became Talleyrand’s companion instead, and, it was rumored, his mistress. The Countess went to Vienna to confront Talleyrand about his relationship to her daughter, but to no avail. Dorothea would be Talleyrand’s companion until his death.
The decisions made by the great powers at Vienna in 1814-15 settled the political order of Europe for decades. The great powers didn’t go to war with each other until 1854, and there wasn’t a major European war involving all the great powers until 1914. It would take repeated revolutions, and finally the First World War (1914- 1918), to overthrow the system of legitimacy and hereditary rule for one of democracy and nationalism. Simply put, the Congress of Vienna was one of the most successful conspiracies of all time.