Hans Schenk – The Aftermath of Europe

Following the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars upon the European continent, the victorious leaders met in Vienna and created a peaceful balance of power to prevent the outbreak of another war.  The resulting period, known as the Concert of Europe, witnessed a period of tranquility as the major European powers remained at peace with one another.  This era is the focus of Hans Schenk’s study The Aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars which examines the political, diplomatic, and social aspects of Europe following the Congress of Vienna.  While the author does not present an overarching thesis, the book’s main theme focuses on the alignment of popular European religious philosophies with the religious ideas of Tsar Alexander I put forth in the Holy Alliance and how domestic European disorder and international competition led to the breakdown of both the Concert of Europe and the Holy Alliance by 1825.

Schenk’s study is written for a scholarly audience familiar with the history of early modern Europe as he assumes knowledge of the era and is especially for those academics interested in diplomatic history.  This is evident in his source base which is derived from the letters of European diplomats and leaders such as Castlereagh, Canning, Metternich, Burke, and Alexander I.  Besides these diplomatic exchanges, Schenk’s narrative is based on extensive research and primary source documents including government documents, personal letters, and popular literature of the period.  Using these sources, the author presents narrative that attempts to show how the Concert of Europe failed.

This narrative is divided into three parts: The Origins of the Holy Alliance; The Concert of Europe – an Experiment; and Discord in the Concert of Europe.  In the first part, Schenk examines the religious undertones of the period arguing that after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars Europe witnessed a return to religion and suggests that two types of Christianity emerged – a conservative type and a radical type (2).  The conservative vein, advocated by Edmund Burke and European nobles, was a reaction against the radicalism of the French Revolution and viewed religion not only as a method to preserve class distinctions but also that religion gave the poor a heavenly reward.  On the other hand, Schenk posits that the radical vein, supported by and Franz von Baader and Louis Claude Saint-Martain, saw religion as the basis for civilization and as the basis for democracy.  Those who espoused the radical Christianity did not lament the Ancein Regime and believed that religion should permeate both public and private life to create a more caring generous society which would end the wars between the powers and create a unified Christian Europe. (15) Schenk then contends that this radical strand of Christianity influenced Tsar Alexander I and led to the creation of the Holy Alliance, a coalition between Russia, Austria, and Prussia that theoretically aimed to instill Christian values throughout Europe.  However, Schenk demonstrates that this objective was undermined from the outset by Metternich who altered the document infusing it with patriarchism and, according to Schenk, Metternich only signed the alliance in order to please the Tsar and to prevent Russian expansionism (40).

Part two of Schenk’s narrative breaks completely with the first and examines how the end of the Napoleonic Wars created widespread discontent throughout Europe.  In Great Britain, the end of the war ruined British monopolies as they again faced competition from the continent which led to a loss of business and jobs creating civil unrest.  This civil unrest led to the Six Acts, a series of laws passed by the parliament that curbed civil liberties and prevented public assemblies, censored the press, and increased sentences for anti-government writings.  In Central Europe, thousands of unemployed soldiers and increased economic competition with Britain created massive unemployment and civil unrest which was quashed by an authoritarian government ever fearful of revolution.  Schenk shows that in Russia, Tsar Alexander started his reign as a liberal reformer but these policies created discontent among the nobility and the military and  led Alexander to become a more authoritarian leader as he undid many of his early reforms.  Finally, in France, the author displays that the victorious European powers remained lenient towards France and desired the reestablishment of the Bourbon monarchy to balance the power of Russia and to create stability within France.  The re-empowerment of the monarchy, however, resulted in civil unrest throughout the nation and the fear of renewed revolutionary outbreaks that were suppressed by the monarchy.

In third part of this work, Schenk devotes an entire chapter to examining the political, social, and military situations in Spain, Naples, and Greece and suggests that the revolutionary movements of these nations shortly after the Napoleonic Wars were suppressed by the European powers who aimed to maintain stability throughout the continent.  Following an examination of these nations, Schenk recounts the events that he argues led to the dissolution of the Concert of Europe.  These include France’s unilateral interference in 1823 to restore the Spanish monarchy, the competition between France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States over trading rights and the revolutions in Latin American, and finally the competition between Britain and Russia in the Middle East.  These great power competitions, argues Schenk, led to the disintegration of the Concert of Europe.  In the epilogue, Schenk again returns to Tsar Alexander I and his ideas for a European alliance and seems to suggest that British interests, especially trading interests in the Middle East and Americans, were hostile to Alexander’s ideas and prevented the alliance system from working and that the constant competition between the powers demonstrate that Europe remained a secularized region that failed to embrace religion.

Ultimately the author’s narrative is disjointed and the lack of overarching thesis leaves the reader confused about the how the events described are interrelated.  This is especially evident in the Schenk’s discussion of Christianity.  The author spends the entire first part of his study examining and explaining what he sees as two strands of Christianity in Europe, the conservative and the radical, but then does not readdress religion until the final two pages.  If these two competing strands of Christianity are central, the author needs to show throughout the study how they influence the social and political leaders of Europe.  Also, Schenk’s ten page digression examining the trade competition between the Spain, United States, and Great Britain in Latin America seems excessive and should be shortened and clarified as too how this undermines the congress system.  Furthermore, the examination of European nations in the second part is not connected to the other parts of the book with each chapter standing as an independent essay rather than a coherent examination of Europe under the congress system.  Finally, Schenk never describes how he understands the Congress of Vienna or the congress system and how his country studies undermine this system.  The lack of an overarching thesis and the inability to connect his chapters leaves the reader confused and unsure of the author’s objective and the importance of the book as a scholarly contribution.

The lack of coherent narrative also raises questions as to why the author placed Tsar Alexander I at the center of his study.  First, Schenk fails to make a convincing connection between Alexander and the radical religious ideas that emerged after the revolution and influenced the creation of the Holy Alliance.  If Alexander was under the sway of this radical democratic Christianity, why did he allow Metternich to change the document and then sign it?  Moreover, if for the author the Holy Alliance is crucial to the congress system, why is it also only examined in the first section?  How does membership in the Holy Alliance affect the members’ political decisions concerning social unrest in Europe?  This again relates to the lack of a coherent narrative by the author.  Schenk spends a great deal of time explaining the religious ideas of the period and the creation of the Holy Alliance but fails to address these again until the epilogue in which they receive only brief attention.  Overall, Schenk’s book appears to be a collection of essays that examine Europe during the congress system but ultimately fail to produce a coherent understanding of the period.

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