Solid Strategy, Limited Vision

Metternich: Strategist and Visionary by Wolfram Siemann; Translated by Daniel Steuer; Belknap Press, Harvard University; 928 pp., $39.95


All states need a strategy, however rudimentary, in order to survive. Great powers need much more: a viable grand strategy for war and peace is called for to endure in the never-ending struggle for power, land, and resources. As A.J.P. Taylor noted in The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954), though individuals had never lived in the state of nature imagined by Thomas Hobbes, “the Great Powers of Europe have always done so.”

This was notably the case with the unevenly developed, ethnically mixed, and constitutionally complex lands of the junior Habsburg branch. They were spread from Lombardy to Transylvania and from Galicia to the Adriatic, with detached possessions on the Rhine and in the Low Countries. Its heartland enjoyed solid internal lines of communication along the Danube and its navigable tributaries, but its edges were vulnerable.

The challenges to Austria, after its failed bid for imperial hegemony in the Thirty Years War, seemed almost permanent from at least one of the points along its extended frontiers. After the loss of Lorraine in 1733, and especially after the loss of Silesia in 1742, its continued status as a great power became contingent on the careful matching of means and ends.

Until the rise of Napoleon, the balancing was not manifested in single acts of statesmanship. It was a process of continuously applying experience, accumulated over decades and paid in blood and treasure, in pursuit of an essentially defensive grand strategy. It relied on a chain of buffer entities to the west and north, separating the Austro-Bohemian heartland from the old enemy, France, and the new one, Prussia; on a strategic anti-Turkish partnership with Russia to the northeast; and on the military frontier, defended by mostly Slavic peasant-soldiers along the long southeastern border with the Ottoman Empire. Essential to the maintenance of the complex network of allies, clients, and defensive perimeters was a dependable diplomatic apparatus and a political-military leadership with a good sense of strategic priorities and timing.

At a moment of critical weakness no standard operating procedure is good enough, but inspired statesmanship may save the day. Enter Prince Klemens von Metternich, who made a key contribution to the Habsburg Monarchy’s survival during the perilous years of Napoleon’s continental supremacy (1809-1813). Metternich’s actions during this period provide arguably the most brilliant case study of sustained defensive diplomacy in history. 

A master of understanding other people’s vanities and weaknesses—notably those of Napoleon and Tzar Alexander I—Metternich also engineered Austria’s disproportionately pivotal role in the system he helped create at the Congress of Vienna. Metternich was the central figure of the anti-Napoleonic coalition which defeated the parvenu in 1813-1815, and which reestablished the balance of power in Europe. He acted strategically to implement his vision of a European peace architecture. That much is undisputable.

Wolfram Siemann’s major biography of Metternich is the first oeuvre of comparable magnitude since Heinrich von Srbik’s three-volume Metternich: Der Staatsmann und der Mensch (Metternich: The Statesman and the Man) written from 1925 to 1952. Siemann establishes with great force that Metternich, first as Austria’s foreign minister, and after 1821 as its chancellor, had a highly developed sense of strategic timing and an ability to prioritize policy objectives. Siemann points out that young Klemens had a solid mentor in his father Franz, a diplomat of stature, contrary to Srbik’s assessment.

Siemann’s parallel claim, that his subject was also capable of anticipating dramatic developments and fine-tuning his policies accordingly, remains unproven. It is an unjust caricature to present Metternich as the epitome of reaction and an early proponent of the police state, but it is equally implausible to present him—as Siemann has attempted—as a forward-looking politician, a “visionary” way ahead of his time in his disdain for the perils of nationalism and populism.

Siemann proceeds chronologically, except for three thematic chapters, just under 100 pages in all, which focus on Metternich’s views on war and peace, his liaisons with women, and his private business dealings. The rest of the biography is clearly and unevenly divided. The quarter-century before Metternich’s first ambassadorial appointment gets five pages per year. The tempo subsequently slows down to 15 pages per year and goes into slow-motion for the years between 1809 and 1815, at 36 pages per year.

