1902 Encyclopedia > Prince Metternich

Prince Klemens Wenzel Lothar von Metternich
Austrian statesman
(1773-1859)




METTERNICH, CLEMENS WENZEL LOTHAR, PRINCE (1773-1859), first minister of Austria from 1809 to 1848, was the son of a Rhenish nobleman employed in high office by the Austrian court. He was born at Coblentz in 1773. At the age of fifteen he entered the university of Strasburg. The French Revolution was then beginning. Everywhere the spirit of hope gave to men's language an exaltation and a confidence hardly known at any other epoch. But the darker reality soon came into view. Metternich was a witness of the riot in which the town-hall of Strasburg was pillaged by a drunken mob ; his tutor subsequently became a member of the revolutionary tribunal in Alsace. If we are to trust to Metternich's own account of the formation of his opinions, the hatred of innovation, which was the ruling principle of his later life, arose from his experience of the terrible results which followed at this time from the victory of so-called liberal ideas. But in reality Metternich was an aristocrat and a conservative by birth and nature. His sentiment in things political was that of a member of a refined and exclusive society which trusts to no intelligence but its own, and hardly sympathizes with larger interests. The aggressions and violence of the Bevolution from 1789 to 1799 gave Metternich an historical basis for his political theories, but the instinctive preferences of his own mind were the same from first to last. He began life as a young man of fashion and gallantry. His marriage in 1795 with the Princess Kaunitz, a granddaughter of the famous minister, fixed him in the highest circle of Austrian nobility. His first contact with the great political world was at the congress of Bastadt in 1798, where, under the auspices of the victorious French republic, arrangements were made for compensating the German princes and nobles whose possessions on the left bank of the Rhine had been ceded to France by the peace of Campo Formio. Metternich was the accredited agent of a group of Westphalian nobles; his private letters give a vivid picture of the rough and uncourtly diplomatists who had succeeded to the polished servants of the old French monarchy. In 1801 Metternich was appointed Austrian ambassador at Dresden, and in 1803 he was promoted to Berlin; but he had hardly become as yet a prominent man in Europe. His stay at Berlin was the turning-point of his life. The war of the third coalition was impending. Austria united with England and Russia against Napoleon, and the task of the youthful ambassador was to win over the court of Berlin to the cause of the allies. Metternich seems to have done all that it was possible for him to do; but Prussia persisted in its neutrality. The earnestness with which Metternich had worked against France did not prevent him from remaining on the friendliest terms with M. Laforest, the French ambassador at Berlin; and so agreeable an account of him was transmitted to Paris by his rival that, at the close of the conflict, Napoleon himself requested that Metternich might henceforward represent Austria at the Tuileries. Metternich was accordingly sent to Paris in 1806. This was the beginning of the period when Austria, humbled but not exhausted by the blow of Austerlitz and by the losses accompanying the peace of Pressburg, determined, under the leadership of Count Stadion, to prepare for another war on a greater scale. But the sudden over-throw of Prussia, and the alliance between France and Russia which was made at Tilsit in 1807, added immeasurably to the difficulties of the court of Vienna. It became clear that Napoleon was intending to dismember Turkey, and to gain for himself some part of the spoils of the Ottoman empire. Metternich's advice was that Austria should endeavour to detach the czar from the French alliance, and by this means frustrate the plan of partition; but, should Russia hold fast to Napoleon, that Austria itself should unite with the two aggressors, and secure its share of Turkey. Oriental affairs, however, fell into the background, and in the summer of 1808 Metternich was convinced that Napoleon was intending to attack Austria, though not immediately. He warmly supported Count Stadion's policy in raising the forces of Austria to the highest strength; and, although he did not share the minister's hopes in a general rising throughout Germany, he expressed in his despatches no distrust of the power of Austria to cope with Napoleon. This is the more singular because, after the disastrous issue of the campaign of 1809, Metternich seems to have taken credit for having opposed the policy of war. Napoleon again captured Vienna ; the battle of Wagram was lost; and after a long negotiation Austria had to purchase peace by the cession of part of Austrian Poland and of its Illyrian provinces. Metternich, who had virtually taken Count Stadion's place immediately after the battle of Wagram, was now installed as minister of foreign affairs. The first striking event that took place under his administration was the marriage of Marie Louise, daughter of the emperor Francis, to his conqueror Napoleon. To do justice to Metternich's policy it must be remembered that the alliance