Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), Austrian politician and diplomat, suppressed nationalistic and democratic trends in Central Europe but was also the architect of a diplomatic system which kept Europe at peace for a century.
Today, more than 100 years after his death, Prince Klemens von Metternich remains a controversial figure. Many late 19th-century Europeans detested him as a foe of freedom and an obstructionist who tried to prevent the unification of the powerful nations of Germany and Italy. Yet Europeans in the late 20th century, recovering from the disasters of World War I and II, tend to see him as a perceptive visionary whose diplomatic ideas kept Europe at peace between 1815 and 1914. In this time period, Europe became the dominant economic and military power in the world. By the mid-20th century, even the future American secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was praising Metternich's diplomacy.
The French Revolution of 1789 and its consequences were referred to by Metternich as the "hateful time." Although much of the French nobility were executed or fled the country, the French monarch Louis XVI was allowed to retain his throne as a limited "constitutional" monarch until 1793. Increasingly convinced that the king was conspiring to import a mercenary army to gain back his full power, the revolutionary government decided in 1794 to execute the king and his family. A period of bloody chaos, named the " Reign of Terror," followed.
As order was slowly restored, one of the army's generals, Napoleon Bonaparte, convinced many French citizens that he could both save the Revolution and restore order. In 1804, following a national referendum, Napoleon was crowned emperor of France. The Revolution had destroyed one monarchy; now it had created another.
Yet the rulers of the other great powers of Europe, all monarchs, did not recognize this "elected emperor" as a true monarch. From the first years of the Revolution, the other great powers had plotted to invade France and restore the family of Louis XVI. All failed; but the continuing attacks on revolutionary France gave Napoleon a justification to invade much of the rest of Europe. Between 1804 and 1807, he defeated Spain, Austria, and Prussia (a large state in northern Germany); he also pressured Russian tsar Alexander I into signing a nonaggression treaty. Napoleon portrayed such military campaigns as purely defensive—necessary to protect the French Revolution.
Metternich's family was directly affected by both the Revolution and the fighting. His father, a count who held hereditary lands in western Germany near France, was main minister in the Netherlands—which at that time was an Austrian possession. Metternich's childhood in the western German city of Koblenz, a quiet town of about 12,000, brought him into contact with French culture. His mother saw that he was fluent in both German and French; as an adult, he was often happier expressing himself in French.
After an early education by a series of private tutors, Metternich chose to attend the university at Strasbourg, a city which at various times has been part of either France or Germany. Arriving there a year before the French Revolution began, he quickly witnessed one side effect of the coming turmoil; when a mob of Strasbourg citizens attacked the city hall, a repelled Metternich described it as a "drunken mob which considers itself to be the people."
Transferring his university studies to the German city of Mainz, he met members of the French nobility fleeing the Revolution who insisted that the insurrection would quickly fail, and he believed them. But when advancing French armies destroyed much of their property and occupied their lands, Metternich and his family were forced to flee to the Austrian capital city of Vienna. He came to view revolutionaries as tyrants who used the word freedom to justify violence. He wrote that: "The word freedom has for me never had the character of a point of a departure, but a goal…. Order alone can produce freedom. Without order, the appeal to freedom will always in practice lead to tyranny."
Once Metternich was back in Vienna, his career as a statesman and politician advanced rapidly. His marriage in 1795 to Eleonore von Kaunitz, granddaughter of the Austrian state chancellor, gave him access to the highest social and political circles in the Austrian Empire. His wife's contacts and knowledge were important for an ambitious man who had never before lived in Austria's capital city. After serving as Austrian ambassador to Berlin and Dresden, Metternich was appointed ambassador to France in 1806.
In France when Metternich had the opportunity to study Napoleon, whom he termed "the conqueror of the world," he was not overawed; what he saw was a short, squat figure with a "negligent" appearance. In April of 1809, he appealed to the French emperor's vanity (and cemented a temporary French-Austrian alliance) by marrying Napoleon to Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor Francis I.
