Book Review: Metternich and Austria: An Evaluation

By Alan Sked

In his latest book, British historian Alan Sked deals with a not entirely easy topic: Metternich’s position in both the domestic and the foreign affairs of the Habsburg Empire. Though his book appeared a year before the two anniversaries connected with Metternich were to be commemorated in 2009 – 200 years since his appointment to the Austrian foreign ministry and 150 years since his death – it clearly proves how many one-sided evaluations of the Austrian statesman still prevail and how much research must still be carried out.

Price: £18:99
Publication Date: Palgrave Macmillan (2007)
ISBN:  978-1403991157
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The whole book has the character of a dispute in which the author tries to refute or at least modify a considerable number of views assessing Metternich’s personality and actions, which are usually presented in black-and-white shades, with Metternich repeatedly being accused of the evils burdening Europe not only during his own period in office period but also for many decades after his death. The book is structured according to this aim, and the author offers numerous insights into the complex period of the first half of the nineteenth century. Sked begins with a necessarily longer introduction, in which he attempts to explain Metternich’s political aims with reference to a more critical view of liberal and nationalist movements; these not only brought about positive effects, but were associated with the dark side of the Great Revolution in France.

The author continues with his polemics in the following five chapters, whose titles symptomatically take the form of questions. They deal with Metternich’s role in the downfall of Napoleon, the chancellor’s position in European affairs from 1815 to 1848, his views of the administration of the Habsburg Empire, and the issue as to whether the Danube Monarchy under Metternich was a police state and oppressed people, thereby forcing them into a revolution in 1848. Sked bases his answers on his long-lasting interest in Austrian and international history of the nineteenth century. Using relevant secondary studies and published documents, he comes to conclusions that are more sympathetic to Metternich and the situation within a country that was sometimes regarded as the ‘China of Europe’. As for the internal situation of the Empire, he expands on the opinion already expressed in his previous work, The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire (1989), that the purely negative image is not tenable and that the Habsburg Monarchy was not such an awkward and weak police state as often depicted by historians in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Sked also assesses Metternich’s steps in European affairs and the position of Austria in the Diplomatic Concert more positively than a considerable number of earlier scholars. For example, some of Sked’s judgements on Metternich and Palmerston, mostly contradictory to those of Sir Charles Webster, whose anti- Metternichian sentiment is well known, are entirely well founded. The only problem connected with Sked’s survey is an occasional shortage of sources for the indisputable refutation of myths connected with Metternich and ‘his’ Austria.

For example, Sked’s claim that the Empire was not an oppressive police state is persuasive, but it should be reinforced by the use of more evidence than the opinions of other historians or favourable verdicts from some of Metternich’s contemporaries, whose number does not actually exceed those with negative verdicts. The use of archival sources would also be useful in the case of Metternich’s diplomatic activities, either to support certain statements which are not entirely well founded like, for example, that Metternich did indeed allow the Turks to import arms secretly from Austria during the Russian-Ottoman war from 1828 to 1829, or to shed new light on Metternich’s foreign policy, particularly for the period after 1830 (generally neglected by historians). To be fair, however, this point is directed more at historians planning to undertake new research on such topics, rather than Sked, who has presented a creditable general survey of Metternich and his time.

It's clear outlook serves as an excellent starting point for Metternichian research, and offers a corrective to older views. The reader may be surprised by a considerably more positive evaluation of Metternich and Austria than s/he has probably been accustomed to, but one cannot consider the monograph a blind adoration of the conservative statesman or his country. The book also provides new stimuli for further research, as well as underlining how much work is really needed. No matter how admirable Sked’s monograph may be, it is still a long way from a definite evaluation of Metternich and Austria in the first half of the nineteenth century, even if other scholars’ publications may well concur with many of Sked’s conclusions.