of Tilsit between France and Russia was still in existence, and that Austria was quite as much threatened by the czar's designs upon Turkey as by Napoleon's own aggressions. Metternich himself seems, in spite of his denials, to have been the real author of the family union between the houses of Hapsburg and Bonaparte,—a most politic, if not a high-spirited measure, which guaranteed Austria against danger from the east, at the same time that it gave it at least some prospect of security from attack by Napoleon, and enabled Metternich to mature his plans for the contingency of an ultimate breach between France and Russia. In 1812 this event occurred. Metternich, in nominal alliance with Napoleon, sent a small army into southern Russia, allowing it to be understood by the czar that the attack was not serious. Then followed the annihilation of the French invaders. While Prussia, led by its patriots, declared war against Napoleon, Metternich, with rare and provoking coolness, held his hand, merely stating that Austria would no longer regard itself as a subordinate ally, but would act with all its force on one side or the other. The result of this reserve was that Metternich could impose what terms he pleased on Russia and Prussia as the price of his support. The armies of these two powers, advancing into central Germany, proved no match for the forces with which Napoleon took the field in the spring of 1813 ; and the hard-fought battles of Liitzen and Bautzen resulted in the retreat of the allies. After the combatants had made a.n armistice, Metternich tendered Austria's armed mediation, requiring Prussia to content itself with the restoration of its territory east of the Elbe, and leaving Napoleon's ascendency in Germany almost untouched. Napoleon, after a celebrated interview with Metternich, madly rejected terms so favourable that every Prussian writer has denounced Metternich's proposal of them as an act of bitter enmity to Prussia. On the night of the 10th of August the congress of Prague, at which Austria, as armed mediator, laid down conditions of peace, was dissolved. Metternich himself gave orders for the lighting of the watch-fires which signalled to the armies in Silesia that Austria had declared war against Napoleon. The battle of Leipsic and the campaign of 1814 in France followed, Metternich steadily pursuing the policy of offering the most favourable terms possible to Napoleon, and retarding the advance of the allied armies upon the French capital. Metternich had nothing of that personal hatred towards the great conqueror which was dominant both in Prussia and in England ; on the contrary, though he saw with perfect clearness that, until Napoleon's resources were much diminished, no one could be safe in Europe, he held it possible to keep him in check without destroying him, and looked for the security of Austria in the establishment of a balance of power in which neither Bussia nor France should preponderate, while Prussia should be strictly confined within its own limits in northern Germany. The assistance of the Austrian army, which was no doubt necessary to the allies, had, so far as related to Prussia, been dearly purchased. When, at the beginning of 1813, Prussia struck for the freedom of Germany, its leading statesmen and patriots had hoped that the result of the war of liberation would be the establishment of German unity, and that the minor German princes, who had been Napoleon's vassals since 1806, would be forced to surrender part of their rights as sovereigns, and submit to a central authority. This dream, however, vanished as soon as Austria entered the field as an ally. It was no part of Metternich's policy to allow anything so revolutionary as German unity to be established, least of all under the influence of Prussian innovators. He made treaties with the king of Bavaria and Napoleon's other German vassals, guaranteeing them, in return for their support against France, separate independence and sovereignty when Germany should be reconstructed. Accordingly, though the war resulted, through Napoleon's obstinate refusal of the terms successively offered to him, in the limitation of France to its earlier boundaries and in a large extension of Prussia's territory, the settlement of Germany outside Prussia proceeded upon the lines laid down by Metternich, and the hopes of unity raised in 1813 were disappointed.. A German confederation was formed, in which the minor sovereigns retained supreme power within their own states, while the central authority, the federal diet, represented, not the German nation, but the host of governments under which the nation was divided. Metternich even advised the emperor Francis of Austria to decline the old title of German emperor, disliking any open embodiment of the idea of German unity, and preferring to maintain the ascendency of Austria by a gentle pressure at the minor courts rather than by the avowed exercise of imperial rights. In this unprogressive German policy Metternich was completely successful. His great opponent, Stein, the champion of German unity and of constitutional systems, abandoned his work in despair, and refused the useless post of president of the diet, which Metternich, with a kind of gentle irony, offered to him.





