Clemens von Metternich: The man who outwitted Napoleon?

Clemens von Metternich by Thomas Lawrence, 1815

Clemens von Metternich by Thomas Lawrence, 1815

As Austrian foreign minister from 1809 to 1848, Clemens von Metternich was a major player in European affairs for twice as long as Napoleon. A closet admirer of the French Emperor, he was concerned to show himself as the man who had outwitted him.

Ambassador to France

Clemens (or Klemens) von Metternich was born in Coblenz on May 15, 1773 to an old aristocratic family whose members had held many high offices in the Holy Roman Empire. After studying philosophy, law and diplomacy, he followed his father into a diplomatic career.

Metternich was appointed Austrian ambassador to France in 1806, after Austria’s humiliating defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz and considerable loss of territory in the Treaty of Pressburg.

My position was a peculiar one. I was placed at the most prominent post for observing the movement of which the Emperor of the French was the centre. I represented at his court a great monarch, whose kingdom had yielded under the force of circumstances, but which was ready to rise on the first opportunity. I was penetrated with the feeling of danger to my country, if it entered on a new war with France without having more probable chances of success; and I conceived that my task consisted in playing the part of a quiet and impartial spectator – impartial, so far as this might be possible to a man of feeling, at a an epoch when the world was passing through a social transformation…. My impartial attitude gained me the confidence of the most prominent men of different parties, beginning with Napoleon himself. (1)

Metternich saw Napoleon frequently and wrote in detail about these encounters in his memoirs. In Metternich’s view, France needed discipline and Napoleon was the man to provide it.

There is no more useless labour than to point out that Bonaparte was an excellent man. He is in no wise wicked as this word is understood in common life. He has too much practical understanding for that. He is a very strong man, and in the different setting of another age, he would have become a very great man. (2)

Napoleon was less impressed with Metternich. At one gathering he reportedly unloaded him onto his sister Caroline (who became one of Metternich’s lovers) with the remark,

Entertain this simpleton, we are wanted elsewhere. (3)

When war resumed between France and Austria in early 1809, Metternich was arrested and briefly confined as a reprisal for the Austrian detention of two French diplomats. Napoleon defeated Austria at the Battle of Wagram (July 1809), and took more territory and money from her in the Treaty of Schönbrunn.

It was while Napoleon was at Schönbrunn Palace to negotiate the treaty that a 17-year-old German patriot named Friedrich Staps was caught planning to assassinate him with a kitchen knife – an encounter to which Napoleon refers in Napoleon in America. Staps was arrested and executed.

Metternich as Foreign Minister

In October 1809 Clemens von Metternich become Austria’s foreign minister. His policy became one of keeping Austria afloat until Napoleon could be thwarted.

I foresaw that neither [Napoleon] nor his undertakings would escape the consequence of rashness and extravagance. The when and the how I could not pretend to determine. Thus my reason pointed out to me the direction I had to take in order not to interfere with the natural development of the situation and to keep open for Austria the chances which the greatest of all powers – the power of circumstances – might offer, sooner or later, under the strong government of its monarch, for the much-threatened prosperity of the Empire. (4)

Metternich attempted to erode Napoleon’s power. He arranged the marriage of Napoleon to Marie Louise, the daughter of Austrian Emperor Francis I. Though Metternich credits the French with initiating the marriage, the French chargé d’affaires in Vienna said it was Metternich who first raised the prospect of a family alliance.

Metternich successfully duped Napoleon into thinking Austria supported France’s 1812 invasion of Russia. Meanwhile, Austria secretly encouraged a Russian victory (you can read the details of Metternich’s machinations on the Age of the Sage website). After the French retreat, Metternich dropped the cover of neutrality and led Austria into outright alliance with the coalition against Napoleon. In a famous encounter described on the Past Now website, Metternich and Napoleon met for the last time on June 26, 1813 in Dresden. Metternich later claimed he told Napoleon that he was finished.

As a reward for his success, Francis made Metternich a hereditary Prince of the Austrian Empire. With Austria on their side, Russia, Prussia and Britain were able to overthrow Napoleon in 1814. Metternich would have liked France to be governed by a regency under Marie Louise, but the Bourbon restoration proposed by the French diplomat Talleyrand, England and Russia won the day.

The post-Napoleon world

The victors gathered at the Congress of Vienna, where Metternich exercised considerable influence on the proceedings (these were briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape from Elba and defeat at Waterloo).

Metternich believed Europe’s stability depended on a balance of power among the great powers. His aim (and that of Francis 1 – the two operated in tandem) was to preserve Austria’s internal peace and external power. He gained allied endorsement of Austrian hegemony in central Europe and Italy.

