On 21 March 1819, Prince Metternich wrote to his mistress, Countess Dorothea de Lieven,
“I tell you that the writer in a hundred years will judge me quite differently than do all those who pass judgment on me today.”
Jean Hanoteau, Lettres du prince de Metternich a la comtesse de Lieven (1909), p. 257.
Metternich could not imagine that after nearly 200 years, there would still be someone passing judgment on him. Clemens von Metternich was a nineteenth-century Austrian Foreign Minister and State Chancellor who held office for three decades. In public discourse, this controversial figure is still presented to successive generations of students as a man of no great value. A persisting view is that of G. A. C. Sandeman in Metternich (1911), p. 345, who referred to Metternich as “an obstacle to progress, hopelessly out of date.” Yet, important aspects of his legacy are evident to this day. The European Union, contemporary diplomacy and modern conservatism owe much of their meaning to one of the most despised human beings in history.
Illegitimate son of the French Revolution
Metternich was the illegitimate son of the French Revolution. As a student in Strasburg, he lived among revolutionary enthusiasts, but was never able to sympathise with them. He recalled in his diary how in coming to contact with them, his “heart was absorbed in misery” (Metternich, Memoirs, Vol. 3 (1970), p. 369). Metternich, we could argue, was a rather anomalous character. His relationship with the courts of Holy Roman Emperors fuelled his love for order. In attending the coronations of Leopold II and Francis II in 1790 and in 1792, he began to favour a set of principles where,
“Everyone had his place, knew it and respected it. Here were symbolism, ritual, dignity and majesty of established procedure.”
V. L. Albjerg, “Clemens Metternich 1773-1859” (1953), p. 219.
The Congress of Vienna
In 1815, the application of Metternich’s philosophy led to the creation of a permanent European settlement at the Congress of Vienna. At the defeat of Napoleon, the Prince drew up a peace plan which did not exclude France from genuine relations with other states. The treaty,
“Bore the stamp of moderation… a moderation which did not arise from weakness, but from the resolve to secure a lasting peace for Europe.”
C. Metternich, Memoirs, Vol. 1 (1970), p. 249.
Metternich was also a champion of peace. His pursuit for European stability would ensure that the political and diplomatic aims of the continent suited the fragile domestic framework of the Austrian Empire. He was able to grant Austria a prominent place in European affairs with Vienna becoming the mediator of sovereign interests in a new era of cooperation. Historian Paul W. Schroeder in “Metternich’s studies since 1925” (1961), p. 239, argues that Metternich aimed at developing a common foreign policy among European governments, “a point d’union into a permanent European organisation.” From 1815 to 1848, the diplomatic representatives of the Great Powers of Europe assembled seven more times in various places to discuss broad policy issues.
One of the misconceptions about conservatism is that it seen in the popular mind as a static political vision. Once Metternich comes under more accurate scrutiny, it cannot be denied that he, the father of modern conservatism, possessed the features of a reformer. In the many years of public service, he acted to modernise the internal administration of the Habsburg Empire. In the nineteenth century, the Austrian state machine was over-centralised. It lacked a clear distinction between policy-making and implementation. It could be best described as,
“A contraption whose wheels revolved in an infernal noise without advancing an inch.”
H. Kissinger, A World Restored (1964), p. 211
The unity of the Empire was also challenged by the many ethnicities which inhabited the Habsburg lands. In an age before national self-determination, Metternich saw the multi-ethnic composition of Austria as a European microcosm. Here too, competing interests were to be brought to equilibrium. In 1817, Metternich proposed the institution of a representative delegation from each of the administrative divisions of the empire to a parliament based in Vienna. He sought to transform the empire into a set of legally recognised and culturally diverse regions. Each independent region would recognise the monarch as their uniting factor.
“According to my views, deputations from all parts of the monarchy should assist at the coronation, thus performing an act of common homage to the common Head of State, whilst they should receive the assurance of the maintenance of the constitutional rights of each country.”
C. Metternich, Memoirs, Vol. 1 (1970), p. 263.
Circumstances and limitations
Metternich’s plans for reform were met with reluctance by Emperor Francis and by leading politicians, such as the Austrian Minister for Internal Affairs, Count Franz von Kolowrat. In 1835, the Emperor died. In the eighteen years which had lapsed since Metternich first presented his reform scheme, the monarch claimed to have had no time to give it careful consideration. The reforms were never implemented. Having lost support from his closest political allies, Metternich was forced to resign on 13 March 1848.
Metternich remains an essential figure in the history of Europe. Many of the elements of modern politics and diplomacy originated from his thoughts. Metternich was not a passive figure. In his memoirs, he offers the enlightening principles of stability and order, but also promotes the idea that,
“To be conservative, required neither a return to a previous period, nor reaction, but carefully considered reform.”
C. Metternich, Memoirs, Vol. 3 (1970), p. 369.
De Sauvigny, G. Metternich and His Times. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1962.
Haas, A. G. Metternich, Reorganisation and Nationality 1813-1818: a story of foresight and frustration in the rebuilding of the Austrian Empire. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1963.
Kissinger, H. A World Restored. Universal Library Edition. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1964.
Palmer, A. Metternich. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.
R. Sofka, J. “Metternich’s Theory of European Order: A Political Agenda for “Perpetual Peace,” The Review of Politics 60, no.1 (1998): pp. 115-149.
Sked, A. “Metternich,” History Today 33 (1983): pp. 43-47.