The Genius of Metternich: Austria’s Resurrection Through "Active Neutrality"

December 3, 2014 Topic: HistoryMilitary StrategyForeign Policy Region: Austria

The Genius of Metternich: Austria’s Resurrection Through "Active Neutrality"

Despite its weaknesses, the Habsburg Empire under Metternich succeeded in obtaining a strategically and politically advantageous position in the run-up to the last war with Napoleon.

By navigating between great powers during the Napoleonic war, Austria not only survived, but thrived.

In a recent piece for Carnegie Europe, the Dutch journalist, Caroline de Gruyter, dismissively titled her essay “Austrian Acrobatics in Europe” outlining what she describes as the “ultrapragmatist” (or reckless opportunistic) foreign policy of the country structured around the seemingly arcane concept of neutrality. Going beyond Austria’s narrow example, neutrality has received low marks from scholars and commentators throughout history. And while there may be some validity in pursuing such a policy in peacetime, starting with Thucydides’ portrayal of the Melians’ plight and Machiavelli’s critique of the concept in The Prince, neutrality has been particularly dismissed as an unwise course of action in times of war (cf. the fate of Belgium during the World Wars).

However, in 1813, Austria’s “active neutrality” doctrine—largely a combination of diplomatic duplicity and genuine indecision—saved the Austrian Empire in the most severe crisis in its history. By applying the active-neutrality doctrine, the empire was able to delay its entry into the last coalition against Napoleon, and as a consequence, exerted—disproportionate to its actual power—influence over the other members of the alliance and decisively contributed to Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. As a result, Austria was also able to exercise undue sway over the postwar settlement, colloquially known as the “Congress of Vienna,” which in turn guaranteed the survival of the archaic multinational Habsburg Empire for another one hundred years. With the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna just around the corner, the story of Austria’s accession to the last coalition against Napoleon is worth retelling.

An Encounter at Night

It is October 23, 1813. Fatigued from a day of hard riding, the Austrian Lieutenant-General, Hieronymus von Colloredo, dismounts his horse. For days, his Austrian corps had been pursuing the fleeing French forces, which were in full-scale retreat heading westwards back to France via Weimar after Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Leipzig. Colloredo steps into a house on Frauenplan that his vanguard had requisitioned for him in Weimar. The landlord, an older German gentleman, stands in the doorway to welcome the victorious allied commander. As soon as Colloredo spots the medal that the host was negligently wearing on his chest he abrasively bellows: “Faugh! How to hell can one wear such a thing?” Johann Wolfgang Goethe had committed a faux-pas (plus ultra) by wearing the French Legion of Honor order bestowed upon him by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, a houseguest of Goethe at the same time as Colloredo, related this story in a letter to his wife on October 26, 1813—coincidentally the same day that 142 years later, the small Federal Republic of Austria would adopt a paragraph pledging “perpetual neutrality” in its new postwar constitution. This was indeed an irony of history: Without Austria’s persistent policy of neutrality in the year 1813, Goethe—who himself tried to remain neutral (critics called it spineless opportunism) during the Napoleonic Wars, which had engulfed Europe since the beginning of the French Revolution—might have never had the “pleasure’”of Austrian company on that evening in Weimar. For without this carefully calibrated as well as deceitful policy of active neutrality, Austria by 1813 might have very well been wiped off the political map of Europe.

Austria’s Political and Military Situation in 1813

By 1813, the Empire of Austria was at the low point of its political existence. Twenty years of constant warfare, countless lost campaigns, the loss of huge chunks of territory, including the Illyrian Provinces (in modern-day Croatia and Slovenia) and its access to the sea, an enormous national debt (the country had to declare national bankruptcy in 1811), as well as a downgraded and defeated army of merely 150,000 men, had turned the empire into a second-rate power. Politically, Austria had no room for independent actions: Austrian Emperor Franz I had allied his country to his arch-nemesis by marrying his daughter Marie Luise to the Emperor of the French. This made Austria a de facto French satellite state.

