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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Representative men: The obsolete statesman - Prince Metternich

< Once a Week (magazine)‎ | Series 1‎ | Volume 2

The Obsolete Statesman.
prince metternich.


Now is the time to take a last observation, from the life, of an order of men which seems to have passed away—that of individual statesmen who have each a strong leading conviction of the proper way to govern mankind, together with power to work out that conviction in act. There will always be men of that character of mind; and such men will always exert more or less influence in society from the strength of their self-confidence and will: but it seems as if they would not again be found supreme in the sphere of statesmanship—in Europe, at least. Under representative institutions, such men could hardly obtain power in the first place, or retain it in the next: and in empires despotically governed, the ruling princes themselves seem to feel a necessity to do their own statesmanship, as far as the choice of a principle or system of government is concerned. A Walewski in our day cannot hold his ground against the resolute policy of his Emperor: and in Russia, the Czar thinks and acts for himself. When Prince Metternich died, last June, his order of ministers probably disappeared from the eyes of men for ever. As some half-dozen of personages of that class have for centuries past affected the welfare of civilised society more than perhaps any other order of men, it may be profitable, and it must be interesting, to look a little into the life of Prince Metternich, and see how the world regarded him, and what he did in the world, during his long life of eighty-six years.

The child's first impressions of life were derived from the political point of view. If his father had been a country gentleman, living in the forests or mountain regions of Germany, or if the little Clement had been born in a university, his strong will, his natural audacity and caution, singularly combined in him, might have made him a great social improver, or a distinguished philosopher. As it was, he was the son of a politician; and he was brought up to be proud of forefathers who had helped to save the Austrian monarchy when it was in the extremity of danger from the Turks. His father, Count Metternich, was intimate with the statesman Kaunitz; and Kaunitz was godfather to the little Clement, and two-and-twenty years later gave him his daughter to wife.

One would be glad to know what the boy's talk was like at school and college, where (at Strasbourg University) we find him at the age of fifteen. He was removed to Mainz two years after; and when we meet him there, it is not as the recluse student among his books, nor as the political orator in the debating-club. At seventeen, Clement was actually qualified to act quite another part, and one requiring a special training and study. He Was Master of the Ceremonies at the coronation of Leopold II.

All courtiers, everywhere, were at that time anxiously bent on despotic government as the only method of rendering social life endurable. The canaille was then the great object of horror, because "the people"—all below the aristocracy—were supposed to be like the leaders and mob of the French Revolution, which was then in full career. The selfish and the benevolent at every Court in Europe then held the same view of good government—that the people must be strictly ruled, and have all their affairs settled for them, in order to keep the bad out of mischief, and the good out of risks and misfortunes. The boy-courtier probably never heard of any sane persons holding any other opinion; and we may imagine, therefore, the impression that England made upon him when he came over, in 1794, on his travels, before settling down to business. It was the year after the execution of Louis XVI.; and we all know how English view's of that revolution differed, and how English society was divided by those differences. The young Austrian found the aristocracy panic-struck; and he heard from them awful things about the popular politics of the day; and thus his opinions could hardly be much liberalised by his visit to England. When he left it, he settled down to business in the line of diplomacy. At one-and-twenty he was a member of the Austrian Legation at the Hague. During the next twelve years he was resident at the Courts of Prussia, Saxony, and Russia—first in a subordinate rank, and then as Minister; and, wherever he went, the conviction grew within him, that a perfect government was that which should control every circumstance of every man's existence. He early applied himself to the great work of his life—that of obtaining an ascendency over the rulers of men, in order to set them operating on all other men, according to his views. He pursued this object, with every conceivable advantage from his own genius and the events of his time: he never relaxed in his course for sixty years: he appeared to himself to succeed, early and late; and when he met with a check he wonderfully recovered himself.

If ever a political career was consistent, pertinacious, and conspicuously powerful, it was that of Prince Metternich: and yet we have seen him die in depression and dread—perceiving the impending ruin of the empire which he intended to have made the mistress of Europe: and aware that every bit of political work he had done throughout the continent was being undone by princes on the one hand and people on the other.

