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Prince Klemens von Metternich

Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar Fürst von Metternich-Winneberg-Beilstein, or simply Prince Klemens von Metternich, influenced the first half of the nineteenth century in Europe more than any other individual. Just as the years of Napoleon’s rule are remembered as the Napoleonic Era, the years between 1815 and 1848 are commonly referred to as the Age of Metternich. Interestingly, though, Metternich influenced Europe without ruling.

Born into a noble family in 1773, Metternich grew into one of the finest diplomats and politicians in European history. One of his first political moves was his marriage to the granddaughter of the wealthy and influential Count Wenzel von Kaunitz in his early twenties. Metternich quickly climbed the social and political ladder using his skills as a politician.

Metternich possessed amazing confidence, which others usually perceived as conceit and arrogance. He possessed a genuine sense of social and intellectual superiority over most with whom he came in contact. Metternich trusted his own abilities to the extent that he never sought approval from peers or the masses. Indeed, he recognized the danger in seeking popularity. He despised nationalism and liberalism and believed that they led to chaos like revolutions, which he regarded as generally illegitimate.

His ideas certainly were reflected in his political moves.

Metternich became an ambassador for the Austrian government and then received a promotion to the position of Austrian Foreign Minister after Napoleon crushed Austrian forces in 1809. Metternich went to work right away in an attempt to appease and befriend Napoleon. He even arranged a marriage between Napoleon and MarieLouise, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. After Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812, Metternich became less pro-France. As the war against Napoleon wore on, Metternich became convinced that there would be no successful negotiations with Napoleon and he ceased diplomatic relations with him altogether. Metternich focused on restoring the monarchy in France instead.

Would You Believe?

Metternich, a master politician, was also a notorious womanizer. He often mixed his two specialties by making friends with women who could offer political information either voluntarily or as pillow talk.

It was after Napoleon’s defeat and exile that Metternich began his influential role in European politics.

The Epitome of Conservatism

Metternich dominated the Congress of Vienna and set the tone for the meetings. Under his direction, the Congress redrew many boundaries so that liberalism and nationalism would have no safe places to develop. It was Metternich who directed the Congress to reinstate several ousted monarchs, since they were ousted illegitimately, in an attempt to reinstate the old regime in Europe. Not all European leaders shared Metternich’s anti-liberal views, though. Russia’s Czar Alexander I, for example, thought of himself as a generally enlightened proponent of liberal ideals. Metternich went to work on Alexander and his work paid off.

In 1820, Metternich knew for sure that Alexander had abandoned his liberal ideals when Austria, Prussia, and even Russia supported what was known as the Troppau Protocol. Metternich had put down liberal rebellions in Naples, and his actions had raised eyebrows, particularly Alexander’s. At the Congress of Troppau in 1820, largely a result of the rebellions in Naples, the leaders of the three nations agreed in principle that states whose governments were in power because of illegitimate revolutions would no longer be recognized as members of the European Alliance, also known as the Holy Alliance. They effectively agreed that they would not recognize governments created by illegitimate, liberal revolutions. Metternich’s conservatism also showed when he and Alexander refused to aid Greece in its attempts to overthrow the Ottomans.

The Holy Alliance

Although the Holy Alliance didn’t officially result from the Congress of Vienna, it was an indirect result. Czar Alexander had the idea to form a peacekeeping organization of sorts known as the Holy Alliance to promote Christianity in Europe. Members of the Alliance were to conduct themselves in accordance with Christian ideals. In reality, the charter members of Russia, Prussia, and Austria used the Holy Alliance as a way of keeping liberal ideas in check.

Would You Believe?

England's Castlereagh called the Holy Alliance “sublime mysticism and nonsense."

Eventually, most of the rulers of Europe joined the so-called Holy Alliance except for the pope, the Ottoman sultan, and the King of England, George IV, who was bound by his constitution. However, prominent delegates to the Congress of Vienna, including Castlereagh and Metternich, discounted the Alliance as worthless. Ironically, the Alliance eventually became associated with Metternich, mostly because he and the Alliance both had an interest in the repression of liberalism.

Long Live the Status Quo

Metternich had much reason to fear the spread of both nationalism and liberalism throughout Europe. Even though he did not rule in Austria, he had a passion for tradition and for keeping things the way they had always been. The Austrian Empire ruled a variety of lands and peoples including Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, and more. The peoples ruled by Habsburg Austria had little in common with one another, other than being subjugated by the Habsburgs; they generally had no sense of national loyalty or unity. Metternich knew that the lands he helped govern would be ripe for nationalism and liberalism if those ideas were allowed to creep in. In order to keep them out of Austrian holdings, he tried to keep them out of Germany, too.

In 1819, he persuaded the Austrian-dominated German Confederation to adopt the Carlsbad Decrees. The Carlsbad Decrees required the German states to seek and destroy all ideologies that the conservative Metternich believed to be dangerous.

The Decrees specifically targeted universities and newspapers, notorious havens of liberalism. The decrees required the removal of any teacher whose teachings were found to be hostile or subversive to the existing order. The decrees outlawed student associations and even planted spies among the students. The decrees proved equally repressive toward the press. Basically, everything that was printed in newspaper or pamphlet form had to be approved by state officials. The decrees also created a group of investigators who sought out violators of the decrees.

Practices like these helped the conservatives hang on a few more years. However, by 1848, the conservatives faced their most serious challenge yet: a wave of revolutions that swept Europe (see Chapter 18).

The Least You Need to Know

Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican by birth, rose to prominence in the French military and eventually won the favor of the Directory. After staging a coup, Napoleon seized control of France by becoming First Consul in the new government.

Napoleon reformed the French government by creating a bureaucracy and by reforming the legal system. His Code Napoleon remained in France, and in other countries he occupied, for years after his defeat.

Napoleon conquered basically all of Europe except for Britain and Russia before finally suffering defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

The powers of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Britain met at Vienna to redraw the map of Europe and to establish a system of balance of power politics.

The Congress of Vienna, and subsequent international politics, reflected the conservative policies of Klemens von Metternich. Metternich constantly worked to keep the rise of nationalism and liberalism in check both in Austria and in Europe.

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