Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Strategist and ­Visionary

by wolfram siemann
translated by daniel steuer
harvard, 928 pages, $39.95

In the midst of a Haydn concert in London in June 1794, the young Clemens von Metternich spotted his one-time teacher, ­Andreas Hofmann, in the audience. Rather than renewing old acquaintance, the future Prince of Diplomats immediately denounced Hofmann to the authorities as a dangerous subversive. The charge was true, though by itself it hardly seems a sufficient reason for spoiling a perfectly good musical evening. ­Hofmann had been a raging radical and supporter of the French Revolution at the University of Mainz, where he had taught the young ­Metternich philosophy and natural law a couple of years ­earlier. As it happened (though ­Metternich did not know this), Hofmann was by 1794 a genuine danger to his host country. He had become a spy for the French government and was busily gathering information on British military strength. But ­Metternich made such a fuss about his discovery, gesticulating and pointing, that Hofmann realized he was in danger. While the authorities scrambled to lay hands on him, the wily Hofmann fled the concert and went into hiding before he could be arrested.

The episode is faintly ridiculous and does not make Metternich seem loveable. Denouncing people, even when right is on your side, is never an attractive thing to do. And if you are going to do it, you might at least do it efficiently. In this one vignette, the life of the foreign minister and chancellor of the Austrian Empire seems to be summed up: The person is unattractive, the actions off-putting.

Metternich’s very name sounds like shackles dragging across the dank stone floor of a dungeon. He is associated—rightly—with those unlovely features of Europe’s old regime, secret police and censorship. And there are those who say that his supposed brilliance at diplomacy was not in fact all it has been made out to be. His personal character does not seem to have been especially admirable.

Yet in recent years the name has also taken on a certain unexpected magic, polished by modern figures such as Henry Kissinger into a symbol of non-utopian, realistic diplomacy in which a practical-minded search for order among nations is better than an idealistic pursuit of justice within ­nations. 

This is a good argument, and ­Wolfram Siemann is keen to defend his subject against his many detractors. In an era when supposedly benevolent interventions in other people’s countries have once again become fashionable, the case for leaving things alone needs to be made—though it is not clear whether Dr. Kissinger was the ideal person to make it. As recent events in Iraq, Syria, and Libya demonstrate with terrible clarity, poor, powerless people suffer greatly from high-minded attempts to liberate them from tyranny. Given the chance to rerun the past twenty years, I suspect most inhabitants of the Middle East would beg fervently to keep their despots, now that they know what the alternative actually is. Yet objectors to the Western policy of destabilizing Bashar al-Assad’s Syria will find themselves incessantly and falsely accused of being apologists for President Assad’s torture chambers and secret police. I suspect that Clemens von Metternich, brought back to life in our century, would instantly recognize the essentials of this controversy. This is why he remains important.

Metternich’s was a strange life. It began in 1773 in that somnolent world in which the Holy Roman Empire, beautifully described by Professor Siemann as “an obsolete fancy-dress party,” still slumbered across the middle of Europe, a bridge between the dying age of crown, gold, land, and faith, and the new times of paper money, cold reason, steam, and steel. It ended in 1859, just before Otto von Bismarck changed the very meaning of the word “Germany,” and inaugurated the era in which we still live. Given that Metternich dwelt mainly in a time of horse-drawn carriages and knee-breeches, it is something of a shock to find that he was photographed in his extreme old age, like stumbling across an authentic recording of the Gettysburg Address.

In extraordinary detail, Siemann describes the hierarchical, stuffy world in which Metternich was formed. Much of what he has found is fascinating and telling. The great statesman’s father, Franz Georg, was a clever fool, repeatedly getting into hopeless debt, bequeathing almost unending money worries to his son. Franz Georg owed so much, so often, that the fear of destitution and disgrace can never have been far from his mind. Franz Georg devoted his days to serving the Habsburgs (as Clemens would) and took Clemens on diplomatic missions, the first when he was only seven years old. But he was luckless in politics as in money matters, having the misfortune to be the representative of Austrian rule in Brussels when French republican troops swept in and forced him to flee. Soon afterward, the Metternichs lost their ancient estates in the Rhineland, once again thanks to French conquest. Metternich’s mother, ­Beatrix, hurried to Vienna after this disaster but ran so short of money on the way that she had to sell her coach, a sharp ­humiliation for a high-born woman. This stern practical education in the realities of money, politics, war, and defeat must have cut deep. Anyone who seeks an explanation for Metternich’s later preference for stability and authority could easily find it in those turbulent times.