It was a hard lot; but it was deserved, inasmuch as he had refused to learn anything from the noble efforts he had seen made by one nation after another to obtain good government, and establish popular liberties. The hearts of the most timid Conservatives had at times beat high when the noble principles of 1789 were upheld in France, and when all Prussia uprose in defence of the national liberties in 1812; and when the peoples of Germany rebuked their princes in 1822 for their breaches of faith in withholding promised constitutions; and when the Swedes, and the Swiss, and the Sicilians all nobly upheld, in their several ways, the claims of national and personal liberty: but Metternich regarded himself as superior to such vulgar sympathies. They only increased his sense of the necessity of his taking care of Europe, as the natural guardians of authority could be carried away by dangerous emotions.

We understand him well, now that his system is crumbling down about his grave, like a monument built without foundations or cement: and we can, in looking bock, trace him from court to court, and from council to council, his heart growing colder, his tongue smoother, his will stiffer, his manners more pliable, his self-esteem more monstrous, his egotism more engrossing, with every piece of experience, till he believed himself the actual ruler of continental Europe, and considered himself in charge of the nominal sovereigns, whom it was his business to guide in the right path. At different stages of this career we find him in strange positions, occasionally, and with a curious team of circumstances in hand. After a hundred successes in making them go, in preventing their running away with him, and in turning them at sharp corners, and getting them through sloughs and bogs, he was doomed to see and feel the state-coach falling to pieces, while he and his skill lay sprawling.

In 1810 we discover him oddly employed at Paris. The great German physiologist, Gall, found a patron in him, when none else, except poor philosophers, saw the importance of his work on the brain. The work was issued at Prince Metternich's expense: and it may be observed, in explanation, that not only are cynical rulers pleased to see able men employed in study and the arts, which may divert them from politics, but Gall's discoveries might be particularly acceptable to the great apostle of centralised government, from showing how men's minds may be commanded at pleasure, when coercing their acts might not suffice. Such would naturally be a politician's notion of the bearings of a new theory which he could only understand in his own way. The same explanation may be given of the welcome he accorded to Robert Owen at a later time. When Owen related (as he was fond of doing) how pleasant it was to talk for hours together with Prince Metternich, who felt his system to be the summum bonum for humankind, bystanders looked at each other, and remarked afterwards that Owen must be in his dotage, to include Metternich among his disciples. Owen had sufficient ground, however, for what he said. The great minister did incite him to open his mind freely,—did consider his plans with interest,—did employ his secretaries in copying Owen's manuscripts for further study. And the wonder is small to those who are aware of the central principle of Metternich's particular method of despotism. If he desired, as he did, to order and control all the circumstances of the lives of the people of Austria, what instrument could be more apt to his hand than the social system of a philosopher who professed to know how to make any man exactly what was desired, within the limits of his natural faculty? Here was an instructor who would show how to turn out ten millions of Austrians to pattern; and such a pretension was not to be snubbed without inquiry. It might be worth while to try what could be made of plastic Germans, and fiery Hungarians, and troublesome Italians, by "an arrangement of external circumstances" from the cradle upwards. So Metternich seems to have thought: for he was certainly more than courteous to Robert Owen.

Prince Metternich (OAW).png


At another time, when he was Foreign Minister, we discover him inserting a secret article in the treaty of Vienna, to be suddenly rendered visible to the eyes of the Bonapartes, whenever it should suit the French Emperor's purpose to put away his wife Josephine, and take another. At the family meeting, held to receive the news of the intended divorce, the discovery of the secret article was made; Prince Metternich having already prepared for the wedding journey with the new bride, whom he himself conveyed to France within four months of the first pang of suspicion smiting the heart of Josephine. The first rule of morals, to statesmen like Metternich, is that nothing is too humble for wisdom to stoop to in pursuit of an aim; and that no work can dirty the hands of pure patriots who live for an idea. Prince Metternich therefore turned match-maker and gentleman-usher without humiliation, in order to marry the great Bonaparte to an Austrian princess.

