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Duchhardt, Heinz *
Prof. Dr. Heinz Duchhardt, Direktor des Instituts für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz, und Projektleiter des DFG-geförderten Projekts »Europäische Friedensverträge der Vormoderne - online« (Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz)

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Concert of Europe

ISSN: 1867-9714




The history of the term Concert of Europe is still remarkably uncertain. Like many other metaphors in political discourse (Balance of Power, Convenance etc.) it seems to have sprung from the intensive discussion on the forms of interstate relations and coexistence in Europe in the last decades of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. It is asserted that the term can be found in the language and in the writings of diplomats since the peace negotiations of Utrecht 1713/14,[1]

BAUMGART, Völkerbund 1974, p. 1.
but that still remains to be verified. Regrettably, unlike the term of »Balance«, it is entirely missing in the »Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe«, the best-known reference work for the political and social language of the so-called »Sattelzeit«. In any case, it was – just like »Balance« – a beautiful and well-chosen image transferred from a totally separate sphere into that of politics and of interstate-relations: the picture of a harmonious cooperation of the states, each with its various instruments, and further, a cooperation in which each plays its part and has to avoid wrong notes and false tones in the interest of harmony. Concert of Europe is defined as the method and the practice of consultation and cooperation among the European great powers for the purpose of prophylaxis, settling international crisis, of preventing wars, and bringing them to an end. Despite the fact that the term appears earlier in the language and in use – so e.g. Emperor Leopold II in 1791/92 endeavoured for a European »Concert« of all states for keeping peace[2]
SCHROEDER, Transformation 1994, p. 91.
– it was only immediately before and after the Congress of Vienna that the term became a central metaphor in political discussion.


As a result of the Napoleonic wars, the main political representatives of the great powers recognized very clearly that new thought patterns had to replace the »old« system of international politics characterized by self-interest and egoism. These new thought patterns had to assign a much broader responsibility to each member of this group much than hitherto: responsibility and the sense of responsibility for the whole family of states. What happened was a real »Transformation of European Politics«,[3]

SCHROEDER, Transformation 1994, p. 91.
which was visible linguistically in the arrangements of the anti-napoleonic coalition, where phrases like »Concert européen«, »Concert diplomatique«, »système européen« became the central figures of legitimization. One important example is the Second Paris Treaty (November 30, 1814), whose 6th article provided for future European reunions to promote repose, prosperity, and peace. In a way, this became the basis for the post-war European Concert taking shape in more or less regular conferences. The Congress of Vienna, in the end, and the documents which rounded it off in the sense of power politics, the Quadruple Alliance (November 20, 1815) and the Holy Alliance, created a »philosophy« of consent. Its nuclei were on the one hand the cooperation, as opposed to traditional pursuit of rivalry, of the great powers, and on the other the tacit acceptance by the smaller states of the hegemony of the great powers, which remained unquestioned in so far as their independence and rights were not concerned. Although, in 1818, it was conceded in principle that the smaller states not belonging to the group of great powers be consulted in the cases where their interests were touched, that very rarely happened in reality. It was the decisive steps in the process of its reinforcement that besieged France was to become re-integrated in his new »Concert«: 1816, when its reparations were reduced to one sixth, 1817, when the occupying forces of the Allies were decreased considerably, during the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle at the end of 1818, when Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain – not without hesitation in some cases – complied with the French plea to end the occupation two years ahead of the prearranged date and to admit France formally and with full rights into the »Concert«. This shift from confrontation and rivalry to interstate cooperation must have had the consequence of assisting new political structures in being able to persue crisis management.[4]
PYTA, Konzert der Mächte 1997, p. 144.


