The judgment on Prince Metternich is easily made: an excellent diplomat and a bad statesman." In these words, set at the head of an essay on Metternich written in 1839, the Austrian poet and dramatist Franz Grillparzer gives his view of the man who for four decades played a major part in shaping the destiny of the Austrian Empire and of much of Europe. The man who gave his name to his era is pictured in Grillparzer's pages as adroit but frivolous; "more polished than steeled," a man lacking in ideas, who advanced his so-called principles only because "this new element flattered his vanity since it brought dignity and an apparent consistency to his actions"; essentially an intriguer, who relied largely on good luck and failed in the only two objectives which he had set himself: "the suppression of liberalism and the maintenance of the status quo."
It is a harsh judgement which Grillparzer delivers, and it might be dismissed as the outburst of a poet who himself had suffered much and unjustly from the Austrian censorship, were it not that it was echoed in essence by most historians of significance in the nineteenth century. The first half of the nineteenth century has, with as much justice as such designations bear, been called the "Age of Metternich," and it is not without at least some significance that Metternich and the "Metternich System" became the symbol for liberals of everything which they opposed and hated. Even so the whole question whether Metternich was worthy of the name of statesman or whether he was simply a clever diplomatic technician would be of relatively little interest and scarcely worth lengthy discussion, if it were not for another element which has entered into the debate about him. That he refused to ally himself with the growing, vigorous political and social forces of his time, there can be no doubt; that his policies ultimately failed is likewise clear. The question is rather whether or not there were embodied in his "principles," ideas which have a permanent social and political validity, however much the trend of through of most of the nineteenth century was opposed to them. He himself was convinced of his ultimate justification. To Countess Lieven he wrote in 1819, "Few people, moreover, have understood me. My name is linked with so many tremendous events that it will go down to posterity in company with them. I tell you: in a hundred years writers will judge me quite differently from the way in which those do who are concerned with me today." Some part of Metternich's prophecy has been fulfilled.
It is not surprising that the great majority of nineteenth-century historians should have looked upon Metternich with disparagement if not disdain. Liberalism and nationalism, those two forces against which Metternich had led the fight in Europe, had come into their own; they appeared to most, if not all, as the fruitful foundations upon which peace and prosperity among nations would be established. It was thus inevitable that Metternich should have been judged as a man completely lacking in one of the most important gifts of the statesman: the ability to recognize and work with the vital political and social forces of his time. Instead "the Don Quixote of legitimacy" as Grillparzer called him, used his ability and the resources of a great power merely to try to hold back the rising tide of the new ideas liberated by the French Revolution; and when the dam which he had set against it -- not fruitful . . .