Review of Alan Palmer Metternich, A Biography (Harper and Row, 1972)
W. H. Marshner
Alan Palmer is not a tyro, as historians of central Europe go. He has a book on Yugoslavia and a history of Eastern Europe to his credit, on the second of which he collaborated with C. A. McCartney, who has probably the best grasp of Austro-Hungarian affairs of anyone writing today. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should turn his hand to a life of Metternich, the man who brought the Danube valley to the zenith of its influence in European affairs. Moreover, Metternich is a popular subject just now. Ever since Henry Kissinger recreated the role of international high- wire artist and claimed Metternich as his hero-prototype, people have been muttering about the architect of European restoration with a new respect.
Actually, a revisionist approach to the once loathed “arch-reactionary” has been in the cards for some time. Scholarly studies favorable to Metternich’s basic work have been appearing with growing frequency since the First World War. The price exacted for this new appreciation, however, is rather high. It is the ignoring of the social theory which, in Metternich’s eyes, justified his own work. With “ideology” safely out of the equation, the revisionists are prepared to see Metternich as a consummate practitioner of the classic, balance-of-power theory of peace-keeping. Of course, even in this view, there is at least one concession to the great minister’s old- fashioned ideas, namely, the grudging recognition that balance-of-power diplomacy is somehow written into the nature of things. Despite many years of valiant and idealistic trying, no workable substitute has been found for it. Certainly there is none in New York or Geneva. Then, too, it is conceded today that Metternich, though a reactionary in theory perhaps, was anything but a conservative “type.” As he himself wrote, “New needs always create new forms,” and he followed the maxim by introducing striking innovations into the instruments of diplomacy. The conference system, the new style of diplomacy, the new arrangement of ministerial bureaucracy —all mark Metternich as a man far removed from the mentality caricatured by Ambrose Bierce as quintessentially conservative. In sum, then, the revisionist approach concedes to Metternich an enormous technical proficiency, a high imagination and a praiseworthy grasp on reality in its international, precisely realpolitische, dimensions, but it denies him any profound understanding of social (sub- international) reality or any defensible understanding of the movement of history.
This, too, is the approach of Alan Palmer, to the extent he can be said to have an “approach.” I suppose it is an “approach” of sorts to exhaust all one’s energies in somehow putting one fact after another. One has 2,347 file cards, and in the end all the cards must go into the book. Similarly, Mistress Quickly has fourteen dishes and ten cups. It no more occurs to Mistress Quickly to philosophize on household implements than it does to Alan Palmer to raise anything however remotely resembling a theoretical question. For him, to the extent such questions ought to inhabit a gentleman’s mind at all, their answers are obvious. Constitutions are good, liberals are right, modernity is best. He says on page two that Metternich’s ideas are not worth considering because they were all terribly old and unoriginal. Mostly they go back to Aristotle, he observes with smug distaste. And having observed this much, on page two, he never again adverts to the Austrian’s philosophical commitments. Tertullian used to ask what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, but with greater justice one may wonder what Athens has to do with British minds. Poor things, they have been formed a long time by the likes of Alan Palmer, who taught at High- gate School for thirty years and no doubt imagined during all that time that the heritage of Greece (contra Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Plutarch and every other Hellene with any brains) was democracy.
So if you have an extra $12.50 and would appreciate owning a very sleepy book about Metternich, you may as well buy Palmer’s. But if you are interested in those questions which go to the very heart of modernity, you had best look elsewhere. You might look, for example, at Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored.
The comparison between Kissinger and Metternich is made frequently, as I have said, not at all to the distaste of the former. Kissinger sees in Metternich primarily the pragmatist. Now this is not quite such a bad idea as it seems on bald statement. Kissinger is attracted to Metternich because the Austrian is the first major European statesman to wrestle with the problem of how to domesticate a revolutionary power. He tries time and again to create a modus vivendi between Napoleon and the legitimate princes. On the theoretical level, to be sure, Metternich sees the radical incompatibility between what Bonaparte stands for and the civilization Austria defends. But practically, Napoleon seems invincible. Therefore, a simplistic posture of counter-revolutionary militance is futile. Metternich is flexible enough to pursue policies which appear to be collaborationist but which in fact are designed to do two things. One is to gain time. The other is to test whether Napoleon himself (who after all is only metaphorically “the revolution incarnate”) can be induced to “play the game,” that is, to maintain traditional power relationships with non-revolutionary states. Thus, for example, the marriage with Maria Louisa. Here the parallel with Kissinger’s policy toward Russia and China is obvious. The question, in essence, is whether by “normalizing” relations, an established regime can induce a revolutionary state to act in the international sphere according to a set of rules for which the revolutionary ideology itself has no place.
