When the twenty-year-old Clemens Wenzel Lothar von Metternich journeyed to Frankfurt to participate in the splendid coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1792, little did he realise that he was witnessing the dying embers of a vanishing world. Half a century later, he lamented that he had spent much of his life ‘propping up decaying edifices’. Now this statesman, who dominated the European political scene for the first half of the 19th century – the so-called Sattelzeit (‘saddle period’) between the end of the ancien régime and the birth of the modern world – is the subject of a magisterial biography by Wolfram Siemann, professor emeritus of history at the University of Munich. Siemann has spent years doing original archival research in Vienna and Prague, and historians of central Europe have been falling over themselves in praise of the German edition. Will English-speaking readers feel their time well spent learning about this leading minister of a bygone era? Metternich himself entertained no doubt that he was worthy of such attention: ‘People look on me as a kind of lantern,’ he wrote to his collaborator Friedrich Gentz in 1825, ‘to which they draw near in order to see their way through the almost complete darkness.’
Siemann divides Metternich’s long life and career into seven stages, starting with his childhood under the ancien régime and ending with the years after the revolutions of 1848. To this, he appends four fascinating thematic essays, on Metternich and women, Metternich as a manager of his estate, Metternich and war, and Metternich’s views on the governance of the Habsburg Empire.
Metternich came from a family possessing an ancient noble pedigree. Siemann elegantly describes the family’s gradual ascent up the rungs of the imperial nobility. The Metternichs were rewarded for their services