The Bonapartist Phase of the 1989 Revolution

Debating Europe

The Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), ERSTE Foundation and the Burgtheater Vienna, in collaboration with DER STANDARD, hosted a debate about the Congress of Vienna and its legacy, as part of the series “Debating Europe”, held on 26 April.

Welcoming over 450 audience members who had gravitated towards the theatre on this springlike Sunday morning, artistic director Karin Bergmann offered a witty quotation: “The Russian Czar loves for everyone, the Prussian King thinks for everyone, Maximilian of Bavaria drinks for everyone, and Emperor Franz pays for everyone.” At least that is what the Viennese population two hundred years ago thought of the Congress, which turned their city into Europe’s diplomatic capital for many months.

Often criticised for its pomposity and revelry, this gathering of all the great ruling houses of Europe, including the recently defeated France under Napoleon, nevertheless turns out in hindsight to have paved the way for modern diplomacy. Concluding on 9 June 1815, the Congress attempted to negotiate a new European order, and its anniversary year provided a timely opportunity to extend its significance to the present.

DER STANDARD’s editor-in-chief Alexandra Föderl-Schmid moderated a well-balanced panel composed of a historian, a cultural scientist, a journalist and two politicians ready to reflect back, as well as ahead. They agreed right from the outset that the European Union and its political means to deal with conflict today are not readily comparable to the conference diplomacy of the early 19th century.

German historian Heinrich August Winkler began by putting into perspective a popular assessment of the Congress said to have brought peace to Europe a century ago: “The diplomats at the Congress of Vienna wanted to create equilibrium among the political forces and allow a defeated France to rejoin the concert of power.” But this came with restoration and repressions across the continent and at the price of more revolutions. In the end the Paris Treaties confirmed that after World War I nothing remained of the equilibrium.

The German-Polish Question: 200 years without a resolution

The Polish journalist Adam Krzeminski agreed with Winkler: “The idea that the great powers alone may decide over European issues turned out to be rotten egg, and World War I a century later, the payback.” He suggested that Prussia, Austria and Russia first destroyed Europe’s equilibrium before then presenting themselves at the Congress of Vienna as arbitrators: “From a Polish point of view, the Congress was foul play rather than Europe’s salvation.” For two hundred years the German-Polish question remained the unresolved issue at the heart of Europe.

For Berlin-based Austrian cultural scientist Hazel Rosenstrauch the period of the Congress of Vienna was one of transition: “You could even see it in the music performed in the ballrooms. Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart were played alongside Johann Strauss.” The way in which people dealt with one another was also interesting. The role of the women attending did not even register: “We might say the women introduced a certain kind of ‘soft’ manner of negotiation. They created spaces away from the negotiating tables, where without immediately having to render judgment, participants could cultivate a culture of conversation.” So that during the Congress, the foundation for Viennese habits in forming decisions was laid: even today important matters are discussed in the relaxed atmosphere of cafés rather than in the office.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz, who appeared without a tie in a Syriza-look, appreciated the Congress’ attempt to negotiate by accommodating all interests: “Diplomatic multilateralism the way it was practiced then, is today a condition for most decision making.” Europe is now, moreover, deeply involved in a global context. As a legacy of the Congress, two centuries later Vienna is still an important place for international negotiations. Sebastian Kurz was the first and only panellist that morning to underline the role of contemporary civil society: “It’s unthinkable today that two hundred political representatives should isolate themselves from populace and press to make their decisions.”

In what kind of union do we want to live from here on?

Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, took up one of Winkler’s points: the possibility of “saving face” after being defeated in a conflict emerged two hundred years ago as a welcome alternative to the dictates of peace treaties that already carry in them the seed of another war. The moderator used the point to transition to the present. Wasn’t Greece currently under the dictate of Germany? How might Greece in their messy situation find a resolution without losing face? Hahn evaded the question and suggested that the seeming German strength was partly contingent on France’s weakness. Kurz then added that Germany’s hard line towards Greece was in fact favoured by smaller EU countries that had overcome their own crises or were only able to offer their citizens even fewer social benefits than Greece.

Hahn sees the real challenge in the European Union’s internal reorganisation. We must address how we want to establish ourselves. According to Hahn, there are two competing models for society in the EU: the one shaped by Anglo-Saxon states, which advocates low taxes and relies on citizens’ own contributions to their benefits, and the one shaped by the classical welfare state with high taxes and therefore better benefits for its citizens. Hahn: “To reach a consensus here, a political as well as a fiscal unification, is exceedingly difficult since tax policies also reflect the respective political culture.”

Winkler brought the conversation back to the Congress of Vienna, where human rights had again been subordinated to the doctrine of divine right. It wasn’t until 1989 that human rights came back to the fore across the entire European continent. The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe supported this process by laying down human rights for the entire continent, but Putin reneged on those with the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Winkler considers the EU’s economic sanctions to be moderate and without any alternative.

The war over values against the West

According to Adam Krzeminski, the 1989 revolution, which he considers more important than the French revolution of 1789, has reached with Putin its Bonapartist phase. Putin wants to turn back the historical clock and is only peripherally interested in a Russian dominance of the Ukraine. In actuality, he is fighting a war over values against the West. “Sticking together is the most important thing under the circumstances,” suggested Krzeminski. Kurz agreed with him wholeheartedly. Not only was transatlantic solidarity called for, but European solidarity as well. Winkler addressed both politicians by suggesting that this would mean the attempts at blackmailing of Hungary and Greece – who as of late have tried to assert their independence by turning to Putin – would have to stop as would the unnecessary insider solidarity of the big European party groupings who treat European values according to the motto “If you bash my Viktor (Orban), I bash yours (Viktor Ponta).”

In conclusion, Sebastian Kurz hoped for a future in which Europe directly elects the European Commission President, and August Heinrich Winkler hoped for a real partnership between national parliaments and the EU. The European Union’s moral credibility will reveal itself in its response to the issue of immigrants, an issue that can only be solved together.

Maribel Königer