“Many a good man has been put under the bridge by a woman,” states Charles Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski at the beginning of his novel, Women. This statement is of course naturally applicable in the reverse: Many a good woman has been put under the bridge by a man. Yet, in the historically male-dominated realms of foreign policy, it is mostly male heartache that impacted statesmen and may have exerted undue influence on international relations. Looking back in history there are countless examples of grand statesmen letting emotions get the better of them.
“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space! Kingdoms are clay!” shouts love-drunk Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, who had hopelessly fallen in love with the Egyptian queen, proclaimed himself ruler of Egypt, and is eventually defeated by the cold-blooded Octavian after which he jointly commits suicide with his lover. Antony’s death rid Octavian of the final obstacle to power and marked the transformation of Roman Republic to an empire.
Other dalliances and romances may have not had such a dramatic impact on nations, yet personal matters still held an influence on history. Thomas Jefferson was so grief stricken after the death of his wife in September 1782 that “he kept his room for three weeks…walked incessantly night and day on lying down occasionally.” according to his daughter. Friends thought that he was nearing madness. He eagerly accepted to serve on the Paris Peace commission and in congress to distract himself from his grief, although he had previously turned down any job offers down after the end of his governorship of Virginia in 1781. His friend James Madison, “the father of the U.S. Constitution,” was crushed the following year in August 1782 when the girl he fell in love with, Kitty Floyd, broke off their engagement, an event from which he never fully recovered for the rest of his life, still lamenting her loss when he became the fourth president of the United States.
Yet, the impact of romance on international affairs could never have been more evident than during the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, an episode still hailed as one of the most important diplomatic events in modern history. The chief architect of this gathering, the Austrian foreign minister, Klemens von Metternich, whom Henry Kissinger described as the “prime minister of Europe,” a “genius,” and a man “extraordinarily skilled in diplomacy,” was notorious for his love affairs and emotional outbursts.
The Congress of Vienna brought to an end almost twenty-five years of constant European warfare. In Leipzig two hundred years ago, the largest battle fought in European history prior to the First World War, with more than six hundred thousand soldiers involved and around one hundred thousand killed, wounded or missing, took place. It solidified the last coalition against Napoleon and brought his first total defeat on the battlefield. After the end of the campaign, the delegates of the great powers came to Vienna to make peace, which, with brief martial interludes, would last until 1914.
Yet, surprisingly, if one studies the documents of Metternich prior to and during the Congress, his principal concern seems to have been the love of a woman, Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan, a German noble. Their affair––Metternich was married at the time––lasted from spring of 1813 to the fall of 1814 and resulted in around six hundred letters exchanged between the two. Meanwhile, Austria finally decided to turn against Napoleon, join the coalition of Prussia, Russia, and Britain, fight a protracted war, and negotiate a pan-European peace settlement.
Some historians argue that it was Wilhelmine who influenced Metternich to turn Austria, which had been allied with France from 1809 until 1813, against Napoleon because of her hatred for the French emperor. In the midst of tough negotiations during the congress in Vienna, a former lover of Wilhelmine, the Austrian soldier, Alfred I, Prince of Windisch-Graetz, returned to Vienna. They resumed their affair, and Wilhelmine dropped Metternich, an event which “seems to concern him more than the affairs of the world,” according to his personal secretary, Friedrich von Gentz.
He still wrote to her continuously: “You will always remain the being most dear to my heart….I had renounced my life to live in yours.” Even as Russia and Austria were set to go to war over Saxony and Poland—the most critical crisis of the congress—Gentz found Metternich’s mindset “still more on that cursed woman than on business.” The henpecked Metternich even went so far as to break up his jeweled Order of the Golden Fleece, the most prestigious award handed out by the Austrian emperor, into several pieces just so that Wilhelmine could sew little jewels onto one of her ball gowns.
When Metternich found out that Czar Alexander had paid a visit to Wilhelmine at night, he was livid and would have challenged the Russian to a duel were he not emperor. Russian and Austrian relations suffered as a consequence. The hot-blooded Alexander, who also suffered from heartache—his target of affection, Princess Bagration, coincidentally Wilhelmine’s archenemy, had declared that she adored but did not love him—threatened Austria with war. The Austrian Emperor Francis placidly replied that he would rather fight and get it over with then than in a couple of years’ time. In a letter after the end of the affair with Wilhelmine, Metternich gloomily states: “I am no longer good for anything, as there is nothing of springtime left in my soul.”
While this verdict was certainly not shared by most of Metternich’s contemporaries, it illustrates the peculiar effects of the ‘knavish lad cupid’ on international politics in the final days of the Age of Reason. From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relationship with Eleanor and his mistress (who was with him on his death bed) on to John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton's affairs, perhaps we may also do well to reassess the impact of romance on the foreign relations of the United States.
Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute, where he was a program associate and founding member of the Worldwide Cybersecurity Initiative. Follow him on Twitter (@HoansSolo).