Metternich, Clemens von

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early years
the struggle with napoleon
the congress of vienna
the restoration
new revolutions
declining influence
exile and death

METTERNICH, CLEMENS VON (1773–1859), Austrian statesman and diplomatist.

Prince Clemens von Metternich was a statesman who guided Austria's foreign policy for forty years, played a leading role in defeating Napoleon I, and made the Austrian Empire for a time the leading power in Europe and himself its foremost statesman.

early years

The future chancellor of the Austrian Empire was born in Koblenz in the Rhineland on 15 May 1773. He was the son of Francis George, Count von Metternich-Winneburg, one of the autonomous German nobles who held a fief directly from the Holy Roman Emperor, whom he also served as a diplomat. Young Clemens studied diplomacy at the Universities of Strasbourg and Mainz, but his studies were interrupted by the spread of the French Revolution. In 1794 a French army conquered the Rhineland and seized the family estates. The Metternich family, after a brief stay in England, was forced to flee as refugees to Vienna. There in 1795 he married Eleonora von Kaunitz, granddaughter of Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, the former Austrian chancellor. The marriage linked him with the high nobility and opened the door to his future career.

After performing diplomatic missions for Austria and various German princes, in 1801 he entered the Austrian diplomatic service. His abilities and his connections brought him rapid promotion: minister to Saxony in 1801, to Prussia in 1803, and finally in 1806 to the most important diplomatic post in Europe, Paris. He was able to become on good terms with Napoleon and acquired a thorough knowledge of the all-powerful emperor's character, strengths, and weaknesses.

the struggle with napoleon

By 1806, Austria had fought and lost three wars with Napoleon, each time losing more territory. Encouraged by the success of the Spanish guerrillas against the French, Austrian leaders decided that they too could defeat Napoleon by arousing a German popular uprising. Metternich was also impressed, and his overly optimistic reports helped to precipitate Austria into another losing war in 1809.

In this critical moment, Emperor Francis I (r. 1804–1835) entrusted the fate of Austria to Metternich, appointing him foreign minister in October 1809. Metternich rose to the challenge. He could not prevent Napoleon from imposing a harsh peace and threatening further demands, but he cleverly played on Napoleon's vanity, his desire to be on a par with the old dynasties of Europe, to score a diplomatic triumph. In 1810 his patient, skillful diplomacy persuaded Napoleon to marry Marie Louise, the daughter of Francis I. He thus saved Austria from any further encroachment on its territory and independence and won it breathing space to recover from defeat. For the next two years he was careful to remain on good terms with Napoleon, even agreeing to send an Austrian force to accompany his invasion of Russia in 1812, though the force was independent and had secret instructions to avoid fighting. The destruction of Napoleon's army in Russia came as a surprise to Metternich, but he realized that it opened up new possibilities of revival for Austria.

The next two years saw one of the most skillful diplomatic performances of his career. In 1813 Britain and Prussia were now allied with Russia to fight Napoleon. Both sides sought Austria's alliance, knowing it would probably decide the outcome. Metternich maneuvered between them with great skill. He knew it would be foolish to enter the war until the Austrian army, at a low ebb after many defeats, had been rebuilt to the point at which it was again fit to play a major role in the war.

More important, he would not commit Austria to either side until he could be sure that, whoever won, the resulting peace settlement would safeguard its interests. Austria's most obvious interest was to regain territory equal to that which it had had before the revolutionary wars, so that it would once again have the strength necessary to act as a great power. More important, however, the peace must also create a balance of power in Europe. Metternich saw clearly the weaknesses of Austria: its multinational character, its lack of strong natural frontiers, its central position open to invasion on every side. Austria could survive only in a Europe in which power was balanced—or, as he would come to see, restrained in some other way. To achieve a balance, it was clear that the power of Napoleon must be reduced, but that was no longer Metternich's only concern. He was equally worried by the growing strength of Russia. A Europe dominated by Russia would be no safer for Austria than a Europe dominated by France. In 1813 his ideal arrangement would have been a Europe in which a Napoleonic Empire west of the Rhine, weakened but still strong, balanced Russia in the east. With this in mind, he proposed an armed mediation by Austria between the two sides. Both accepted, and an armistice was arranged in June 1813. Negotiating with the Allies, Metternich agreed to join them, but only if they offered Napoleon generous peace terms. Generous terms were offered, and Metternich did his best to persuade the emperor to accept them. Napoleon, however, still confident of total victory, rejected the offer.

Metternich now had no alternative but to join the war against France. His skillful diplomacy, however, had already won for Austria a leading role in the war and assurances that Austria would recover its prewar strength and position of leadership in Germany. An appreciative Francis I bestowed upon him the hereditary title of prince.