But how he could possibly be the humble servant in appearance (though the political rival in reality) of the Russian and the French Emperors at the same moment may be a puzzle now, as it would have been at the time if the fact had been generally known. Certainly, the government of the Czar would seem to be after Metternich's own heart,—with its centralisation, its influence in deterring men from thought, and encouraging them in levity, and other convenient qualities; whereas Bonaparte was the representative of revolution in Europe. How could the resolute Austrian get on with both? Why, he did not, on the whole, get on so well with the French Emperor as with the Russian, though he paid his homage to the former as the antagonist of the revolutionary tendencies of France. It was in relation to Bonaparte that we discover the weaknesses of Metternich, and his liability to vacillation, like other men. The uncertain and perfidious policy of Austria during the great European struggle was owing to the doubts and baffled forecast of Metternich, after he had made the Emperors of Austria and France father and son, without being able to make the latter duly filial in his behaviour. The whole connection furnishes some more odd situations for the managing statesman who was always in self-imposed charge of everybody's affairs.

Most of us would have found it dreadfully mortifying to be thrust into such comers of subterfuge, and driven into such labyrinths of intrigue, as Metternich encountered in some stages of his career: but he seems to have rather enjoyed the exercise of his faculties in extricating himself. He had also exquisite moments of triumph,—as when he saw the Emperors Alexander and Napoleon embracing on the raft, in the middle of the river at Tilsit: and seven years of glory were in store for him, after the humbling of his sovereign's son-in-law.

Meanwhile, he deceived that remarkable relative of his master as no one else ever deceived him.

In 1813, when Napoleon could not sustain the course of conquest with which he began his campaign, Metternich proposed an armistice,—welcome to the French. This act of apparent consideration was a mask, behind which Austria planned and promised a junction with the allies, who had sworn never to relax in the war till Napoleon was subdued. At the same moment Metternich was occupied with two affairs. He was offering to Napoleon his services as a negotiator of peace with the allies, and preparing the declaration of war which Austria would launch when the armistice could no longer be protracted. Napoleon was, perhaps, never in so fearful a rage as when the declaration was proclaimed, and he found he had been kept in play by Metternich while his enemies were assisted by the self-same Metternich to prepare his doom.

Yet did Napoleon once more appeal to the minister who had rid him of his first wife, and given him another. In the next October, after the first day of the battle of Leipsic, Napoleon sent a secret messenger in the night to Metternich, with an offer to retire behind the Rhine, if Austria would procure him terms. The minister returned no sort of answer; and his sovereign rewarded this audacious prudence by making him a prince of the Austrian empire.

Some months remained before Metternich entirely extricated himself from the embarrassments of his relations with Napoleon: and probably those were the least complacent months of his career, so far. When the allies were struggling through France upon Paris, in 1814, Prince Metternich exhausted their patience by the obscurity and vacillation of his conduct. On the one hand, he could not forget the chance of the French throne for the grandson of Austria; and, on the other, he would not leave the shelter of the allied armies while Napoleon might yet become dangerous.

Wellington pushed the Prussians forward, while the Austrians were slowly retiring; and, as soon as all was evidently over with Bonaparte, Metternich induced the wife to disappoint her fallen husband of her presence, and to repair to the Austrian court in complete abandonment of him. Thus he separated those whom he had brought together; and they never saw each other again.

We were next favoured with a visit from the Austrian minister, who was about to become the dictator of Europe. We made him an Oxford Doctor of Civil Law. His game, at that time, was to baffle the Russian and Prussian allies, whom he suspected of intending to break the peace of Paris. He plotted against them with the Bourbons and Wellington; but, in the midst of the game, his old difficulty revived.

He received a very private despatch on the 7th of March, 1815, which made him the fountain of news to the two pairs of his allies,—the two with whom he had sworn an "indissoluble alliance," and the other two with whom he was plotting against his "indissoluble allies." Napoleon was back from Elba; and the event put an end to all considerations but that of disposing of him.

Next followed Metternich's seven years of glory—from 1815 to 1822. The treaties of 1815 were his. He gave away countries and peoples at his pleasure, and found willing instruments in all the princes and ministers of Europe. He let romantic sovereigns propound a Holy Alliance, and preach a high-flown political gospel. He put on an air of deference towards everybody who had a hobby or a scruple. He made no boasts in his own name; but he decreed and arranged the policy of Europe—uniting Belgium and Holland, which flew asunder after a time, from mutual repugnance. He cut and carved, and fixed unions and divisions and boundaries—as he believed, for all future time.

