Clemens Lothar Metternich: The Man Who Saved “Old Europe” From Napoleon

Clemens Lothar Metternich was a symbol of old Europe in the 19th century. He protected this Europe from Napoleon and from nationalists and revolutionaries in 1848.

Jun 24, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

clemens lothar matternich


“With a minister like him, I would dare conquer the world.” The Russian czar was heard saying this about the first minister of the Austrian monarchy, Clemens Lothar Metternich. A skillful diplomat and political genius, he stood as one of the makers of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. Yet any gratitude that Europe felt for the peace he brought her vanished later. Metternich became a symbol of an old, stale regime that could stay in power only through censorship and secret police. In 1848 all the nations around Europe demanded his head.


The Old Man Sitting at His Table: Metternich in 1859

metternich photo old
Photograph of Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince of Metternich, in his last years of life, via Wikimedia Commons


The year is 1859. An old man is sitting in Vienna at his table and writing. His name is Clemens Lothar Metternich. He is deaf. God has taken away his only remaining source of happiness. No longer could he delve into endless discussions with influential politicians. All that remained was his pen. So, he kept writing. And they all kept coming to visit the old man — especially the emperor.


The young, energetic emperor, Franz Joseph, often asked for his advice and Metternich was very eager to provide it. In fact, he gave his advice even when unasked. He used all his diplomatic skills in those letters. He had to prevent the war in Italy. It would be a disaster. Austria would lose face; the nationalists would win. Metternich knew. If only he had a little more strength left. If only they would listen to him. If only he could save Austria. It used to be different when he was younger…


Metternich’s Europe, the Old and the New

rhineland romanticism
Rhineland-Palatinate from The Rhine: legends, traditions, history, from Cologne to Mainz, 1836, via Picryl


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Clemens Lothar Metternich was born in 1773 in Rhineland. The Europe he was born into differed significantly from the one in which the old Metternich wrote letters to Franz Joseph I. Metternich’s critics would insist that he refused to see it. In the 1770s, the monarchs ruled with unlimited God-given power, states and empires were multilingual, and most people did not even know the word “nation” — leave alone know they were part of one. In the 1850s, around Europe, there were republics and constitutional monarchies. Revolutionaries kept deposing monarchs and states fought wars for national interests.


Metternich started his studies in Strasbourg, a French-speaking city. After he left university to attend the coronation of emperor Leopold II., the fire of the French Revolution spread over France. Thus, he continued his studies in a safer and more conservative place, Mainz.


The French Revolution Shook the World

storm of the bastille
Storming of the Bastille, 1789 – 1791, via the Palace of Versailles


Today it may be hard to imagine the trauma of the French Revolution. We are the children of democracy, liberty, and equality. The rest of Europe was rattled in 1789 when the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and in 1792 when they executed a God-anointed monarch. The representatives of the old order were petrified. What happened in Paris went against everything they were taught since childhood. It went against the God-given order, against God himself. Not only were those in power afraid to lose their control. Even ordinary people outside of France (and some in France) felt that something was terribly wrong.


As the revolution evolved into the Terror, France started a war with its neighbors, and so proved them right. Nowadays, we are thankful for the course history took and happy to live in a democracy. However, contemporaries could not foresee the outcome.


Metternich´s Politics: Peace and Stability at Any Cost

lawrence metternich
Portrait of Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, by Thomas Lawrence, 1815, via the Royal Collection Trust


One of the people who was immensely shocked by the revolution was young Metternich. The terror and war that followed the first revolutionary acts also scared him. He would stand for peace and against social unrest for the rest of his life. And he would stand for it at any cost. Throughout his career, he would be a conservative in every meaning of the word. He protected the divine right of monarchs and he suppressed all ideas of liberalism and nationalism. He saw these ideas as a threat to peace and stability. In foreign politics, his ideal was a balance of power. Metternich started his diplomatic career in 1801 when he held ministerial positions in Dresden (Saxony) and Berlin (Prussia). But his political star rose the highest when he accepted the post of ambassador in Paris. There ruled the self-appointed emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte.


Metternich Contra Napoleon: Diplomacy Wins

metternich diplomacy marie louise
Marriage of Napoleon I and Marie Louise, by Georges Rouget, 1810, via the French Ministry of Culture


It should be clear that Napoleon will not find an ally in the young diplomat. On the contrary, Napoleon embodied everything Metternich stood against. He was an exponent of the new regime. He named himself not the French emperor but the Emperor of the French. Thus emphasizing that he represented the people, the public, who tasted power during the French Revolution for the very first time.


He was a pretender, a nobody, and that undermined the divine right of monarchs and aristocrats to rule their subjects. He trampled on the ideal of the balance of power in Europe under the feet of his many troops. And with the series of wars that Napoleon started, he spread liberal ideas abroad, created satellite states, gave them constitutions, or created republics. He spread French nationalism, and in the wars against the French, other nations realized that they were nations. Without the Napoleonic wars, nationalism’s rise might not have been so fast.


