Klemens von Metternich, the long-time Austrian Foreign Minister and later Chancellor, was Europe’s rock, a master of political and diplomatic manoeuvring. He was disliked by contemporaries, despised by revolutionaries, and questioned by those who followed in his footsteps. What is undeniable, however, is that he was able to establish a balance of power, avoiding a major war between the Great Powers for almost a century.
Born in 1773 to a diplomat father in the House of Metternich, a grand German family steeped in prestige, Klemens von Metternich’s upbringing was formative in his later views on European power and diplomacy. As only a young man at the time of the French Revolution, Metternich owed his anti-revolutionary views to his disdain of what he described as a “hateful time”, in no small part because he was himself nobility. The nationalism and egalitarianism championed by the revolution stood in direct opposition to what he perceived as the success of the existing centralised, conservative and imperial systems which had retained order previously. However, Metternich’s contempt for the French Revolution lay just as much in its consequences as its ideology, due to both the ensuing ‘Reign of Terror’ and the later expansionary rule of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Starting in 1801, Metternich’s first diplomatic posts were as Ambassador to the Germanic Kingdoms of Saxony and later Prussia. He showed great promise as a statesman, which made him a favourite for the most important postings. It was in 1806 he took up the most vital of these roles, as Ambassador to Napoleonic France.
His time in Paris, while eventful, including a personal spat with Napoleon himself, did little to alter the course of Franco-Austrian relations. Napoleon remained determined to invade Austria, and Austria likewise to roll back French expansion. When Austria declared war in 1809, Metternich was arrested, which confirmed his existing distaste for the French, but was allowed to return to his homeland soon after.
Following a humiliating Austrian defeat at the Battle of Wagram, Metternich, not yet Foreign Minister, led the peace talks with France. He recognised that it was essential to the security and survival of Austria to achieve détente with France and so championed the most pro-French and liberal proposals. While this was unpopular among the Austrian people, it was essential to preserve the Austrian monarchy, the fate of which lay solely in the hands of Napoleon. This diplomatic strategy continued for another three years, with Metternich’s arrangement of marriage between Napoleon and the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Marie Louise, marking the height of the two nations’ alliance.
The cost of security was the crippling of Austrian power such that the once-proud state became a puppet to French interests. This was not, however, intended to be a permanent state of affairs. Metternich set about a swift detachment from the control of Napoleon, primarily through backchannel diplomacy with Russia starting in the autumn of 1811.
At this point, Napoleon viewed Russia as the sole obstacle to his domination of Europe, but his 1812 campaign was catastrophic, weakening France and ending their domination of Europe. His 600,000-strong army captured Moscow, but was driven into retreat by the effects of the notorious Russian winter. Only 25,000 men successfully retreated to Germany.
Metternich, grasping this chance to defeat Napoleon, sent 150,000 soldiers to aid the Russian and Prussian coalition army. The combined forces of Austria, Russia and Prussia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig on 19 October 1813. In the victorious aftermath, Metternich proposed that Napoleon surrender and return to its 1792 borders and in return he would be allowed to stay Emperor. In his hubris, Napoleon still expected to win the war and so rejected the offer – it was only in early 1814, once the coalition was on the march to Paris, he thought to accept, but by then the offer had been rescinded. Napoleon was deposed and exiled to Elba in April of that year.
However, Metternich’s toughest challenge was yet to come: how to order Europe in the post-Napoleonic age. To this end, he convened the famed Congress of Vienna in autumn 1814 to arrange such a settlement, with representatives from Europe’s major powers as well as over 200 European noble families. Most of the negotiations took place between the ‘Big Four’, the victorious powers of the Sixth Coalition that ultimately decided the direction of Europe, these being Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain. The outcomes of these negotiations were then presented to the ‘Big Six’, those same powers with the addition of Spain and a defeated France, represented by Talleyrand, and finally the ‘Big Eight’, including Sweden and Portugal, for ratification.
While of course Metternich sought to further the interests of Austria as far as possible, he saw that the best outcome of all was one of a peaceful Europe after 20 years of devastating continental wars. This required balancing the interests and power of every country so that none could act with such impunity as France had.
Austria and Britain particularly desired a peaceful continent. Austria was arguably the weakest of the Great Powers militarily and so avoiding war was certainly in their best interests. Britain saw that peace on the continent would redirect the European power struggle overseas, to empire and colonies; as the world’s supreme naval power, this was to their advantage. Thus, Metternich and Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister, sought balanced settlements against the attempted self-aggrandisement of Russia and Prussia.