The »technique« of the Concert worked as follows: When the safety and peace in Europe seemed endangered extraordinarily and extremely, e. g. by liberal opposition movements and riots, the monarchs themselves and / or the leading ministers met for summit conferences. Aside from Aix-la-Chapelle, the meetings in Troppau (1820), Laibach / Ljubljana (1821) and Verona (1822) have to be mentioned here. The basis of this practice had been laid in the so-called protocol of Aix-la-Chapelle of the now five great powers, stating that occasional summit talks of the monarchs, ministers or ambassadors had to be convoked to make decisions on matters of a European dimension. In these cases it was not held to be sufficient if one power declared a matter to be of European interest, but the unanimity of all five was necessary. Routine matters and problems of a minor dimension were to be treated on and by ambassadors’ conferences, which were established with different areas of responsibility in London, Frankfurt und Paris. The ambassadors’ conferences represented an innovation of lasting effect in international law – rather unprepossessing in its dimension, a mechanism for solving conflicts by a method very unusual in 18th century, but an experiment whose efficiency is, on the whole, impressive. So, for example in Paris the ambassadors convened and reached a settlement on the succession in the Italian duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla claimed by both Austria and Spain. They also finished successfully a collective mediation in regards to a quarrel about the Norwegian debts between Denmark and Sweden. The difficult discussions on the future of »Belgium« took place within the framework of the London ambassadors’ conference, which, indeed, prevented a severe crisis of the whole state system. After the Crimean War there was a return to this »technique«, and an ambassadors’ conference was commissioned in Constantinople to meet every week to keep an eye on the so-called oriental question. Furthermore, the Danube commission appointed after the Peace of Paris (1856) and including representatives of all signatory powers (the five, Turkey, and Sardinia), can be described as a kind of permanent ambassadors’ conference, whose competence grew steadily in the course of the next decades. On the other hand, one has to admit that the institution of the ambassadors’ conferences was not wholly an unalloyed success story; a conflict between Portugal and Spain on frontier quarrels between Portuguese Brazil and the Spanish Vice-Kingdom of Rio de la Plata (»Banda Oriental«), for example, could not be settled by the ambassadors accredited at Paris.[5]

PYTA, Konzert der Mächte 1997, pp. 156–160.


But even these innovations – more or less regular summit meetings, the institution of the ambassadors’ conference – can’t hide the fact that the Concert of Europe, on the whole, did not go beyond a rather weak and insufficiently institutionalized form of loose cooperation. This Concert, it may be described, neither knew a conductor counting the beat, nor a score prescribing to the musicians the entry, length and intensity of their action.[6]

PYTA, Konzert der Mächte 1997, p. 145.
None of the five great powers under discussion entered into really binding obligations. As far as foreign policy was concerned, each of them was free and entitled to leave this combine of states once again and to pursue its individual goals according to convention. But as that never happened, one has to underline that, on the whole, the success story prevails: In the area of foreign policy the cooperation did, despite all crises, bear the fruits hoped for and guaranteed a long period of peaceful settlement of conflicts and of prophylaxis, which, for structural reasons, had been unthinkable in the preceding century. For the period of four decades, till the outbreak of the Crimean War, none of the great powers waged war on another. Europe enjoyed a period of peace unknown up until then. Really, a »transformation of European thinking« [7]
SCHROEDER, Transformation 1994.
had set in, whose nucleus was that all powers took into account whether or not their goals and decisions fitted with, and even contributed to, the ideology and the working of the European safety order. It was helpful for the working of the system of Concert that it entitled the one or the other great power to distinguish and to develop a special profile in a certain matter, but that was possible and thinkable only with the consent of the other players in the system. As an example one could stress France’s intervention in Spain against a liberal opposition movement in the early 1820s, not totally approved by other great powers, but accepted in the end, as this »success« did strengthen the Bourbon system in France and was a sort of gain in prestige welcomed by all co-players. Furthermore, it has to be underlined that in spite of all contrary assertions (among others Paul W. Schroeder), the Concert did not at all collapse and fall apart after 1856, but, rather, proved its viability.