But Metternich had other hard lessons in these matters. During his studies in Mainz and Strasbourg, he met Hofmann (whom he would later denounce) and other revolutionaries, coming to dislike and mistrust them the more that he knew them. A week after the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the young Metternich was in Strasbourg when a drunken mob emulated the event by besieging and attacking the city hall. He observed that Johann Friedrich Simon, his personal tutor, was deeply involved in these events. And he saw that Simon was coldly using the mob’s rage to destroy vital files and property records, the better to seize power and wealth from church and nobility. So much for the supposed noble idealism of the revolutionary cause. ­Metternich’s personal closeness to Simon did not lessen his scorn for the man. In private notes, he condemned Simon’s “personal madness” and the “vulgar nature” of his activities. He later wrote, “As I had received my education from the school of true radicalism, the later liberalism seemed a very dull creation to me.” This is yet more evidence of an important rule of politics: Those who know and understand revolutionaries make the best conservatives.

But how conservative was Metternich? Was he motivated by any consistent view, or was he merely the servant of an increasingly decrepit Habsburg dynasty? Siemann rejects the view of some earlier biographers that Metternich was merely a cold schemer. In this he does not completely succeed. Metternich’s relations with women do not suggest that he was strongly bound by moral laws. There was a blatant marriage of convenience to his first wife, the wealthy, well-­connected ­Eleonore. This loveless match presumably helped save his feckless ­father, Franz Georg, from his creditors, and also protected the older man from the consequences of his humiliation in Brussels. In a letter to one of his mistresses, Clemens said of his wife, “There is nothing in the world I would not do for her.” One thing he could not do for her, apparently, was remain faithful. Though perhaps she did not ask, for she seems to have known perfectly well what was going on. Probably the oddest of his many extramarital adventures was his affair—while ambassador in Dresden—with the famously wild Catherine, nineteen-year-old wife of the Russian general Prince Peter Bagration. It cannot have helped relations between Vienna and St. Petersburg when Catherine, whose plunging necklines had earned her the name “the Naked Angel” in Dresden society, bore Metternich’s illegitimate child. Many years later, when the once-lovely Catherine was an eccentric and raddled old woman, he cruelly described her as looking like an Egyptian mummy.

What of his politics? Siemann makes much of a visit Metternich made to Britain, using documents never before published. He argues, not wholly convincingly, that Metternich fell under the spell of the anti-Jacobin Whig Edmund Burke. No doubt the young Austrian would have been reassured by the stability of Britain’s political system and struck by its freedoms. He would have appreciated Burke’s prescient warnings of the French revolutionary terror and his outrage at the treatment of his fellow Austrian Marie Antoinette. No doubt he liked much of what he saw in London, saying at one point, “If I were not what I am, I would like to be an Englishman.” Years later he would observe that England was “the freest country in the world, because the most orderly,” which is rather in the spirit of Edmund Burke. And toward the end of his life, in 1848, he would flee from revolutionary Vienna to liberal England.

But it was a paradoxical exile. Metternich had become too repressive for his own countrymen, and so had to seek refuge in the least repressive country in Europe. The man who had once negotiated with Bonaparte and quarreled with the Emperor of All Russia found himself tottering along the Brighton seafront in the briny wind, pondering his vast journey through the decades of revolution and war. If he had loved constitutional monarchy, and the hurly-burly of a free press, he had shown little sign of it when he had the power to influence such things in his own country.

That power had only come in full after the defeat of Napoleon ­Bonaparte, when Metternich sought to protect the new Europe from any repetition of the revolution and war that had dominated so much of his life. At the first opportunity, he reached for the usual autocratic tools of secret police, censorship, and reading private letters.

It is also hard to find any special principle in his life and work before Bonaparte was finally dispatched to exile and death on St. Helena. In a famous private conversation, ­Napoleon had shocked Metternich—who ­genuinely hated the carnage and loss of war—by saying how little he cared about the hecatombs of deaths he had caused. “I was brought up in military camps, and know nothing but military camps, and a man such as I am does not give a **** about the lives of (se foutre de la vie de) a million of men.” As an aristocrat of ancient extraction, Metternich regarded the Corsican as a parvenu, a jumped-up commoner posing as an emperor. Yet he nonetheless helped to engineer Bonaparte’s ruthless dynastic marriage to the Austrian princess Marie Louise, a woman sacrificed to diplomatic necessity much as her forebear Marie Antoinette had been. This extraordinary event, more medieval than modern, was a ­wholly political union that assumed the French domination of Europe would last forever. Thanks to Bonaparte’s defeat in Russia, it became politically futile and it was ruthlessly canceled, leaving Marie Louise and her only child, the pathetic Napoleon II, stranded outside history.

