Adam Zamoyski is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Napoleonic era historians. His Moscow 1812 was brilliant, well-researched, and extremely detailed, and his Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna begins almost immediately after Napoleonís final withdrawal from Russia, telling the story of the aftermath and the end of the Napoleonic wars. Zamoyskiís rich detail is included, unfortunately almost to a fault. While the book is definitely interesting, it gets bogged down to the point where itís extremely slow reading for most casual readers.
Once again, Zamoyski doesnít dwell on the military details of battles, though he certainly doesnít gloss over them, either. Readers wishing for in-depth examinations of the battles of Liepzig or Waterloo will be left wanting. Instead, Rites of Peace covers how these battles affected the greater societal whole in Europe, how the various monarchs (Alexander of Russia, Francis of Austria, etc.) handled them and what they wanted to do afterward. Zamoyski introduces the major players in European politics, with Metternich (Foreign Minister of Austria) getting a lot of detail. Once Napoleon is defeated, the Treaty of Paris is signed and other problems present themselves. What to do about the various German provinces that fell under Napoleonís spell? How should each country (especially Austria, Russia, and Prussia) be compensated for the expenses in money and manpower that it cost to defeat the Emperor? What about Switzerland and Italy?
Zamoyski saves his greatest detail for the Congress of Vienna. Opening in early November, 1814, this Congress (which Metternich estimated would last about six weeks) lasted upwards of six months. Ostensibly, it was supposed to solve all of Europeís pressing problems, but it turned into more of a social occasion; negotiations often dragged on to great lengths to solve small issues. Zamoyski spends an incredible amount of time on the sexual escapades and romantic dalliances of the attendees, from the Russian Tsar to Metternich and Talleyrand of France. There were balls, dances, and performances almost every night, and times when negotiators (especially Metternich) spent more time worrying about their personal affairs than about what they were negotiating at the table. Zamoyski is able to provide this detail because Metternich had the Austrian police keep close tabs on every delegate, and the police reports are extensive.
Of course, it wasnít all social occasions. The Congress of Vienna consisted of a great deal of horse-trading between the powers, each side trying desperately to get the deal that would most favor them, often at odds with other European powers. Zamoyski does a great job showing what each faction wanted and how it contrasted with othersí plans. Alexander wanted to demonstrate that Russia was the preeminent power in Europe. Prussia wanted to assume control of vast swaths of German land. Metternich and Austria wanted to curtail, as much as possible, Russiaís power and influence. Almost every province or duchy in Europe, in addition to the great powers themselves, had representatives at the Congress, all of them looking to get a piece of the action. Zamoyski makes all of this fascinating, as we see all the conflicts that arose from these negotiations.
Unfortunately, Rites of Peace gets mired in the social aspects of the Congress. These issues are relevant, especially when they interfered with the negotiations. But Zamoyski spends so much time on them that many of the personages start to run together, causing some exceedingly slow reading. We hear all about Alexanderís various mistresses, Metternichís heavy love affair with Duchess Wilhelmina and how her treatment of him sometimes made him almost useless at the negotiating table. I appreciate the completeness that Zamoyski brings to the book with these details, but it is a bit much.
This is countered, however, by Zamoyskiís readable writing style. While dry at times, for the most part his prose keeps you reading (though perhaps in small chunks). Rites of Peace is quite critical of the Congress and what ended up happening, as well as subsequent events and negotiations that resulted from Napoleonís last hundred days after returning from exile. It was quite interesting to read this, as many current readers (who may not know any better) have grown up thinking that the Congress of Vienna achieved all of its stated aims, as well as ushering in years of peace that finally ended with the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Metternich has a reputation as being superbly devious and successful (rather than the love-addled, though still devious, soul Zamoyski depicts). I think thatís the best thing about this book: the shattering of reader perceptions. Many historians in the late 1800s and early 1900s were critical of the whole thing, but since 1950 it has been rehabilitated. Zamoyskiís intent is to knock it down again.
Rites of Peace is well-researched, with copious endnotes to take in if youíre the type of reader who does that. Zamoyski also provides an extensive bibliography and index as well. Maps are scattered throughout the text to illustrate points, such as the Swiss territorial gains after negotiation, and there is a block of full-color pictures in the middle of the book, giving face to the major personages involved. Thatís a big plus in a book where personal and romantic issues are so much at the forefront. The book is quite long, however, so be ready for an extended read (as well as the weight - the hardcover is quite heavy).
All in all, Rites of Peace is an extraordinary examination of the end of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. While it does get slow at times, the amount of detail and the vivid pictures that Zamoyski paints are well worth the effort. Combined with Moscow 1812, Adam Zamoyski has created quite a treat for the history reader.