While in Paris, the tall, handsome, sociable, and poised Metternich began to acquire his lifelong reputation as a man who had "success with the ladies." But diplomatic success did not come as easily. He sent such optimistic reports back to Vienna—portraying a vulnerable Napoleon who was in danger of being overthrown by a resurgent revolutionary movement in France—that the Austrian government went to war against France and lost. Yet when Metternich gained favorable peace terms from Napoleon, he was rewarded by being appointed the Austrian minister of foreign affairs in October 1809. In 1813, he was given the hereditary title of prince.
Metternich was biding his time, preserving "Austria's freedom of action" while accommodating "ourselves to the victo…. extend (ing) our existence until the day of our deliverance." He almost waited too long. When Napoleon's armies invaded Russia in 1812, Metternich ignored calls for help from Tsar Alexander I. But by late 1812, the French army was not only in retreat, pounded by a severe Russian winter, but was being pursued by the Russian army into Germany.
Belatedly, Metternich involved Austria in the struggle against Napoleon, and in 1813 Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig, Germany, by the armies of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. After Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the island of Elbe in the Mediterranean Sea, he rallied the French army for a second time but was defeated in 1815 near Waterloo, Belgium.
The year 1815 saw Metternich at the peak of his power and popularity in Austria. In 1810, Napoleon had been master of much of Europe, and Austria had been a virtual puppet of French foreign policy; five years later, Metternich had become a key leader in the coalition of countries which defeated the French emperor twice. Now the victors held the fate of Europe in their hands.
When the victorious countries agreed to hold a diplomatic conference at Vienna (the Congress of Vienna), Metternich saw it as a personal triumph. He believed that since Austria was at the center of the European Continent, it was the logical place to "lay the foundations for a new European order." "I have," he wrote, "for a long time regarded Europe (rather than just Austria) as my homeland."
At the congress, Metternich's mastery of diplomatic maneuvering earned him the title of "the coachman of Europe." More than any other single leader, he seemed to determine the future direction of the Continent. One observer described him as "not a genius but a great talent; cold, calm, imperturbable, and a supreme calculator." Metternich's main goal at the congress was to promote the idea of the "Concert of Europe": if all the great powers acted together or in "concert," they would be able to prevent the outbreak of any large European war like the Napoleonic Wars. They might also be able to see that "the foundations of a lasting peace are secured as much as possible."
Some rulers, such as Tsar Alexander, wanted the congress to create an international "police system" to prevent future revolutions and block the emergence of new Napoleons. Metternich sympathized with this aim, but he also wanted to discourage any Russian interest in expanding into Europe. He also was determined to frustrate Austria's main rival in Germany, Prussia.
Together with the British representative, Castlereagh, Metternich successfully worked to create a permanent alliance among the victors, envisioning grouped power that would "balance out" the ambitious or aggressive actions of any one country on the Continent. Although the Quadruple Alliance halted only a few revolutions, and Metternich was disappointed when Britain left the alliance in 1822, the "balance of power" system remained in place throughout the rest of the century. No overall European war on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars occurred until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. So influential was Metternich's diplomacy that the era from 1815 to 1848 is often referred to as the "Age of Metternich."
After 1815, Metternich devoted increasing amounts of his time to Austria's severe internal problems. The Austrian Empire was a conglomeration of 11 nationalities which had been forced under the rule of the Habsburg family by military conquests in the 17th century. The French Revolution had proved to be a threat to the multinational Habsburg Empire, since it fanned the nationalism of some groups in the Empire, such as the Hungarians. Metternich saw nationalism and liberalism as serious threats to the survival of the Austrian Empire and tried to suppress both. At the Congress of Vienna, he also worked to create confederations in both Germany (where he succeeded) and Italy (where he failed). In Metternich's time, Italy and Germany were what he called "geographic expressions"—divided into many individual governments with no national central government. Italy had more than ten governments. Until Napoleon's invasion of Germany, there were more than 300 political divisions in that country, each with its own petty monarch; the Congress of Vienna reduced this to 35, of which the two largest and most powerful were Austria and Prussia.
