Klemens von Metternich

A New Metternich Biography Rounds Out the Portrait of One of History’s Greatest Political Strategists

Well-established clichés are notoriously hard to kill. Prince Klemens von Metternich, chief strategist of Habsburg-Austrian foreign and military policy from 1809 to 1848, has gone down in history as a master manipulator, a brilliantly devious player both on and behind the diplomatic stage, with a legendary secret police at home. Austrian schoolchildren today still thrill at the story of the great man being spirited out of Vienna hidden in a laundry cart during the 1848 uprising. 

But in Wolfram Siemann’s new biography Metternich – Strategist and Visionary, we find the conservative chancellor of the Biedermeier era indeed a visionary reformer, a man ahead of his time. Certainly Metternich the statesman foresaw the looming chaos that late-19th century nationalism would bring with it – and did all in his power to delay the inevitable. His over-­arching aim was peace on the blood-drenched European continent, and he was fully aware of the human and economic costs of the ongoing ­Napoleonic wars, with Austria one of the three principal powers arrayed against an aggressive revolutionary France and often the bleeding loser. 

Siemann is by no means the first to present the much-maligned ­Metternich in a positive light. Franz Herre’s Metternich – Staatsmann des Friedens (Statesman of Peace, 1983) already makes the case well. No wonder Metternich was Henry Kissinger’s favorite historical role model, calling him “the master of Realpolitik”: He admired Metternich’s insight that the challenge for diplomats will always be how to “maintain a semblance of order through a balance of fear, cooperation, and defensive mechanisms …” No easy task, then or now.

The Coachman of Europe

This book is a big read – over 550 ­pages. The good news is a crisp introduction by the author, marching the reader briskly through the seven stages of Metternich’s life and career and dealing summarily with other ­biographers whom he variously discounts as ill-informed, overly partisan hero worshippers, revenge-­driven academic assassins or simply hopelessly prejudiced, flag-waving pan-Germanic nationalists. He ­reserves a special place for Heinrich von Sbrik, author of the “standard” Metternich biography published in 1925. Von Sbrik makes an easy target today, fascinated as he was by the 19th century concept of Teutonic identity, the blood unity of the German people and, as a respected academic, greeted Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria as “the realization of a thousand year German dream.”  

This was in direct contradiction to Metternich’s dream of an imperial federation encompassing an ethnic salad of Germans, Slavs, Hungarians, Italians and others, all under the firm, but benevolent, hand of a Habsburg emperor in Vienna. Siemann warns readers who may be tempted to dip into von Sbrik’s work to arm themselves with a generous amount of skepticism.  

The details of a principal player’s life add a fascinating dimension to the political narrative of such a convulsive era in European history: the aftermath of the horrific Thirty Years’ War leading through the wholesale slaughter of Napoleon’s quest for continental domination and on to the rise of the nation state and embryonic bureaucratic democracies. Siemann minutely chronicles Metternich’s key role in this formative time, the period when the essen­tial political geography of ­Europe as we know it today was settled. But he has a trump card earlier biographers did not, access to a recently discovered trove of Metternich’s original notes and letters, “like … discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun.” These were somehow long overlooked in the family’s elegant baroque chateau, nestled in one of the Rheingau’s finest Riesling vineyards and gazing out (perhaps appropriately) over the great Germanic river, the Rhine.  

Metternich had begun early in the world of international diplomacy. His father was in the service of the Austrian emperor as plenipotentiary minister in the Austrian Netherlands (today’s Belgium), and the young Metternich accompanied him to coronations and conferences, witnessing both the grandeur of state occasions and the nitty-gritty of ­diplomacy in explosive times.

The revolutionary government in Paris was intent on driving the Austrians out of neighboring Belgium, but Habsburg forces defeated the French at the Battle of Neerwinden and Metternich was a close-up observer at the 1793 Conference of Antwerp, where Austrian policy was to ­dampen hostilities in favor of a fragile confirmation of the status quo. ­Almost certainly, it was here that Metternich began to formulate what would become his life’s philosophy: a balance of power between principal players to prevent military conflict and slow dangerous social change to a crawl.  

Grand Strategies and Great Games

In a biography full of anecdotes fleshing out the bare bones of a public person, Metternich’s special relationship with Napoleon fascinates especially. It is tempting to reduce the years of Napoleon’s quest for dominance to a personal struggle between the two men. In a time of continually shifting alliances, Metternich clearly saw that the Frenchman’s dream of a Pax Napoleona was incompatible with his own vision of a peaceful coexistence between benignly cautious sovereign powers. 

Metternich’s personal archives ­offer fascinating insights into the relationship of the two men effectively ­responsible for 15 of the most turbulent years in European history. They could hardly have been more different: Napoleon the man of action from humble circumstances, Metternich the cultivated, cosmopolitan aristocrat. Metternich felt he had seen the parvenu behind Napoleon’s carefully constructed façade. The emperor was painfully self-conscious of his short stature, walking tiptoe and wearing over-sized hats to compensate.  

But Metternich recognized the genius, “a good listener, quick to comprehend and predict consequences … not hostile but no sentiment … a born conqueror and ­administrator.” He notes how surprised he was at Napoleon’s lack of historical knowledge – but was ­impressed at the general’s rapid grasp of circumstances as they ­unfolded, the thoughtful long-term planner admiring the brilliant military tactician.

They respected, ­admired and quite possibly even liked each other, often talking together until four in the morning, long after official business was over. Nonetheless they were implacable opponents in the Great Game and after Waterloo, the match was over. Napoleon had no illusions:  “He (Metternich) is Europe’s only statesman since the Revolution. There are only two powers in the world, the sword and the intellect. In the long run, the intellect wins.”

For most of us, the Congress of ­Vienna (1814-1815) was Metternich’s greatest hour, where he played the host and mastermind of the conference that charted the course of post-Napoleonic Europe. The Congress alone has been content enough for many weighty books, but biographer Siemann makes the ­intriguing point that Metternich barely mentions the Congress in his own memoirs, merely noting, “The history of the Congress is written in its Acts and in its results, and has no place in these pages.” Not, says ­Siemann, the act of a supposedly vain show-off.  

For Metternich specialist Muamer Becirovic, this is a new standard work. Siemann has dug deeper and with more detail into the archives and opened a fascinating window onto Metternich’s dealings with his subordinates and his monarch. Whether Siemann’s “Strategist and Visionary” is a better portrait than Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace is up to the scholars. The rest of us should try to read both.

Oh, and as to that laundry cart: Eduard Schmidt-Weißenfels’ biography from 1860 describes the prince and his wife leaving the city unnoticed in a Fiaker. But they did have to make the rail journey on to Prague in an empty freight car – no doubt adequately provisioned.   


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