At the time, Russia was the predominant military power in Europe, with troops stationed everywhere from their own border to Paris and the English Channel. Tsar Alexander I sought control of Poland (the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon). To possess Poland entirely would make Russia far too powerful; thus, Austria and Britain tried to curb this attempt with the help of Prussia. Hardenberg, the Prussian Prime Minister, also had designs on Poland, and so agreed to assist Austria and Britain so long as the Kingdom of Saxony became Prussian too.
Metternich seemed trapped: to curb Russian power, he would have to give Prussia part of Poland and Saxony, which in turn would make Prussian expansionism a threat to the smaller German states and indeed Austria too. Thus, he proposed that Prussia would receive Saxony so long as it did not constitute ‘disproportionate aggrandisement’. Hardenberg agreed. Yet this meant there was no way Prussia could receive Saxony in actuality: if Prussia allowed Russia to have Poland, then the Anglo-Austrian entente had nothing for which to reward Prussia; if Prussia acquired Poland in the settlement, then receiving Saxony would be ‘disproportionate aggrandisement’. Metternich had spun a brilliant web.
Prussia gave in to Metternich’s demands. In the meantime, Tsar Alexander was convinced by Castlereagh to end his self-interested diplomatic wrangling and instead act for the interests of all Europe. Thus, Russia conceded territory in Poland to Prussia, while Saxony remained independent. Tsar Alexander became monarch of the new Kingdom of Poland, expanding Russian power, but Prussia was sufficiently strong to resist them. As a final insurance policy against Prussian expansionism in German territory, Metternich organised a 39-state German Confederation.
The Congress was interrupted by the return of Napoleon and the reformation of the Quadruple Alliance to defeat him. This had little practical impact on the final settlement except for the Tsar’s insistence on a Christian union of monarchies over the secular diplomacy of Metternich. The Austrian, while derisive of the idea, supported it publicly to establish a more ironclad diplomatic system whereby, whenever issues arose between the powers, they were to convene for discussion, as they had at Vienna, instead of war. This became known as the Concert System, and it protected Europe from direct Great Power conflict for almost a century.
Thus, Metternich achieved his aim of lasting peace in two ways. The first was ensuring a balance of powers so that none could act independently without consequence. This meant even the most powerful were not powerful enough for it to be in their genuine self-interest to attempt expansion, given that every other power was sure to be both able and willing to resist.
The second aspect of Metternich’s method for securing peace was to promote diplomacy over war as the philosophy of international relations. This was an essentially conservative viewpoint fostered by his rejection of revolution and desire to protect the Patrician status quo. Revolution and war were drastic, violent and overly idealistic; diplomacy represented the opposite, practical and bloodless approach that valued stability over chaos. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and with the burgeoning threats of nationalism, liberalism and democracy faced by the monarchies of Europe, the Great Powers were willing to forgo their expansionist missions (in Europe at least) in exchange for mutually guaranteed stability.
In one of Metternich’s crucial aims, his system was a failure; try as they might, the conservative monarchies were unable to entirely stifle liberal movements across the continent. In 1848, ‘Europe’s Spring’, even Metternich, now Chancellor, was forced to resign and effectively exiled from his beloved Austria.
However, in terms of great power relations, the ‘Metternich System’ was an undoubted success. 20th Century critics pointed to the conservative nature of the settlement as out of step with the liberal direction of politics, too concerned with balance of power rather than high-minded principle; yet the high-minded Treaty of Versailles, with its liberal ideals, led to catastrophe only two decades after its ratification. Though conflicts occurred between Europe’s powers in the 19th Century, they remained minor proxy wars, and the tendency towards diplomatic summits instead of wars certifies that Metternich’s legacy lived on in the philosophy of diplomacy as much as the practicality of Great Power balance.
Metternich later returned to Vienna, and died there on 11 June 1859. Just days before his passing, he had been interviewed by a writer about his life and service. As the writer left, it was with 40 years of hindsight on his achievements that Klemens von Metternich murmured to himself: “I have been a rock of order, a rock of order.”
Kissinger, H., 2013. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822. Echopoint Books & Media.
Siemman, W., 2016. Metternich: Strategist and Visionary. Harvard University Press.