A certain international pragmatism, so understood, amounts in effect to offering the revolutionary bosses a horizon which, while closed to their ideology, is nevertheless real in fact and so open to the perception of any sane man, if he can only be interested in looking at it. Once accepted, this horizon (or problematic) brings with it certain implications. Gradually, if the gamble pays off, the revolutionary power will follow out these implications and thus become, at least at a certain level, “co-opted.” For particular purposes, it will begin to see itself simply as a nation among nations, and not as the pure incarnation of light around which there is only darkness. But the element of gamble, in any case, is very real. Rather than mellowing, the revolutionary boss, too, may merely gain time. His situation, moreover, is inevitably unstable. On the one hand, he cannot afford to lose his revolutionary credentials (which are his only legitimacy), while on the other hand he must repulse (or even suppress) the revolutionary hot-heads who demand “no compromise” with the international system of “tyrants and oppressors.”
Metternich’s gamble, of course, did not pay off. Napoleon thought it necessary to launch yet another war, and after his defeat in Russia the gamble became unnecessary. We have yet to see what will become of Kissinger’s venture, but the auguries are not good, as Kissinger himself might have seen if he had read Metternich a bit more philosophically and a bit less “shrewdly.”
Let me try to spell out what I think Kissinger has missed in his understanding of the Austrian statesman. First of all, there are two senses of the world “unprincipled.” As his pragmatic exegetes say, Metternich was “unprincipled” in the sense that he “played the game” by almost any rules that would get him what he wanted. If Austria’s welfare required peace, he made it; if war, he made that too. He was not above wiles, and his honesty was not above reproach (although when he left your house, you really didn’t need to check the silverware). But it is not true that Metternich was “unprincipled” in the sense that he saw the “game” as an end in itself or as consubstantial with reality. In that respect, he is very different from the abominable Talleyrand and, one gathers, from Mr. Kissinger.
Metternich is a man of European vision, and this is not simply an older version of global vision. To be a European means something very specific to Clemens Wenceslas Lothar von Metternich-Winneburg-Beilstein. It means aristocratic origins going back to baronies under Henry the Fowler. It means coming from a family that has lands on the Moldau as well as the Moselle. Most of all it means birth and childhood in the lands of that middle Kingdom which belonged to Lothar, therefore both German and Latin and paying tribute to the man of Habsburg precisely and solely by virtue of his title as Holy Roman Emperor. Where Metternich comes from, local patriotism is strong and jealous of ancient liberties, and nationalism is unknown. To his dying day, Metternich knows nothing of an “Austrian” nationalism; certainly, he never serves any such thing. In his eyes, as in the eyes of any Catholic both pious and clear-headed, romantic nationalism is simply the serpent of pride. Metternich is at the service of Europe, and Europe means Christendom.
Obviously, this point needs shading. Metternich is a diplomat, not a clergyman. Hence, he is not at the service of Christendom in the sense a pope or Cardinal is. Moreover, he takes for granted the post-medieval evolution of the state and thus cannot serve Christendom in the way a St. Louis might have served it. Metternich’s perception of Christendom is not as distinct as it might be, freighted as it is with a complex cultural and intellectual heritage which includes, by 1800, many essentially anti- Christian elements. Metternich will be an old man and out of power by the time he has fully sorted these things out. Nevertheless, it would certainly be a gross distortion to see Metter nich’s statecraft as unrelated to a vision of Christendom, the way, say, Henry Kissinger’s is.
This vision of Christendom gives a solidity to Metternich’s repudiation of the revolution, a repudiation his modern counterparts usually do not share. The collaboration with Bonaparte was never separate from an unyielding hatred of Jacobin notions both in political articulation and in irreligious premise. Collaboration was designed to convert the tyrant. And when, still unconverted, the tyrant became vulnerable, Metternich never paused to wonder whether the French “people” might really want Bonapartism (as they obviously did). He moved swiftly to crush the evil, because it was wrong in principle. For him, the question of what is right and wrong, like the question of who is legitimate, is settled by right reason and not by the majority’s will. No one can pretend that Metternich, if alive today, would trifle with Communism in some jungle country simply because its demagogues had won an election. The vision of Christendom gives Metternich a profound and concrete understanding, then, of the human good, a good to which revolution, whig or bolshevic, is inevitably, unalterably, implacably hostile.