Metternich adapted himself to Bonaparte’s supremacy when it was irresistible, and adapted himself, and Austria, to his fall when it came. Had Bonaparte triumphed at Waterloo, it is tempting to wonder if Metternich would have accommodated himself, and Austria, to that too. Why not? It was his job to make the best of reality. Was his realism merely weakness, as it so often is? Or did it have a coherent set of ideas behind it?

Wolfram Siemann plainly believes that there were such ideas and that Metternich drove and influenced events at least as much as he was driven by them. Yet much in this vast, detailed, dense forest of a book does not really help the reader decide. The reader sees Metternich as student, fixer, courtier, politician, landowner, and country squire, ironmaster, wine grower, philanderer, debtor, diarist, ­intriguer, and tragically bereaved father. (Several of his many children died young.) And it is all fascinating. But can he bear the weight of the reputation posterity has tried to give him? Was he really the thinker and intellectual, apostle of foreign policy realism, talents posthumously awarded to him by Henry Kissinger? The best case for this—and the best excuse for ­Metternich’s undoubted cynicism—is made by Siemann in an epilogue of concentrated power. In this speech for the defense, Siemann wonders why it is fashionable to decry the settlement of borders made at the Congress of Vienna after the fall of Bonaparte. “Was it not certain,” he asks, “that, in a Europe that in 1815 had only just become peaceful again, further wars would follow if borders were drawn along national lines?” Later events surely show that it was.

As for the accusations of repression and autocracy, Siemann wonders why there is so much prejudice against Metternich and asks, “Why . . . is [he] singled out as the embodiment of social repression?” He rebukes those who criticize in particular the repressive program of the Carlsbad Decrees, engineered in 1819 by Metternich. In fact, the murder of the conservative dramatist August von Kotzebue, the trigger and pretext for the Carlsbad reaction, was a very cruel act, similar to modern terrorism. Its culprit, the nationalist fanatic Carl Sand, is an unappealing figure, and it is hard to sympathize with those who tried to make him into a martyr for liberty.

Siemann asks reasonably, “Was revolutionary violence 200 years ago an act of freedom? Is it permissible naively to demand absolutely no limits on the freedom of the press, as the journalists of the pre-1848 period did, even if anti-Semitism and incitement of the masses spread as a consequence? Should people be allowed to call for murder?”

His point about anti-Semitism is unanswerable. It was inextricably connected with the supposedly liberal nationalism of the time, taking on terrifying form in a twentieth-century Europe of ethnic nations that ­Metternich would have greatly disliked. The old Catholic Austrian Empire, the shambling multi-ethnic inheritor of the Holy Roman Emperors, was in a way the reverse of the nationalistic German Reich that arose after his death.

Siemann has the courage to wonder out loud whether this ramshackle entity actually allowed the less-­powerful peoples of Europe a right to exist, by keeping a supranational order in balance. All those moth-eaten emperors, with their narrow minds and crabbed traditions, may look foolish, doddering, intolerant, and obsolete. And so they often were. But look what came to rule us in their place. The terrible conflicts that followed were a thousand times worse than the Thirty Years’ War. Those who sought the overthrow of the ancien régime are romantically attractive. But are they not like the foolish frogs in the fable, who wanted a more exciting ruler and so exchanged a harmless if tedious King Log for a rapacious and hungry King Stork, who ate them all up?

It is too often true that in our callow years we regard people and institutions as broken down and worn-out, but later find these things have greater merits than the novelties that seduce the hearts of the young. How many of our grander beliefs are humbug? How, in the nineteenth century, did the United States preach liberty while holding slaves? How did Britain set itself up as the home of constitutional freedom while oppressing Ireland? ­Behind all the grand facades of politics, one finds a great disappointment. If justice is what you are seeking, you will not find it there. But if you look instead for something more modest, for a land where it can be said, “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid,” you may be more likely to find it if you listen to the Clemens von Metternichs of the world than to the Woodrow ­Wilsons. 

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.