Resurrecting Metternich’s reputation? Creating the European Union in an age before ‘national self-determination’: The life and career of an Austrian statesman.

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of G. A. C. Sandeman in Metternich (1911), p. 345, who referred to Metternich as “an obstacle to progress, hopelessly out of date.”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.

Cartoon on the censorship of Ernst August of Hanover (presented as a muse of the German Bundestag  with Metternich and a censored copy of Martin Luther's writings) 1837. Available from:

Cartoon on the censorship of Ernst August of Hanover (presented as a muse of the German Bundestag with Metternich and a censored copy of Martin Luther’s writings) 1837. Available from:

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.

Conservatism Revisited

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.

Karikatur zur Flucht Metternichs aus dem März 1848. Available from:

Karikatur zur Flucht Metternichs aus dem März 1848. Available from:

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.

Further Readings:

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.


6 comments on “Resurrecting Metternich’s reputation? Creating the European Union in an age before ‘national self-determination’: The life and career of an Austrian statesman.

  1. jiashuwei says:

    The post here has reflected the solid historical knowledge of the commenter. Also, the comment combines the knowledge and the in-depth thinking about the function and limitation of Metternich in late 18th century Europe. The language of the comments is fluent and logical. On the whole, the comment is interesting and informative.

  2. tomloomesmq says:

    Hi Marco,

    Really enjoyed this blogpost. It’s really enlightening to read about this notion of fledgling internationalism and multi-national governmental organisations well before the post-WWI period. It’s fascinating how you have intertwined his attempts for creating this E.U.-style organisation with his personal life and career, and the focus on his memoirs really assists this type of study. Also I loved the quote from Kissinger being applied to the Austria state structure. Well done. Look forward to reading more if you go any further with it!


  3. giamtesta says:

    Hi all, I am pleased to have brought Metternich back to life. At this present stage, I do not think I will continue researching on Metternich, however I would be interested in the ideas put forward in a recent publication which I could not get a hold of during my research, (rather unusual since after the 1980s, Metternich has gone out of fashion among scholars):

    Sked, Alan (2008) Metternich and Austria: an evaluation Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA.

    The concept which I generally depart from, when researching about any personality is that of Rousseau who claims the natural goodness of humanity. (This does not apply to Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot). Evilness comes from circumstances which limit our good actions and perhaps Metternich fell into this dilemma. Reinstating Metternich’s historical position and significance has been a challenge which I took wholeheartedly. I was assisted by the Chancellor’s own writings and the messages he conveys, intentionally or unintentionally, to future generations.

  4. nicolekbest says:

    Hi Marco,
    Great post! Its amazing to think that a person who I had never heard of before could have been such an influential and important figure in European history. I think its wonderful that you believe so strongly that his attempts to reform and create a stable Europe in fact temporally prefaced the EU. You clearly know your man and you have delved so deeply into the evidence! Your argument appears so thorough and well structured. I love the concept of careful reform as conservative and that despite his conservatism you label him as active politician and diplomat. Well done Marco!

  5. adamthecon says:

    You present an interesting and very much revisionist approach to what many scholars would consider a highly conservative and illiberal figure. Of particular note is the role of the Concert of Europe as an instrument for safeguarding the status quo against an continent destabilising uprising similar to those experienced in France at the turn of the century. An amusing quote on Metternich’s character comes from Merriman who states that “He could bore people in five languages” possibly indicating the modern distaste for the man that you identify in modern literature! However Metternich’s political achievements certainly show that he had a far reaching vision; often a quality neglected by many absolutist rulers of the time. An active and communicative arena for European diplomacy to take place appears to be a strong ingredient in regaining stability on the continent.
    Overall your post was very well written my friend!

  6. dloneragan says:

    Hi Marco,
    I really enjoyed reading your work. First of all, you write with a clarity and precision that is to be admired (I’m quite envious). I’m not particularly well studied in this area at all, but I suppose the impressions that I have received about Metternich in the past have generally been more negative than positive. It’s really interesting, therefore, to be exposed to your thoughtful words on some of the reformatory aspects in the career and thought of an archconservative—it’s an admirable attempt to articulate some of the nuances that can be found within conservative ideology. I also liked how you pointed out the historiographical debate over Metternich’s legacy. You did a really great job of expressing important—and perhaps overlooked—aspects of a very influential figure in European history. Well done.

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