The second branch of Metternich's policy in 1813-14 was that which related to Italy. Following the old maxims of Austrian statesmanship, Metternich aimed not only at securing a large territory beyond the Alps but at making the influence of Austria predominant throughout the Italian peninsula. The promises of national independence which had been made to the Italians when they were called upon to rise against Napoleon were disregarded. In the secret clauses of the first treaty of Paris the annexation of both Lombardy and Venetia was guaranteed to Austria, and the rest of Italy was divided into small states as of old. Napoleon's return from Elba led to the downfall of Murat, who had been allowed to retain the kingdom of Naples, and to the reunion of this country with Sicily, under the Bourbon Ferdinand. After the second overthrow of Napoleon, Metternich endeavoured to make every Italian sovereign enter into a league under Austria's presidency. Ferdinand of Naples accepted the position of vassal, but the pope and the king of Sardinia successfully maintained their independence. With the construction of the German federation, and the partial construction of an Italian federation, both under Austria's guidance, the first part of Metternich's career closes. He had guarded Austria's interests with great skill during the crisis of 1813 and 1814. It was not his own fault, but the fault of ages, that Austria's interests were in antagonism to those of German and of Italian nationality. He thought as an Austrian, and as nothing else; his task was to serve the house of Hapsburg, and this he did with signal ability and success. To denounce Metternich as a kind of criminal, according to the practice of Prussian writers, because he did not work for German unity, is to ignore the existence of such a thing as state-policy. Judged by the ordinary standards of practical statesmanship, not by the philosophy of history, Metternich's action in 1813 and 1814 was that of a very superior man ; and the qualities of calmness and dexterity which he displayed would have given an infinitely greater effectiveness to the life of his great rival Stein, who in patriotic and moral enthusiasm was so far above him.

The second part of Metternich's career, which extends from 1815 to 1848, is that of a leader of European conservatism. It is difficult to describe his attitude towards almost all the great questions which were now arising as any but one of absolute blindness and infatuation. He acknowledged that exceptional circumstances in the past had made it possible for England to exist under a constitution; he knew that France would not surrender the Charta given to it by King Louis XVIIL; but in all other great states he maintained that there were no alternatives but absolute monarchical government and moral anarchy. His denunciations of liberals and reformers everywhere and at all times are perfectly childish; and in many instances his hatred of change led him into errors of judgment not surpassed in the annals of political folly. When Napoleon fell, there was a prospect of the introduction of constitutional government throughout a great ]3art of Europe. King Frederick William, stimulating the efforts of the Prussian people against France by the hopes of liberty, had definitely promised them a constitution and a general assembly. The czar had determined to introduce parliamentary life into the kingdom of Poland, and even hoped to extend it, after some interval, to Russia. The Federal Act drawn up for Germany at the congress of Vienna declared that in every state within the German league a constitution should be established. Against this liberal movement of the age Metternich resolutely set his face. Though wide general causes were at work, the personal influence of the Austrian statesman had no small share in prolonging the existence of autocratic government, and in developing that antagonism between the peoples and their rulers which culminated in the revolutions of 1848. The nature of the Austrian state, composed of so many heterogeneous provinces and nationalities, no doubt made it natural for its representative to defend and exalt the principle of personal sovereignty, on which alone the unity of Austria was based; the relation of Austria to Italy rendered the growth of the sentiment of nationality a real source of danger to the house of Hapsburg ; but Metternich's abhorrence of constitutional and popular ideas was more than" the outcome of a calculating policy. He was not a man of much faith, but one belief he held with all the force of religious conviction,—namely, the belief that his own task and mission in the world was to uphold established authority. All efforts to alter the form or to broaden the basis of government he classed under the same head, as works of the spirit of revolution; and in one of his most earnest writings he places side by side, as instances of evil sought for its own sake, the action of the secret societies in Germany, the Carbonaria of Italy, and the attempts of the English to carry the Reform Bill. Working on principles like these, and without the shadow of a doubt in his own wisdom, Metternich naturally proved a great power at a time when the sovereigns who had inclined to constitutional ideas began to feel the difficulties in the way of putting them into practice. Metternich's advice, tendered with every grace of manner and with the most winning and persuasive art, was indeed not hard for rulers to accept, for he simply recommended them to give up nothing that they had got. It was at the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) that the retrograde tendency, which was now succeeding to the hopes of 1815, first gained expression. An agitation among the students at the German universities had caused some scandal in the previous year, and secret societies had just been discovered in Russia. Metternich plied the king of Prussia with arguments for withholding the national representation which he had promised to his people, and stimulated the misgivings which were arising in the mind of the czar, hitherto the champion of European liberalism. A few months later the murder of Alexander's German agent, Kotzebue, by a fanatical student gave Metternich an excellent pretext for organizing a crusade against German liberty. A conference of ministers was held at Carlsbad. The king of Prussia allowed his representative to follow Metternich's lead. The resistance of the constitutional minor states proved of no avail; and a series of resolutions was passed which made an end of the freedom of the press throughout Germany, and subjected the teaching and the discipline of the universities to officers of state. A commission was established at Mainz to investigate the conspiracies which Metternich alleged to have been formed for the over-throw of all existing governments, and for the creation of a German republic, one and indivisible. In the following year new articles were added by Metternich's direction to the original Federal Act, the most important being one that forbade the creation in any German state of an assembly representing the community at large, and enforced the system of representation by separate estates or orders, each possessed of certain limited definite rights, and all alike subordinate to the supremacy of the crown. Metternich would gladly have made an end of the parliamentary constitutions which had already come into being in Bavaria and the southern states; but he was unable to attack them openly, and had to confine himself to the advocacy of strict monarchical principles through his representatives at these courts. With regard to Prussia, however, he was completely successful. The king of Prussia broke his promise of establishing a national representation, and satisfied his conscience by creating certain powerless provincial diets, exactly as Metternich had recommended him. Throughout Germany at large a system of repression was carried out against the advocates of constitutional right. The press was silenced ; societies were dissolved ; prosecutions became more and more common. While Metternich imagined himself to be stifling the spirit of discontent, he was in fact driving it into more secret and more violent courses, and convincing eager men that the regeneration of Germany must be sought not in the reform but in the overthrow of governments.

