The Holy Alliance was doomed to be brittle

  • Themes: Geopolitics, History

The history of the 19th-century Holy Alliance between the monarchist great powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia shows how hard it is to maintain complex federal systems in a world defined by power, rivalry and state competition.

Cartoon of the Holy Alliance from 1823.
Cartoon of the Holy Alliance from 1823. Credit: Penta Springs Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Isaac Nakhimovsky, The Holy Alliance: Liberalism and the Politics of Federation, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2024

The Holy Alliance has had a bad press ever since Tsar Alexander I of Russia revealed it to the world at Christmas in 1815. Britain’s foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh had already dismissed it as a ‘piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’ and refused to let the Prince Regent join. Although Alexander had been instrumental in defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and in agreeing the terms of the Congress of Vienna, a hard-nosed realist like Castlereagh regarded his proposal to turn Europe’s princes into the heads of ‘one Christian nation’ as pietistic moonshine. Yet once Castlereagh’s Austrian counterpart Klemens von Metternich had redefined Alexander’s scheme as a club of monarchs rather than an alliance of peoples, it became a hated byword for reactionary meddling in the affairs of smaller states. The Genoese revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini later recalled that ‘the masters of the world had united against the future’, which was liberal nationalism.

The Yale historian Isaac Nakhimovsky thinks that it is time to stop being beastly about the Holy Alliance. Without wanting to vindicate it exactly, he points to its enthusiastic reception among an eclectic group of Alexander’s contemporaries. The Kantian professor who wrote the first history of liberalism even hailed it as ‘the most liberal of ideas’, detecting in it a promise to plant representative institutions in Europe and to guarantee them in a constitution. Many of the discussions reconstructed in Nakhimovsky’s labyrinthine book are abstruse enough. Yet he is right to argue for their relevance. Alexander’s move triggered heated discussion about whether and how far European states could federate themselves. In the United States, Canada and the European Union there is now deep uncertainty about how federal unions can hold and faith in the international institutions of the postwar world is fading. And despite the scolding of technocrats, European electorates remain jealous of what they see as the creeping violation of their sovereignty. The study of the Alliance’s creation and embattled reception suggests to Nakhimovsky that even if complex federal systems are necessary, the authority of the entities that run them is doomed to be brittle.

When Alexander became Tsar in 1801, he could be forgiven for thinking he was called upon to unite Europe; he had long been told it was his mission. If Russia is now a threat to Europe’s collective security, then in the later eighteenth century it appeared to be its providential guarantor. Europe’s thinkers looked to Moscow to rescue their states from their petty rivalries and especially from the struggle for global mastery between Great Britain and France. There was some disagreement about the kind of power Alexander had at his back. Voltaire had informed his grandmother Catherine the Great that ‘today enlightenment comes to us from the north’, because he hoped that her realm was catching up with and might surpass Western standards of material culture. Jeremy Bentham, whose naval engineer brother consulted on Russian shipbuilding, thought the same. Other thinkers valued Russia more as a spiritual antidote to Western civilization and urged its rulers to invest in schools, churches and farming. They were excited by the conquest and colonization of the Caucasus, which they variously hailed as Russia’s Italy or its Midwest.

Alexander’s flatterers hailed the new head of this ambiguous empire as a ‘friend of humanity’. This gushy term had a precise signification. Emer de Vattel and other theorists of international law had dispensed with the idea that Europe would only enjoy peace if it became a single commonwealth governed by natural law. They emphasized that independent states had the capacity to work together for their collective security and something that could be called the common good, although Vattel was vague about what that was. Yet as the ease with which Napoleon divided then ruled Europe showed, they were not very good at doing so in practice. They needed a friendly prod from a mediator who sat outside the cockpit of zero-sum rivalries.

Such a friend of humanity could also direct collective action on problems too big to resolve by bilateral treaties between states, especially the slave trade, which had revived with peace in 1815. The zealous indignation Alexander voiced against it dazzled trusty abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and even seduced Haiti’s rebel monarchy, who saw in him their ‘Star of the North’. His credibility on such issues initially owed much to the boosting of his Swiss tutor Frédéric-César De La Harpe. He was an odd teacher for a Tsar: a Vaudois malcontent and scribbler of fantasy constitutions, he had been a director of the revolutionary Helvetian Republic and still wore its uniform in St Petersburg. Yet it was his obsession with the woes of Switzerland that had taken him to the court of the Tsars: he hoped they could intervene to support the smaller cantons against their oppressors. De La Harpe fancied himself as a new Fénelon, the bishop who had tutored Louis XV and written The Adventures of Telemachus, a celebrated didactic novel that outlined how Machiavellian princes could be schooled into friends of humanity.

