Age of the Sage site banner

Metternich biography &
The Congress of Vienna

Clemens von Metternich


Metternich (Clemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich-Winneburg) was born into an aristocratic family on May 15th, 1773, in Coblenz, Germany. The father of the family, Count Francis George, was involved in diplomatic circles and, at the time of his son Clemens' birth, was in the service of the Habsburgs of Austria.

Metternich was educated privately by a series of tutors until the age of fifteen, when his studies were continued at the universities of Strasbourg (Philosophy 1788-90) and Mainz (Law and Diplomacy 1790-2). His education at Strasbourg was interrupted by the French revolution, he personally witnessed revolutionary turmoils in that city, at Mainz he received first hand accounts from many French émigrés as to what they had endured because of the French revolution. From 1792 Metternich was brought into diplomatic circles through involvement with his father's being an Austrian Diplomat in Brussels. Metternich subsequently spent some time in England. In 1794 the Metternich family fled the revolutionary French armies to Vienna the capital city of the Austrian Habsburgs. In September 1795 Metternich married a twenty year old heiress, the Countess Eleanor Kaunitz, who was a grand-daughter of the Austrian Chancellor. She suited Metternich in that she was rich and accepted at the very heart of Viennese society, and was as prepared as Metternich himself was for their future together in an "open" marriage.

Metternich served as an envoy to the Congress of Rastadt (1797-9) and then as the Habsburg's ambassador to Saxony (1801), Prussia (1803), and Napoleonic France (1806).

Metternich spent many months at the French Imperial court where he became acquainted with many powerful persons both in the court, and more widely in French society. After a war broke out between France and Austria in early 1809 Metternich was placed in confinement for a time in reprisal for an Austrian detention of some French diplomatists. Metternich was released after several weeks in exchange for the detained Frenchmen.


The Austrian state suffered a marked military reverse inflicted by Napoleonic forces at a major battle of Wagram in July. This defeat was followed by the agreement of a Treaty of Schönbrunn of October 1809 that was most humiliating to Austria costing her extensive territories and a huge financial indemnity.

In October 1809 Metternich was appointed minister of foreign affairs for the Habsburg state. In that role he worked consistently and cautiously towards the erosion of Napoleon's power. He recognised that Russian assistance in the future against Napoleonic France was of the first importance in terms of Austrian hopes for a recovery. He hoped to prevent Russia from being drawn into any understanding with Napoleonic France and was pleased to encourage a positive response to Napoleon's request for the hand in marriage of a daughter of the House of Habsburg. (Napoleon's first marriage having been deemed to be invalid).
Metternich accompanied the Austrian archduchess Marie Louise (who had given her consent in the interests of the House of Austria) to Paris in March 1810 (after the marriage had been celebrated by proxy in Vienna) but nonetheless intended that Austria would renew the war with Napoleonic France when the circumstances were favourable to an Austrian success.

Metternich, in the autumn of 1811, came to believe that Napoleon meant to attempt to decisively defeat Russia. He had therefore to walk a tightrope of diplomacy where both Napoleon and the Tsar were broadly happy with Austrian policy.
All Napoleon seemed to want was for Austria to remain neutral and the Tsar seemed prepared to accept that Austria would be prepared to ally with Russia if she had not been weakened by the recent serious defeats she had suffered. In March 1812 Metternich won Napoleon's consent for the formation of a thirty thousand strong Austrian Auxiliary Corps that it was suggested would be supportive of Napoleon's Russian campaign. This arrangement was to be kept strictly secret. Also secret were Austrian and Prussian contacts that showed both parties to be willing to defy Napoleon should an opportunity arise.

Napoleon had come to see Russia as a serious obstacle to his plans for the organisation of Europe. Napoleon led a gigantic army deep into Russia, capturing Moscow, in 1812. All the courts of western Europe considered it very likely that Napoleon's vast forces would prevail. As the gigantic French army advanced it was very largely denied an ability to live off the country due to the Russians adopting a scorched earth policy as they retreated.

