The Congress of Vienna: A Becoming Stuyvesant Tradition

Investigative piece on Hanna’s Congress of Vienna simulation.

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By The Photo Department

The year was 1814, and all the stability in Europe had crumbled. The old ways were cast out by the Enlightenment ideas of liberty, freedom, and equality in the French Revolution. What followed was a crushing blow: Napoleon Bonaparte's authoritarian reign and vast invasions unleashed extreme terror and devastation among the territories of Europe. Out of the ashes, it was up to Prussia, Austria, Britain, Russia, and France to come together to reach an agreement and restore the balance of Europe. This convention was known as the Congress of Vienna.

In his six years teaching at Stuyvesant, AP European History teacher David Hanna has made the Congress of Vienna in-class simulation into a Stuyvesant tradition that takes place every year at the end of the Fall semester. It has gained a prodigious reputation, as stories of the assignment are passed down from upperclassmen to each new generation of students about the fun, competitive, and involved nature of this memorable experience. “I had heard about it from friends in the previous year, so I wasn’t terribly surprised. I had been looking forward to it. It’s a rather unique assignment, and it was promised to be hugely fun,” Daniel Kodsi (‘15) reflected in an email interview as he recalled his initial reaction to the assignment when he was a student in Hanna’s class.

To simulate the Congress of Vienna, the class is divided into five delegations. Each group is assigned a country with a number of requirements with corresponding point values that need to be met through diplomatic negotiation with other nations. While communicating, each group is unaware of a foreign country’s point standing or point worth of that group’s requirements.

Sophomore Zeynep Bromberg said, “The point of the Congress of Vienna isn’t to simulate exactly what happened in history. It’s to come up with a mutually beneficial distribution of the regions that helps everyone.” The end goal is for all the delegations to reach a common agreement of goals and needs by the final presentation day. On the final day, students dress formally or in early 19th-century costume to present their cases and celebrate the close of the simulation.

However, the fun that accompanies this assignment is coupled with responsibilities that are equally as great in magnitude. Counting for a hefty assessment grade, the Congress of Vienna simulation bears a great weight among the AP European History students, requiring arduous research and relentless negotiation. The intensity of the simulation is multiplied tenfold with the fierce mentality and driven approach of many students; every point matters and every conversation can escalate to heated debate.

The origins of the Congress of Vienna simulation date back to Hanna’s days teaching a similar International Baccalaureate course at the American School in São Paulo, Brazil. He dusted off an old teaching book dating back to the 1970’s, whereupon he discovered instructions for such a simulation. “I looked at it, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can maybe use this,’” Hanna said.

Hanna implemented the simulation in his class, where the pressured atmosphere and high academic aspirations were much like those at Stuyvesant. In its early stages, the assignment was solely based off the point system for fulfilling specific requirements. It wasn’t long before Hanna realized the simulation had become an aggressive scramble for points rather than a diplomatic congregation.

Because of this, he added a portion of the assignment that graded presentation and communication skills. The holistic traits included thoroughness of planning, fluency of speech, enthusiasm, and group collaboration. A third portion was determined by class vote over best diplomatic demeanor: civility, integrity, and poise. These elements currently make up Hanna’s Congress of Vienna simulation.

Succeeding in this simulation is neither simple nor straightforward, accurately representing the difficulty of making compromises in history. Groups have to keep their own country’s interests in mind while making sacrifices to reach agreements with other countries. This balance is tricky and often requires secrecy while making treaties with other countries. “It was time-consuming and stressful, especially since Facebook, where much of the game took place, is conducive to secret chats, and one can never know to what extent one is being excluded from the action,” reflected Kodsi.

This reveals another facet of the simulation which makes use of the highly ambitious and aggressive character of Stuyvesant students. Students may be put into difficult situations which force them to choose between losing points and being deceitful. “I feel that there was the potential to hurt your friends, and that limited the scope of how far people would go to get what they wanted,” sophomore Marko Krstulovic said.

In order to make sure the treaties do not get out of hand, keeping a friendly mindset is essential. This was Bromberg’s mentality during the simulation; she said, “I often feel like when people try to betray each other and think that they’re smart, even if that does end up working out in their favor, why would you want to come away from this experience knowing that you betrayed someone?”

This stressful environment can bring out the best or the worst in people. Sophomore Sara Stebbins said, “It was very emotionally fraught. You can feel this energy that everyone wanted to snap and start yelling at each other, but everyone [also] wanted to go home and be done with negotiations.” She added, “It was hard for me to see people who I had seen as friendly being willing to betray people.”

The simulation outlines the actual struggles that the delegations underwent during the Congress of Vienna to reach a consensus. Not only does it help students experience the historical authenticity of the Congress, but it also grapples with the true difficulties of diplomatic negotiation.

Hanna explained that the main point of this simulation is to teach the students how challenging it was to come to an agreement after years of conflict, which is why he was inspired to teach the lesson in this format. “The people who wrote [the original simulation directions] made it really tough because that’s how it really was. It’s very explicit that these delegates were pulling their hair out trying to come up with something,” Hanna said. “There’s no lesson I could teach that could come close to doing this.”

