This is a giant Teutonic forest of a book, to be progressed through with determination as if by seasoned infantry; it is as far as biography can get from a Viennese waltz. But it has its rewards. It is a very extensive and well-researched chronicle of the subject’s monumental career — 39 years as foreign minister of the Austrian Empire, the last 27 of them also as the state chancellor, and an extensive diplomatic career prior to all that. Wolfram Siemann presents and argues for a new and rather liberal interpretation of ‘the Metternich system’ in place of the normal view of Metternich’s influence as rigid and reactionary. The author goes through considerable gymnastics and arbitrary allocations of guilt and imputations of motives to others that are debatable, to portray Metternich as a far-seeing modernist and constitutional democrat, persevering against less principled and capable people, both hidebound reactionaries and nihilistic revolutionaries and militarists.
The author embraces without question the theory that Napoleon was solely responsible for all the wars of the Coalitions, from his elevation as first consul in 1799 through to Waterloo. And he subscribes to Metternich’s view that the only way to make Europe somewhat peaceful was to maintain an almost artistic and precise balance between the five-and-a-half Great Powers: Austria, England, France, Prussia and Russia, with the Ottoman Empire as half-Great. For more than 20 years, Metternich was known as ‘the coachman of Europe’, because of his insight into and ability to elicit agreement from the monarchs and chief ministers of Russia and Prussia especially, but also the British and French. He knew the Austrian (Habsburg) emperors who were in power from 1780 to 1916, the British monarchs from 1760 to 1901, and the French directors, consuls, kings and emperors from 1795 to 1870. He dealt with all the great figures of Europe from Wellington to Bismarck. This book is laborious in its detail and often thematic rather than chronological in its presentation of every conceivable aspect of Metternich’s life (1773–1859). Siemann deals with the three wives, numerous mistresses and lesser affairs in one chapter, though they spanned more than 50 years, digressing into Metternich’s innovations as a vineyard owner, improver of estates, and his sketchy theories on many subjects, from economics to theology.
This figure is an almost unrecognisable Burkean liberal, a Gladstonian progressive reformer and the supreme rival of, and chief victor over, Napoleon. Siemann recasts the period from 1807 to 1815 as essentially a single-combat showdown between Napoleon and Metternich, with the other members of the anti-Napoleonic coalitions as secondary figures. In fact, Napoleon was not wholly responsible for all the wars blamed on him, and the three million deaths that resulted from them; and the British foreign secretary, Castlereagh, did as much coalition building as Metternich did. It was Metternich’s good fortune that Napoleon persuaded himself that he could instantly legitimise his huge empire, and assure himself an heir, by marrying a Habsburg princess.
Metternich was also lucky that when his negotiations with Napoleon became most intense, in 1813, the latter’s judgment was at its most erratic, but the Austrian foreign minister seized the opportunity and played his indifferent hand with genius and panache. He was also assisted by the outright and prolonged treason of his friend Talleyrand, before and after Napoleon fired him as French foreign minister in 1807.
Metternich is cast here as almost prudish in the presence of Napoleon’s lapses into barracks vocabulary, and as the personification of peace opposite an insatiable war-lover whom Metternich alone claimed had asserted that he didn’t care about the death of a million men. In fact Napoleon was frequently distressed by high casualties and was generally fairly gentle with civilian populations, though guerrilla war stirred him to severe reprisals, particularly in Spain. I believe that it would have been possible to reach a lasting agreement with Napoleon any time after 1805; that Metternich, for his own purposes, attached an unjustified alarm to Napoleon’s notion of becoming ‘a universal emperor’, and that Austria in particular would have been better off if Napoleon had been left with what he had in 1814. Germany would not have united and subordinated and then subsumed Austria, and mortally threatened France, Russia and Britain in the 20th century.
It is hard to be quite so admiring of Metternich as Siemann is when his strategy was deceit and duplicity diplomatically and complete military avoidance: whenever Napoleon advanced, the threatened ally would retreat, and the others would attack France’s flanks. It was ultimately successful — but was only devised after 16 years of almost constant defeat at Napoleon’s hands and was hardly heroic, or even imaginative. (Siemann’s attempt to portray Metternich as a gifted military strategist is very far-fetched.)
Metternich did admire the British form of government (even before the First Reform Act), and the US Constitution, and saw the potential for the Industrial Revolution by the 1830s. But the correlation of political forces in Austria between the Emperor, his family, the great landowners, and the different national groups — German, Italian, Polish, Bohemian and Slav — seriously restricted Metternich’s ability to act, even when he was supported by Franz II. He was never the head of the whole government, as Richelieu and Bismarck were, but more a powerful foreign minister (like Talleyrand, but with a more indulgent sovereign).
It is true that Metternich was not entirely rigid about maintaining the post-1815 borders and rulers of Europe, but he went to inordinate lengths to prevent conflicts, and while he thought Tsar Alexander I’s Holy Alliance was rubbish, he still suppressed Polish independence and supported the continued Ottoman occupation of Greece. To British objections, he likened the Ottoman presence in Greece to the British occupation of Ireland.
Metternich would have preferred to live in the pre-revolutionary 18th or post-revolutionary 19th century. But his lot was to bridge them and he was instrumental in maintaining peace from 1815 almost to 1850. He is called a politician throughout, but not in the sense of having to deal with parties and elections as Palmerston, Disraeli, and even Bismarck did. Metternich was talented and intelligent and mainly successful, achieving a remarkable level of influence given his ambiguous position in a ramshackle state. But he never saw that the Austrian empire was a fraud; he could not accept the force of nationalism, even after France had demonstrated it, and was ultimately outmanoeuvered by a less substantial rival, Johann Kollowrat. He fled for his life into exile in 1848, execrated throughout the empire, though he returned after four years and lived comfortably on for another seven years, vigorously defending his former career as ‘a rock of order’.
Metternich deserves, and here thoroughly receives, re-examination. It’s a biography for anyone who seriously wants to learn about its remarkable subject. But for the casual reader unprepared for an endless procession of unpronounceable principalities and