Klemens von Metternich played a fundamental role in Austrian politics in the 19th century. Throughout his long career in Austrian government, von Metternich was a masterful diplomat. From an ambassador to a Prince and Chancellor, von Metternich ascended Austrian political spheres because of his outstanding contributions to the preservation of the Austrian Empire and the fall of Napoleonic France. Two of his most important decisions are explored and assessed in this paper. The first is his decision to dupe Napoleon into believing that Austria would support a French invasion of Russia, ultimately leading to the fall of Napoleon. This is the achievement that he is best known for and the reason for his ascension to Prince of Austria. The second decision explored and assessed in this paper is his orchestration of the Vienna System, or Concert of Europe, which helped to preserve existing power structures in Europe for decades, against growing democratic and liberal forces.
Von Metternich Dupes Napoleon
Von Metternich’s role in various Austrian wars was strongly influenced by his own experiences with war long before he held a major diplomatic position. In the seemingly ever-present threat of conflict with France, Von Metternich sought to keep foreign powers, such as Russia, from attacking Austria (Billinger, 1991) and to form alliances that could be used to maintain a military balance against France (Schroeder, 1962). Throughout much of von Metternich’s tenure as Ambassador to France and Foreign Minister of Austria, he wrestled through various, complex, and sometimes disingenuous alliances, often centering on Russian and France. With France often fighting on other fronts, there were opportunities for Austria to attack France with suboptimal resistance. But through patience and cunningness, von Metternich convinced Napoleon that France would have a partner in Austria for an invasion of Russia (Bergeron, 1981). This duplicitous alliance led to a Napoleon defeat and von Metternich’s reputation being solidified. It is difficult to determine how long Napoleon’s reign would have lasted in France if not for von Metternich’s trickery (Jones, 2003). Nonetheless, the von Metternich decision to propose a false alliance to Napoleon and encourage an invasion of Russia certainly contributed to Napoleon’s defeat. His influence and renown would grow tremendously at this time.
The Orchestration of the Vienna System
Von Metternich served as a major architect of the Vienna System, also called the Concert of Europe (Billinger, 1991). After Napoleonic France fell, individual European powers sought to maintain control over their states. The French Revolution marked worries of revolution and social unrest, emboldening non-elite populations and threatening the existing powers in Europe. The Vienna System was a conservative show of resistance against threats of revolution and against alleged usurping powers. The underlying notion behind the Vienna System was that the existing European powers could aggregate their powers if revolution was to arise in any of the individual states. While this system was not codified or formalized in any significant way, the willingness of parties to cooperate in quashing any apparent revolution or threatening power made it impactful and, in general, effective.
On the other side of the coin, the Vienna System was meant to ensure that no individual European power would rise up against the others, or even that no bloc of powers would rise up against the rest (Schroeder, 1962). Metternich’s role in the Vienna System is that of an orchestrator. He is largely responsible for the development of the basic informal structure of the Vienna System. Specifically, Metternich recognized the need to preserve power in Vienna and minimize the threats of foreign powers. Given his elevated position as Prince of Vienna after the role he played in the toppling of Napoleon’s regime, Metternich was in a position of power to help dictate the terms of the agreement. The decision of Metternich to seek out this sort of cooperation between autocratic powers demonstrates his highly diplomatic approach to foreign policy. While the Vienna System stood in some capacity for several decades, preserving the structure and current powers in Europe, the system would ultimately fall apart.
While von Metternich made many impactful decisions in his active role as a diplomatic, even when he was a prince and chancellor, his two decisions regarding the duping of Napoleon and the orchestration of the Vienna System were likely the most impactful and impressive. It goes without saying that the duping of Napoleon should be included on this short list, given how this cunning diplomatic decision drastically altered the structure of Europe. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Metternich participated in a number of Austrian diplomatic decisions before the duping, serving both to preserve the Austrian Empire from invading attacks and to help setup an overthrow of the Napoleonic threat in France. The decision to form, or attempt to form, what would become the Vienna System in Europe would not drastically change the structure in Europe, but instead preserve it. Prince von Metternich sought for his regime to maintain power in Austria, recognizing similar ambitions from other autocratic European states.
From a historical lens, von Metternich may have only delayed the inevitable rise of liberalism and democracy, but still is noteworthy for his quite successful efforts to maintain the current system in Europe. While von Metternich served in several different positions in the Austrian government, his diplomatic influence and his constant role as diplomatic in all of his positions are what he is best known for, and for good reason.
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- Billinger, R. D. (1991). Metternich and the German question: states’ rights and federal duties, 1820-1834. Kendall Hunt.
- Jones, C. (2003). The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon: The New Penguin History of France. Penguin UK.
- Schroeder, P. W. (1962). Metternich’s Diplomacy at its Zenith, 1820-1823: Austria and the Congresses of Troppau, Laibach, and Verona. University of Texas Press.