Metternich had an aristocratic view of the international order. Kings were meant to govern and people to be governed. He dreaded not only revolution, but also liberalism and nationalism. The 1815 peace settlement was designed to contain the restlessness of the masses. Talleyrand quipped that

Austria is the House of Lords of Europe; as long as she remains undissolved, she will keep down the Commons. (5)

Metternich established a system of periodic Congresses (one of which, the 1822 Congress of Verona, appears in Napoleon in America) where the great powers could meet periodically to consider how to suppress revolution. He was a diplomat rather than a strategist, and operated a on a day-to-day basis, rather than according to some grand scheme, but underlying all his negotiations was a belief in the virtues of balance between governments, and between classes within society.

In 1821, Clemens von Metternich became the Austrian Court Chancellor and Chancellor of State (essentially the Austrian Prime Minister). He oversaw the detention of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, and is said to have forbidden the Duke’s wintering in Naples, which could possibly have cured the young man’s fatal tuberculosis.

Although Metternich’s system was tested by liberalizing revolutions in 1830-31, he remained the arbiter of continental European politics until March 1848, when he was compelled to resign owing to a revolution in Vienna. He and his family went into exile, first in England (where the Duke of Wellington tried to keep him entertained), then in Brussels. He was allowed to return to Vienna in 1851, and he died there on June 11, 1859 at the age of 86.

Metternich the man

It is generally thought Metternich’s finest days were as an adversary to Napoleon. Metternich himself looked fondly back on the Napoleonic period. On August 15, 1820, Napoleon’s birthday, he wrote:

Today is the Feast of the great exile. If he were still on the throne and there was only he in the world, how happy it would make me. (6)

Metternich had a very high opinion of himself, an estimation he did not hesitate to share with others. Descriptions of Metternich by his contemporaries include “pompous pedant,” “infatuated with his own merit,” “a clever manipulator of diplomatic trickery,” and “mad with love, pride, and selfishness.” (7)

He possessed elegance, a ready wit, expensive habits, and a love for parties and salons. Married three times, he also had many lovers, including the afore-mentioned Caroline, as well as Dorothea von Lieven (another Napoleon in America character), the wife of the Russian ambassador to England. Wilhelm von Humboldt complained:

All that interests Metternich is arranging entertainments and tableaux vivants for the Court. He is quite capable of keeping a couple of ambassadors waiting, while he watches his daughter dance and chats amiably with the ladies. Only trifles are serious for him; and serious business he treats as a trifle. (8)

Metternich was very fond of his many children, who reciprocated his affection. He was no stranger to tragedy, losing two of his daughters to tuberculosis in the space of three months in 1820. His first wife and eldest son also died from the disease.

He wrote voluminously. His memoirs were edited and published by his son Richard, who served as Austrian ambassador to the court of Napoleon III. They contain considerable self-justification. In the end, Metternich wanted to be seen as the man who masterminded Napoleon’s downfall.

I do not think it was a good inspiration of Napoleon’s which called me to functions which gave me the opportunity of appreciating his excellences, but also the possibility of discovering the faults which at last led him to ruin and freed Europe from the oppression under which it languished. (9)

Wikipedia has an extensive biography of Clemens von Metternich, which includes a bibliography. Emerson Kent provides a more relaxed biography.

  1. Richard Metternich, ed., Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1773-1815, Volume 1 (New York, 1881), p. 46.
  2. Richard Metternich, ed., Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1773-1815, Volume 4 (London, 1880), p. 6. He wrote this in 1823, upon reading the Count de Las Cases’s admiring memoirs of Napoleon.
  3. G.A.C. Sandeman, Metternich (New York, 1911), p. 45.
  4. George Bruce Malleson, Life of Prince Metternich (Philadelphia, 1888), p. 63.
  5. M.G. Pallain, ed., The Correspondence of Prince Talleyrand and King Louis XVIII During the Congress of Vienna, Volume 1 (London, 1881), p. xvi.
  6. Alan Palmer, Metternich (London, 1972), p. 192.
  7. Tom Holmberg, Review of Metternich: the Autobiography, 1773-1815, on the Napoleon Series website, April 2005, http://www.napoleon-series.org/reviews/biographies/c_metternich.html, accessed January 19, 2014.
  8. Palmer, Ibid., p. 132.
  9. Clemens von Metternich, The Autobiography, 1773-1815 (Welwyn Garden City, 2004), p. 67.

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I do not think it was a good inspiration of Napoleon’s which called me to functions which gave me the opportunity of appreciating his excellences, but also the possibility of discovering the faults which at last led him to ruin and freed Europe from the oppression under which it languished.

Clemens von Metternich