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What did the major European states have in common in 1815? What were the most important differences between them?

When attempting to answer a question such as this there is always the risk that one takes the line of least resistance and states simply that, after years of conflict, post Napoleon Europe was now at peace. However, to do so would be little more than cheating one-self and would achieve little.

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Perhaps the key to the answer lies in defining the meaning of the word “state” in the context of early nineteenth century Europe since its latter day interpretation was only then beginning to emerge. Indeed there would be a valid argument for suggesting that a modern “state” has little or no relation to its forebear.

It is easy now to look at the “state” as being a central force through which our daily lives are controlled, and over which we exert little or no influence. It may be regarded as the embodiment of government, through which we interact with other people both within and without our national boundaries. The course unit, when examining Poggi, claims that the state consists of three basic aspects:

i) its internal features as an international apparatus;

ii) the relations between that apparatus and the society which it controls/serves;

iii) the external relations between states.

However, throughout early history, Europe and much of the world beyond, had been dominated by the “divine right” principle in which the monarch was seen as a god-like, all powerful, figure. This had already seen England rent asunder under Charles I, when he attempted to impose his will above that of Parliament over 150 years earlier and had lead Britain towards the type of reforms which Europe had yet to undertake. Indeed, the principle of hereditary monarchy was still, at this point, one of the cornerstones of European civilisation, having recently even been restored in post-Napoleonic France. However, as Anderson observes, its influence and power were themselves subject to a form of control and lay between the extremes represented by Britain in which a “powerful and self-confident government…. limited the power of the monarchy” and Russia where the “religious awe which… buttressed the position of the tsar had been supplemented by a vast bureaucratic and military structure of which the ruler was the absolute master.”

This meant that the “monarchy was therefore a dominant institution in … Europe” in 1815, with only France showing “a current of republican feeling”. Indeed Anderson argues that their popularity was due largely to the fact that the ordinary man was most able to comprehend the rule of an individual rather than that of the bureaucracy, which typifies our lives some two hundred years later.

However, because the monarchies of the period “disliked changes which might weaken their position … they made little effort to be truly representative” with the result that “the generation which followed Waterloo saw … a remarkable proliferation of written constitutions and an approach … to representative institutions”. The primary exception to this were again Britain, where no written constitution has ever been produced based on the fact that our rights are deemed to enshrined in the “Magna Carta”, “Habeas Corpus” and the common law, and Russia where the tsar was the most absolute of European monarchs.

The irony here lies in the fact that the ruling classes were oppressive for their times more from a desire to protect the serfs and peasants than for any other reason-a stark contrast with the actions of both China and the former communist states of Eastern Europe post 1945. This is highlighted by the actions of the actions of Tsar Nicholas I’s Third Department of the Imperial Chancery where well-meaning staff tried “to protect serfs…. urged improvement of the conditions of industrial workers.. and showed some awareness of the urgent need for economic development in Russia”

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