In contrast, the longest and most politically influential years of Metternich the Statesman—his three-decades-plus as a leading politician of the Habsburg Monarchy and the supposed architect of a repressive “System” bearing his name—are often presented in dark tones, and proceed in fast motion at six pages per year. Details on the final decade of his life, after his exile in 1848 and return to Vienna in 1851, are sketchy in the extreme.

Siemann’s magnum opus is for the most part a traditional German biography which focuses on Metternich’s life from his birth in Coblenz in 1773 until his death almost nine decades later, in Vienna in 1859. It was obviously a joy to write: Metternich is a fascinating subject quite apart from his political legacy: an imperial count, a pioneer of industrial development, a reactionary who admired the English constitution, a failing reformer in a fragile multinational state, and an admirer of women. The trouble is that, in the end, Siemann goes native by trying to present his subject as a misunderstood, tragic hero.

In addition to the standard Austrian, French, and German sources, the Bavarian historian has relied on a rich trove of hitherto unknown documents from Czech archives—including personal letters, family accounts, and legal files—which were not available to Srbik. He presents the reader with a broad vista of European and domestic Austrian politics from just before the fall of the Bastille, to the revolutionary turmoil of 1848 and its immediate aftermath. 

Siemann deviates from the standard pattern of German historiography in his disregard for the nation-state paradigm. He has rediscovered the central role of the Habsburg Empire as a central European superpower of the post-Napoleonic era, and Metternich’s role as a German-born politician who was apprehensive of the pan-German idea ab initio and remained its skeptical critic until the end. He grasped the power of the national principle, but he also understood the dangers of its sanctification, which the liberals refused to consider. Metternich’s vision of the proper place of national movements was the striving for limited autonomy within major states in general, and the Habsburg Empire in particular. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination would be anathema to him.

0820-METTERNICH-2Metternich is one of those figures who arouse strong reactions among those who think they know him, and those reactions are almost invariably based on false assumptions. Metternich’s vision of the Habsburg monarchy as the impartial, supranational framework for peaceful coexistence of different nationalities was doomed to fail amidst the rising spirit of Risorgimento in Italy and its variants in Hungary, Poland, and the Rhineland.

At the same time, after his heyday of diplomatic power in 1815 and his elevation to the chancellorship six years later, Metternich’s position in Vienna grew increasingly precarious. He was never a true insider in the imperial capital, and he was never able to match his spectacular social and financial rise with a corresponding position within the establishment. Even Metternich’s long-forgotten Czech nemesis, Franz Anton von Kolowrat-Liebsteinsky, being in charge of the finances, could frustrate his plans and ultimately engineer his downfall.

A welcome novelty, often touching and sometimes scandalous, is the chapter on Metternich’s relations with women, as well as that on his private entrepreneurship. It departs from the classic biographical format by providing a modern understanding of amorous relations between cultivated men and self-confident (often married) women in the top tier of the ancien régime social hierarchy. Metternich was arguably the last of the 18th-century-style classy Lotharios, just before the bourgeoisie imposed its stifling sexual mores during the Victorian era. Also, at the personal level, even without intending to do so, Siemann shows his hero to have been a major expense-account-padder and a brazen tax cheat.

The primary focus of the book is nevertheless on politics, with private details inserted in the format of stand-alone scholarly articles. Metternich comes across as a shrewd player in a complex European game, in which Austria held a poor hand for most of the time between the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo.

A paradox of Metternich’s ideological makeup, explored by Siemann in detail, was his enthusiastic affinity for England, her social and political institutions and traditions included. The infatuation started with an early visit in 1794 and continued until the end, after the exile in Brighton preceding his return to Vienna in 1851. “If I were not what I am,” the young Metternich wrote after his first visit, “I would like to be an Englishman. If I could neither be the one or the other, I would rather be nothing at all.” He embraced the Weltanschauung of conservative Whigs embodied by Edmund Burke. At the same time, his refusal to apply the notions of British liberalism to central Europe was based on his conviction that the German nation was unfit to use  Albion’s homegrown and unique institutions and practices.