In 1812, Austria even had to supply a contingent of 30,000 troops to support Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. A small gesture, but even this mostly symbolic contribution nearly bankrupted the crumbling Central European power. However, it was during the Russian campaign that it finally dawned on the Austrian court that the empire rather sooner than later might receive its coup de grâce and be divided up between the great powers of France and Russia. After the French defeat, Austria knew it had to formulate a carefully calibrated foreign policy without upsetting either of the two great warring powers. According to the historian Albert Sorel, Austria had two things to fear: “First, a victory of France, second, a victory by France’s enemies.” Yet, what to do as a weak vassal-state trapped in an international system that inclines towards the expunction of your existence?


Appointed in 1809, Austria’s incumbent foreign minister, Klemens von Metternich, was fully aware of the precarious situation that the monarchy was in. For the past twenty years, the empire had repeatedly fielded the most soldiers against France, and repeatedly was badly beaten and abandoned by its allies, the English, the Russians and the Prussians. Metternich knew that Austria had barely enough resources for one last fight, and that this time he had to guarantee that Austria was on the winning side.

Active Neutrality


Some of the groundwork for Austria’s policy of active neutrality was already laid out in 1812, when Metternich assured the Russian Czar that Austrian troops participating in the invasion of Russia would only operate in the Bukowina (now a region divided up between Ukraine and Romania), ancillary to the main French forces. He pressed the Russian court to maintain secret diplomatic ties, despite the state of war between Austria and Russia. As a consequence, Austria did not withdraw its ambassador from St. Petersburg, and the Russian ambassador, after the declaration of war, merely relocated from Vienna to Graz.

Friedrich von Gentz, confidential advisor to Metternich, called this type of diplomacy “active neutrality” and, by coining the term, initiated the conceptual framework for Austria’s future actions. The first objective of this policy was the cessation of hostilities between St. Petersburg and Vienna. The second objective was the dissolution of the Austro-French alliance. The last objective, and also the most difficult, was to keep Austria out of the war as long as possible due to its internal weaknesses.

The fortunes of war favored Metternich in accomplishing the first objective in early 1813. Once he got wind of the destruction of Napoleon’s expeditionary force, he immediately offered himself as an intermediary between France and Russia. Napoleon consented: “I will do what the Emperor of Austria wants from me. He is my father, my ally, our alliance is for eternity,” stated Bonaparte melodramatically in a letter in January 1813.

Metternich consciously played a game of duplicity and plausible deniability. None of his diplomatic moves could be unequivocally discerned. As an ostensible French ally, Austria had the duty to fight Russia. Yet, even Napoleon had to consent to the logic that should Metternich be an intermediary between the two warring factions, Austria could not be in a state of war with either parties. In addition, a ceasefire was in Napoleon’s interest: He quickly needed to build a new army after his defeat in Russia and for that he needed time.

The Austrian corps, commanded by the Prince of Schwarzenberg, had survived the Russian campaign largely intact. Despite orders to cover the French retreat, Austria, under the cloak of being Napoleon’s plenipotentiary and chief negotiator, was now able to approach Russia directly and secretly negotiate a ceasefire between Austrian and Russian forces. The result was that Austria withdrew its corps from Warsaw to the city of Cracow, exposing Napoleon’s most trusted ally, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, to the Russians. Yet, despite calling this move an “evil plot,” Napoleon suppressed any reprisal. He had no troops to spare to punish Emperor Franz I—at least, not yet.

In February 1813, Prussia—an erstwhile French ally—entered into an alliance with Russia against Napoleon. Both sides agreed to “only negotiate peace or a ceasefire conjointly” as stated in the so-called Kalisch Declaration. Soon Sweden and England joined this new alliance, and Article 7 of the declaration officially invited Austria to accede, as well. Yet although Metternich was secretly the one who advised Prussia to enter an alliance with Russia, the offer remained unacknowledged by the Austrian court. Metternich spent a few weeks in March 1813 sick in bed and vexed by the aloofness of his monarch. Emperor Franz I was indeed indecisive about the best course of action. His personal sense of honor prohibited an official break of the alliance with France. At that moment, active neutrality was the diplomatic limit of Austria under Franz I.

Austria was still the chief intermediary in what was still only a Franco-Russian-Prussian War, and Metternich dispatched Austrian emissaries to both the Allied and French camps to convince both sides of Austria’s good intentions. On the one hand, he wanted to reassure Napoleon of Austria’s loyalty, while on the other hand he promised both Russia and Prussia that if bilateral negotiations with France broke down, the empire would “cooperate in the biggest possible accordance with the allied powers.”