Despite the fact that it is not a formal classroom lesson, students retain historical and applicable lessons through the interactive challenge. “My biggest take-away from the simulation was the importance of trust when conducting negotiations. That was an important lesson to learn that applies to much more than just this simulation,” Gabriel Rosen (‘15) recalled in an email interview. “A typical lesson would not have conveyed, to the same extent, the drama and tensions involved in the establishment of such a peace.”

Building on that point, Stebbins said, “You can read about the Congress of Vienna and how they divided up the territories, but you don’t get to experience the very human aspect of what it’s like to fight it out with someone over land.”

The accuracy of this simulation enables those who participate in it to understand the greater idea at hand: how social interactions manifest between individuals, and how these manifestations have not changed with the passage of time. “What happens a lot of the time is you can’t just get a majority vote. You have to get certain combinations of votes, certain delegations have to vote for certain items, and everything is contingent upon everything else. You might have 99 percent of something all agreed on, but there’s this little one percent that could unravel all of it,” Hanna said. “That can be really frustrating, but that’s part of diplomacy. It’s not just what happened in Vienna in 1814-1815, it’s relevant now.” He elaborated by connecting this to the Syrian crisis and the difficulties governments are having reaching an agreement to move past the war, proving that diplomacy and negotiation are not obsolete.

In fact, the Congress of Vienna simulation brings together a class full of around 30 students who otherwise may never have turned to greet one another. That is inevitable in a school as large as Stuyvesant. Students usually don’t know everyone in their class, even in a largely discussion-based class such as history.

However, when the big day arrived, the energy in room 305 was astounding. A common buzzing of excitement hummed throughout the room as the sharply dressed sophomores bustled in, greeted by an expecting Hanna. His voice boomed as he looked around the room and peered into the bright eyes of his students ready to share and celebrate their hard work. The students sat with their country; their national flag rested at the center of their table, which was covered with an emerald green tablecloth.

Students passed around Whole Foods cookies and Martinelli's Apple Cider as Hanna joked, “Martinelli's: only the finest.” He even helped a student put on a tie—everyone has to look and act the part for this simulation to be a success (one student even donned a top hat). A slideshow displayed photos from the historical Congress of Vienna. Sophistication and professionalism rang through the room as Hanna broke up the last-minute negotiations and debates.

Stebbins stood up to play Haydn in G minor on the violin. As the music ricocheted throughout the room, the students’ anxiety was slightly soothed. However, the most crucial part of the assignment was yet to come: the presentation of the constructed treaties and the distribution of points. As Stebbins played her final note, the room erupted in applause and Hanna joked, "We're an orchestra with a country.”

As Hanna said “The future of Europe is in your capable hands,” the Grand Duke of Warsaw, Russia’s representative, stood up and recited their point allocations. Leaders from each country voted by raising their hands. Most students were relieved, but a few glared at Russia and glanced around the room nervously. Sabotages are possible in this simulation—it is all in the art of negotiations. However, negotiations continued smoothly and Hanna was impressed by the closeness of the points distribution. In fact, a more even distribution of points marks a successful Congress, in which a settlement is reached and everyone is satisfied.

After points were tallied, written work was collected by the secretaries, and the various delegations voted to receive additional points of diplomacy in their grades. The Metternich Cup gleamed under the fluorescent light and awaited being held by the victor. Finally, as the session drew to an end, everyone cheered on the victors as they posed for a group photo.

As the minutes ticked away, the room’s atmosphere relaxed, and a surge of friendliness swept the room. Smiles stretched across the students’ faces and laughter erupted as Hanna explained how much he looked forward to the final presentation, and that the excitement and stress kept him from sleeping at night—feelings that almost every student in the class related to.

However, all the students stood tall and proud for a group photo to celebrate this simulation, carried out over days and negotiated in all sorts of venues, such as chemistry classrooms, locker rooms, bathrooms, hallways, and Whole Foods. For most of Hanna’s students, the Congress of Vienna was the first simulation they had ever experienced in a history class (but not the last: Hanna holds a similar simulation towards the end of second semester on the Hague Peace Conference).

The experience and toil of negotiations left everyone with a feeling of triumph regardless of whether or not they won the Metternich Cup. “We make it an occasion because you’re celebrating, hopefully, the settling of the future of Europe for the next 100 years,” Hanna said. “It’s not that there’s a crisis that you’re trying to avert; you’re trying to lay the groundwork for peace, so you should be celebrating it.”

“This year, all three sections were able to reach a settlement before the formal session was held,” Hanna said. “That’s the first time it had ever happened. In other words, they were able to come up with an agreement that enough of them were satisfied with the aspects that it passed. That’s not easy to do.” In fact, in previous years, Hanna stated that the formal sessions sometimes broke down and students began blaming each other.

“Sometimes Stuyvesant students, the type A’s, they want to lead, they want to win. That doesn’t really work in things like the Congress of Vienna simulation,” Hanna said. “You have leaders, and sometimes they can push through things, but eventually they come up against the wall. You have to be willing to modify your demands and be creative. When that happens, it’s just wonderful.”

The Congress of Vienna is less history and more relevant and crucial to the modern day. Many more students will be able to experience the same simulation and step into the shoes of their predecessors. The same music, excitement, and competition will flood the air, and be released in a wave of relief and companionship. The Congress of Vienna has brought 1815 to 2018, and this budding tradition will continue doing so for years to come.