Prince Clemens Lothar Wenzel von Metternich

Prince Clemens Lothar Wenzel von Metternich
Prince Clemens Lothar Wenzel von Metternich

Prince Clemens Lothar Wenzel von Metternich was the son of the Austrian envoy to the Rhenish clerical courts (later envoy to the Netherlands). A man of charm and presence, Metternich gained influence by marrying Maria Eleanora Kunitz, the granddaughter of the minister of Maria Theresa.

Having received educational credentials via a degree in philosophy from the University of Strasbourg and a degree in law and diplomacy from the University of Mainz, and after traveling to England, he began his official career. He entered diplomatic service in 1797 as the representative of Westphalian courts at a congress of German states. In 1801 he became ambassador to Saxony for Austria.

Metternich’s obsequious manner and shrewd powers of observation helped advance his career. In November 1803 he was named to the major court of Berlin for Austria. He then became Austria’s ambassador to Russia for a year and finally ambassador to France in 1806.

In that post, he ingratiated himself with the rising statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and Napoleon I’s sister Caroline. When war broke out between France and Austria in 1809, he was held as a hostage for two months. In October 1809 the treaty of Schonbrunn greatly reduced Austria in size and brought it to its lowest point in history.

At this point, Metternich, who had become minister of state in August, was appointed both foreign minister and minister of the imperial house. He was appointed partly because of his knowledge of Napoleon and partly because of his ability. From that point forward, Metternich was to dominate Austria (and often Europe) for nearly 40 years.

From this time onward, his emphasis was on maintaining a balance of power to preserve Austria. To gain time for Austria to recover and prevent a possible rapprochement between Napoleonic France and the Czar that might crush Austria, he acceded to Napoleon’s request to arrange for the hand of Marie Louise. Marie Louise was the daughter of Austria’s Francis II (who was also Holy Roman Emperor Francis I).

In the subsequent Franco-Russian hostility, Metternich negotiated with both sides until it became apparent that Napoleon was on the defensive. He was then able to gain the maximum advantage for Austria as Russia and Prussia were becoming more anxious for Austrian troops as the decisive engagement at the battles of Leipzig and Dresden drew near.

After these coalition victories against Napoleon, Metternich hosted the powers of Europe as they arrived in Vienna to draw up settlements, many of which would last for a century. His main goal at this congress and thereafter were balance of power, legitimacy, and compensation. At the Congress of Vienna he led the effort to prevent Russia from becoming too powerful. The Russians wanted all of Poland, which would threaten Europe as the Czar had already taken Finland, most of the Caucasus, and Bessarabia during the Napoleonic War.

Prussia, in turn, who would give up her share of Poland, wanted all of Saxony, a densely populated industrialized state in Central Germany. This would make Prussia too powerful in Germany. Supported by the British and the French who were anxious to be readmitted to the club of Europe, Metternich managed to limit Russian gains in Poland and keep half of Saxony free.

The period 1815–48 was the age of Metternich, who dominated European diplomacy. The bases for this dominance were the arrangements made at the Congress. Under legitimacy, monarchs were restored in much of Europe, although much of the feudal system west of Austria was abolished. Monarchs were restored in Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

States that lost territory were compensated. Thus Sweden, which had lost Finland to Russia, received Norway, and Holland, which had lost colonial territories to Britain, received Belgium from Austria to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

After 1815 the council of Europe was formed to make sure that the leading powers of Europe (Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and, in 1818, France) would act in unison to maintain order, peace, and stability, thereby avoiding conflict among themselves.

This system, although threatened by the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 as well as independence movements in the Balkans against Turks, endured until the Crimean War in the middle of the century.

To enforce the system, the powers utilized two alliances. The Holy Alliance was signed in order to placate the czar. All of Europe signed an agreement to promote “justice, Christian charity, and peace.”

The exceptions were the British king (who was insane); the pope, who considered himself the keeper of Christian charity; and the Turkish sultan, who was not Christian. A more practical alliance was the Quadruple Alliance among the great powers (changed to the Quintuple alliance with the eventual addition of France). This alliance would hold congresses to act on matters of mutual concern.

The business of the alliance involved collective security, and the results involved multimilitary intervention to restore the status quo, even if it resulted in application of force to repress forces of liberalism and nationalism.

Thus the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 adjusted the relationship of France to the other powers; the Congress of Karlsbad in 1819 occurred after the assassination of a Russian envoy in Germany and was used by Metternich to force press censorship, government supervision of universities, and the suppression of representative institutions not sanctioned by ancient usage. The German states submitted to this Congress.

After the Congress of Laibach in 1821, Austrian troops intervened to suppress a popular uprising in Naples and Sicily and finally in 1822 at Verona, French troops were sanctioned to put down a Spanish uprising against the king. As a result of the last three congresses, the parliaments that had been established in Sardinia, in Naples, and in Spain were abolished.

By that time, Britain and Russia had become less enthusiastic. The British, along with the United States, opposed a plan to restore the Spanish king’s authority over Latin America. They had developed a thriving trade with a Latin America free of Spanish mercantilism.

Russia supported the Greeks as fellow Orthodox coreligionists. By the middle 1820s Metternich was no longer unfettered in his policy objectives but was still considered first among equals.

Inside Austria, he exercised complete power for as long as Francis II ruled. However, after 1835 he had to share power as one of a number of councilors who advised the somewhat feeble minded Ferdinand I.

By the 1840s the Metternich system came to be seen as something oppressive and even reactionary, and the author of this system was hated. On March 13, 1848, having seen the writing on the wall, he resigned. Exiled, he went to England and Belgium, before returning to Vienna in 1851. He died in 1859, at the age of 86. Married and widowed three times, he died alone. He had 11 children, seven of whom survived him. In terms of 19th-century diplomacy, only Otto von Bismarck rivaled his influence and impact.