Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rites of Peace (Book #95)

As I suspect is true of most English speakers who develop an interest in the Napoleonic Wars, the parts I know most about are the ones England was involved in. Trafalgar? Check. Peninsular Campaign? Check, in great detail. Waterloo? I've read all about it. Anything east of France is a bit fuzzier. OK, a lot fuzzier. I know the names Austerlitz and Borodino and so on, but I don't know a lot about the players involved, the stakes, how it ties to what went before in the 18th century and what came after in the 19th and 20th.

I'm trying to remedy that defect, so I read Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (Adam Zamoyski, 2007) to bone up on the political personalities and interests of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and the like. It was a bit of a slog at first, and for someone who was reading it to learn about not-England places, I was pathetically grateful for such blessedly familiar names as Castlereagh and Wellington! At least I knew who somebody was as I battled to keep the Austrians, Prussians, and German principalities and duchies straight.

The Congress and the settlements that followed it weren't the European powers' finest hour. It's as if they were trying to put the genie of self-determination back in the bottle by creating an inflexible principle of "legitimacy" that left armed revolt as almost the only option for anyone who wanted a change. And if you want, you can trace the consequences of the choices they made all the way down to the wars of the 20th century. (Though the author points out, and I agree, that it's pointless to blame Metternich, Tsar Alexander, Castlereagh, et al. for unforeseeable consequences a century and more after their time, and it's not as if we can KNOW things would've been better if they hadn't been so reactionary.) A good book, if a trifle depressing in spots.

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