“Kings, queens, princes, and diplomats would all pour into the city of Vienna in the autumn of 1814 for the highly anticipated peace conference. More than 200 states and princely houses would send delegates to settle the many unresolved issues. How were the victors to reconstruct the war-torn continent? How were they going to make restitution to the millions who had lost family members or suffered the horrors of Napoleonic domination? The Vienna Congress offered a chance to correct the wrongs of the past and, many hoped, create the ‘best of all possible worlds.’
Reasoned opinion predicted that all negotiations would be wrapped up in three or four weeks. Even the most seasoned diplomats expected no more than six. But the delegates, thrilled by the prospects of a lasting peace, indulged in unrestrained celebrations. The Vienna peace conference soon degenerated into a glittering vanity fair: masked balls, medieval-style jousts, and grand formal banquets – a ‘sparkling chaos’ that would light up the banks of the Danube.”
First off, many thanks to the Goodreads.com user who wrote a great review of this back in 2009 – she raved about this book, and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind when browsing the history section in bookstores. A few months ago, I finally found a copy and bought it. Never mind that I know nothing about the Napoleonic Wars aside from the fact that Napoleon got banished, escaped and invaded France again, and then got banished for real a second time; never mind that the only thing I knew about the Congress of Vienna was that I confused it with the Treaty of Versailles on an AP Western Civ test in high school. I was promised gossip, intrigue, politics, romance, gossip, parties, and a heaping dose of more gossip – so I was on board.
And guys, Vienna 1814 delivers. I would say without reservations that this is probably the most readable history book I’ve ever come across. King’s writing is clear and flows easily, and I had no trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight, despite never having heard of most of them. He does a wonderful job portraying all the different aspects of the Vienna Congress: on the one hand, you had all the delegates working around the clock to restore Europe to its pre-Napoleon state (which involved, among other things, deciding which of Napoleon’s relatives would be allowed to keep the titles he had bestowed on them and which should be returned to the rightful heirs) and trying to keep everyone happy (which was impossible, of course) while at the same time there was a crazy party every single night, as well as salons where all the political powers were gathered. Often, a diplomat could accomplish more by attending a ball for an hour than he could by working in his office all day. And meanwhile, as all of this is happening, Napoleon is sitting on Elba, tenting his fingers and plotting his return to France. It isn’t until he actually succeeds, landing in France and recruiting an army almost instantly, that all the Vienna Congress delegates look around and say, “Well, damn. Guess we’d better start figuring this out for real” and actually accomplish what they set out to do six months ago.
All the characters (and they really feel like characters, not historical figures) are great, the descriptions are beautiful, and you shouldn’t shy away from this book if you know almost nothing about Napoleon. Basically, if those first two paragraphs I quoted from the book intrigue you at all, the rest of the book will not disappoint.
Verdict: four out of five stars