Klemens von Metternich, the Conservative Architect of the 19th Century European Order

Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein, known as Klemens von Metternich, was a conservative Austrian statesman and diplomat. He was the main protagonist of the European affairs scene during the first half of the 19th century as the Austrian Empire's foreign minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821. His era ended when the liberal Revolution of 1848 in the Habsburg state forced him to resign. His personality merits special mention, as he can rightly be described as the architect of the conservative order established in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848. He formed this order mainly during the Congress of Vienna and through his diplomatic action. He restored Austria as a leading European power, hosting the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. He was one of the most conservative politicians of that time and a great enemy of liberalism and democratic institutions. It is characteristic that he called Nationalism and Liberalism “mania for constitutions” (Rapport, 2008). He began to gain prominence during the Napoleonic Wars, when he helped in forming the victorious alliance against Napoleon I. The culmination of his career was his appointment as Chancellor of the Austrian Empire, when he was already appointed as Foreign Minister. He was essentially the ultimate spokesman and representative of the Habsburg monarchy. Due to the long period during which he starred in the European political scene, reference will be made to specific events and periods, such as the Vienna Congress and his tenures in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chancellery.

Portrait of Klemens von Metternich, German-Austrian diplomat, politician and statesman (1773-1859) by Thomas Lawrence in 1815.
Portrait of Klemens von Metternich, German-Austrian diplomat, politician and statesman (1773-1859) by Thomas Lawrence in 1815 (1).

Personal Life and the Start of his Career

Metternich was born in 1773 in Coblenz, a German city on the west bank of the Rhine. He was the descendant of an old Rhenish noble family and the son of an Austrian diplomat and politician. In addition to his native German, he spoke French fluently. In 1788 he entered the University of Strasbourg, a city which at various times has been part of either France or Germany, to study diplomacy. However, his family was directly affected by both the French Revolution and the war that followed. He transferred his university studies to the German city of Mainz, but when the 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. These facts can easily be considered as the roots of his conservative beliefs.

In Vienna, Metternich’s career as a statesman and politician advanced rapidly. In 1795 Metternich married Eleonore, heiress and granddaughter of the former Austrian state chancellor. That marriage gave him the link with the high nobility of Austria and the access to high office he had long desired. He served as Austrian ambassador to Berlin and Dresden, and in 1806 was appointed ambassador to France. In France he had the chance to meet Napoleon and discussed the possibility of an alliance between France and Austria. He managed to gain favorable peace terms from Napoleon and the Austrian government rewarded his efforts by appointing him as the Austrian minister of foreign affairs in 1809. In 1813, he was given the hereditary title of prince (Allegret, 2005).

Napoleon with prince Metternich during the meeting in Dresden on 26 June 1813, by Woldemar Friedrich.
Napoleon with prince Metternich during the meeting in Dresden on 26 June 1813, by Woldemar Friedrich (2).

Minister of Foreign Affairs

Metternich always had it in mind to make Austria a European superpower. So he waited patiently and after the disastrous defeat of the French army in Russia in 1812, Metternich involved Austria in the struggle against Napoleon. In 1815 Napoleon was defeated for a final time in the battle of Waterloo. That year saw Metternich at the peak of his power and popularity in Austria. Five years previous Austria was a virtual puppet of French foreign policy, but now the table had turned. Metternich had become a key leader in the coalition of countries that had defeated the French emperor twice. Now the victors held the fate of Europe in their hands.


A diplomatic conference was agreed to take place in Vienna in 1815. Metternich saw it as a personal triumph. During the Congress of Vienna Metternich's mastery of diplomatic maneuvering emerged. He wanted to secure Austria’s predominance by forming two confederations, one German and the other Italian, with Austria as the leading power in both. Within Germany, he proposed the creation of a hereditary German imperial title, and he thought that Austria and Prussia should share the task of protecting Germany’s western frontier. Friendship with Prussia on the one hand and with Bavaria on the other thus seemed to him to be the prerequisite of success. His aim was to prevent the outbreak of any possible revolution within Europe and to establish a stable order that would allow a lasting peace. To some extent he achieved that, as the next major armed conflict in Europe occurred 100 years later. However, the decisions of the Vienna Congress were challenged by the peoples of Europe. The revolutions of 1820 and 1830 are clear examples. The culmination was the revolutions of 1848, which eventually led to the fall of Metternich.


After 1815, Metternich was devoted to Austria's severe internal problems. The Austrian Empire was a conglomeration of many nationalities that were ruled by the Habsburg family. Hungarians were the strongest nation among them. Metternich saw nationalism and liberalism as serious threats to the survival of the Austrian Empire and tried to suppress both. To Metternich, liberalism was nineteenth century middle-class movement to weaken monarchies and create parliaments or legislatures. So he saw it as a child of the French Revolution of 1789. He believed that the best way to discourage independence movements was to allow each nation of the Empire to have its own distinctive rules and laws (yourdictionary.com, 2022).

Ball at Prince Metternich’s during the Congress of Vienna, by Joseph Emanuel Weiser.
Ball at Prince Metternich’s during the Congress of Vienna (front f. l. Freder. Will. III of Prussia with King of Bavaria, Wellington, Metternich, Talleyrand and Hardenberg) (3).

From Chancellery to Fall

Metternich's successes were rewarded and he was appointed Austrian state chancellor in 1821. However, the order he had created began to receive strikes. At first, Great Britain abandoned the policy of intervention against revolutions in other countries. The British foreign secretaries brought Metternich’s influence on Western Europe to an end by insisting on the right of national self-determination for the Greek insurgents against Turkey. With Alexander I’s death in 1825, another Metternich’s strong ally was lost. In 1830 the July Revolution in France, followed by insurrections in Belgium, Poland, and Germany, was another devastating blow.


Metternich's influence in Austria’s internal affairs was decisively restricted by the appointment of Franz Anton, as minister of state and head of the cabinet conferences in 1826. In 1835, therefore, Metternich took the chair at the council of state that assumed the functions of regency, but the decline did not stop. Thenceforth Metternich’s authority was confined to external affairs. His vanity tempted him to disguise the waning of his influence by accepting responsibility for decrees that neither came from him nor accorded with his views. He thus became a hated symbol of repression and reaction and, eventually, on March 13, 1848, had to resign, as the first victim of the revolution. He made his way with difficulty into exile in England but returned to Vienna in 1851, where he died eight years later (Otmar and Aretin, 2021).


Conclusion

Until today, Metternich remains a controversial figure. Some historians detest him as a foe of freedom and an obstructionist who tried to prevent the rise of nations, such as Germany and Italy, and the establishment of democratic and liberal principles. Yet some other historians of the 20th century, contemplating 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. He had become a symbol of reaction and oppression. His real aim was to avoid the chaos that he believed would follow in the wake of the major political changes demanded by European revolutionaries. In the time period of his lasting peace, Europe became the dominant economic and military power in the world. Even the future American secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, has praised Metternich's diplomacy.


Image Sources

  1. Lawrence, T. (1815). Portrait of Klemens von Metternich, German-Austrian diplomat, politician and statesman (1773-1859). [Painting]. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Klemens_von_Metternich_by_Lawrence.jpg

  2. Woldemar, F. (1900). Napoleon with prince Metternich during the meeting in Dresden on 26 June 1813. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Napoleon-with-prince-Metternich-during-the-meeting-in-Dresd-2UMDHUUHMBO.html

  3. Weiser, J. E. (1880). Ball at Prince Metternich’s during the Congress of Vienna. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Ball-at-Prince-Metternich%E2%80%99s-during-the-Congress-of-Vienna-2UMDHUWFV7O3.html

References

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