Matthew Franklin Cooper writes:
People who know me well are usually not surprised to know that I’ve had a fascination with the historical figure of Klemens Wenzel, Fürst von Metternich, since before I graduated from college: a bundle of contradictions (or seemingly so) drawn to another. Metternich has garnered in much of the world the reputation of an arch-conservative, even an absolutist reactionary, seeking quixotically to hold back an inevitable tide of progress, which finally saw him defeated in the liberal revolutions of 1848.
During his heyday, though, he was the bogeyman of many a ‘free-trade’ liberal, nationalist and free-speech advocate in his day, with the anti-nationalist Karlsbader Beschlüsse being the primary symbol of the censorship and repression with which Metternich was associated. As a personal figure, as well, he appeared to exemplify at once both the worst and the best of the old European nobility. Peter Viereck describes him as a ‘Frenchified German dandy… witty, pleasure-loving and arrogant’, which is perhaps not an unfair description. Continental in his attitude toward marriage (to put it politely, given his affairs with a number of high-profile women including Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister) and almost hubristically confident in his (formidable, to be sure) intelligence and abilities, he nevertheless dedicated those very same talents of which he was so cock-sure entirely to the service of his emperor and to the ancien régime.
Yet, under the international system he engineered, Europe enjoyed over a generation of peace – and what is more, it was not a peace enforced by the hegemony of a single economic or political regime, but rather a participatory and (largely) communicative system wherein powers were balanced with each other. He did not always get along with Emperor Francis; indeed, he opposed the most egregious forms of domestic censorship, advocated moderate local self-rule for Italians and Hungarians, was an ardent defender of the rights of Jews across the Continent in an era when they were still massively unpopular even amongst liberals, and was a consistent advocate for constitutional reforms within the Habsburg Empire. He attempted to bridge the gulf between the serfs, the growing proletarian class, and the landed gentry through his ‘socialisme conservateur’ – a vision of political economy which shares in its cosmopolitan reconciliation of the classes a great deal of overlap with later Catholic social theology, and by which the Prince made himself the ‘enem[y] of anarchy, moral and material’. In a time where liberal thought was converging upon the nation-state as its greatest vehicle of political empowerment, Metternich turned his vision at once upward to a greater international order and downward to more local forms of order.
One may argue the finer points over whether or not what he did was ultimately best for Europe as a whole, but there are many points that I think one can successfully take from his thought. For one thing, Metternich was far-sighted enough to see that the ethnically-homogeneous ideal of the nation-state was a horrible idea (a hearty thank-you to California Constantian for the link!), and that the secret societies within such ideas were allowed to manifest themselves in violent extremes were not a healthy development but rather a ‘gangrene of society’. Though one may decry that the Karlsbader Beschlüsse themselves were an extreme and repressive measure, one must remember that out of the ‘liberal’ Burschenschaften against which they were primarily aimed arose many of the aggressive hyper-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies which ultimately plunged the European continent into another total war, a genocide. By contrast, it is well to remember that Prince Metternich’s socialisme conservateur was at once the fountainhead of his support for the traditional monarchical state, as well as being the very source of his defence of the basic dignities of the Italians, the Hungarians and the Jews in Europe.
In keeping with the season, in addition to the other parts of my life for which I give thanks, I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the intellectual inspiration of Fürst Metternich – a flawed but nevertheless incredibly profound political theorist as well as master diplomat.
Likewise, the principle of the planned economy came down to the Attlee Government, via the Liberal Keynes and via Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from an ultraconservative Catholic, Colbert (once assumed by a sometime regular below the line on here to be a reference to The Colbert Report). The principle of the Welfare State came down to the Attlee Government, via the Liberals Lloyd George and Beveridge, and via the Conservative Governments of the Inter-War years, from an ultraconservative Protestant, Bismarck.