In April 2013, Metternich’s game of duplicity was almost uncovered by Napoleon, after the Austrian foreign minister tried to coax Bavaria and Saxony, both French allies, to defect and join the Allies. Metternich wanted to win both countries over as allies of Austria. At that time, he was especially concerned about Saxony, which Prussia had already tried to annex once the French were expelled from Germany and which would have reignited the old Austro-Prussian rivalry. Napoleon uncovered the treachery, but yet again Austria remained unpunished. The Little General was already leading a Grande Armee against the Russians and Prussians and would finish off Austria at a later stage.

War Breaks Out

Russian, Prussian and French forces clashed in the spring of 1813, with Austria still just a neutral observer. On May 2, the first major battle of the campaign was fought at Luetzen. The result: a French victory. The Russian-Prussian contingent was forced to retreat. On May 21, another fight ensued near Bautzen, in Saxony—another victory for Napoleon. Yet, these were hard-fought victories for the French. Overall, the two engagements had cost all sides involved more than 70,000 dead and wounded. And the Allies, in comparison to past experiences, still had not been decisively defeated. One of the reasons for this is that Napoleon was unable exploit his victories due to the lack of French cavalry, which mostly perished during the Russian campaign the previous year.

After the beaten Allies had retreated from Saxony to Silesia, Metternich suggested a truce, which was accepted by all sides on June 4. He sent a cryptic note to his wife: “The first big step has been made, dear friend!” Napoleon soberly conveyed to his minister of war, Clarke, why he consented to the ceasefire: “My lack of cavalry and the hostile position of Austria.” It appears that all sides were biding time.

During the ceasefire, the Russian czar, impulsive and volatile, wrote a few desperate notes to the Austrian Emperor: “One word of yours can decide the fate of Europe once more—time is running out!” Napoleon, meanwhile, ordered his wife, Marie Louise, daughter of Franz I, to keep up her correspondence with her father and convince the Austrian Emperor not to abandon the Austro-French alliance. Napoleon became more and more convinced that Austria would betray him.

Revealingly, Austria, prompted by the Prince of Schwarzenberg, had already secretly launched a massive rearmament program and was feverishly rebuilding its forces. However, Schwarzenberg notified Metternich that the new army would only achieve provisional combat readiness by the second week of August. Metternich during that time was oscillating between hope and despair: Would he be able to maneuver the country into an advantageous position before Napoleon would turn against the Habsburgs or before a genuine peace treaty between France, Russia and Prussia was concluded? However, there was already evidence of Austria’s true designs: In the last days of May, the Austrian Emperor moved his court to Gitschin in Bohemia. Geographically and symbolically, this relocation situated him closer to the allied armies in Silesia and Saxony.

Switching Sides

On June 10, 1813, during a secret council of war in Wurschen, a military operations plan, which for the first time included Austrian forces, was mapped out by the Allies. Meanwhile, all resources available to the state were poured into the new Austrian Army, which was so hastily assembled that recruits had to be trained while on march. Austria thus prepared to reassert itself as a power.

In late June, Metternich was dispatched to Dresden by Franz I to meet with Napoleon and to ostensibly convey the Allies’ peace terms to the Emperor of France. Austria would officially remain neutral and the chief intermediary between the warring factions. In secret, however, Metternich’s real mission was to persuade Napoleon to release Austria of its treaty obligations with France. Should war break out, Napoleon, not Austria, would be seen as the aggressor.

The historian, Guenther Muechler, called the meeting between Metternich and Napoleon the “world historical duel of Dresden.” It lasted for eight and a half hours and passed into legend as soon as it was over. The peace conditions of the Allies prescribed the end of French hegemony in Europe. Metternich sensed that Napoleon could never agree to the terms outlined in the peace proposal. Napoleon was said to have angrily thrown his hat across the room (Metternich refused to pick it up). The French Emperor declared: “Austria caresses itself into thinking that without having fired a single shot, without drawing the sword, she can convince me to sign such conditions…!” His aim was to intimidate Austria—a country he had always considered to be a spent force—and to cajole it to fulfill its treaty obligations or at least to remain neutral. Napoleon bid a threatening farewell to his Austrian nemesis: “We shall meet in Vienna!”