At Borodino the Russians, faced with overwhelming force, did make a fairly serious attempt to defend their capital but were unable to prevent the advance of Napoleon's forces. The capture of Moscow did not however involve a definitive defeat of the Russians as they withdrew further to the east leaving an empty and burning city to the advancing French. Napoleon seemed to expect a Russian surrender that never came - had Napoleon advanced even deeper into Russia there were still vast areas into which Russian forces could withdraw without being defeated and Napoleon's lines of supply or withdrawal to the west would have been stretched even further. In time the onset of winter forced the badly provisioned Napoleonic armies to attempt to travel across many hundreds of miles, in the early weeks of a Russian winter, whilst being harassed by the forces of the Tsar. As the Napoleonic forces struggled back at terrible cost to western Europe Prussian and other Germanic treaty allies of Napoleon withdrew their support. Of the five hundred thousand men who had been moved, at Napoleon's order, to assault Russia less than one in ten served in the future as soldiers in Napoleonic armies.

Metternich made a point of seeming, to Napoleon, to be prepared to operate as an impartial mediator but was consistently and carefully working towards throwing Austria's weight into the conflict against Napoleonic France. The Russians obliged Metternich by deploying soldiers in contrived battles in such a way as to seem to threaten Austrian territory thus "tying down" the Austrian Auxiliary Corps and making it unavailable to Napoleon. Although Napoleon had the gravest suspicions that he was being misled as to Austia's real policy Metternich kept up this pretence of neutrality into June of 1813 when he attended a personal meeting with Napoleon held in Dresden's Marcolini Palace at a time (26th June) when Napoleon was being increasingly pressed by his adversaries. At this meeting which lasted from a quarter past eleven in the morning until half past eight in the evening Metternich stated that Austria was free of "engagements" and Napoleon sought to obtain a full commitment to his cause by Austria.

"Our conference consisted of the oddest mixture of heterogeneous subjects, characterized now by extreme friendliness, now by the most violent outbursts of fury".
Napoleon occasionally raged or threatened but Metternich remained calm. At one stage Napoleon let his hat, which he was holding under his arm, drop to the floor. Although an Emperor had dropped his hat Metternich did not stoop to pick it up.

Napoleon tried persuasion. "Your sovereigns", he said, "who were born to their thrones cannot comprehend the feelings that move me. To them it is nothing to return to their capitals defeated. But I am a soldier. I need honour and glory. I cannot reappear among my people devoid of prestige. I must remain great, admired, covered with glory." For that reason, he said, he could not accept the proposed conditions of peace. Metternich replied, "But when will this condition of things cease, in which defeat and victory are alike reasons for continuing these dismal wars? If victorious, you insist upon the fruits of your victory; if defeated, you are determined to rise again." Napoleon made various offers for Austria's neutrality, but Metternich declined all bargaining, and Napoleon's oft repeated threat, "We shall meet in Vienna", was his ominous farewell to Metternich.

Although Metternich could truthfully maintain that Austria was free of "engagements" at this meeting had every intention of signing a (second) Treaty of Reichenbach the next day by the terms of which Austrian guaranteed to supply 150,000 men to co-operate with Russia and Prussia against Napoleon.

On 20th October 1813, two days after Napoleon's forces suffered at signal defeat at the battle of Leipzig, Metternich was invested as an hereditary Prince of the Austrian Empire.

With Russians, Prussians and Austrians opposed to Napoleonic France advancing from the east and north and the British advancing from the south and west Napoleonic France was overthrown early in 1814. This eventual defeat of Napoleonic France had been in many ways secured by Metternich's diplomacy.

The Congress of Vienna & The Congress System

A great Congress was arranged to convene at Vienna in the autumn of 1814. As the proceedings of the Congress of Vienna continued amidst much lavish social festival diplomatists and statesmen redrew the map of Europe after Napoleon's downfall. A French Bourbon monarchy had been restored and was represented at Vienna by Talleyrand who gradually won acceptance from other diplomats that restoration France should be regarded as a major power with a legitimate say in the efforts to define a peace.

Although the several powers gathered at Vienna had formerly been allies in war they strenuously disagreed amongst themselves over the post war settlement of Europe. Metternich had many talents which helped him to exercise a great influence on proceedings. His charm, determination, subtlety and finesse played a key role in frustrating Russia's plans for the annexation of the whole of Poland and Prussia's attempt to absorb Saxony. He succeeded in creating a German Confederation under Austrian leadership and was broadly satisfied with the degree to which Austria was influential in the Italian peninsula. The fact that Napoleon escaped from Elba and again became leader of sizeable armies that stayed in the field for some "one hundred days" may have helped to concentrate the diplomats minds on the need to reach agreement.