Among other incidents, those Italian provinces were assigned to Austria, which she is now losing; and Genoa was given to Piedmont.

For seven years the complacent statesman boasted of the peace of Europe, and the grandeur of Austria. In 1822 his work already began to totter to its fall. The Italian states broke out into revolution; and, on the other hand, the Czar was undermining Austria. The mouth of the Danube was already gone.

For thirty years the system of Prince Metternich was crumbling and shaking; and his career can hardly be considered a happy one, though he persisted, to the last, in his faith in his method of restriction and meddling, and balancing power, as he called it, while always giving preponderance to the despots of Europe, and especially to the Austrian. That the policy of England should have been virtually guided by such a man for a course of years will be a drawback on the history of the century for all future time: but the reputation of the Balance of Power is so good and true—it is so clearly the result and expression of political civilisation, by which the weak are sustained against aggression, and the smaller bodies hold their place in the system, and move in their courses as freely as the larger ones, that it is no great wonder if the system has been credited with more than it could effect.

Metternich's mistake was in overlooking one of the strongest forces implicated in the case,—that of the will of the nations themselves; and the real disgrace of English statesmanship lay in the oversight not being at once exposed and denounced. It was left for the peoples themselves to do this, and they have done it, from time to time, till Prince Metternich's system may be regarded as shattered beyond repair. His characteristic obstinacy prevented his ever owning himself beaten: and his virtual government of Austria to the last has sentenced that wretched empire to ruin: but when we look back to his seven years of supremacy in Europe, and follow the handsome, agreeable, self-confident and flattered statesman through his daily life of power and success, we can hardly wonder that he was estimated at far more than his real worth by men who should have known better, or that he could never learn to distrust himself, after a series of rude lessons, extending over thirty years.

To show how his system was foiled and broken up would be to quit a portraiture of Metternich for that of George Canning. Our business here is only with Metternich's reception of his mortifications.

After the outbreaks of restiveness, in 1822, the Prince-Minister manifested the narrowness of his mind and the insolence of his temper more unmistakeably than ever. All Europe knew how he and the Emperor Francis—"the Father of his people"—occupied themselves (as if they had not otherwise enough to do!) in settling the minutest details of the life of the political prisoners in the state dungeons. They appointed which man (scholar, philosopher, poet, statesman, as it might be) should be shut in under the leads at Venice, and broiled there to the last degree of fever; and which should be buried in a subterranean hole, without fire, through a German winter. The Prince-Minister and the Emperor it was who themselves ordered the periodical stripping to the skin of dignified gentlemen in the presence of jail-officers, under pretence of a search for implements which the prisoners had no means of obtaining. The food, the dress, the exercise of the prisoners were all arranged for torture by Metternich and his imperial crony, with a petty malignity which almost became a grand cruelty by its vigilance and perseverance. The pitch of self-confidence which Metternich had attained is shown by the fact of the Austrian censorship having permitted the publication of Pellico's memoir of his imprisonment. Simple folk asked how the book got issued at all, and the answer was, that it was policy on Prince Metternich's part. He trusted that such a picture of suffering would frighten dissatisfied subjects from moving; and, as to the exposure of his government he was quite callous. He called his—good government; and if other peopled questioned it, they did not know what good government was.

Thus he went on for a few years, when, one fine summer day, news came of a fearful shock to the system—so fearful that the Emperor Francis cried out "All is lost!"

