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Holy Alliance

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The Emperor Francis I of Austria, King Frederick William III of Prussia, and the Tsar Alexander I of Russia, signed a treaty on 26 September, 1815, by which they united in a "Holy Alliance." Although a political act, the treaty in its wording is a statement purely religious in character. Having in mind the great events of the fall of Napoleon, and in gratitude to God for the blessings shown to their people, the three monarchs declared their fixed resolution to take as the only rule of their future administration, both in internal and foreign affairs, the principles of the Christian religion -- justice, love and peace. They declared that, far from being of value only in individual life, Christian morality is also the best guide in public life. Accordingly the rulers declared their fraternal feeling towards one another, in virtue of which they would not only give support to, but abstain from war with, one another, and would guide their subjects and their armies in a fatherly manner. They declared that they would administer to guide three great branches of the Christian family of nations ; the rightful Lord of the nations, however, remains the One to whom belongs all power, our Divine Saviour, Jesus Christ. They also recommended their subjects with the most tender solicitude to strengthen themselves daily in the principles and practice of the duties which the Saviour taught, because this was the only way to attain the enduring enjoyment of that peace which arises from a good conscience, and which is lasting. In conclusion they called upon all the Powers to become members of the alliance. In point of fact, Louis XVIII of France joined it on 19 November and even the Prince Regent of England did likewise.

The world had long learned not to expect from statesmen official documents in which so religious a tone prevailed. When the wording of the agreement became known early in 1816, men saw in the alliance the consequence of the closest union of politics and religion. To a certain extent the world suspected that it veiled a league of the rulers and the churches, especially of the rulers and the papacy, against the nations and their freedom. For, besides the success of the Revolution and of Napoleon and the sudden revulsion, nothing occupies and surprised public opinion so much as the universal revival of faith in men's souls, of Christian thought, and of the Catholic Church. Men watched with suspicion this unexpected turn of affairs which was contrary to all the prejudices developed by the rationalism of the eighteenth centry. It was also considered possible that the conquerors of Napoleon had in the Holy Alliance bound themselves to the Church, which was regaining its old power, in order by its aid to oppose, for the benefit of royal and papal absolutism, the "liberal" development of States and civilization. The judgment of public opinion, which is always superficial, held a few external signs as evidence of the facts which it suspected behind the alliance. Among these indications taken as proofs were, perhaps, the restoration of the States of the Church by the Powers, or the casual and confused information that the public gradually inferred from the mighty ideas of Joseph de Maistre, or from the more circumscribed views of Bonald, Haller, and others. In reality, the Church -- that is to say, its head, the papal councillors, and the bishops -- regarded with coldness this alliance, which took under its wings schism, heresy, and orthodoxy alike, while Catholicism -- that is, the total of Catholic individuals and masses taking part in the public life of the nations and states -- was even averse or hostile to the alliance. Individual exceptions, in the opinion of the present writer, do not amount to a proof of the contrary.

In this case, as so often in the history of the world, words of seemingly great significance excited notions the more extravagant, the less substance and influence the matter indicated by the statement possessed. The testimony of Prince Metternich , the person most familiar with the subject and the one who, next to the tsar, had the most to do with the founding of the alliance, is:

The Holy Alliance, even in the prejudiced eyes of its originator {the tsar}, had no other aim than that of amoral maifesto, while in the eyes of the other signers of the document it lacked even this value, and consquently justified none of the interpretations which in the end party spirit gave to it. The most unanswerable proof of the correctness of this fact is probably the circumstance, that in all the following period, no mention was made or even could have been made of the Holy Alliance in the correspondence of the cabinet with one another. The Holy Alliance was not an institution for the suppresion of the rights of the nations, for the promotion of absolutism, or for any kind of tyranny. It was solely an emanation of the pietistic feelings of the Emperor Alexander, and the application of the principles ofChristianity to politics.