For Metternich, man has a nature, not just a will. The perfection of this nature, which is man’s natural end, absolutely requires religious faith, moral virtue and intellectual exactitude. These qualities taken together constitute “order” in the individual human being. By extension, the dominance in a society of institutions which promote and reinforce these qualities is “social order.” Liberty, in its socio-political sense, is an epiphenomenon of this order and not a precondition. Thus, as Metternich writes in his Politisches Testament, “To me, the word freedom has not the value of a starting point, but of an actual goal to be striven for. The word order designates the starting point. It is only on order that freedom can be based. Without order as a foundation the cry for freedom is nothing more than the endeavor of some party or other to achieve its own ends. When actually carried out in practice, that cry for freedom will inevitably express itself in tyranny. At all times and in all situations I was a man of order, yet my endeavor was always for true (and not pretended) liberty.” Yes, Mr. Palmer, these are the accents of Aristotle, and they are also, through Cicero, the schoolmen and the popes, the accents of the whole Catholic and Western tradition.
Henry Kissinger works from a very different tradition. For him, the international, meta-ideological horizon is not Christendom but historicism tempered by a few elements of behaviorist empiricism. There is no overall tradition (no Great Tradition) to which he can appeal. There is only the faith which each nation keeps with its own central historic ideas. As these ideals are utterly diverse, international community can be based only on pragmatic, sub-ideological and secular interest. The results of grubbing after this interest can then be analyzed and roughly predicted in accordance with the behavioralist rules of a universe as ignorant of the “unbought grace” as Burke’s cows were of metaphysics.
A further complication arises from the fact that Kissinger’s tradition is not the same as his employers’. Metternich, sharing completely a philosophical and religious viewpoint with his anti-revolutionary sovereign, tries to mediate between that sovereign and a revolutionary power. Kissinger, however, tries to mediate between two revolutionary powers on the basis of a modified historicism shared with neither. For in foreign affairs, America has almost always been a revolutionary power moved by the whig ideology of “freedom,” “democracy” and “self-determination.” Habitually, America is as uncomfortable in an alliance with “reactionary powers” as is Soviet Russia. Even the celebrated American isolationism was merely an inert form of this same ideology. Virtue lay at home. The rest of the world, and especially Europe, was seen as too mired in corruption to be dealt with. The obverse of “give me your huddled masses, yearning to be free” was the idea that the home countries of those masses were dens of iniquity.
I do not overlook the fact that as America’s Catholic blocs began to find their political feet, especially in the late thirties, forties and early fifties, a different form of isolationism emerged. This was precisely an anti-Wilsonian isolationism, a protest against the export of the American revolution to foreign parts. The peaceful co-existence of American Catholics with the American domestic order was predicated in part upon the de-ideologization of that order, upon its becoming simply a local tradition. But this isolationism yielded, initially for good reasons, to an anti-Communist internationalism. Then, after Eisenhower and Kennedy had completed the denaturing of Catholic politics at home the new American internationalism turned into the crimes of a Roger Hilsman abroad. From 1962 (Laos), at very latest, until 1969, America was once again, substantially, an ideological-revolutionary power.
Since Nixon and Kissinger grasped the reins of power, America’s world posture has become, for the first time, purely pragmatic. But the strong domestic opposition to this pragmatism should not be underestimated. Certainly it is wider (and deeper) than the constituency of George McGovern. It is far from unlikely that traditional American discomfort with the kind of policy Kissinger is now pursuing will reassert itself.
For all American presidents, and Nixon not least among them, share the essential weakness that Metternich saw in non-legitimate, revolutionary leaders. They must please the people, and to do this they must get glory. Metternich never tired of quoting something that Napoleon told him during the famous show-down between the two men on 26 June, 1813. Napoleon said, “Your sovereigns, who were born to their thrones, cannot comprehend the feelings that move me. To them it is nothing to return to their capitals defeated. But I am a soldier. I need honor and glory. I cannot reappear among my people devoid of prestige. I must remain great, admired. …”
Because he feared what men in need of admiration would do to the world, Metternich, throughout his forty years of power, remaining “a rock of order,” as he called himself. But order is encompassing. It runs from top to bottom, from the public world to the interior of the soul and from the international arena to the family hearth. That is what Prince von Metternich knew and what Henry Kissinger, like the American people, has still to learn.