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Prince Clemens von Metternich

Prince Metternich, chancellor of the Austrian Empire, dominated the stage of European history for a generation, as he strove against fate and labored to breathe life into a dead past. He failed as he was bound to fail; and because he failed, because the ideals against which he contended are invested with the glamor of successful realization, he has been glorified, or degraded, into a species of political Apollyon, deliberately barring the path out of darkness into light.

From the year 1800 to the year 1848, Continental Europe was alternately ruled hy two men. One of these, he who ruled from 1800 to 1814, made his hand so heavy on the nations he had subdued and crushed, that, on the first great opportunity, they rose against him, and, by a stupendous effort, cast him down from his place of supremacy. To ensure the potential character of that effort, to render it absolutely decisive, no one contributed more than the second of the two men. He had his reward. When Waterloo had completed the overthrow which Leipsig had initiated, Prince Metternich stepped quietly into the seat whence Napoleon had been hurled, and, for the three-and-thirty years that followed, directed, unostentatiously but very surely, the policy of the Continent.

His system differed, in its essentials, from that of the great conqueror to whose seat he had succeeded. The despotism of Napoleon was the despotism of the conqueror who had swept away the old system, and who terrorised over its former supporters. The despotism of Metternich, not less actual, used as its .willing instruments those very supporters upon whose necks Napoleon had placed his heel. His system was the more dangerous to human freedom because it was disguised. He was as a Jesuit succeeding an Attila; and after enduring it long, the peoples of Europe realised its result in the crushing of every noble aspiration, of every attempt to secure real liberty.

Clement Wenceslas Nepomuk Lotbair Metternichbelonged to an old noble family located on the Lower Rhine. His father, Francis George Metternich, a diplomatist of some repute, had married Maria Beatrix Aloisa,. Countess of Kageneck, and of this marriage the subject of this sketch was the first issue. Clement Metternich was born at Coblentz the 15th of May, 1773. In October, 1790, he was summoned by his father to Frankfort, to assist there at the coronation of the Emperor Leopold. Metternich was summoned, in 1792, to proceed to Frankfort to attend the coronation of the Emperor Francis, who had been elected successor to his brother Leopold. In 1794 the young diplomatist received from his Court his nomination to the post of Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at the Hague.

The career of Metternich divides itself naturally into ten epochs. The first, from his birth to the embassy to Paris in 1806; the second, from 1806 to the outbreak of the war in 1809; the third, from the war of 1809 to the retreat from Moscow; the fourth, from the winter of 1812 to the armistice of Pleiswitz; the fifth, from the armistice of Pleiswitz to the renewal of hostilities; the sixth, from the rupture of the armistice to the fall of Napoleon in 18l4; the seventh, during the crisis before the Hundred Days - and after; the eighth, the rise and progress of the Continental system he established from 1815 to 1848; the ninth, the decline and fall of that Continental system; the tenth, the conclusion of his career.

His anxiety to maintain the status quo was the natural result both of his temperament and of the circumstances of his position. Distrusting all appeals to sentiment, he rejected heroic policies, and his innate conservatism was enhanced by the fact that caution and patience had won him such success as he had secured. At the same time, his vanity led him to believe that he had dictated the decisions of the Congress of Vienna, and for the settlement there devised he conceived an almost paternal affection. That it was purely the result of his diplomacy is hardly true; but it did represent his views more accurately than those of any other man. And especially the substitution of the ideal of 'stability' for that of 'nationality' was altogether acceptable to him.

Metternich was a patriot who desired to preserve the integrity of his master's dominions and the prestige of the House of Habsburg. But the situation of the Austrian Empire was such that any appeal to nationality, and even any unrest, was fraught with serious danger to it. Francis II ruled over Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Poles, Ruthenians, Slavs, Croats, Roumanians, and Italians; he could rely upon no bond of union between these diverse races beyond that which might be afforded by the faith of treaties and by the desire to avoid conflict. If nationalities were Admitted to possess a prescriptive right to select their own form of government, the collapse of the Austrian Empire might seem to be within sight. And further, a movement which might be harmless elsewhere was here only too likely to lead to the preaching of nationality and to consequent revolution. Rest was essential to this most heterogeneous monarchy.

Realizing this fact, Metternich could do nothing but advocate peace and even immobility. He became the apostle of the status quo, opposing all change, since there could be no change which might not lead to the disruption of the Habsburg dominions. He feared, and not without good cause, as the events of 1848 were to prove, that any weakening of the barriers against disorder would open the floodgates of revolution and overwhelm the Austrian monarchy. For this reason, he desired so to interpret the Quadruple Alliance that it should mean the complete control of Europe by the Allies, the maintenance, not merely of the territorial settlement of Vienna, but also of existing internal systems. He relied on his own superior diplomacy to enable him to dictate the decisions of the Allies at the periodical reunions of sovereigns and ministers. Thus the integrity of Austria and her influence in Europe would be secured and the Continent would rejoice in the attainment of long-sought repose.

As long as Francis II lived, the Chancellor had been secure in the unswerving support of a master who had shared with him the shame and peril of the days of Napoleonic supremacy, and who had rejoiced with him at the tyrant's fall. The debt owed to Metternich was realized and paid both in kind and in confidence. But when Francis died on the 2nd of March, 1835, after a reign of 43 years, the situation at once changed for the worse. The old Emperor, personally popular, had been strong enough to leave all things to his Minister; his son, Ferdinand I, was a feeble epileptic, without the strength even to be weak. Metternich remained in office, but supported only by his personal ability and reputation.

Thus when the fall of Louis-Philippe led to a riot at Vienna and to a demand by the provincial Estates of Austria for the resignation of Metternich and for a Constitution, his colleagues were not unwilling to listen at least to the first part of this request; they urged the old man to retire in order to give peace to his country, and they watched with secret pleasure the crowds which swarmed towards the chancellery clamouring for Metternich's life. At this moment the Chancellor showed more nobility of character than at any other moment in his long career, and all his accustomed firmness. Refusing to allow the doors of his palace to be closed, he awaited the mob in his study, facing them and daring them to lay hands upon him. They dared not, nor was he assailed by anything more material than howls and hisses as he passed through the crowd on his way to the imperial palace.

He was soon compelled to leave Austria and to hasten westwards in disguise, for the Viennese Liberals proved their deep love for personal liberty by setting a price on his head. There is a certain grim irony in the fact that he could find no refuge except in England, which he had always regarded as the home of the ideas against which he strove, and as the most bitter of his enemies. Thus fell Prince Metternich, who for nearly forty years controlled the destinies of the Austrian Empire, and who for more than thirty years had been the most imposing, if not the most noble, figure in European politics. His life's work had ended in failure; the peace for which he had laboured gave place to confusion worse confounded; and his name, so far from being honoured, has been handed down as symbolical of all that is most oppressive in government, of all that is most hostile to the progress of the human race.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:51:35 ZULU