"Vienna: The Series": The Walking, Talking, Scheming, and F*cking that Preceded Waterloo
Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
One of our lovely commenters noted that one of the storytellers pieces could be made into a TV series running alongside “The Game of Thrones.” This immediately sent me hobbling into my cave, where I spent the better part of the day nerdspasming on how Book One is the Thirty Years’ War all over again (Mance Rayder is totally Gustavus Adolphus, y’all). But then I read the second book, and the whole thing fell apart, and I also remembered that people don’t give a shit, and that I live in a cave for a reason. Still, the format idea stuck with me, so I started looking for something that would have that same kind of cosmic chessboard thrill … and arrived at “Vienna: The Series.”
The whole French Revolution/Napoleonic era has been strip-mined for content over and over again, until it has pretty much become part of the collective blah. What came after, however, remains — at least as far as I know — pretty obscure. It was called the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), and it was 9 months of walking, talking, scheming, and fucking. (Obviously, for HBO we can reverse that order.)
Very long story very, very short: France went on a rampage across Europe. Europe shimmered and coalesced into coalition after coalition, rising up against each advance like some sort of iridescent shape-shifter ninja. And every time it did that, Napoleon punched it in the face. Finally, he marched on Moscow, winter happened, *sad trombone*. Paris fell.
The defeat of Napoleon was chiefly the work of four allies: Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain, and their entrance into the French capital was a neat little study of their differences: Tsar Alexander of Russia arrived in Paris in full imperial regalia, victorious and resplendent — the hero of the day, Agamemnon of Kings. He was accompanied by the sullen King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia who was completely overlooked and spent his days — and this is probably one of my all-time favorite mental images — “sadly tobogganing down the slides of the Montagnes Russes.” Emperor Francis I of Austria stopped just short of reaching Paris — he had been forced to marry off his eldest daughter to Napoleon, and felt that entering his son-in-law’s capital as a conqueror would be a no-no. Finally, Lord Castlereagh of Great Britain opted to stay behind as well, though for different reasons. It was still unclear whether Napoleon would be allowed to keep his throne, or how the French public felt about that. He kept away from ground zero until a decision was made so the British government would not be associated with it, blaming his absence on the roads still being too dangerous to travel. Unfortunately, a Lady Burghersh from his retinue didn’t get the memo, and immediately dashed to Paris to meet up her beloved husband, blowing his cover. The Russian dispatch dated April 3rd read: “Bitch, please.”
Eventually, the Allies got together to sign a peace treaty with France, but it wasn’t quite that easy. Napoleon really did a number on Europe: mashing countries together, splitting them apart, putting the Germanies through a blender … sorting through that mess would take a while, and so the Treaty of Paris was a stopgap measure stating that the war was over, and that they’ll work it all out at a conference in Vienna. What most of the world didn’t know was that there was also a secret protocol, which said “Oh, and all the decisions will be made by Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain.” Not THAT surprising, since they contributed the most to the war effort, but a dickish move nonetheless. Luckily, putting off problems until later and backroom deals never came back to bite anyone in the ass.
And so, the Congress assembled. By which I mean: everyone who was anyone came to Vienna, started partying and went into full mwahahaha *stab* mode. Every single European nation (save for Saxony, OBVIOUSLY) sent a delegation to Vienna. Naples actually sent two — one for its current ruler Joachim Murat, and one for the deposed Bourbon dynasty. Switzerland decided some hilarity was in order and sent nineteen delegations — one for every canton. Add to that two Emperors, an Empress, four Kings, one Queen, two Hereditary Princes, three Grand Duchesses, 215 heads of princely families, a delegation from the publishing industry (armed with a letter from Goethe)*… it was crazy. Which is one of the reasons why this “congress” never actually met in full session and was instead just a series of informal meetings, parties, concerts, and general debauchery. You know, like in that Vampire Diaries shithole, population: 147, that for some insane reason has a formal event every single day, except there it made sense, and people weren’t called Stefan and Klaus and…
Actually, never mind. Let’s meet our principal cast:
The Russians (“Winter never left”): Tsar Alexander I arrived at Vienna as the savior of Europe, and unlike other monarchs, he took an active part in negotiations. This posed two problems. Firstly, concessions made in the morning by the Russians’ chief negotiator, Count Nesselrode, would often be objected to in the afternoon by Tsar Alexander. Secondly, these objections were then sometimes objected to as well. By Alexander. Again. His contemporaries called it “the periodic evolutions of the Tsar’s mind.” Our contemporaries, especially those in the medical field, call it “schizophrenia.” Alexander was a brilliant man, an avowed liberal, and the great idealist of his time. But he was just as ardent an imperialist, and the autocrat of Holy Russia. The most disorienting aspect of his personality was that he would attempt to be consistent throughout all of these mercurial shifts, and try to mash his disparate impulses into a cohesive front, regardless of reality’s low tolerance for paradoxes. Eventually he decided to just fuck it, and went full batshit reactionary/mystical. Crazy charisma + crazy power + general crazy = definite wild card of the show.
The Prussians (“Austrian homo says what?!”): King Frederick Wilhelm III attended the Congress personally, but didn’t really factor in, since he continued to display utter subservience to the Tsar (plus, you know, sad toboggan). The chief Prussian negotiator was Prince Hardenberg, who was almost completely deaf, so he was always attended by Baron von Humboldt. Prussia was sore, angry, and ravenous. Napoleon had made her an example of what happens when you fuck with him, stripping her of territory, extracting huge war indemnities, and all but disbanding her military. That last part was especially hard to swallow for a nation that not that long ago was described as not a country with an army, but an army with a country. The Prussians had two things going for them though: their treatment by Napoleon made them into a tragic symbol of resistance (as humorous as German resistance against France sounds nowadays), so they started out with public opinion on their side, and they literally had nothing to lose. They were the upstart looking for a payback or, failing that, a payout. And they went for it with utter, cynical abandon.