This was partly because several statesmen, e. g. Gladstone, favored its survival, and partly because one question remained on the agenda that could not be solved without the consent of all great powers: the oriental question. It is not wrong to subsume even the Berlin congress of 1878 into the success story of the Concert of Europe. But nevertheless and in spite of that, one cannot, as a critical end result, deny the fact that the period between the Peace of Paris and the outbreak of World War I was a period of decline of the idea of European Concert. The new dynamics in interstate relations and the rise of new candidates for a place in it, namely Italy, were to overtax the system.
The Concert was never undisputed. One of the fiercest opponents was Britain’s secretary of state Canning in the later 1820s, who in the perspective of British foreign policy, was much more inclined to return to the traditional politics of »normal« rivalries between the European great powers instead of continuing and endless concessions granted in order to reach the consent of all. In the period after Alexander I, in Russia, too, the system of European Concert counted many critics, as it prevented the longed for unfettered expansion of the Tsarist Empire to the detriment of the Ottoman Empire. In the end, Bismarck, too, has to be counted among the antagonists of the idea of Concert. Several times in 1876, in 1878, and so on, he explicitly rejected proposals of foreign colleagues to convene conferences of the powers meant for the settlement of bilateral crisis and of regional conflicts.[8]

MEDLICOTT, Concert 1956.
The Concert also underwent changes: Its decisiveness diminished when it became apparent that Britain did not join Metternich’s policy of intervention to the detriment of the liberal movements, especially in Italy. The interventions against »revolutionary« movements in Naples and in Spain, already, could only be staged under the pointed non-attendance and under the protest of Whitehall. Furthermore, Napoleon III’s ideas of using the »Concert« as an instrument with regard to a great European congress determined to reach a comprehensively revision of the peace order of 1814/15, was extremely harmful, because it created the impression that the idea could be bent to particular and naked egoistic goals.


Another test of endurance for the idea of Concert was Russia’s declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire, in 1877, claiming it had the mandate of the Concert . This provoked a harsh protest of Great Britain and could have been a reason to formally expel the Tsarist Empire from the Concert, since it had not obtained the consent of the other members. During the Orient Crisis, of which France tried to make its own use, the Bourbon state was positively excluded from the Concert and by that revitalized the coalition of 1814 (»rentrée« 1841). An at least indirect enlargement of the Concert took place when, in 1856, the Ottoman Empire was acknowledged as an integrated part of the system. It was therefore not a coincidence that important ambassadors’ conferences were summoned in Constantinople. That is a further evidence that the Concert was no more than a loose combine being founded on the principle of unanimity of its members. Metternich had to recognize very quickly that the two Western constitutional states would never follow his ideas of utilizing the Concert for the reinforcement – if not degeneration! – of the social status quo. That was the reason why he never overplayed this card. Not by chance, the option inherent in the Holy Alliance of developing the Concert of Europe into a European system of collective security, whose nucleus would have been the guarantee of the territorial integrity and intactness of each member by all other member states of the security community, did not succeed. The European state system still lacked the inner disposition to get involved in structures of collective security without reservation.
From the Concert of Europe lines of development commenced which continued to have an effect until the 20th century. Most important, perhaps, was the institution of ambassadors’ conferences still alive in the beginning of the 20th century. It was, e. g. an ambassadors’ conference which succeeded in settling the first Balkan War. In the London ambassadors’ conference in 1913, the Concert of Europe, as has been expressed accurately, gave its farewell-symphony,[9]

LÖHR, Konferenzdiplomatie 1992, pp. 332 and 349.
without being reactivated after World War I for a long period.


