Metternich: Success or Failure?

by Nick Pelling. Charterhouse

new perspective. Volume 4. Number 2. December 1998

Summary: Metternich was skilled in the arts of contemporary diplomacy and image-making. For a while, he preserved and strengthened the Habsburg Empire but only in appearance. Metternich was unable to prevent the growth of the forces that weakened and ultimately destroyed the Habsburg Empire.

Prince Clement Wenceslas Lothair von Metternich, chancellor and foreign minister of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, was the longest-serving first minister in the nineteenth century and, arguably, one of the most successful. And yet in terms of the numbers of A-Level students writing essays about him he is a long way down the historical hit parade, trailing after such apparently more exciting figures as Napoleon, Bismarck, Cavour, Gladstone, Lenin, Stalin and of course Hitler. So why does Metternich lack pulling power? The answer I feel lies in the fact that no one is quite sure how to interpret Metternich. He is often associated with reconstructing the ancien régime after the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras but he is also seen as the man who was destroyed by the revolutions of 1848. Thus creating a disconcerting confusion as to whether he should be seen as a success or a failure. Given that A-Level examiners often ask students to decide whether Metternich succeeded or failed, what can be said?

To begin with, it can be admitted that Metternich did not always care what people thought of him. For example, he openly bragged about his ability to bore people into submission and described his conservative philosophy as a set of ‘boring old principles’. Comments hardly designed to sell himself to posterity as a great success.

But Metternich as a personality was anything but dull. Born into the German high nobility in the Rhineland, he had the arrogance of his class and more. In 1819 he said of himself:

There is a wide sweep about my mind. I am always above and beyond the preoccupations of most public men … I cannot help myself from saying about twenty times a day: how right I am and how wrong they are.

In addition to this, he was extremely vain and convinced that women found him irresistible, which frequently they did. His affair with Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, is only the most well-known example of his ruthless use of charm as a political weapon. Indeed, one might go on for a long time chronicling all the reasons why this playboy politician can be described as anything but dull, but we ought perhaps to avoid the temptations of tabloid history. To cut to the heart of the issue, what exactly did Metternich achieve?

In order to answer this question one must go back to the key event in Metternich’s youth: the French Revolution. The revolutionary wars forced the Metternich family to flee from Germany into Austria. The young Metternich never forgot this trauma. The rest of his career was, in a sense, one long reaction. After 1815, when the revolutionary and Napoleonic era came to a close, Metternich had but one aim: to prevent any further revolutions occurring in Europe. In practical terms, this meant the suppression of two closely-related movements: Liberalism and Nationalism, ideologies which Metternich saw as the subversive roots of revolution. (It is hardly surprising that a Habsburg minister would be against nationalism given that the Empire contained about 11 different national groups.) To put this more positively and simply, his aim was to find ways of restoring and preserving the ancien régime, by which he meant rule by an absolute monarchy and the social dominance of the aristocracy. How successful was he in achieving this aim?

Rebuilding ‘The Old Order’ in Europe

When Metternich was first appointed foreign minister in 1809 the Habsburg Empire was at its lowest point in its struggle against Napoleon. The French leader had forced the Empire out of its northern Italian territories, taken over the Austrian Netherlands and subsumed the Habsburg parts of Poland into the Duchy of Warsaw. Habsburg domination of Germany had also been smashed as a result of the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. This was a particularly powerful psychological blow to the dynasty’s sense of self worth: the Habsburgs had been Holy Roman Emperors for almost all of the previous 400 years and suddenly it no longer existed. To add insult to injury, this particular act of Napoleonic modernisation changed the title of the Habsburg Emperor from Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor, to Francis I, Emperor of the remaining Habsburg dominions. One of the few times in history that a monarch has been devalued.

For a short period around 1809 the complete collapse of the Habsburg Empire seemed a possibility. In that year Metternich was appointed foreign minister and, within a few years, he had pulled the Empire back from the brink of possible extinction. In short, Metternich used his diplomatic skills to outgeneral Napoleon. In 1810 he persuaded the Habsburg Emperor, Francis I, to ally with Napoleon. When it became clear that the French leader was not prepared to settle down and play the part of an old-fashioned absolute monarch he turned against him and joined the Fourth Coalition, which eventually defeated France.

But Metternich’s greatest triumph was still to come. If Napoleon had threatened the virtual end of the Habsburg Empire it was Metternich’s achievement at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the structure of Europe in such a way that the Habsburgs emerged in an even stronger position than before the Napoleonic era. Control of north Italy was regained, as was control of Germany through the creation of a German Confederation under the permanent presidency of the Habsburgs. More spectacularly Metternich used his diplomatic sleight of hand to slice up the contentious areas such as Saxony and Poland without alienating his two key future allies: Russia and Prussia. Arguably, by the end of the Congress the Habsburg Empire was not only a great power but the great power; the geographic and political centre of Europe’s restored ancien régime. More cynically one might say that Metternich’s real achievement was to establish the illusion that the vast Habsburg Empire had become in Metternich’s phrase ‘a geographical necessity’ - a linchpin holding the restored order of Europe together.

