Reviews: Biographical Books

Metternich: the Autobiography, 1773 - 1815


Metternich, Clemens, Furst von.  Metternich: The Autobiography, 1773-1815. Welwyn Garden City, UK: Ravenhall, 2004. 265 pages. ISBN# 1905043015. Softcover. $24.95.

Metternich: the Autobiography

Out of print in English since the 1970s, Ravenhall Books has published a welcomed new edition of Metternich's Autobiography in an inexpensive paperback edition.  Based on three separate biographical extracts from Metternich's Nachgelassenen and originally edited by Metternich's son, Metternich's memoirs were not truly memoirs, but, like many so-called "memoirs" of the era, a collection of letters, diaries and other documents. Prince Richard Metternich, in presenting the Memoirs, wrote, somewhat hopefully perhaps, "now that more than a generation has passed over his quiet tomb, the image of the resolute defender of conservative principles appears still more imposing, and his own words will enable men to realize the power and charm of his character.  Even his enemies will be touched, and will regard with respect the great statesman as he once again passes before them." Metternich observed somewhat disingenuously that "I have made history, and therefore have not found the time to write it."  But Metternich also bragged, "What gratifies me is to notice that the productions of my pen are always those which are most to the taste of the public." Metternich's son edited his father's papers with an eye to history. The memoirs were published virtually simultaneously in German French and English (the English translation was done by Robina Napier, wife of a Norfolk vicar, the son of the first editor of the Edinburgh Review).

Metternich's self-described purpose for writing these extracts was that "The present work is tended only to communicate what concerns myself, or has reference to the tone of mind which the circumstances of my time have produced in me, those of which I was a mere spectator and those in which I have myself played a part."  These autobiographical extracts were written well after the events described and written, at least in part, for posterity.  The account of Metternich's negotiations with Napoleon in 1813, for example, was written almost two decades after the events.  Beyond Metternich's self-justifications, are the deletions and "remarkable remolding" of Metternich's memoirs by his son and editor. And as time passes, memories fade and alter as events are internalized into one's inner narrative, which often tends to favor and flatter oneself. French historian Albert Sorel complained of Metternich's account of events:  "He makes himself the light of the world; he dazzles himself with his own rays in the mirror which he holds perpetually before his eyes."  Though Sorel himself has his own axe to grind as Pieter Geyl has pointed out. 

In addition Metternich is not particularly forthcoming, even in writings supposedly not intended for publication.  Metternich, for instance, does not mention that it was Talleyrand who was keeping him informed of the negotiations at Erfurt or that Talleyrand was urging Austria to declare war in 1809.  His views of many of his contemporaries beyond Napoleon are very circumspect. Nonetheless, French Napoleonic expert Tulard has called Metternich's memoirs "naturellement fondamentale," and observes that, like Talleyrand's memoirs (or Bourrienne's memoirs or Napier's history of the Peninsular war), the publication of Metternich's lead to an exchange of polemics over their veracity.  Stuart Woolf calls Metternich "a hostile but attentive observer of the French emperor from the time of his nomination as ambassador at Paris in 1805."  A contemporary review of the Memoirs observed that "...few estimates of the Emperor [Napoleon] ever printed have received a like attention from students or been estimated by them at a higher value. Outside of France there was no statesman who knew [Napoleon] so well, none who had such opportunities for seeing and understanding him under widely differing circumstances. Over most contemporary views it had the advantage of being written by a clear-sighted statesman..."

Born in 1773 in Coblenz, Metternich came from an old aristocratic Rhenish family who had held numerous high offices in the Holy Roman Empire, including electors in Cologne, Mayence and Treves.  That the Revolution and Napoleon swept away this world (and the family estates-though what territories were lost were more than compensated by later rewards for service.  Napoleon offered to restore the Metternich's Rhenish estates, but the offer was refused.) undoubtedly contributed to Metternich's visceral hatred of not just revolution but of liberalism.  His father was an Austrian ambassador, so Metternich's entry into Austria's diplomatic corps was perhaps a given.  Giving up his educational studies at the university at Strasburg, Metternich began his career of public service. Tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, epicurean, wily, with the easy manners of a courtier, a born politician despite his protests to the contrary (" from the stimulus of ambition as I have been all my life"), Metternich rose quickly and far on charm, intelligence, good fortune and a supreme confidence in his own abilities.  Marrying a grand-daughter of Chancellor Kaunitz (1795), placed him in the center of the Austrian aristocracy.  Metternich began his diplomatic career at the Congress of Rastadt, where he had his first introduction to the new revolutionary diplomacy. Metternich was appointed foreign minister after the Austrian defeat at Wagram. After 1815 he became the éminence grise of Austrian politics.  For forty years Metternich had great influence on Austria's and Europe's political life until the revolutions of 1848 forced the master diplomatist into exile and his influence was lost.