Meanwhile revolution broke out in Spain and Italy. Ferdinand of Spain, who had restored despotism, was compelled, in March 1820, to accept the constitution of 1812 which he had subverted. The same constitution was accepted a few months later by Ferdinand of Naples. Spain was outside Metternich's range, but his hand fell heavily upon Naples. A congress of the great powers was held at Troppau in October 1820. Metternich, who was president, as he had been at Vienna, and continued to be in later congresses, completely won over the czar to his own views. Resolutions in favour of an intervention, if necessary by force of arms, against the Neapolitan liberal Government were adopted by Austria, Russia, and Prussia, though England and France held aloof. The congress was then adjourned to Laibach in Carniola, whither Ferdinand of Naples was summoned, in order that he might mediate between the powers and his people, and induce the latter to give up a constitution which offended the three northern courts. Ferdinand's journey and mediation were an imposture as regarded the Neapolitans; he pretended that he went to negotiate on behalf of his people, when in fact his intention was exactly the same as Metternich's, namely, to have absolute monarchy restored. The proceedings of the congress at Laibach were a farce. A letter was concocted by Metternich for King Ferdinand to send to his subjects, informing them that the powers would not permit the constitution to exist, and that, in default of their submission, the allied courts would employ force. The British Government, while protesting against the joint action of the three powers as an assumption of international sovereignty, was perfectly willing that Austria, as a state endangered by the Neapolitan revolution, should act on its own account. Metternich, however, continued to treat the Neapolitan question as the affair of Europe, and maintained his concert with Bussia and Prussia. Early in 1821 an Austrian force, acting in the name of the allies, entered central Italy. The armies opposed to it collapsed, and the Austrian s entered Naples on March 24. But in the meantime a revolution broke out in Piedmont, which threatened to cut off the Austrians from their supports, and to raise all Italy against them. For a moment the bold action of Metternich seemed to have resulted in immense danger both to his own conservative policy and to the peace of Europe ; for it was believed that the Piedmontese revolution would be answered, not only by a general Italian movement, but by a rising against the Bourbons in France. The cloud, however, passed away. Order was quickly restored in Piedmont; Lombardy was safely held by Austrian garrisons; and the conclusion of the Italian difficulties, in which Metternich had played a very difficult part with great resolution and dexterity, was his complete and brilliant personal triumph. No statesman in Europe at this moment held a position that could compare with his own.





