Prince Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich

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Prince Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich

1773-1859

Austrian statesman and diplomat

Sources

Early Powerful Connections. Prince Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich was born in Coblenz on 15 May 1773 to Count Georg, Austrian envoy of the court of Vienna at Coblenz, and Maria Beatrix, née Countess von Kageneck. He studied philosophy at the University of Strasburg (1788–1790) and law and diplomacy at Mainz (1790–1793). In 1795 he married Countess Eleonore Kaunitz, heiress and granddaughter of the former Austrian state chancellor Wenzel Anton, Graf von Kaunitz. The marriage connected him to the highest of the Austrian nobility and gave him access to positions of power that would have been otherwise unobtainable. Metternich began his public career in 1801 as Austrian ambassador to the court of Dresden. Though he had studied for a diplomatic career, he was fortunate in receiving an ambassadorial appointment as his first assignment. It is likely that his father, the envoy to the Rhenish principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, inter-ceded on his behalf. Only two years later he was made ambassador to Berlin. The Austrian emperor considered it very important to have a minister at Berlin who could gain the favor of the Prussian Court.

War with Napoleon. Napoleon I’s star had risen high in France and Europe, and his empire was at its zenith. Emperor Francis needed his ablest ambassador at Napoleon’s Court, and in May 1806 he sent Metternich to Paris. Metternich found himself in the difficult position of representing Austria to Napoleon. Though he could count no real diplomatic successes in Paris, Metternich’s efforts allowed him to form important contacts with members of Napoleon’s inner circle, such as his sister Caroline Murat and the foreign minister Charles Talleyrand. Through these contacts Metternich gained insight into Napoleon’s mind and character. His overestimation of the impact of the Spanish uprising (1808) upon France led Metternich to advise Emperor Francis I to go to war with France in 1809. Though victorious at Aspern, the Austrians could not follow up their good fortune and were crushed at Wagram. Despite the defeat, Metternich was able to play upon Napoleon’s vanity by offering him a diplomatic marriage to Archduchess Maria-Louise, Francis I’s daughter. The marriage allowed Metternich some diplomatic maneuvering room—Austria was not required to join Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine, nor become a client state with a French ruler. The war left Austria economically and militarily broken. However, by 1810 Napoleon had lost interest in Austria and was busily preparing for the 1812 campaign in Russia. Metternich took advantage of this breathing space to attempt a reform of the Austrian government along Prussian cameralist lines, but Francis I resisted allowing nonnobles and non-Germans into the government. In 1812 Austria was obliged to send troops to aid the French army during the invasion of Russia. The French military disaster in Russia caught Metternich off guard, but by 30 January 1813 he had concluded an armistice with Russia and withdrawn all Austrian forces from Russian soil. As France reeled from the debacle in Russia, Napoleon desperately formed a new French army. The 1813 Russo-Prussian offensive into French-held central Europe proved premature—Napoleon was wounded but not yet ready to give up. Metternich mediated the peace among the three powers in 1813 and determined that the complete collapse of French power would allow Russia virtually uninhibited influence in Europe. Napoleon obstinately refused to honor the agreement, and Austria, Russia, and Prussia went to war against France in late 1813. At the Battle of Leipzig (October 1813) Napoleon was decisively defeated and lost control of central Europe—Metternich was awarded the hereditary title of prince by Francis I for his work in assembling the victorious coalition. Though allied to Prussia and Russia, Metterrnich carefully preserved the independence of the south German states and worked to prevent Russian and Prussian expansion into central Europe. Clearly, he did not want to swap Napoleon I’s dictatorship for that of a Prussian king or Russian tsar.

Congress of Vienna. The Congress of Vienna (September 1814-June 1815) constituted the apex of Metternich’s diplomatic career. Metternich worked to gain territories in Italy and Germany for Austria and strove to include defeated France at the conference table, especially as a counterweight to Russia. For the settlement of future difficulties several congresses were held: Aix-la-Chapelle, 1818; Karlsbad, 1819; Vienna, 1820; Troppau, 1820; Laibach, 1821; and Verona, 1822. When the Russian councillor Kotzebue was assassinated by a student at the Karlsbad Congress, Metternich took measures to put an end to the political troubles in Germany. All publications of less than twenty folios were subjected to censorship; government officers were placed at the universities to supervise them; and representative constitutions were suppressed. Despite England’s and Russia’s resistance, Metternich intervened in the Italian states, which were threatened by internal unrest. This measure made Austria very unpopular in Italy. Austria and Russia also split on the question of freeing Greece from the Turkish yoke. Austria feared Russian domination of the Balkans and supported the Turks. The Russians were incensed and gained English support for the Greek insurgents. The result was a blow to Metternich’s policy—his influence was waning as that of Russia and Prussia waxed. The moderation and skill that Metternich displayed through the negotiations produced a very successful balance of the European powers—it was not seriously upset until World War I.

Later Years. The reconstruction of Austria, however, did not proceed along such positive lines. Francis I refused to establish departmental ministries (which Metternich had demanded) and rejected the creation of a series of provincial diets which would represent the empire’s various nationalities. Though Metternich was certainly no fan of political liberalism, he realized that there was a growing voice in the empire for nationalist representation and did not want that voice transformed into rebellion. Further, Metternich was unable to prevent the creation of liberal representative governments across central and southern Germany in 1817-1820. Dismayed, he threw Austrian support behind the increasingly reactionary and conservative German nobility (the junkers). Despite his flagging prestige, Metternich was made Austrian state chancellor in 1821. Under Emperor Ferdinand I (ruled 1835-1848) the direction of state affairs was in the hands of a regency-like council, which consisted of Arch Duke Ludwig (the emperor’s uncle), State Chancellor Metternich, and Court Chancellor Franz Anton, Graf von Kolowrat. Kolowrat outmaneuvered Metternich on the council by gaining Ludwig’s ear and thus ensured that Metternich’s influence over Austria’s internal affairs was marginal at best. After 1826 Count Kolowrat’s influence was decisive. Many Austrians envied Metternich his preeminence; his fall from power was not mourned. When the July Revolution of 1830 in France spawned insurrections in Belgium, Poland, and Germany, Metternich, despite his declining influence, was generally viewed by political liberals as a dark, reactionary force of repression and became the object of nationalist hatred. The orders for the violent excesses of the Austrian generals Alfred Windischgratz and Joseph Radetzky in their brutal suppression of the 1848 Revolution were widely believed to have come from Metternich himself. Actually, he had precious little influence over Austrian affairs by that time. In 1848 Metternich, hounded by scaling liberal criticism, resigned his position a defeated man. He went in exile to England and returned to Vienna in 1851. He died eight years later in his palace at the age of eighty-six.

Sources

Robert Billinger, Metternich and the German Question: States’ Rights and Federal Duties, 1820-1834 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991).

Charles S. Buckland, Metternich and the British Government from 1809 to 1813 (London: Macmillan, 1932).

Arthur J. May, The Age of Metternich, 1814-1848 (New York: Holt, Rine-hart… Winston, 1962).