Unlike David Copperfield, who didn't know if he'd be the hero of his life, Metternich had no such doubts.  "...An observer of or a participator in all the circumstances which accompanied and followed the overthrow of that order [in France], of all my contemporaries I now stand alone on the lofty stage on which neither my will nor my inclination placed me." Historian Gregor Dallas wrote has written, "Totally vain, [Metternich] might just as well have entitled the memoirs he eventually left behind The History of Me and the World because, as he never tired of pointing out, the destiny of both marched together." Of Metternich's much celebrated "European outlook" Enno E Kraehe points out that it "acquired much embellishment along the way, some of it genuine, much of it rhetorical."

Metternich's contemporaries frequently complained of Metternich's love of speaking of himself and of his self-praise.  "Conceited, sententious, opinionated, indecisive and a bore" was how many saw him.  Metternich's bitter rival, Count Kolovrat complained, for example, that Metternich was a "pompous pedant who was constantly telling everyone that two and two made four, not five." King Frederick of Württemberg in 1808 observed that Metternich "has been all his life ... infatuated with his own merit."  On reading a history of his part in the events of 1814 Metternich found it, like a latter-day world leader, impossible to admit to any faults and errors.  Metternich's vanity is clear when he writes, "I cannot help telling myself twenty times a day, 'O Lord! How right I am and how wrong they are.'"

Reviewers of the memoirs, while admitting the "special value" of the memoirs, seemed to see Metternich in a far less admirable light the farther he was removed from the flame of his great adversary, Napoleon. One critic in the Contemporary Review observed at, "There were two Metternich's, indeed—one before and another after 1815.... It is a pity only that the latter wrote the history of the former."  The Century magazine, reviewing the memoirs, observed that, "Fussy, pompous, full of hollow phrases, alternately whining or threatening at the foreign policy of France, the spectacle of Metternich is not edifying to witness, and accounts for much of the legacy of hatred and contempt his name left behind him in Europe.  He outlived his time.  The moment for his disappearance should have that of Napoleon's death..."

Metternich's confidence in his own genius was no less than Napoleon's. "Intoxicated with victory, Napoleon returned from the banks of the Nieman to Paris.  The first impression of the unrestrained idea of power of the insatiable conqueror was given to the diplomatic corps at the customary reception, when all of the assembled representatives of foreign powers had in turn to hear the unpleasant things from the mouth of the Emperor... I came off the best..."  One critic complained, "At last [Metternich] persuaded himself, as we all willingly do, that his dispositions and capacities were the result of reflection and will." Metternich egotism did not end with his self-indulgence.  He pitied himself as a victim of his times, having to live in a period of transition. When Abbé de Pradt announced that "Mankind is on the march!" Metternich asked, "Towards what?" 

Sir Lewis Namier wrote that "It was the greatness and strength of Metternich during these fateful years to have foreseen that human contrivances, however clever and beneficial, would not endure, and to have understood the peculiar elasticity with which men would finally revert to former habits." H. Ritter von Srbik, Metternich's biographer, felt that Metternich's greatest achievement was his "constant and consistent opposition to the leveling by democracy and the rule of the mobilized masses, which threatened the historical order of state and society as well as individual culture." Other commentators have felt that Metternich helped shove men into their former habits. As many conservatives of the time Metternich raised the specter of the "Jacobin menace" to keep Austria chain with repression. Heine criticized Metternich's "diplomatic poison-making." Von Treitschke saw Metternich's chief ability as the power of playing on man's fears without offering ideas in turn.  He saw Metternich as "a clever manipulator of diplomatic trickery." Wellington complained that for Metternich "all policy [consisted of] finesse and trick." Vom Stein complained of his "shallow triviality." William von Humboldt at the Congress of Vienna called Metternich "mad with love, pride, and selfishness." Metternich famously described his own diplomatic principles at one point as "tacking, evading and flattering." 