Metternich as a Maker of Napoleon’s Defeat

metternich meeting napoleon
The famous meeting between French Emperor Napoleon I and Austrian diplomat Marquess Clemens von Metternich in the Marcolini Palace, 1879, via Wikipedia Commons


Historians nowadays disagree whether Napoleon was or was not a military genius. But one thing they cannot deny. In battles and under arms, he seemed invincible. But diplomacy remained. Metternich was a diplomat who would wait patiently for his Austria to have its say. To walk on the saber’s edge, change sides when needed, lie, and bribe in the state’s service. After a disastrous defeat in 1809 at the Battle of Wagram, Austria did not pay a fair price. He proposed a masterstroke: Austria would become a French ally. This treaty would be cemented by the marriage of Napoleon to the Austrian Emperor’s daughter, Marie Louise.


In 1810 he prolonged the peace with France despite public opinion and pleas from the other European monarchs. Austria needed calm; Napoleon was too strong. But the time would come. And it did. After Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, Austria declared neutrality, and Metternich named terms for the Emperor of the French. The anti-French coalition was renewed, and this time it was successful.


The Congress of Vienna, Metternich’s Glorious Moment

the congress of vienna metternichs glorious moment
Congress of Vienna, by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1815, via


Napoleon was defeated, and Bourbon kings returned to exhausted France. But the victors could not agree on what to do with it. Everybody wanted something. The Russian czar Alexander wanted Poland and influence in Central Europe. The Prussians wanted more power and more land. The Polish wanted their own state, and what was worse — feared a strong united Germany could come into existence. Under Metternich’s leadership, Austria orchestrated a peace congress at Vienna that would decide the fate of Europe. Metternich’s dream of the balance of power in Europe could finally come true.


It took two years, and Napoleon returned and was defeated again. But in 1815, a new order was created. It very much resembled the old order. Bourbon kings returned to all the thrones from which they were deposed. Apart from neutral Switzerland and the Netherlands, no new independent national states were to be created. And a united German state would not arise; instead, a German Confederation originated under the Austrian presidency.


Metternich and Nationalism on the Rise

1848 wien revolution
Barricades at the University in May 1848, by Werner, F., 1848, via Brown University Library


The old order was seen by many in 1815 as too old to survive. Liberalism and nationalism were on the rise. The old regimes were crumbling. Most crowned heads in Europe, namely the Bourbon kings in France, did not realize that the world had changed. Now they had to pay attention to the people’s wishes and uprisings soon followed.


Nationalists in Germany wanted the unification of a strong Germany, and the Italians, divided into many independent states, wanted the same. Smaller nations like the Czechs, for example, wanted more rights within the monarchy. And everybody wanted a constitution, human rights, and other novelties that threatened peace and order in Metternich’s eyes. So, in Austria, he became a symbol of the old regime holding power at any cost.


With the help of strict censorship, secret police, and the army if need be (as it was needed in Austrian dominions in Italy). In foreign politics, he did all he could to prevent the existence of a united Germany. He tried hard to keep the Ottoman Empire alive as a wall against Russian imperialism. And Austria, under his rule, was always ready to help other monarchs keep the old regime.


Revolutions in 1848: The End of the Old Regime?

metternich on the run
Metternich on the Run, 1848, via Picryl


Some say that Metternich held Austria together and helped create the peace and stability which it needed for the helter-skelter development of the Industrial Revolution era. But most condemn Metternich for trying to stop inevitable progress. The revolutionaries of 1848, at least, did not doubt this.


What was the wave of revolutions in 1848 about? In the multinational Austrian empire, various nations wanted more autonomy (like the Czechs and Poles), some wanted to rule other nations (Hungarians), and some did not want to be a part of the empire. They wanted to belong to different national states, such as Germany and Italy. The masses of the poor demanded help, as a small harvest of potatoes brought famine to Central Europe.


Fifty years after the French revolution, liberal ideas gained enough ground to claim rights for the people. The demonstrators demanded a constitution, freedom of the press, and other liberties. And they demanded the head of the man who represented their suppression: first minister, Clemens Lothar Metternich. His forced resignation and exile was the first act of the government. It did not stop the revolution but it sure made the masses happy for a time.


New Europe and the Old Man: Metternich Retired

franz joseph
Portrait of Franz Joseph I of Austria, via Britannica


Metternich never politically recovered from the revolution; he was 75, after all. However, the political regime he created did recover in Austria. The new Emperor Franz Joseph proved to be a poor hope for the rebels. The nations in multinational Austria mostly did not get what they wanted. The constitution was promised but never finished. Germany and Italy had to wait for their unification. But the serfdom of ordinary people was abolished, and so was forced labor. The new government modernized the state and its legal, social, and economic system in the years that followed. The Austrian monarchy would change slowly with small steps, and without great revolutions.


After a short stay in England and the Netherlands, Metternich returned to Vienna. Prominent politicians and the young emperor sought his advice; foreign politicians visited him. He enjoyed this activity but his influence was minimal. Clemens Lothar Metternich died in 1859, aged 86. He would mourn the old Europe of his youth. But the new Europe would definitely not mourn him.

Author Image

By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.