At the congress of Verona, held in 1822, the affairs of Spain were considered by the powers. In the end, the Spanish constitution was overthrown by a French invading army; but, though the arm employed was that of France, the principle of absolutism which animated the crusade was that which Metternich had made his own. A severe check, however, now met. him in another quarter. Greece had risen against Turkish rule in 1821. The movement was essentially a national and a religious one, but Metternich treated it as a Jacobinical revolt against lawful authority, —confusing, or affecting to confuse, the struggle for national independence with the shallow and abortive efforts of political liberalism in Italy and Spain. Metternich's attitude towards the Greeks was for some time one of unqualified hostility. If, under the pressure of the Tilsit alliance, he had once been willing that Austria should join Russia in dismembering Turkey, he had now reverted to the principle of maintaining Turkey at all costs against a Russian advance southwards; and he attributed the Greek movement to the efforts of Russian agitators unauthorized by the czar. His desire was that the sultan should deprive Russia of all possible cause for complaint as regarded its own separate interests, and so gain freedom to deal summarily with the Greeks. Metternich's hopes failed, partly through the obstinacy of the Turks, partly through the wavering conduct of Alexander, and partly through the death of Castlereagh and the accession of Canning to power. It was in great part owing to Canning's moral support that Greece ultimately became an independent state; and the extraordinary violence of Metternich's language whenever he mentions this English statesman marks only too well the opposite character of his aims. No politician has left a more damning record against himself than Metternich in his bigoted abuse of Canning. The Greek question, however, was only the first on which the judgment of events was now beginning to declare itself against Metternich and all his principles. The French revolution of 1830 shattered the moral fabric which he had so proudly inaugurated, ana in great part himself raised, in 1815. The accord that grew up between England and France now made any revival of the kind of presidency that he had once held in Europe impossible. He was indeed bold and rapid in throwing troops into the papal territory when revolutionary movements broke out there in 1831 and 1832, though war with France seemed likely to result from this step. He was as unsparing as he had been in 1819 in suppressing the agitation which after 1830 spread from France to Germany; and the union of the three eastern courts was once more exhibited in the meeting of the monarchs which took place at Miinchengriitz in 1833, and in a declaration delivered at Paris, insisting on their right of intervention against revolution in other countries. It was, however, the new czar of Russia, Nicholas, who was now the real head of European conservatism; and the stubborn character, the narrow, unimaginative mind, of this prince made it impossible for Metternich to shape his purposes by that delicate touch which had been so effective with his predecessor. But in Austria itself Metternich continued without a rival. In 1835 the emperor Francis, with whom he had worked for nearly thirty years, died. Metternich, himself falling into the mental habits of old age, remained at the head of the state till 1848. The revolution of that year ended his political career. He resigned office with the dignity of demeanour which had never failed him; his life was scarcely safe in Vienna, and the old man came for a while to England, which he had not visited since 1794. Living on till June 1859, he saw every great figure of his earlier life, and many that had appeared on the horizon since his own prime, pass away; and a few more months of life would have enabled him to see the end of that political order which it had been his life-work to uphold ; for the army of Napoleon III. was crossing the Sardinian frontier at the moment when lie died, and before a second summer had gone Victor Emmanuel had been proclaimed king of Italy.

Metternich was a diplomatist rather than a statesman. His influence was that of an expert manager of individuals, not of a man of great ideas. All his greatest work was done before fifty; and at an age when most statesmen are in the maturity of their powers he had become tedious and pedantic. His private character was very lovable. He was an affectionate if not a faithful husband, a delightful friend, and a most tender father. The excessive egotism which runs through his writings gives perhaps an impression of weakness which did not really belong to his nature. Drawn by a firmer pen, the scene in which he describes himself labouring in the German conferences of 1820, while his favourite daughter was dying in an adjoining room, would have been one of the most affecting things in political biography. The man who could so have worked and felt together must have possessed no ordinary strength of character, no common force of self-control.

The collection of Metternich's writings published by his family under the title of Dcnkwiirdigkeitm, along with French and English editions, contains letters and despatches of great value. The autobiography is not always trustworthy, and must be read with caution. Gentz's correspondence is of first-rate importance for the years 1813-30. Original papers are also contained in various German works upon particular events or movements, as in Oncken for the negotiations of 1813 ; Welcker, Aegidi, Nauwerck for German affairs in 1819 and following years ; Prokesch von Osten for Eastern affairs. (C. A. F.)



The above article was written by: C. Alan Fyffe, M.A., author A History of Modern Europe.



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