Bertier de Sauvigny and Henry Kissinger saw as simply a "master manipulator who tailored his philosophy to whomever he was trying to sway." Robin Okey condemns Metternich for both his complacency, intellectual and social, as well as his weakness.  Okey observes that Metternich's "conviction of superior rationality" made him reluctant to abandon doctrines gradually outstripped by events."  Metternich allowed Emperor Francis, "one of the most influential mediocrities of modern times" in Okey's view, to frustrate even his modest attempts at reform.  Though Okey also points out that Metternich had an "awareness of the limits of the possible," arguably a trait Napoleon lacked. Contemporaries complained of his indolence, his neglect of governmental affairs while conducting his love affairs, his love of parties and salons. Metternich, unconsciously agreeing with Okey, described himself thusly: "My principles, my dear Prince, have not changed and they will never change," Metternich said.  "At fifteen I was what I am at forty-five..." Or, "As a man of principles, I could not and I would not bend when it came to the point of defending them." Metternich, with his policies, tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to stop the tide of history.

At the end of the wars, Austria, the country that had fought the longest against France, was now contiguous, but it was not much larger than it had been at the start of the wars and Austria's influence was shifted to the south and the east instead of to Germany, leading to its century long decline.  The Holy Roman Empire, which the Habsburgs had led since 1438, was gone and with it Austria's influence in Europe. As for Metternich, Gregor Dallas concludes that the "remarkable thing about Metternich was that every time he lost his career advanced.  The greater the loss, the more he advanced."  Paul W. Schroeder sums up Metternich's legacy that the Metternich system saw the international order "in a narrow, aristocratic way and used it in a repressive one, and thereby helped to stultify its development and ultimately undermine it."

American diplomatist Hans Morgenthau described the system of international relations overthrown by the revolution in France.  "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries... international morality was the concern of a personal sovereign –that is, a certain individual prince and his successors—and of a relatively small, cohesive, and homogeneous group of aristocratic rulers.  The prince and the aristocratic rulers of a particular nation were in constant, intimate contact with the princes and aristocratic rulers of other nations.  They were joined together by family ties, a common language (French), common cultural values, a common style of life, and common moral convictions about what a gentleman was and was not allowed to do in his relations with another gentleman, whether of his own or of a foreign nation."  While a Talleyrand, despite his ties to revolutionary France, might fit into this comfortable, conservative world (Metternich said of Talleyrand that he was a sharp edged instrument, with which t is dangerous to play," but "for great wounds great remedies are necessary and he who has to treat them ought not be afraid to use the instrument that cuts the best."), the revolutionaries and Napoleon could never be accepted into this old-boys network.

Perhaps it is best, as Metternich would have wanted it, to give him the last word, ""I think few men have known [Napoleon] better than I, because I have not confined myself to bare symptoms, but have endeavored to discover their foundation.  When I saw that the whole power of good and evil was embodied in that one man, I could do no otherwise than study him, and only him.  Circumstances placed me near this man; they have, so to speak, chained me to him.... After my death a very interesting memoir will be found of this man and his influence on the events of his age.... By the writings I leave behind me, many circumstances will certainly be explained, many doubts dispelled, and many errors rectified. For many years I have written and labored at this work.... This work is one of my favorite employments."

Ravenhall has given this sturdy paperback an attractively designed cover and has added some portraits of the chief characters.  I would have like to have seen either footnotes or an appendix giving some background on the individuals mentioned in Metternich's memoir.  Metternich has a tendency to throw out many names, some famous and some obscure, and even specialists might have to use a biographical reference to identify individuals such as Herr von Alopäus, Abbé Maury, the advocate Vandernoot, Eulogius Schneider, Basedow and Campe, General von Pfuel or Merlin de Thionville, for example.

This book, as well as Ravenhall Books' other Napoleonic titles can be ordered from

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2005


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