The agreement proposed by the Russian tsar involved Austria and Prussia. But what is the Holy Covenant?
On September 26, 1815 Russia, Prussia and Austria signed the covenant of the Holy Alliance. The author and promoter of the agreement is the Russian Tsar Alexander I. The other two signatories are Francesco I emperor of Austria and Federico Guglielmo III of Prussia. But what is the Holy Covenant?
The treaty is “an unprecedented document in the history of diplomatic acts” according to the definition of the French historian Pierre Renouvin. The three empires of Russia, Austria and Prussia claim to base their relations on the precepts of religion and on the existence of the Christian nation.
Its content can be summarized as an appeal by the three sovereigns to the rest of Europe. They invoke and recall the principles of Christianity. They declare their will to maintain the rules of charity, justice and peace proper to the Christian religion in international political relations.
The most important step, from the point of view of international relations, is the commitment to “remain united by the bond of brotherhood” and above all “to provide help and help in every place and on every occasion”. This last point seems to be an archaic form of the collective security mechanism that about 130 later will be sanctioned with the famous article 5 of the NATO treaty.
The Holy Alliance is a type of agreement that the Vienna Convention on Treaties will define in 1969 as an open treaty. Essentially, it admits the possibility of new actors entering, even after the signing of the agreement, provided that they respect its contents and clauses. In the Holy Alliance the three signatory sovereigns declare that they accept in the treaty all those states willing to accept “sacred principles”.
What are the political interests hidden within the treaty of the Holy Alliance? Alexander I, who is the architect of the agreement, has two major objectives.
By inserting in the treaty the appeal addressed only to “Christian princes”, and only to them, the Tsar of Russia hopes to involve the Catholics France and Spain. Their accession can come in handy because they would come closer to Russia and return to the interests of Petersburg.
The second goal is the exclusion of the Ottoman empire. The accession clause of the Christian states excludes the participation of the sultan. Alexander I wants to have a free hand and freedom of action in the Ottoman area. Thus, he invents the principle of the Christian community and puts it at the service of his European political design.
What do European chancelleries think of the treaty? Some historical testimonies write ironic comments. However, nobody falls into Russian deception. Including other signatories. Everyone is aware of the political maneuver of the Tsar.
In Vienna and Berlin, which sign the agreement and become partners in Russia, the tsar’s proposal appears harmless. The treaty does not require specific commitments and is a declaration of principles. So they give membership more out of courtesy than conviction. And they content the Tsar’s vanity.
Britain is reticent and does not join the treaty. Her Majesty’s foreign minister, Lord Robert Steward Castlereagh, considers the Tsarist proposal “an absurdity” and a “manifestation of sublime mysticism”. The real concern for Castlereagh is that France could join the agreement. Just what Alexander I wants.
Lord Castlereagh fails to torpedo the signing of the Holy Alliance during the negotiation phase. So find a way to keep London out and stay out of it. To do this he uses a British constitutional rule. The sovereign is prohibited from signing an international act without Parliament’s approval. And the English prince regent plays the game of Castlereagh. He writes a letter to the Tsar in which he agrees with “the feelings” expressed by the treaty but which unfortunately cannot adhere to it.
The covenant of the Holy Alliance becomes the symbol of a policy rather than a treaty of great value in international relations. It will not have any important and specific function.