This quotation gives the true statement in regard to the facts of the case, as well as in regard to the personal factor in the founding of the alliance, which was the transitory pietistic feeling of the tsar at that time. The vigorous reawakening of the religious sense had called forth, especially in connection with the revival of Christian thinking, many confused and obscure manifestations of a mystical and spiritualistic kind that were reactionary in tendency. From June, 1815, the tsar had come under the sway of one of these mystical and reactionary tendencies, through the influence of the Baroness von Krudener, a lady of German-Russian descent who was a religious visionary. Without striving to exert political power, she seems, nevertheless, to have imbued Alexander with the idea that princes must once more rule according to the dictates of religion and under religious form. While the lady was intent wholly on arousing religious ideals, Alexander at once gave a political cast to the suggestion when he endeavoured to formulate it and, with this end in view, drew up the treaty on which the Holy Alliance is based. His demand was not welcome to statesmen of practical mind like Metternich and the Prussians, but they did not consider it necessary to decline the proposal. They struck out merely what was most objectionable to them, and by degrees Metternich quietly replaced the entire alliance by the purely political alliance of 20 November, 1815, between Austria, Prussia, Russia and England, by the Treaty of Aachen of 18 October, 1818, and the aggrements made at the Congresses of Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), and Verona (1822).

Nevertheless the expression "Period of the Holy Alliance" for European politics of the years 1815-23, that is, for the era when Metternich's influence was at its height, has some justification. A brief general review of events will prove this. But the term should not be taken too literally; moreover, it must be admitted that history, in characterizing a period, is more apt to adopt an easily-found and striking expression than an exact one. During the years 1814-15, a number of treaties were concluded between the various countries of Europe. In this series of compacts the Holy Alliance forms merely one link and in a practical sense the most unimportant one; it was also the only treaty which was religious in character. All these treaties have, however, one trait in common. They revive the conception of a centralized Europe, in which the rights of the individual states seem to be limited by the duties which each state has in regard to the whole body of states. The signatories announced the end of the war that had been carried on since the era of the Thirty Years War by those grasping powers and interests, which took only into consideration the ratio status. They further asserted that all just political demands were satisfied, that the great Powers were "saturated", and on the strength of this, they introduced into international law the conception of a common European responsibility, the application of which was to be secured by agreement of the great Powers as cases arose. This common responsibility was to be used for the liberal promotion of all economic, intellectual, and social life, but political liberalism was to be suppressed or held in check in order to reserve the administration of public affairs to the governments as specially ordained thereto. The renewal of the common responsibility of the European states, and of the scheme of administration involved therein, may be regarded as the most characteristic work of Metternich.

The desire for this joint responsibility had gradually developed from the ideas of the Austrian policy of the eighteenth centruy, and had been already expressed in the instructive papers of Kaunitz written in his old age. It was now formulated and made a reality by Austria's greatest statesman. Between the eras of Kaunitz and Metternich, however, had appeared the revival of religious feeling in Europe. The minds of men turned once more to Christianity and the Church. Involuntarily the course of European thought, even that of the most cool-headed statesmen, became again subordinate to the catergories of Christian thinking. Little as Metternich was personally inclined to base his political views on religion, he did not fail to observe that his idea of a common responsibility of the nations and his inclination to peace bore a resemblance to the loftiest medieval ideals of the Christian unity of nations and of a common civilization. He had even an exaggerated idea of this resemblance, as had many of his contemporaries. In consequence of this over-estimation, however (for in truth his ideas were rooted in rationalism ), he allowed these views to appear, if only for a moment, in the words of the Holy Alliance as the proper "application of the principles of Christianity to politics." From his non-resistance to the tsar, his contemporaries inferred that the alliance proclaimed a return to the times in which the papacy and the Church claimed and exercised the right of guiding the respublica christiana. It is in this way that historical events are twisted and confused by the imagination, both of the individual and of the multitude. The Holy Alliance became a bugbear representing reaction, while in reality, like everything that even distantly harmonized with Christianity, it was of advantage to Europe, and assured to it peace for a generation, and an extraordinary development of civilization.

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