Siemann tells a new story of Clemens von Metternich, the Austrian at the center of 19th-century European diplomacy. He was famous for his alleged archconservatism, as a friend of realpolitik and reform, and for pursuing international peace.
... a superb biographical portrait and work of historical analysis ... The author’s picture of the Holy Roman Empire, it should be said, is too positive. Far from seeing the Empire as a model, the Founding Fathers regarded it as a cautionary tale ... Overall, Mr. Siemann’s Metternich is the most comprehensive, absorbing and authoritative biography of the man we have, defying the stereotypes that usually adhere to him. Let us hope that it will serve if not as a manual then at least as an inspiration—good statesmanship is needed more than ever.
Siemann’s meticulous account of these negotiations is highly revealing of the gradations in what is usually represented as a monolithic aristocracy, and goes a long way to explain Metternich’s acute sense of order and hierarchy. No less enlightening is his coverage of Metternich’s education by remarkable tutors at the universities of Strasbourg and Mainz ... This impressive biography is welcome. It covers every aspect of Metternich’s life with a wealth of detail, and dishes up some delightful gems. A hand-drawn sketch recording where every Italian subversive had gone to ground, from Buenos Aires to Brussels, brings to life his obsession with the threat they posed ... My only quibble is that Metternich is very much the hero as well as the subject of the book, and its rather reverent tone can jar. His wisdom and judgment are unquestioned and his achievements over-praised. He is represented as the principal actor in the coalition that brought down Napoleon and the master operator at the Congress of Vienna, while other players such as Tsar Alexander, Castlereagh and Talleyrand are marginalised ... Siemann goes to great lengths to justify Metternich’s reactionary policy and his war on subversion in the 1830s and 1840s, going so far as to argue that Britain and France were just as autocratic as the Habsburg monarchy. Such special pleading does his subject no favours. Nor do his heavy-handed efforts to redeem Metternich from his reputation as a vainglorious philanderer by calling him a 'connoisseur of women', as though they were racehorses or fine wines ... The real strength of the book lies in its coverage of the internal politics of the Habsburg Empire, Metternich’s attempts to reorganise it and the power struggles at its heart after the death of Emperor Francis I in 1835 ... Siemann’s account of this period, and of Metternich’s treatment after his fall, is sympathetic and moving, inspiring respect for a remarkable man. Yet his suggestion that Metternich was a 'surprisingly ‘modern’ figure' is unconvincing, while at this particular moment in its history, the representation of him as the father of European unity is not quite the flattering accolade presumably intended.
With painstaking and pathbreaking primary-source research, this book seeks to redeem Metternich from the criticisms of his detractors. It ultimately fails. Siemann tries to explain Metternich’s uncompromising reactionary views as a sincere response to early trauma suffered when the French Revolution dispossessed his aristocratic family. But portraying Metternich as a victim of trauma, a thoughtful strategist, a harbinger of modern European federalism, and a kindly and moderate man in private doesn’t excuse the cruelty and intolerance of his politics. The book does succeed in forcing readers to wonder whether Metternich’s efforts to defend an essentially conservative order against populists and terrorists are so different from the struggles that liberal democracies face today.