After 1815 Metternich’s aim was uncomplicated, if impossible: to suspend time, or at least, to preserve the Vienna settlement for as long as possible. Despite the confusing nonsense of the Tsar Alexander’s so-called Holy Alliance, it was Metternich’s Quadruple Alliance and the resultant Congress System that established some sort of mechanism to allow Europe’s resurgent superpowers to co-ordinate their efforts to fight the revolutionary fires wherever they should start. Inevitably, the alliance was a fragile construction and by 1822 after the bizarre suicide of Castlereagh (he slit his own throat with a penknife in a fit of melancholy) the Congress System was also effectively dead.

Though Metternich was particularly disappointed to see Britain become less supportive, he wasted no time in building a smaller, more hard-line alliance of absolute monarchies known simply as the alliance of ‘Northern Courts’: St Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna. Although this too was prone to internal squabbling, in particular over the Eastern Question, Metternich was able to maintain a good relationship with Russia, which stands in stark contrast to Austrian foreign ministers that came after him.

Thus, for much of his period at the foreign office Metternich was able to mask Austria’s relative military weakness by working in tandem with other great powers. This was perhaps always the essence of what has become known, rather too grandly, as the Metternich System.

Undoubtedly, Metternich lost some of his mastery of European affairs in the last decade at the foreign ministry and he was unable to prevent revolutions occurring right across Europe in 1848, but we should not lose sight of the fact that he had given ‘The Old Order’ a new start.

Policing the Habsburg Empire

In many ways the Habsburg Empire was an inherently unstable structure: over 250,000 square miles in area, populated by 11 different national groups all of whom, with the exception of the Austrian ruling aristocracy, were largely without access to political power and therefore increasingly excited by the ideas of nationalists and liberal reformers. As these twin creeds grew more popular in the nineteenth century the plight of the ancient Habsburg Empire appeared more and more precarious. Napoleon had threatened destruction and yet Metternich again found ways to breathe new life into the old body politic.

It is often argued that, in addition to the territorial triumph at the Congress of Vienna, Metternich achieved stability in the Habsburg Empire by creating a ‘police state’. How true is this? It is certainly true that he worked very closely with Director of Police, Count Sedlnitzky, and that in addition to the regular police he created a vast network of spies and informers, all paid to pass information to him. Occasionally, prominent nationalists, such as the Hungarian Kossuth or the Italian Confalonieri, were thrown into jail. Books, newspapers, journals, plays and even paintings could be banned if the content was deemed likely to foment national or liberal feeling. Perhaps most notoriously he issued the Carlsbad decrees in 1819 which sought to suppress almost all dissident thought within the German confederation. There can be little doubt that this was a particularly extreme package of repressive legislation and in the way it targeted intellectuals such as professors, writers or students. It has led some historians, such as A.J.P. Taylor, to compare the Austrian chancellor with the infamous American, Senator McCarthy.

All of this is true and in some ways it is not surprising that some books cast Metternich as a rather sinister spider at the centre of a very unpleasant web (an image that Metternich actually enjoyed) but revisionist historians have shown that it was a web with absurdly large holes in it. The censorship, letter opening and bureaucratic interference did not prevent the flow of liberal and nationalist ideas into the Empire. The midnight arrests and occasional disappearances were more irritating than terrifying. The State was maddening but not fatal.

Having said that, Metternich’s conservatism was built upon the assumption that the people were too stupid to know what was in their own interest. From this point of philosophical departure it is a short route to tyranny and therefore Metternich must receive some of the blame for creating what we might see as a rather inefficient prototype of the police state, though the police in question were surely somewhat closer to the Keystone variety than those of the KGB or Gestapo. More to the point, up until 1848 the system worked very well.

Success or failure?