Yet, despite what he later recounted in his memoirs, Metternich did try to negotiate a genuine preliminary peace settlement to avoid Austria’s entry into the war, which stood in no contradiction to the active-neutrality doctrine he was pursuing. Austria’s military defeat in 1809 had left deep wounds. War for Metternich was too uncertain to be an effective tool of diplomacy. Once war broke out, the diplomats and military commanders would have little control over events—especially when the adversary was Napoleon Bonaparte. He firmly believed that the only true choice policy makers had was whether or not to enter a conflict, and that once involved, the arbitrary momentum of war was impossible to direct. The foreign minister also had personal reasons for why he preferred peace to war: Hostilities would diminish his power and influence, since diplomats are scarcely needed on the battlefield.

After two days of ignoring Metternich in Dresden, Napoleon finally consented to release Austria of its treaty obligations. The Habsburgs would then be able to convene a peace congress on Austrian soil in Prague in July and August, 1813. Entirely convinced that Austria was double-crossing him, Napoleon had little choice but to consent to Austria’s offer—particularly after reports had trickled in of the enormous Austrian army gathering in Bohemia.

Napoleon reasoned that by keeping Austria neutral, he would defeat the Prussian and Russian armies piecemeal and ultimately have his revenge on Austria. This could only be achieved by keeping the empire out of the fight. However, fulfilling treaty obligations was an important formality for the etiquette obsessed Emperor Franz I—he felt free to abandon the active-neutrality doctrine. On June 27, hedging its bets, Austria had secretly signed the Convention of Reichenbach. This was a day before Metternich’s famous encounter with Napoleon in Dresden. The convention stipulated that should the peace negotiations break down, Austria would finally commit to the Allied cause.

A peace congress was convened in Prague in August 1813. Yet, none of the dispatched delegates—with the exception of the French delegation–genuinely believed in the possibility of a negotiated peace. The French had no authority to consent to any agreement without Napoleon’s personal approval, indicating that Napoleon was still only biding time. Yet he panicked towards the end of the congress and, for a brief moment, seemed open to a negotiated settlement. However, at that point, Austria was finally ready for war. A last exchange of letters between the French chief negotiator, Caulaincourt, and Metternich, resulted only in a reiteration of the main demand of the Allies—the complete abandonment of the French empire in Central Europe. This time, however, he added an Austrian ultimatum: France had to agree to these terms, in short order, or face war.

On the night of August 10, time ran out. Bonfires on the hills surrounding Prague signaled Austria’s entry into the war on the Allies’ side. According to eyewitness accounts, column after column of soldiers were seen marching through the streets of Prague in the direction of the border. “The great moment has finally arrived!” stated a triumphant Metternich in a letter to his wife from that night. On August 12, Napoleon, in a last ditch effort to keep Austria out of the war, sent a courier to the French delegation in Prague with the instructions to “make peace under any circumstances.” This was the French Emperor’s last attempt to divide the Allies.

Austria had rejoined the ranks of the great European powers. With an army of 300,000 soldiers, Austria contributed the largest contingent to the coalition and also received the supreme command of the combined allied forces (The supreme allied commander was Prince von Schwarzenberg, the same Austrian general who led the 30,000 strong Austrian corps into Russia the previous year.). The final showdown occurred in the fall of 1813. For three arduous days, from October 16 to October 19, the Allies and Napoleon clashed outside the German city of Leipzig in what was the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic era. Napoleon and his army were routed. The Allies continued their campaign, marched on France and occupied Paris the following spring.

In 1814 and 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, the Allies redrew the map of Europe. This would scarcely have been possible without Austria and Metternich. Despite its internal weaknesses, backward institutions and desperate political situation, the Habsburg Empire under Metternich succeeded in obtaining a strategically and politically advantageous position in the run-up to the last war with Napoleon. Consequently, the empire momentarily rose to become one of the major postwar power brokers in Europe. Austria’s resurrection effectively resulted from the active-neutrality doctrine advanced by Metternich and his advisors in 1812 and 1813. Years later, in his memoirs, the former foreign minister remarked on his delicate sleight of hand with the French and the Allies: “A similar eccentric political posture has never been before in history, and a second example of its kind, will in likelihood never be recorded again.”

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.