At any rate, it was Lloyd George who, in 1919 in the Paris Council of the four victorious powers, praised the Concert of Europe as a means for collective peace keeping and security. He only regretted that it did not shape a strong organization and failed to develop instruments of sanction. It is also important that the optional rounding off of the Concert pushed ahead, e. g. in Aachen 1818 and in Troppau 1820. The rounding off had been envisaged by the Holy Alliance and remained a prolific approach for European politics, although its final realization had to wait till Helsinki 1976.
International law literature of the epoch acknowledged and even warmly paid tribute to the Concert of Europe. Johann Caspar Bluntschli, for instance, praised international solidarity as a necessary corrective of one-sided national politics and interpreted the Concert of Europe as a first, if not decisive step towards a global league. The London international lawyer Travers Twiss pursued, in 1861, the idea of European solidarity back to the Peace of Westphalia, which had, according to Twiss, laid the foundation of a European Concert whose aim was to maintain this principle. The Congress of Paris (1856) had proved that this spirit of solidarity was still existent and alive in the family of the European nations. On the other side, one has to emphasize with the same clarity that the critical reappraisal of the Concert’s achievements by historians of international law is still lacking – setting apart the regulations of the great peace congresses of the epoch or their immediate surroundings (1814/15, 1856). For instance, there is not much information on the reinforcement and implementation of the prohibition of the slave trade commissioned by the London ambassadors’ conference. Another example for the deficits of modern research is the lack of scholarship on the various activities of participants of the Concert in the decade from 1859 to 1869 to summon a universal congress[10]

BAUMGART, Völkerbund 1974, pp. 17–18.
– endeavours that broke down apparently because the diplomats were unable to establish unanimity on the agenda. As to the idea of international arbitration getting more and more popular in the discussions of the last third of 19th century, research-based information about the Concert’s attitude are totally lacking.


Selected bibliography

BAUMGART, Winfried, Vom Europäischen Konzert zum Völkerbund, Darmstadt 1974.

DUCHHARDT, Heinz, Gleichgewicht der Kräfte, Convenance, Europäisches Konzert, Darmstadt 1976.

DUPUIS, Charles, Le principe d’équilibre et le Concert européen de la paix de Westphalie à l’acte d’Algéciras, Paris 1909.

HOLBRAAD, Carsten, The Concert of Europe: A Study in German and British International Theory 1815–1914, London 1970.

LANGHORNE, Richard, The Collapse of the Concert of Europe, New York 1981.

LÖHR, Hans Christian, Konferenzdiplomatie und Nationalstaatsbildung im Vorfeld des Ersten Weltkriegs unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der deutschen Außenpolitik, Diss. Bonn 1992.

MEDLICOTT, William N., Bismarck, Gladstone, and the Concert of Europe, London 1956.

PIRENNE, Jacques-Henri, La Sainte-Alliance. Organisation européenne de la paix mondiale, Neuchatel 1948.

PYTA, Wolfram, Konzert der Mächte und kollektives Sicherheitssystem. Neue Wege zwischenstaatlicher Friedenswahrung in Europa nach dem Wiener Kongreß 1815, in: Jahrbuch des Historischen Kollegs 1996, München 1997, pp. 133–173.

SCHMALZ, Hans W., Versuche einer gesamteuropäischen Organisation 1815–1820, Aarau 1940.

SCHROEDER, Paul W., The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848, Oxford 1994.

WEBSTER, Charles K., The Council of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, in: id., The Art and Practice of Diplomacy, London 1961, pp. 55–69.


[*] Prof. Dr. Heinz Duchhardt, Direktor des Instituts für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz, und Projektleiter des DFG-geförderten Projekts »Europäische Friedensverträge der Vormoderne - online« (Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz)

[1] BAUMGART, Völkerbund 1974, p. 1.

[2] SCHROEDER, Transformation 1994, p. 91.

[3] SCHROEDER, Transformation 1994, p. 91.

[4] PYTA, Konzert der Mächte 1997, p. 144.

[5] PYTA, Konzert der Mächte 1997, pp. 156–160.

[6] PYTA, Konzert der Mächte 1997, p. 145.

[7] SCHROEDER, Transformation 1994.

[8] MEDLICOTT, Concert 1956.

[9] LÖHR, Konferenzdiplomatie 1992, pp. 332 and 349.

[10] BAUMGART, Völkerbund 1974, pp. 17–18.


Duchhardt, Heinz , Concert of Europe, in: Publikationsportal Europäische Friedensverträge, hrsg. vom Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz 2009-07-27, Abschnitt 1–7.
URL: <https://www.ieg-friedensvertraege.de/publikationsportal/duchhardt-heinz-concert-2009>.
URN: <urn:nbn:de:0159-2009091861>.

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