He continued to safeguard Austrian interests during the war, in particular by arranging treaties with the south German states guaranteeing their independence. He thereby thwarted the plans of the Prussian minister Baron vom Stein for a unitary Germany under Prussian hegemony that would have ended Austria's traditional influence there. Metternich also continued to seek a peace that would preserve a weakened Napoleon as a balance against Russia. In February 1814 his insistence on a new peace offer led to a crisis with the tsar, who wished to push on to total victory. The crisis was defused by the arrival of the British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh. He and Metternich soon agreed on the dangers of Russian power and the need for a balance; they also agreed that if Napoleon were overthrown, the French throne must go to a restored Bourbon king, not to a protégé of the tsar. A new peace offer to Napoleon was then made, but once again, rejected, and the war went on until the final defeat of Napoleon in April 1814.

the congress of vienna

The leading statesmen of Europe met in September at the Congress of Vienna, to begin the task of restoring peace and order to a Europe devastated by a generation of war. Though the congress was a splendid social occasion, in which Metternich took a leading part, there was serious work to be done. Frightened by the unprecedented duration and destruction of the generation of war since 1792, the statesmen believed that a new international order, based on something better than the cutthroat power politics of the eighteenth century, was essential. The result was the "Concert of Europe," which was to give Europe a century of relative peace. This concept implied that it was in the interest of all the powers to maintain peace, even at the cost of limiting their ambitions to some degree; when disputes arose, they should be settled by consensus, not confrontation, with noninvolved powers acting as mediators. Metternich was its strongest supporter, for he saw that only in a peaceful Europe could Austria with all its weaknesses hope to survive.

Consensus was nevertheless not easily achieved. The most intractable problem arose from the determination of Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801–1825) to take over the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a revived Polish state created by Napoleon from lands taken from Austria and Prussia, and to allow Prussia as compensation to annex Saxony. This plan posed a major threat to the balance of power, and to Austria's security. Russian domination of Poland would bring its power into the heart of central Europe. Prussian control of Saxony would remove the chief buffer between Austria and Prussia and give the latter control of the natural invasion route into the Austrian Empire. To defeat the plan, Metternich first attempted to detach Prussia from its alliance with Russia, but without success. He then forged an alliance with Castlereagh and the French foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who were also alarmed at the threat to the European balance. In the long struggle that followed, Metternich was only partly victorious. Russia returned parts of the grand duchy to Austria and Prussia, but kept most of it. Prussia, however, gained less than half of Saxony, so that buffer remained.

Napoleon's dramatic return from exile in March 1815 spurred the congress to finish its work. The Final Act of Vienna was signed on 9 June 1815. In the end, all the major problems at the congress were settled in ways that left all the powers reasonably content, and none so dissatisfied that it was willing to go to war to upset the settlement. Metternich secured his main concerns: restoration of Austria to its prewar size, and predominance in Germany and Italy. It was the high point of his career.

the restoration

The five years after the congress were generally tranquil. Since 1811, Metternich had been urging the Austrian emperor to abandon the centralizing policies of the late eighteenth century in favor of a federal approach, without success. He renewed his efforts after 1816, arguing the need to recognize and conciliate the ethnic groups of the monarchy, and so counteract the growing force of nationalism that was the greatest threat to its survival. He was especially concerned to give Lombardy and Venetia, where Italian nationalism was strong, greater local autonomy and a native administration. Francis I would not listen. Instead, he reorganized the empire on absolutist and centralized lines, relying on paternalism, censorship, and the police to prevent discontent. Because loyalty to the emperor forced Metternich to acquiesce, the result was often called by contemporaries the "Metternich system," though he disapproved of it. In reality, though Francis gave Metternich steady support in foreign policy, he allowed him little voice in domestic affairs.

Metternich was more successful in foreign affairs. At the congress, he had secured the establishment of a German Confederation, basically a defensive military alliance through which Austria could balance the power of Russia and France. Austria's position, however, was challenged by Prussia and the south German states. To defeat their challenge, Metternich seized upon a minor flurry of revolutionary activity, climaxed by political assassinations in 1819, to call a conference at Carlsbad. Exaggerating the revolutionary threat (which he knew was still minor), he led the German rulers to pass measures establishing press censorship and surveillance of universities. More important from his point of view, he also frightened them into seeing cooperation with Austria as their best defense against revolution. In this way he consolidated Austrian predominance over Germany for the next two decades.

