Rethinking Metternich

More than most statesmen of his time, Metternich thought about history and his place in it. He was right to worry: most biographies have depicted him as an essentially reactionary politician—a “coachman” of Europe who was fond of the whip hand

A. Wess Mitchell

“The historian is not yet born,” the Austrian state chancellor Clemens Wenzel von Metternich complained in 1829, “who will describe the numerous events of the first decades of the 19th century.” At the time, Metternich had good reason to ponder his legacy. Over the preceding two years, he had watched Europe’s great powers isolate Austria in the latest crisis involving the Ottoman Empire. The intricate system of European diplomacy that he had helped to devise a little over a decade earlier at the Congress of Vienna seemed to be in ruins. While Austria’s isolation would be short-lived—Metternich managed to rehabilitate the concert format following a chance encounter with the Russian foreign minister at the baths in Carlsbad—his remaining years would be marked by constant upheaval. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out, it was Metternich whose effigy the mobs across Europe burned as a symbol of reaction, repression and control.

More than most statesmen of his time, Metternich thought about history and his place in it. Like Churchill and Kissinger, he took an active hand in shaping the image of himself that would be passed down. He took meticulous notes, kept every scrap of paper and composed autobiographical memoranda with future historians in mind. He distrusted the judgment of contemporaries, who were too close to events and lacked the “calmness and impartiality” that only time and distance—and access to his archives—could bring.

Metternich was right to worry about his legacy. Of the more than 30 biographies written since his death, most have depicted him as an essentially reactionary politician—a “coachman” of Europe who was fond of the whip hand. The tone was set early on by German nationalist historians like Heinrich von Treitschke, Viktor Bibl and above all, Heinrich von Srbik, whose sprawling, two-volume, 1,431-page Metternich: Der Staatsmann und der Mensch (The Statesman and the Man) became a kind of font for future biographers. In Metternich’s manoeuvres to prop up the polyglot Austrian Empire, they saw a slick and mendacious schemer who had failed to take up the cause of German Kultur. Only in the aftermath of the two world wars that followed the collapse of Metternich’s much-maligned system would English historians such as Cecil Algernon, Alan Palmer and Desmond Seward undertake a reappraisal. Their American counterparts saw in Metternich’s efforts at collective security a forerunner to the post-war order; in Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored, Metternich would be enshrined as a practitioner of statecraft in its highest form.

But it was the earlier picture that stuck. To this day in Austria, Metternich’s name carries connotations of hidebound reaction and hostility to change in any form. It is this image of Metternich that Wolfram Siemann, professor of history at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, sets out, successfully, to challenge. As he points out, all previous biographers have used the same sources, drawing deeply upon Srbik and more or less uncritically accepting his conclusions. It was therefore an almost century-sized historiographical hole that Siemann set out to fill by delving into the Acta Clementina in Prague and Metternich family archive.

The result is the first independent treatment of Metternich in the modern era. This was long overdue, and the scale of Siemann’s accomplishment would be hard to overstate. Part of the success is organisational, in his mastery of the sheer scale of a life that ran from the time of Robespierre to Franz Joseph. Siemann’s method is to divide Metternich’s life into “epochs” and trace the evolution in his outlook between them. His descriptions of these eras is an accomplishment in its own right, forming a kind of second book that intertwines with the life of Metternich.

Siemann’s greatest achievement, however, lies in bringing new evidence to bear that changes our view of Metternich the statesman. He successfully argues that Metternich’s efforts to build a finely tuned concert of powers were driven by an understanding that stability is a byproduct of balanced power and by his continued efforts to secure a durable peace. Siemann places Metternich firmly within the conservative tradition of Montesquieu and Burke, in favouring incremental change and compromise over legitimist reaction. He anchors this judgment in Metternich’s upbringing amid the decaying world of the Holy Roman Empire—a storied structure whose mixed constitutions and ancient pomp imprinted themselves deeply on the Rhinelander’s political imagination. Especially revelatory is Metternich’s close study of Burke’s contributions to House of Commons debates during his visit to London as a young man, and the passages he marked up in a first edition of the statesman’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Reading this portion of Siemann’s book alongside Kissinger’s comparison of Burke and Metternich provides a convincing demonstration of what a thorough historian can accomplish in using good homework to overturn received wisdom.