There was another revolution in France. Metternich himself was dismayed; but not for long. He found in the Citizen King qualities which would make him a useful tool. The growing centralisation of the French administration, and the contraction of electoral rights suited Metternich's notions so well that he hardly regretted the Bourbons, after all. Even when the system once more exploded under the Orleans management, and in one place after another within the area of Metternich's influence, his views underwent no change. His was good government: and those who threw it off were ungrateful, perverse, rebellious people, who must be put down. So he said in 1848, as confidently as in 1822; and when his sovereign abdicated, he had no idea of not ruling the young Emperor as he had ruled the old one. Giving place to new methods and new men was to him past conceiving. When Vienna was insurgent on the 13th of March, 1848, and the princes were in consultation, while a deputation of citizens brought a demand for a new system of rule, Metternich asserted himself and his claims against friends and foes. The Archduke John, who received the deputation, assured them that their wish as to the resignation of the minister should be complied with. Prince Metternich, however, opening the door between the two rooms, declared aloud—"I will not resign." The Archduke repeated his pledge in a louder voice, and the Wolsey of our age exclaimed, in bitter wrath: "Is this the reward of my fifty years' services?" An equally bitter laugh from the princes was the response. It was he who had brought their house to this pass; and his fifty years of service had ruined the empire.

The old man had then eleven years more to live: and he managed to do a good deal more mischief yet. At first, there was nothing for it but flight. The next morning he was escorted by a troop of soldiers to the railway, and then for a time the world lost sight of Prince Metternich. He wandered about for a few weeks, and came to England for the third time, under the name of Meyer, a travelling merchant. He lived here and in Belgium for two or three years, and then ventured home. He was the proprietor of the Johannisberg vineyards on the Rhine, and his country-house there was a favourite residence. There he now settled, sending abroad accounts of his helplessness from age and infirmity. The world let him alone; but it was perfectly aware that he and the Archduchess Sophia, the young Emperor's mother, were still working away at their system, as pertinaciously as ever. While blaming the Pope for his early reforms, and making out that everybody was wrong but themselves, they seem never to have asked themselves why the Austrian empire was not better fused, organised, and tranquillized. Italy was breaking away in one direction, and Hungary in another; and Vienna itself had, for once, defied even the police, and taken its own way.

Happen what might, there sat Metternich to the last,—apparently sunning himself among his vineyards, and seeing heaven and earth reflected in the Rhine before his windows; but, in reality, pulling the strings of his puppets as devotedly as before the miserable day when he had found them immoveable.

All this time matters were growing worse and worse. Of course he pitied himself for having fallen on evil days when the pride of mankind prevented their appreciating a great statesman, who governed them for their good: but mankind grew no better, in spite of the Concordat, and the tight rein held over Hungary, and the military occupation of Lombardy, and the sarcasms and rebukes and insults administered to Piedmont. At this time last year it was becoming plain that Austria must incur the inconvenient expense of sweeping her enemies from before her face. Her great military system must now be put in action to punish the troublers of order, who had only themselves to thank for their destruction. As the spring came on, the earth shook with the tread of Austrian armies. The system was to assert itself finally, to humble Piedmont, and rebuke all revolution in the person of France.

On the 4th of June was fought the Battle of Magenta, and on the 11th of the same month died Prince Metternich.

It is impossible to help compassionating such a close of such a career; but it is right also to rejoice in such a collapse of such a function. The age for Prince-Ministers is over with Metternich in Europe, as the age of Cardinal-Ministers was over with Wolsey in England. No scheme of rule can henceforth be instituted, or long upheld, which does not carry with it the respect and acquiescence of the best minds which live under it. It is no longer a question what Metternich declares to be the best system, if society is not of the same opinion; and ministers who desire power to do their duty must obtain it from the only source which is not fast running dry,—the consent of the governed. So evident is this, that the rankest despotisms now affect to rest on popular support as the only reprieve from destruction. It is against the laws of nature that, in an age of intelligence, one man's will should overbear that of nations, be he minister or sovereign. To be a minister is to be a servant: and ministers will henceforth be kept to their function. They may never again have the chance of immortalising themselves—for honour or for infamy—by devising out of their own heads a national or European policy; but they will always be secure of respect, confidence, gratitude, and a cordial understanding with the national mind and heart, if they govern well enough to govern long. The follies and the fate of Prince Metternich mark the close of a period in political history; and the clearness of the warning, shown in the overthrow of a continental policy, and the crumbling of an ancient empire, is the only thing that can reconcile us to the calamity of the life and rule of Clement Wenceslas Nepomuk Lothaire, Prince Metternich of Austria.

Ingleby Scott.