The British (“Stay out of my pool!”): The British delegation was headed by Lord Castlereagh - a very capable, but somewhat insecure man, who hid said insecurity behind a façade of frosty politeness. On top of that, he had rather simple tastes, so Vienna’s relentless social calendar was giving him a major headache. The British attitude towards Europe was “Stay put and don’t break any shit, so mommy can tend to her Vahst Colonial Empireh.” Castlereagh pursued that policy by trying to make sure that the seas remained British, and that the continental Powers were so deadlocked as to be incapable of starting another Napoleon-caliber war. He was, however, hampered by a significant disconnect between British and Continental thinking. The British saw themselves as the paragon of resistance (they participated in, and indeed formed, all anti-Napoleonic coalitions) and as the only ones who scored military triumphs against France (during the Iberian Campaign) - until Napoleon lost, I mean; their interests were global. Europe’s response to that was: “Which campaign? When was th- aww, how adorable, of course you did! What’s a Sumatra? Haven’t you been listening? The Austrians want CRACOW, can you believe it?! Also, some… parliament called to say you’ve ‘abused your mandate,’ or something? Whatever that is, it sounds hilarious, you’ll have to tell us all about it.” The more he adapted to Viennese politics, the less his party, opposition and public opinion understood what he was doing, until finally he had to go back to defend his government in the House of Commons (of which he was Speaker), and was replaced by Lord Wellington.
The Austrians (“We must efface ourselves and bide our time”): The Austrian delegation was headed by Prince von Metternich — a man who was bright, but not quite as bright as he thought himself to be. He adored diplomatic gambits and stratagems, and would never go for the simple route. He was also something of a man-whore, and found himself increasingly at odds with Tsar Alexander — himself a formidable slut — over ladybits. Still, one can’t really fault him for seeing the Congress of Vienna as his time to shine. Austria had sacrificed much to survive: she swallowed her pride, married her ancient bloodline to the Corsican Ogre (the previous Austrian archduchess to go to Paris was Marie Antoinette, so… tough gig), and even allied herself with France for a while. So when her time finally came, she tried to make the most of home court advantage. All the housemaids assigned to the gazillion delegations were tasked with rifling through their waste-paper baskets for bits of info. All the couriers (except for Castlereagh’s) were on Austrian pay, and all correspondence was opened and transcribed. Metternich’s game was diplomacy — he was the serpent whispering in everyone’s ear that the Habsburgs are their friends. And he used the Congress to shape geopolitics to a degree where the decades following it are now referred to as “the Metternich system.”
The French (“They’re too frightened to fight, too stupid to agree”): Technically, the French were at the Congress to lie there and take it. In practice, they were probably its biggest winners. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars proved that you really didn’t want the French too unhappy, so the terms of their defeat were very lenient — they hardly had to pay any indemnities, didn’t lose any territory that they hadn’t just moments before conquered, and there was even some talk as to whether they really should return all the shit they stole since, you know, that’s so upsetting. No one wanted another explosion. And this was seized up on brilliantly by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord — a man who mastered Murphy’s law, buttered himself on all sides, and therefore never fell. He served as Foreign Minister under 4 different French regimes over the course of 40 years, and was in fact instrumental in toppling most of them (among other things telling the Tsar when to strike at Paris). He was ridiculously witty, unscrupulous, and a brilliant schemer who within a few days turned France from the defeated aggressor into one of the key shapers of Europe and champion of the disenfranchised nations (those same nations France had devoured in the previous episode). Everyone tried to catch up with Talleyrand, but no one quite pulled it off. Many years later, upon being informed of his death, Metternich famously said “I wonder what he did that for.”
A bit of a sausage fest, I agree, but there were just as many brilliant ladies around, who acted in a less official capacity. And then you have all the bit players - King Joachim Murat of Naples, Napoleon’s best cavalryman, who played both sides, and who the Allies went easy on, because Metternich was boning his wife; Jean Baptiste Bernadotte - another of Napoleon’s officers who went from preparing an invasion on Sweden to being adopted by the Swedish King (the current Swedish royalty are his descendants); the Spanish envoy Marquis Labrador who was so annoying the other diplomats fled at the sight of him… As I said: it was crazy.
I think there’s more than enough material here for an awesome mini-series. Obviously, there’s loads of high stakes politics of that quintessentially 19th century let’s-redraw-some-maps variety. There’s general interest stuff, like negotiations regarding the return of all the works of art looted by Napoleon for the Louvre. Want some masturbatory “look, that guy lived then!” cameos? Here — Beethoven just conducted his new piece (he actually did that, poor deaf bastard). The writers would find ample opportunity for pontificating, as the Congress also dealt with abolishing the slave trade. You could even go for some truly exploitative foreshadowing with the delegation of Jews from Frankfurt who negotiated securing their community’s rights in Germany. And when you get bored with all the talking - Napoleon escapes Elba and the British envoy literally has to skip out of Vienna to defeat him at Waterloo.
It would be a perfect project for Aaron Sorkin. He has the wit for Talleyrand’s repartee, enough sense of humor to milk something out of Hardenberg, and I would love to see him give the idealistic Alexander a proper Bartlett treatment. In fact, I think having to marry his usual sanctimonious fuckery with a character who would go on to crush the freedom and liberties of several nations would grant him a singular insight into the Tsar’s precarious state of mind.
Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows are gray. Like many a Project Runway contestant, sometimes he doesn’t know how to edit.
* sent there to work out some copyright arrangement for Germany - no joke
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