Siemann also strives to change our view of Metternich the man. We get an entire chapter on his relationships with women, which Siemann sees as ritualised pursuits primarily fulfilling an intellectual rather than a physical need. We find a letter from Metternich, written on his 50th birthday, to a woman 12 years his junior with a hand-drawn triangular diagram outlining his theory of the sexual maturity of men and women. The chart simultaneously flatters his friend (at 38, she is still, by his schema, in sexual “summer”) while demonstrating—empirically, and on his 50th birthday, no less—that his physical prowess is undiminished, and indeed placing the two near a point of convergence in their distance from “sexual death”. Diplomacy, indeed.

Other details defy the standard picture of Metternich. A stickler for imperial protocol, he hated wigs (“the worst of all miseries”) and was often bored by the very conferences that we most associate with him (“If I must sit opposite to Capo d’Istria at the Conference table for hours on end and read his elaborations, which is worse than to hear him speak, I am so confused, and my thoughts wander so much that I am always uneasy lest I perpetuate some stupidity.”) Less surprisingly, he was a pioneer of collecting what would today be called kompromat on his rivals. On the eve of the July Revolution, he threatened to discredit the French king, Louis Philippe, with an incriminating letter that had been in his files since 1805. He kept a dossier on Bavaria’s King Ludwig I detailing the Wittelbach’s affairs. And he once used an intercepted letter between Austrian Emperor Franz’s own wife and brother, his two sharpest critics at court, to discredit both. Yet given Metternich’s reputation as a Machiavellian, we are surprised to find that he was somewhat maladroit in handling rivalries at the treacherous Habsburg court following the death of his friend and master, the Emperor Franz.

Weak points in the book are hard to find. Siemann’s attempt to overturn previous historians’ conclusion that Metternich supported launching the disastrous war of 1809—a central front in his challenge to Srbik—is unpersuasive, relying on a set of three memoranda which, however many times one reads them, plainly show that Metternich thought the moment was right for war and wanted to support his boss, Johann Stadion. His analysis of Metternich as an architect of peace through balance and collective security would have been strengthened by placing him in the context of a wider Habsburg diplomatic tradition; earlier Habsburg diplomats like Kaunitz (the grandfather of his first wife) and Bartenstein had pioneered many of the techniques that Metternich would later perfect for avoiding tests of strength beyond Austria’s ability. And Siemann’s designation of Metternich in the conclusion as a “post-modern” seems at odds with his anchoring of the statesman in the Burkean conservative tradition.

But these are quibbles. The book is magnificent and fun to read. Siemann’s arguments are novel and well-supported by immense research using previously unearthed sources. The author is a good storyteller who never loses sight of his plot—no small task for a book of 900 pages. The book’s translator, Daniel Steuer, deserves credit for his use of original documents over later, misleading English translations, and for converting what must have often been tediously clinical 19th-century German into accessible, and at times beautiful, English.

Unlike many other biographers, Siemann is careful about judging the past through the lens of today. He avoids the casual indignation that so many historians show when assessing historical figures that do not live up to the progressive standards gripping academe. He resists the urge to treat the Austrian Empire as a forerunner to the European Union, whose outcome, he notes, is “yet to be determined.” At the same time, he casts Metternich as a man ahead of his time, who would have recognised (and indeed, in some cases foresaw) the maladies affecting the West today. Nothing preoccupied Metternich more than the search for order, and in today’s tension between successful but ageing international structures and the popular clamour for change, he would see patterns recognisable in his own time. In Siemann’s rendering, we see in Metternich a forward-thinking, steady and humane diplomat who pursued a “realpolitik guided by principles” and never lost his “inner compass.”

Metternich’s wait for a historian to properly judge his place in history took longer than he probably expected. But in Wolfram Siemann, he got his man.


Metternich: Strategist and Visionary
By Wolfram Siemann
Harvard, 900pp, £31.95


The opinions and characterisations in this piece are those of the author and do not
represent those of the US government.

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