In Italy, too, he cemented Austrian predominance. Lombardy and Venetia had been given to Austria at the congress. As for the independent Italian states, he had planned to organize an Italian confederation, but opposition from the Italian rulers and from the tsar defeated him. Nonetheless, he managed for three decades to control the Italian states, using adroit diplomacy, Habsburg family connections, and promises of protection against revolution.

new revolutions

The first great challenge to Metternich's achievements came with the revolutions of 1820. The revolution that broke out in July 1820 in Naples threatened Austria's hold on the Italian peninsula. A liberal Naples would surely reject Austrian tutelage; moreover, the example of its success would inspire imitation elsewhere in Italy. Austrian forces could easily suppress the revolution, but there were international complications. France was inclined to sympathize with the rebels, hoping to replace Austria's influence with its own. The tsar, who had been flirting with liberal ideas, was unwilling to give Austria a free hand. In a series of brilliant maneuvers, Metternich was able to overcome his opponents and win the support of the powers at the Congresses of Troppau (1820) and Laibach (1821). While Austrian troops were suppressing the Neapolitan revolution in March 1821, another revolt broke out in Piedmont, but this too was easily suppressed. Austrian power was once again supreme in Italy. An appreciative Francis I appointed him state chancellor, the highest post in the empire.

From this high point, Metternich's position began to deteriorate. After Castlereagh's death in 1822, Britain, increasingly under liberal rule, tended to distrust Metternich. A greater blow was struck by the Greek revolt of 1821, for it split the conservative front. This revolt of Orthodox Christians aroused great sympathy in Russia; moreover, it offered Russia an excuse to expand at Turkish expense. Though able to restrain Alexander I, Metternich was unable to prevent his successor, Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855), from going to war with Turkey in 1829 to liberate Greece—the first successful revolution since 1815, and the greatest defeat Metternich had yet suffered.

declining influence

Metternich was able to rescue Austria from diplomatic isolation when a new wave of revolutions in 1830 brought the conservative powers together again in alliance. The cost was high, however, for the revolution brought the liberal July Monarchy to power in France—a new adversary for Austria. Moreover, in the revived conservative bloc, it was Russia, not Austria, that was the dominant partner, for Metternich could not manage Nicholas I as he had managed Alexander I, and he could no longer look to Britain or France for support. The years after 1830 therefore saw a gradual decline in Austria's international position. He was able to maintain Austria's hegemony in Germany and Italy, but his growing dependence on Russian backing inevitably eroded Austria's freedom of action and his own importance.

At home too his influence was in decline. In 1826 Franz Anton, Count von Kolowrat, was given charge of Austria's finances. His financial skill won him growing influence over Francis I, and Kolowrat and Metternich became bitter rivals. In an apparent effort to reverse his decline, the chancellor advised Francis I to recognize his feebleminded son Ferdinand as heir, by a will directing the latter to follow Metternich's advice. It seemed as if Metternich would at last be in a position to reorder the government according to his own ideas. Kolowrat, however, was able to mobilize the support of the Habsburg family to defeat him. In the resulting regency, the powers of Kolowrat and Metternich were evenly balanced. Their constant rivalry tended to paralyze the government, so that no effective action could be taken to head off the revolutionary pressures that were growing in the empire. When revolution broke out in Vienna in March 1848, Metternich, now widely if somewhat unfairly seen as responsible for the repressive and reactionary policies of the government, was forced to resign and go into exile.

exile and death

After three years of exile in London, he returned to Vienna. He held no office thereafter, but gave the government frequent advice, which was usually either misunderstood or ignored. He died in Vienna on 11 June 1859.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Carlsbad Decrees; Concert of Europe; Congress of Vienna; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Napoleonic Empire.


Primary Sources

Metternich-Winneburg, Richard von, ed. Memoirs of Prince Metternich. Translated by Alexander Napier and Gerard W. Smith. 5 vols. London, 1880–1882.

Secondary Sources

Billinger, Robert D. Metternich and the German Question: States' Rights and Federal Duties, 1820–1834. Newark, Del., 1991.

Emerson, Donald E. Metternich and the Political Police. The Hague, 1968.

Haas, Arthur G. Metternich: Reorganization and Nationality, 1813–1818. Knoxville, Tenn., 1964.

Kraehe, Enno. Metternich's German Policy. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1963–1983.

Palmer, Alan. Metternich. London, 1972.

Radvany, Egon. Metternich's Projects for Reform in Austria. The Hague, 1971.

Reinerman, Alan J. Austria and the Papacy in the Age of Metternich. 2 vols. Washington, D.C., 1979–1989.

Schroeder, Paul W. Metternich's Diplomacy at Its Zenith, 1820–1823. Austin, Tex., 1962.

Alan J. Reinerman