Of all the great statesmen and diplomats whose many different names have managed to confuse so many history students in the last century or two, this one is perhaps the most important, because of the significance of what he achieved before he finally failed. We have dealt with most of them in this general-history blog – John of Gaunt, Cardinal Richelieu, Thomas Cromwell, von Bismarck, both William Pitts, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli – the list is long indeed.
Prince Clemens von Metternich was Austrian, born in 1773 at Coblenz, a city which stands on the Rhine. He was a son of a diplomat in service with the Habsburg family (q.v.), and entered the Austrian diplomatic service in 1801.
He was Foreign Minister for his country from 1809 (when he was thirty-six) to 1848, which means thirty-nine years of dedicated service, though Metternich himself considered the time 1809 – 15 as his most important period. It is not by coincidence that these years cover the second half of Napoleon Bonaparte’s French wars against everybody.
Austria was defeated by Bonaparte precisely in 1809, and our subject thought the best idea would be to cooperate closely with the Corsican; his ploy was to suggest a marriage between Maria Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I, to Napoleon. In 1810 the latter did indeed marry the Austrian princess, and they had a son, but he died at twenty-one. Napoleon had previously been married to Josephine de Beauharnais, who had not provided him with a son.
The French invaded Russia in 1812, and got as far as an empty Moscow, but then had to retreat, virtually without rations. Russians describe this defeat as ‘General Winter’s Campaign’.
Metternich, however, thought the Russians much more of a threat to Austria than the French, and did not seem to care very much that Napoleon had made himself Emperor. He maintained this view, unpopular with his allies Prussia and Britain, until Napoleon rejected Metternich’s offer of a negotiated peace. Then Austria joined the Allies (August 1813) and fought at the battle of Leipzig (16 – 19 October, 1813), along with Prussia, Russia and Sweden. Napoleon lost 30,000 men captured, and his Saxon troops deserted him. As more and more German princes abandoned the Napoleonic banner, he decided to abdicate. It was 1814.
Metternich was the star at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, as Austria increased in size by fifty percent, and could dominate the rest of the German Confederation plus Italy. We have seen in other articles how Bonaparte managed to get away from his prison island of Elba and return to command France’s loyal soldiers for a hundred days before the allies crushed him at Waterloo (18 June, 1815). Metternich’s concern after 1815 was to maintain the new peace after years of Napoleonic wars, prop up the existing international and social order by maintaining centralized government by monarchs, preserving and strengthening the landed aristocracy, and avoiding Nationalism and/or any liberal reforms. He was successful in Germany and Italy, and Austrian leadership of the German Confederation enabled him, supported by Prussia to pass through the Diet (a representative assembly of various countries) the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819, increasing government control of the universities, the press and student societies.
When the people of Naples and Piedmont felt repressed and rebelled, Metternich used Austrian troops to put them down. He then persuaded both Prussia and Russia to join him at the Congress of Troppau (1820) which asserted the right of the Great Powers to intervene in the affairs of other states (cynics might say that this was the real beginning of the European Union). Whenever small revolutions occurred, in Parma, Modena and the Papal States for instance, Metternich sent Austrian troops to quell them. Meanwhile he was busy centralizing much of the administration within the Habsburg Empire, so that the influence of the Diets in Lombardy-Venetia and Hungary was reduced, leaving important decisions to be taken – in Vienna.
This was all very well, but Metternich was not much of an economist, if it all, and Austria’s finances were in a terrible state. The state’s military expenditure was taking 40% of revenue. It would have to be cut, which made things difficult for Metternich because his policies relied on Austrian military strength. As a result, he came more and more to rely on the forces of Prussia and Russia, which lost him a decisive voice in European diplomacy in the 1830s and 40s. He had to stand by and watch while Britain and France made the decisions affecting Belgium’s independence; the Eastern Question (problems arising from the decline of the Ottoman Empire) being solved by Britain and Russia; his Catholic allies were thrashed in a strange religious 2-year war in Switzerland called Sonderbund ( 1845-7).
In Germany itself, leadership passed from Austria to Prussia via the Zollverein (German customs union), which Austria had neither the means nor the force necessary to join. Metternich saw the dangers inherent in all this and said flatly,“the links which bind Austria to the other states of the German Confederation will gradually become loosened, and in the end will break entirely . . .”. There was nothing to be done.
Above all, Metternich’s total resistance to change or reform made him unpopular across Europe. In London Lord Palmerston summoned the Austrian ambassador and told him that Metternich’s repressive and suffocating policy was a fatal one and would lead to an explosion just as certainly as would a boiler that was hermetically sealed and deprived of an outlet for steam. As a matter of fact some historians have pointed out that this rhetorical rant might also serve as a viable description of Palmerston himself, but that is by the way.
In the revolutions of 1848 Metternich was among the first to find himself out of office, but he still insisted that he was right. In 1848 he went to live in England, not altogether voluntarily, but returned to Austria and his family’s castle on the Rhine, where he died three years later. He was eighty-six years old.