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Wolfram Siemann: Metternich. Stratege und Visionär. Eine Biografie, München: C.H.Beck 2016, 983 S., ISBN 978-3-406-68386-2, EUR 34,95
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Rezension von:
Michael Rowe
King's College, London
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Michael Rowe: Rezension von: Wolfram Siemann: Metternich. Stratege und Visionär. Eine Biografie, München: C.H.Beck 2016, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 9 [15.09.2016], URL:

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Wolfram Siemann: Metternich

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Klemens von Metternich's life spanned the final years of the Holy Roman Empire, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the so-called Restoration and Pre-March, and the 1848 Revolutions, a range that alone justifies the almost one thousand pages that Wolfram Siemann expends in rehabilitating the Austrian statesman. Metternich is forever associated with reaction and Austria, but according to his own words it was the Rhine, not the Danube, that flowed through his veins. It is a strength of this book that it covers in some detail the rise of the Metternich family within the Rhineland, a territorially fragmented region closer to France than to Austria and Prussia, and one where the checks, balances and guarantees of the thousand-year old Holy Roman Empire remained peculiarly strong throughout the eighteenth century. Klemens's ancestors, including his father, adeptly climbed the greasy pole of imperial politics, loyally serving Habsburg interests in the Rhineland and the Austrian Netherlands. They reached the top of the pole just in time to witness the Empire's destruction by the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. These events brought the family close to ruin. Salvation came from the Habsburgs, a dynasty that for all its failings set great store on loyalty, and whose archives contained sufficient evidence of previous Metternich service over the centuries to justify material support for the family's transfer to Vienna.

Whilst Metternich's experience of the French Revolution was profoundly personal, he nonetheless appears to have retained a sense of detachment that freed him from the kind of embittered and unrealistic political agendas common to émigrés. Instead, pragmatism, so Siemann, not conservative dogma, characterized Metternich's approach as his career as an Austrian diplomat took off in the Napoleonic period. This realism enabled Austria, whose foreign policy Metternich directed after 1809, to survive the existential threat posed by Napoleon. Metternich was never under any illusions about Napoleon, whose character he had ample opportunity to assess close up: such a personality was clearly incompatible with a stable European order, so the only issue was how best to affect his removal. The opportunity arose following French defeat in Russia in 1812, with Metternich, more than any other statesmen, according to Siemann, deserving praise for holding together the grand coalition of powers that eventually brought Napoleon down. Siemann strongly refutes older German nationalist assertions that Metternich appeased Napoleon, but overstates his role in 1813. Other players - Tsar Alexander, Castlereagh, and not least Napoleon through his pig-headedness - contributed hugely to the final outcome. No doubt their roles were minimized by Metternich himself whose own writings constitute a major source for this book. Where Metternich certainly did make a difference was in getting Napoleon's German allies to change sides, thereby significantly shifting the military balance further in favour of the coalition. This involved guaranteeing their sovereignty, no trivial concession from a representative of the old imperial nobility.

Whilst opinions differ as to Metternich's importance in Napoleon's downfall and the Vienna peace settlement, it is his association with the subsequent political repression that has done most to undermine his reputation. Siemann makes several valid points in his defence. He emphasizes the seriousness of the politically-motivated violence after 1815, paying particular attention to the assassination of the writer August von Kotzebue by the radical student Karl Sand. More worrying than the actual murder itself, and of similar attempts at home and abroad, was the sympathy accorded the perpetrators by a substantial swathe of the press and by intellectuals. Siemann's choice of vocabulary in describing this violence, which afflicted all of Restoration Europe, encourages the reader to see parallels with the wave of terrorism confronting the world today. Seen in this light, the clampdown associated with Metternich is little different from, for example, surveillance of internet communications by today's western democracies. Siemann also stresses that Metternich was hardly a reactionary outlier in his own time, noting that even the British government of the day resorted to a raft of repressive measures indistinguishable from those adopted by Austria. Some of Siemann's defence can be accepted, not least because it aligns with recent scholarship on the nature of early nineteenth-century German nationalism that has highlighted its least appealing aspects: its antisemitism, intolerance of minorities and hypermasculinity. Karl Sand and his backers come across as a bunch of fanatics, who ultimately deserved what they got. The danger, of course, as is the case with modern securocrats, is when they adopt an indiscriminate blunderbuss approach. This is especially dangerous in systems lacking independent judicial or parliamentary oversight. This is why Siemann's comparison of Metternich's Austria with Britain (and even France) is unconvincing: in Britain, unlike in Austria, parliamentary opposition led to the repeal of the most repressive measures, and juries furthermore proved reluctant to convict.

Metternich deserves a degree of rehabilitation, but Siemann overshoots the mark. Most convincing are the chapters on Metternich's enlightened Rhenish heritage and upbringing, which bequeathed him a broad, cosmopolitan outlook that appears far more appealing than the intolerant nationalism, misogyny and antisemitism characteristic of his most vociferous opponents. One can also accept that Metternich adeptly piloted the Austrian ship of state through a particularly turbulent period of European history, and that the international system he helped establish encouraged peaceful conflict resolution. Beyond that, however, and especially with reference to his policy after 1815, the reader is left thinking that Siemann's Metternich is simply too good to be true.

Michael Rowe