Metternich would have preferred a Germany united under Austrian leadership. With typical self-confidence, he worked to convince the Austrian emperor (Francis II) to allow himself to be made ruler over all of Germany. "The emperor always does what I want," he predicted, "but likewise, I say what only he should do." When the emperor rejected the idea and a loose confederation of all the German states was created instead, Metternich realized that the way was opened for the other powerful German state, Prussia, to unite Germany (which it eventually did, in 1870).
Liberalism—a 19th-century middle-class movement to weaken monarchies and create parliaments or legislatures—also threatened the Austrian monarchy. Metternich saw liberalism as a child of the French Revolution of 1789. Innately suspicious of new political systems or ideas, Metternich proudly said that "everything changes but me." He added that, "I am not one of those who think that the movement is the purpose of life."
Between 1815 and 1820, Metternich watched suspiciously as liberal revolutions weakened monarchs in western Germany. When secret student fraternities at German universities (the Burschenschaften) staged patriotic demonstrations, he charged that the demonstrators were really promoting liberal goals. Secret societies were "the gangrene of society," he proclaimed; "as a device for disrupting the peace, fanaticism is one of the oldest things in the world."
After a politically conservative German playwright was assassinated by a student in 1819, Metternich convinced Prussia that the two largest German states should intervene. "With God's help," he declared, "I hope to defeat the German revolutionaries as I defeated the conqueror of the world." Through the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, Austria and Prussia forced the other German states to institute censorship of books, pamphlets, and newspapers; to allow a Central Commission and police spies to identify and hunt "subversives" and to restrict student societies and professors in universities. For many in Germany, Metternich became a hated symbol of reaction and repression.
What Metternich feared most was that the liberal and national ideas would tear apart the multinational Habsburg Empire, causing each nationality under Habsburg rule to go its own way and establish its own separate government. In the 18th century, the Austrian emperor Joseph II had decided that the way to unify the Empire was to centralize the administrative part of the government and standardize the law. Metternich disagreed, believing that the best way to discourage independence movements was to allow each section of the Empire to have its own distinctive rules and laws.
Yet Metternich's ideas regarding Austria were rejected. Although he was appointed Austrian state chancellor in 1821, his influence was restricted to foreign affairs by Count Kolowrat, the minister of state, who had the ear of the new emperor, the mentally retarded Ferdinand. If it were not for Metternich's skills in diplomacy, his career would have been regarded as a virtual failure. At times, he himself thought that way. When word arrived that the French monarchy (which had been restored by the Congress of Vienna) had fallen victim to another revolution in 1830, Metternich collapsed at his desk, exclaiming, "My life's work is destroyed!"
When ultimately unsuccessful revolutions broke out in the Austrian Empire in 1848, Metternich, the "last great master of the principle of balance," became the target of angry mobs. Forced to resign, he went into exile in England before returning to Vienna in 1858. He died there a year later.
Metternich believed he had unfairly become a symbol of reaction and oppression. His real aim, he said, was to avoid the chaos that he believed would follow in the wake of the major political changes demanded by European revolutionaries. "Old Europe is at the beginning of the end," he proclaimed. "New Europe, however, has not as yet even begun its existence, and between the end and the beginning there will be chaos…. In a hundred years, historians will judge me quite differently than do all those who pass judgment on me today."
Further Reading on Klemens von Metternich
von Metternich, Klemens. Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1773-1815. Edited by Prince Richard Metternich. Translated by Mrs. Alexander Napier. Scribner, 1880.
Milne, Andrew. Metternich. Rowman & Littlefield, 1975.
Palmer, Alan. Metternich. Harper, 1972.
de Sauvigny, G. B. Metternich and His Times. Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1962.
Kissinger, Henry A. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822. Houghton, 1957.
Kraehe, E. E., ed. The Metternich Controversy. Krieger Publishing, 1977.
May, Arthur J. The Age of Metternich, 1814-1848. H. Holt, 1933.
Schroeder, Paul W. Metternich's Diplomacy at Its Zenith, 1820-1823. University of Texas Press, 1962.
Schwarz, H. F. Metternich, the Coachman of Europe: Statesman or Evil Genius? Heath, 1962.