Metternich equally resented liberalism, nationalism, and revolution regarding them all as forms of "presumption". Metternich subscribed to a world view that dated from the "European Enlightenment". That is he accepted that there were certain fundamental laws relating to society which were open to being discovered. By governing in line with such laws rulers could have a greater hope that their societies would function in a stable and tranquil equilibrium. Metternich believed that the observation of the precepts of Religious and Social Morality to be a primary necessity to governing in line with natural laws.
In Metternich's view the printing presses had made it a lot easier to spread harmful ideas as well as beneficial ones. Such things as the invention of Gunpowder and the monetary inflation that had been experienced in Europe as the gold and silver of the Americas were imported had greatly unsettled the previous social equilibrium and prepared men's minds for the acceptance of new, and often false, ideas. Such false ideas were then "presumptious" in that they often tended to motivate people to support socio-political movements that would seek to establish seemingly attractive adaptions of society that were not in line with the observance of fundamental laws.

Metternich's ideal was a monarchy that shared power with the traditional privileged classes of society. In efforts to preserve the sort of Europe he valued from future revolutionary irruptions Metternich attempted to make the postwar Quadruple Alliance (Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria) into an instrument for preventing revolution in Europe. He encouraged a Congess System where representatives of the powers were to meet periodically with the view considering if it was necessary to supress revolutionary movements. He was in favour of close supervision of the universities and an ambitious system of censorship intended to discourage radicalism of any kind. These policies left Metternich open to being depicted as an architect of Reaction and of a supressor of Liberty. It seems that the Austrian Emperor, Francis I, was of a notably reactionary outlook and this may well have helped to restrain any modest tendency towards flexibilty that Metternich might have himself favoured.

Several Congresses were held: Aix-la-Chapelle, 1818; Karlsbad (a conference of ministers), 1819; Vienna, 1820; Troppau, 1820; Laibach, 1821; and Verona, 1822.
In the event the Congress System did not long survive as there were emergent "questions" such as the Greek Revolt (from 1821) against Ottoman Turkish rule where the European powers could not find it in themselves to all agree that the longstanding Ottoman overlordship should be supported. Metternich opted to support a continuation of historically established Ottoman Turkish rule. The Russians (themselves mainly Orthodox Christians) for their part were inclined to support the Orthodox Christian Greeks partly in line with their own expansionary aims and partly in the belief that Ottoman Turkey was in decay and thus it fell to others to follow policies that would tend to provide a longer term stability to the region. Public opinion in western Europe and north America often tended to be Hellenophile attributing to the Greeks of 1823 a close affinity with the Greeks of the classical age and in this seeing a sufficient reason to support the Greek insurgency against an oppressive Ottoman Turkey rule.

Metternich's system was more generally tested by a spate of liberalising revolutions widely across western Europe in 1830-1 where the rulers of many European States found it necessary, for a time at least, to concede Constitutions to those they ruled. A relatively reactionary French monarchy was replaced by a relatively liberal one and Belgium began to be established as a separate state from the Kingdom of the Netherlands into which it had been incorporated in 1815 in order to provide a stronger state more capable of withstanding French turbulences.

page content divider


Whilst the system that Metternich had sought to establish to withstand diverse populist aspirations was becoming increasingly impractical given the increasing strength of those aspirations and the increasing economic and political influence of the broader populations within societies he nonetheless continued in office until 1848 when another, and more serious, bout of populist upsurgence led to his being advised that he had lost the confidence of the Austrian Imperial caste.

Metternich resigned on 13th March 1848 and this was accepted on 18th March. Metternich and his family relocated to England for some eighteen months before returning to continent Europe (Brussels). A popular assembly based in Vienna seized the Metternich estates for its own purposes.

It was not until well into 1849 that Europe, and the Habsburg lands were returned to their former systems of government. In the case of Austria this had required Russian assistance in quelling the independent mindedness of the Magyars of Hungary. Following on from this recovery by the Habsburg authority the Metternich estates were restored to him.

Metternich did not return to Vienna to live until September 1851 and it was in that city that he died on June 11th, 1859.
Only a few days before his death Metternich had been interviewed by a writer named J.A. Hübner. During this interview Metternich ruminated on his career and, as Hübner was about to leave, Metternich, as if to himself, muttered:-

"I have been a rock of order, a rock of order."

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.

The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.