Siemann is at pains to reconcile two different Metternichs. One is a promoter of press censorship and secret police informer networks, and the author of the notorious Carlsbad Decrees at home—repressions of liberal and national ideas enacted in 1819 and described by their author as “a great act, one of the most important of my life.” The other is an Anglophile cosmopolitan. The author becomes too closely allied with his subject at this point, trying to present Metternich as a visionary who would have been happy to consider a more liberal system in the Habsburg domain and the German lands, but for the unpreparedness of the hoi polloi for such lofty responsibility.

In reality, Metternich was fixated on Ruhe (“quiet”): the calm of autocratic absolutism upheld by a loyal army, an efficient bureaucracy, a well-oiled police machine, and a docile Catholic hierarchy. He was no reformer by stealth: his “System” became only more oppressive as the years passed by. There was no free press, no autonomous universities, no parliamentary assemblies, and no jury courts. The model was fatalistic and obstinate, rather than visionary.

Metternich nevertheless wrote in 1820:

My life has fallen at a hateful time. I have come into the world either too early or too late. Now, I do not feel comfortable; earlier, I should have enjoyed the time; later, I should have helped to build it up again; today I have to give my life to prop up this moldering edifice. I should have been born in 1900, and I should have had the twentieth century before me.

Siemann in citing this passage, discredits his view of Metternich as a visionary. In truth, had Metternich been born in 1900, he would have witnessed the Habsburg Empire’s defeat in the Great War and its subsequent disintegration, being too young to influence the outcome; the interwar disorientation painfully depicted by Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig; the Anschluss and Austria’s humiliating degradation to the Nazi-designated “Ostmark”; and the conquest of a ruined and starving Vienna by the Red Army in April 1945. He would not have been able to create a new smokescreen to hide Austria’s pathetic weakness. In his lifespan of 85 years he would have seen the rise of the Brussels-based anti-Europe, the onset of a migrant tsunami that has transformed many parts of Germany and Austria into Anatolia, and the collapse of social mores and Christian faith among his fellows, on both sides of the Rhine and both north and south of the Alps. He was infinitely better off living when and how he did.

Siemann’s surprisingly sketchy treatment of the second half of Metternich’s life, occupying a mere fifth of the book, is significant primarily for throwing a new light on his German policy in the quarter-century preceding the revolutions of 1848. His disdain for the Jacobin cult of the nation-state marching to La Marseillaise would not be frowned upon in today’s Brussels, Berlin, or even Paris. To his credit, Siemann does not suggest that his subject was an early visionary of EU-like integration. The man emerging from his work indubitably would be terrified by the postmodern Beast of Brussels calling itself Europe.

In the end, Metternich was defeated in 1848 by the joint forces of nationalism and bourgeois liberalism, though he made a doomed struggle against the spirit of the epoch. Past his prime, he lacked the foresight to see the tempest coming, and conceded defeat stoically: “I am no longer anybody. I have nothing more to do, nothing more to discuss.” A visionary should have anticipated the storm and tried to harness its forces rather than resisting them. Bismarck did so masterfully, both before and after unification, engendering the sense of German unity that transcended the parochial and quaintly neo-feudal inheritance of Ruritanian principalities and bishoprics. 

The fact that Bismarck’s legacy was ruined by his unworthy successors is less of a failing than Metternich’s failure to reform the clumsy Habsburg edifice well before the disaster of 1848. 

“You will know them by their fruits,” it is written in the Book of Matthew. Siemann presents the fruits of Metternich’s life with impressive diligence. This is not a definitive biography, but his contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the man is unsurpassed in the past 70 years, Henry Kissinger’s 1957 effort notwithstanding. Siemann’s assertion that Metternich was a first-class strategist is not novel, but it is presented here with fresh force supported by new sources. His claim in the final fifth of the book that Metternich was a visionary is unconvincing. Metternich: Strategist and Visionary is nevertheless well-translated, informative, and a good read.

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

Add a Comment


Join the conversation...

You are currently using the BETA version of our article comments feature. You may notice some bugs in submission and user experience. Significant improvements are coming soon!


Be the first to comment on this article!