May 15th German History: The Birth of Klemens von Metternich

Klemens von Metternich - Wikipedia
Klemens von Metternich. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Klemens von Metternich, while perhaps not the most famous German statesman in history, was critically important in the formation of the post-Napoleonic European order. His efforts at the Congress of Vienna helped to preserve a conservative Europe for nearly a century and, with a few exceptions, maintained peace in Europe for the rest of the 19th century.

Metternich was born on May 15th, 1773, and was the son of an Austrian diplomat. Metternich was educated at conservative institutions and developed a distaste for liberal ideas. A contributing factor to this was the French Republic’s forces invading Germany and taking almost all of his family’s lands. In the 1790s, Metternich would serve in various diplomatic positions including ambassador to the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire in Dresden and to Prussia in Berlin. He later served as an ambassador in the court of Napoleon Bonaparte. During the first decade of the 19th century Metternich witnessed his nation suffer defeat after defeat against Napoleon. However, as Foreign Minister of Austria he was able to construct a coalition that would invade France and defeat Napoleon. Following Napoleon’s first defeat, Metternich organised the Congress of Vienna in order to create a more stable European order. At the Congress of Vienna, Metternich along with viscount Castlereagh from Britain and Talleyrand from France reorganized Germany, restored France to its pre-war border, and reaffirmed Austrian control over Northern Italy and Russian control over Poland. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Metternich took the position of Austrian Chancellor. For twenty five years Metternich worked to preserve the order he had helped to create. He was successful until the revolutions of 1848. The year 1848 saw the French Monarchy toppled and revolutions in Austria and Prussia. Although the monarchy survived, Metternich was forced to flee Vienna. Metternich would spend the next ten years writing letters to the Austrian emperor and providing advice. He would return to Austria, but would not regain any position of power. He died in 1859.

Klemens von Metternich was perhaps the most influential Austrian politician of the 19th century. His efforts to preserve the conservative order and Austria’s position in Europe may have eventually failed, but we should not discount his achievement just because they did not last forever. Metternich turned a continent thrown into chaos by twenty years of war and revolution and gave it forty years of peace and stability, if repressive stability. Although fundamental economic and political forces would undermine Metternich’s efforts, his efforts to halt the march of progress should be lauded for their brilliance even if he was on the wrong side of history.

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