When I am asked who my favorite historical figure is, I cannot help but say Prince Klemens von Metternich. Throughout my life, the majority of the responses I’ve gotten to this have been incredulous. Most people have no reason to know who Metternich is, and the majority of those who do scoff at the idea that an 18th-century Austrian aristocrat who is most often remembered for his repressive conservatism is a fitting exemplar, let alone one relevant in the 21st century. Well, I beg to differ.
When one reads about Metternich, the first thing that stands out is his eclecticism. Throughout his life, Metternich was shaped by an assortment of conflicting forces. Born into an aristocratic family during the Ancien Régime, the young Metternich was exposed to revolutionary thinking by one of his most seminal childhood tutors, Johann Friedrich Simon. (When the French Revolution broke out, Simon became a bona fide Jacobin and even helped lead the storming of the city hall at Strasbourg.) As an adult, Metternich witnessed the decline of the ancient order his predecessors had thrived in, the unfolding of a revolution, and the advent of industrialization.
It was as a result of this unique mix of historical forces that Metternich learned a skill that made him one of the greatest diplomats in history, a skill we all ought to have: He learned to make himself an objective observer in his own world.
Whenever Metternich visited a city for the first time, he made it a habit to seek out the highest point around, climb up to it, and map out his surroundings. His approach to diplomacy was remarkably similar. As Austria’s foreign minister, Metternich had a singular ability to interpret the constellation of current events, understand their historical contexts, and derive from them principles to guide practical politics.
Using this method, Metternich understood the events of his day better than any of his contemporaries. He was one of the first to understand the social character of the French Revolution. Similarly, he was able to overlook Austria’s existential struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte and assess the bellicose French emperor objectively: His comprehensive grasp of the causes, consequences, and patterns of the events around him allowed Metternich to understand Napoleon and manipulate him to Austria’s advantage.
The ability to detach oneself from the tumult of current events and objectively assess reality remains a valuable skill. Metternich understood that a failure to do so was a fundamental feature of “men of lively imagination and quick understanding who are easily overcome by the impressions of the moment ... [who] always incline to extremes.” He detested what historian Manfred Botzenhart called a “politics of a fiery heart and passionate will,” a politics that Metternich—a refugee of the French Revolution—understood led to failure.
Like us, Metternich lived during a time when political radicalism was on the rise. In his case, this radicalism led to revolution, war, and political violence. In ours, it further polarizes communities, undermines our government, and lends itself to violent extremism. Metternich understood the damage fanatical politics could cause; he spent a large part of his career fighting to protect European states from the nationalist radicalism that was ascendent in postwar Europe. Metternich believed that radicalism and revolution are a “volcano which captures all huts as much as palaces.” It is the government’s duty, he wrote, to “protect the mass of the reasonable” from revolutionary “doctrinaires who [would] lead some into misery, others to the scaffold or into exile, but all into the most lamentable anarchy.”
Noticeably, Metternich brought the pragmatism and fair-mindedness that defined his politics into his personal life. As a person, he was politely open toward everyone, often in spite of personal animus; he was deliberately polite even to his political enemies. Metternich’s dignified manner and strong spirit led the diplomat Karl Nesselrode to quip that he had “more Geist than [was to be found] in three-quarters of the Viennese excellencies.” Metternich, branded the “coachman of Europe,” also made a conscious effort to be well-informed, even to the perspectives of his adversaries. He regularly read newspapers from all across the continent, including radical ones. Indeed, while in exile in England, Metternich eagerly participated in public debate and even wrote for newspapers including the Times, the Morning Chronicle, and the Quarterly Review.
Today, at a time when it has become common to view political difference as a personal affront, Metternich shows us that there is another way. He was wronged by the French Revolution, as a direct result of which he had his estates raided and witnessed gruesome battles, battles he saw “as a great tragedy” which he had “sacrificed everything” to end. Despite all of this, he was able to put even fundamental political differences aside and understand his opposition, as well as avoid the thirst for vengeance. Here, he serves as a role model to us all: We all ought to not only seek to understand each other’s points of view, but also not let even immense political differences serve as an excuse for indecorum.
Throughout his long life, Metternich was to varying degrees a diplomat, an aristocrat, a journalist, a politician, a philosopher, a military theorist, an industrialist, and a liberal reformer. In each of these capacities, he was remarkably talented; he was a man who transcended time and stood across two centuries.
Today, as we confront another wave of political radicalism and are tempted by the illusory prospect of utopia at the “temporary” expense of political stability, let us remember what Metternich had to teach us. Let us be objective in our assessment of ourselves and avoid the allure of the politics of passion. Let us be inspired by a great man, a historic figure with accomplishments that belied the tumultuous period he lived in. William Faulkner once wrote that “the past is never dead. It’s never even the past.” Well, neither is Klemens von Metternich.
The author of this piece wanted to bring attention to an underappreciated historical figure who we all ought to learn something from; he hopes that this piece succeeded in that endeavor. If you want to email him to point out Metternich’s treatment of Italian nationalism or another of his alleged sins, feel free to do so. Just know that Metternich wrote that he was “not … able to recognize [himself]” in the “reports and lampoons” that characterized him as a reactionary conservative. Alternatively, he’d also be glad to hear what you liked about this piece. Hopefully there’s at least something! You can reach him at email@example.com.
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