Far from being a failure, he would appear to have a most dazzling series of achievements to his name. The outwitting of Napoleon, the negotiated triumph of Vienna, the establishment of a diplomatic method or system which, to a certain extent, allowed the ruling classes of Europe to co-operate and communicate rather than make war. (A principle the Habsburgs would have done well to remember after 1848 when they lost territories in the wars of 1859 and 1866 and lost the entire Empire in the Great War of 1914-18.) In addition to this, in the field of domestic policy though he was undoubtedly repressive and intolerant, he nevertheless provided strong central government, indeed it might well be argued that a policy of even-handed repression of the nationalities was far superior to the sharing of power with the Hungarians that occurred in 1867 and which was, arguably, a very damaging constitutional change, creating not so much the Dualist constitution of the textbooks but a schizophrenic one - by 1914 the western half of the Empire had universal manhood suffrage whilst the Hungarian east remained defiantly undemocratic. One might also argue that the suppression of nationalism was not necessarily a bad thing given what nationalism in the former Habsburg Empire has led to in the twentieth century, not just Fascism of the Hitlerian variety but the barbarism of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the recent Balkan civil war. Indeed, we surely need to rethink the lurking assumption in many textbooks that the nineteenth-century nationalists were somehow on the side of ‘progress’. So, in many ways Metternich provided the Habsburg Empire and, to a lesser extent, Europe generally, with over 30 years of relative stability: an extraordinary achievement after the convulsions of the Napoleonic era.

And yet, oddly, there is still the aura of failure around his name. The reason is very simple, his system ultimately destroyed itself and him with it. To explain a little: it is frequently argued that his systematic implementation of inflexible and repressive policies actually created the very revolutions that he was trying to prevent. Thus the 1848 revolutions can be read as a kind of historical judgement upon the entire Metternich system, damning him forever. Although this is a debatable point there is, surely, much truth in it. And this is part of the problem for students of Metternich: he was both a success and a failure. So how, finally, should we interpret him?

The master of illusion

Almost everything about Metternich feels false. In many ways even his failure has been exaggerated and distorted by a curious process of guilt by association - association with a double decline: that of his class, the aristocracy, and, of course, that of the Habsburg Empire, both of which spent the rest of the nineteenth century digging their own graves and then falling into them in the Great War of 1914-18. Thus, most unfairly, it is the history of Europe after 1848 that has done much to portray Metternich as a man sowing the seeds of future failure.

In writing history we are all too often casting our historical actors into the rather clichéd roles of successful hero or failed villain. Metternich can all too easily be cast as either. Even Metternich often seemed unsure of which script he was following: he described himself on one occasion as ‘a kind of lantern’ which people used ‘to see the way through’ and on another, as a hopeless man wasting his time ‘propping up buildings mouldering in decay’. The uncertainty illuminates the most important aspect of Metternich’s career: his power was always a kind of theatrical illusion. He created the illusion of the ‘necessity’ of Austria at the Congress of Vienna, the illusion of a ‘system’ which could control European events, the illusion of himself as the sinister policeman at the centre of a grand ‘police state’ and, of course, the illusion of himself as the only man who could hold back the tides of revolution. We should not be surprised by the fact that the illusion was eventually shattered and exposed for what it was in 1848. The real measure of Metternich’s success is the fact that for over 30 years he was able to create the illusion of Austrian strength and obscure the reality of her relative weakness. Compared to the other great powers the army was in poor shape but state finances were being crippled by the cost of trying to maintain it. Exclusion from the Prussian dominated Zollverein left Austria shut out from Europe’s most important trading markets. Emergent nationalism was eating away at the stability of such a multi-ethnic empire. The police state was failing dismally to prevent subversive ideas corroding further the political system. Indeed, the Habsburg Empire was, by 1848, a Great Power in name only. Metternich’s most impressive achievement was to hide all of this decaying reality behind the thin façade of his own personal grandeur. Arguably and ironically, this makes him only a success in obscuring the much deeper failure of his system.

Words and concepts to note

Ancien régime: a general term for ‘The Old Order’ in Europe before the French Revolution of 1789, when most countries were ruled by absolute monarchs and the aristocracy were the dominant class.

Liberalism: a political system of ideas stressing freedom of the individual and usually demanding some sort of representative government with a limited monarchy but not necessarily full democracy. A democrat might well be described as a ‘radical’.

Nationalism: a movement stressing loyalty to one’s nation or race rather than loyalty to a dynasty or Empire.

Metternich System: a descriptive label for Metternich’s methods, implying that his use of congresses, alliances and informal consultation in conjunction with all the apparatus of the police state can be seen as one system, particularly given that all his methods seem to have one clear, ideological aim: the prevention of political change.

Questions to consider

w What image, both of himself and of the Habsburg Empire, did Metternich create?

w Was Metternich’s major achievement the preservation of the Habsburg Empire, its lands, powers and strength in Europe?

w What is a fair assessment of Metternich's diplomatic skills in alliance making for the benefit of Austrian interests?

w Why was it impossible for Metternich to resist the forces of liberalism and nationalism?

Metternich: Success or Failure? by Nick Pelling © new perspective 1998

Nick Pelling, Head of History at Charterhouse School, is the author of The Habsburg Empire 1815-1918, Hodder and Stoughton, 1996.

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