Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, European governments were driven by a spirit of conservatism. Conservatives believed that established, traditional institutions of state and society – like the monarchy, the Church, social hierarchies, property, and the family – should be preserved. Most conservatives, however, did not propose a return to the society of pre-revolutionary days.
Rather, they realized, from the changes initiated by Napoleon, that modernization could in fact strengthen traditional institutions like the monarchy. It could make state power more effective and strong. A modern army, an efficient bureaucracy, a dynamic economy, the abolition of feudalism and serfdom could strengthen the autocratic monarchies of Europe.
In 1815, representatives of the European powers – Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria – who had collectively defeated Napoleon, met at Vienna to draw up a settlement for Europe. The Congress was hosted by the Austrian Chancellor Duke Metternich.
The delegates drew up the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 with the object of undoing most of the changes that had come about in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. The Bourbon dynasty, which had been deposed during the French Revolution, was restored to power, and France lost the territories it had annexed under Napoleon.
A series of states were set up on the boundaries of France to prevent French expansion in the future. Thus the kingdom of the Netherlands, which included Belgium, was set up in the north, and Genoa was added to Piedmont in the south. Prussia was given important new territories on its western frontiers, while Austria was given control of northern Italy. But the German confederation of 39 states that had been set up by Napoleon was left untouched.
In the east, Russia was given part of Poland while Prussia was given a portion of Saxony. The main intention was to restore the monarchies that had been overthrown by Napoleon and create a new conservative order in Europe. Conservative regimes set up in 1815 were autocratic. They did not tolerate criticism and dissent and sought to curb activities that questioned the legitimacy of autocratic governments.
During the years following 1815, the fear of repression drove many liberal-nationalists undergrounds. Secret societies sprang up in many European states to train revolutionaries and spread their ideas. To be revolutionary at this time meant a commitment to oppose monarchical forms that had been established after the Vienna Congress, and to fight for liberty and freedom. Most of these revolutionaries also saw the creation of nation-states as a necessary part of this struggle for freedom.
One such individual was the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. Born in Genoa in 1807, he became a member of the secret society of the Carbonari. As a young man of 24, he was sent into exile in 1831 for attempting a revolution in Liguria.
He subsequently founded two more underground societies, first, Young Italy in Marseilles, and then, Young Europe in Berne, whose members were like-minded young men from Poland, France, Italy, and the German states. Mazzini believed that God had intended nations to be the natural units of mankind. So Italy could not continue to be a patchwork of small states and kingdoms.
It had to be forged into a single unified republic within a wider alliance of nations. This unification alone could be the basis of Italian liberty. Following his model, secret societies were set up in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Poland. Mazzini’s relentless opposition to monarchy and his vision of democratic republics frightened the conservatives. Metternich described him as ‘the most dangerous enemy of our social order’.