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 an extensive and wellresearched chronicle of Klemens von Metternich’s monumental career — 39 years as foreign minister of the Austrian Empire, the last 27 of them also as 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’ instead of the normal view of Metternich’s influence as rigid and reactionary. He goes through considerable gymnastics to portray Metternich as a far-seeing modernist and constitutional democrat, persevering against less principled and capable people — hidebound reactionaries, nihilistic revolutionaries and militarists.
Siemann 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 a precise, almost artistic balance between the five and a half Great Powers: Austria, England, France, Prussia and Russia, with the Ottoman Empire as the half-Great. For more than 20 years, Metternich was known as ‘the coachman of Europe’, because of his ability to elicit agreement from Russia and Prussia especially, but also the British and French. He dealt with all the great figures of Europe from Wellington to Bismarck.
The 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 unrecognizable Burkean liberal, Gladstonian reformer and supreme rival of — and chief victor over — Napoleon. Siemann recasts the period from 1807 to 1815 as essentially a showdown between Napoleon and Metternich. In fact, Napoleon was not wholly responsible for all the wars blamed on him and the three million deaths that resulted; and the British foreign secretary, Castlereagh, did as much coalition-building as Metternich. It was Metternich’s good fortune that Napoleon persuaded himself that he could instantly legitimize 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. Metternich seized the opportunity and played his indifferent hand with genius and panache. Aid came from the outright and prolonged treason of his friend Talleyrand, both before and after Napoleon fired him as French foreign minister in 1807.
It is hard to be quite so admiring of Metternich as Siemann is when his strategies were diplomatic deceit and complete military avoidance: whenever Napoleon advanced, the threatened ally would retreat, and the others attack France’s flanks. It was ultimately successful, but was devised only after 16 years of almost constant defeat and was hardly heroic, or even imaginative. (Siemann’s attempt to portray Metternich as a gifted military strategist is far-fetched.)
Metternich admired the British form of government and the US Constitution, and he 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 his ability to act. He was never the head of the whole government, as Richelieu and Bismarck were, more a powerful foreign minister — like Talleyrand, but with a more indulgent sovereign.
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, 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 outmaneuvered by a less substantial rival, Johann Kollowrat.
Metternich deserves, and here thoroughly receives, re-examination. But for the casual reader unprepared for an endless procession of unpronounceable principalities and actors — from Von Trauttmansdorff to Grillparzer — this book may be quite baffling.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.