Although Nakhimovsky takes the self-aggrandizing De La Harpe at his own estimation, he concedes that Alexander dropped him in 1801 and he had little contact or influence on him thereafter. A much more significant player in generating the substance of the Alliance was the Polish aristocrat Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who became Alexander’s foreign minister in 1803. Like De La Harpe, he wanted Alexander to broker his country’s independence and went on to envision him as the ‘arbiter of peace for the civilized world’. Inspired by the United States, Czartoryski saw Alexander as shepherding small states into permanently fixing mutually beneficial relationships with one another.

Czartoryski put too much faith in Alexander. Although his boss became King of Poland at the Congress of Vienna, he passed up the chance to make Czartoryski his reforming viceroy. In drafting the Alliance’s manifesto, Alexander parroted the pietistic formulae of the South German aristocrat Juliane von Krüdener, a heavy breathing mystagogue who had seduced him in Vienna. Jeremy Bentham, who could not get Alexander to read his proposals for the utilitarian reform of the Russian penal code, sneered that he had become the ‘tool of an impostor, pretending to be a bigot’. Alexander soon fell in with Austrian plans to suppress liberal agitation for constitutions in smaller countries, but did nothing to assist the Greeks in freeing themselves from Ottoman rule. Lord Byron panned the Telemachus of the North as a ‘bald-coot bully’.

Nakhimovsky is right that too much emphasis has been placed on Von Krüdener’s mysticism in explaining the Alliance’s plunging credibility. She was a less comic or obscurantist figure than she became in retrospect, for religious mania was at once widespread and unstable in post-Napoleonic Europe. The distinctively Protestant German pursuit of inner piety to which she introduced Alexander was actually in vogue with early liberals. Madame de Stäel liked her and the Liberal theorist Benjamin Constant prayed with her. The Protestant abolitionists who hailed Alexander the liberator ran on the same sort of eschatological petrol. The fatal objections to the churchy vibe of the Alliance came from Roman Catholics. The Pope refused to join; the Ultramontane Félicité de Lamennais sniped that the Christianity which united Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox monarchs was too misty to deserve the name.

In talking up the Tsar’s mysticism, Lord Castlereagh was not so much describing the Alliance as attempting to discredit it. Although the British had helped build the alliances that toppled Napoleon, they were sceptical of Czartoryski’s suggestion that a constitution could enshrine peace. They feared that he laboured under the ‘brilliant illusion of a great Commonwealth’ and was labouring to subordinate European countries to a stagnant and unfree superstate. Liberal statesmen, such as Castlereagh’s successor George Canning, preferred to balance Europe pragmatically rather than legally, through the dynamic pursuit of their commercial and strategic self-interest.

Nakhimovsky points out that such critiques had a global dimension. Americans helpfully explained why there could never be a Tsarist United States of Europe. In a 4th July address of 1821, Bentham’s friend John Quincy Adams underscored the big difference between the ‘liberties’ Americans enjoyed, which were ‘founded on acknowledgment’ of their freedom fighting prowess and ‘liberties founded on grant’ from monarchs, who could easily tear up constitutions on a whim. Americans also urged that their negotiated constitution had been calibrated to permit commercial progress and demographic growth. A federation composed by imperial diktat could do the same. Only where there was a rough cultural and economic homogeneity between the parties joined in a federal constitution could it survive – an ironic observation, given the antagonisms between slave and free states that would soon threaten the United States.

The ideological disintegration of the Alliance was so rapid and complete that Nakhimovsky taxes our patience with a longish survey of its afterlife. It is true that enthusiasts of later schemes to bind European nations together in the pursuit of peace, such as the League of Nations, sometimes invoked the Alliance as a precedent. But more often than not the parallel was an unhappy one, especially when it cast America in the role of almighty guarantor. When Theodore Roosevelt compared Woodrow Wilson to Tsar Alexander, he did not mean to praise, but to bury him.

This book is a quiet pitch for what the history of political thought can bring to the contemporary understanding of politics and international relations. Rather like Richard Bourke’s recent book on Hegel, it suggests that past thinkers can speak powerfully though not directly to the present, once historians have minutely reconstructed the contexts in which they worked. It reminds us also that the agents and structures of geopolitics are not just realities on the ground, but take shape and then dissolve in people’s heads. It is then a shame that Nakhimovsky is so fastidious in paraphrasing his cast of professorial dreamers and minor chancers – people who emitted ‘ideas’ as cuttlefish do ink – that he omits to explain why their thinking failed to mesh with reality. For a historian of political thought, he seems curiously innocent about how politics actually worked – and works. He is also much less pugnacious and direct than Bourke in stating the dividend of his researches. Although he lets slip that Brexit and Trump got him thinking about the woes of federalism, he gives us nothing so crass as solutions to them. His mountainous erudition yields a mousy conclusion: ‘systematically examining’ the expectations aroused by the Holy Alliance shows us that complex federal systems are necessary to but will always be a controversial part of our world.


Michael Ledger-Lomas