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The Conservative Dilemma: Reflections on the Political Thought of Metternich

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

Henry A. Kissinger
Harvard University


The conservative in a revolutionary period always represents somewhat of an anomaly. Were society still cohesive, it would occur to no one to be a conservative for a serious alternative to the existing structure would be inconceivable. But a revolutionary period is a symptom precisely of the fact that the self-evidence of the goals of the social effort has disintegrated, that a significant segment of society holds values which either cannot or will not be assimilated. What had been taken for granted must now be defended and the act of defense introduces rigidity. The deeper the fissure, the more inflexible the contending positions and the greater the temptation to dogmatism. Were the “legitimate” structure still universally accepted, it would not be necessary to demonstrate its validity; but the act of defense exhibits the possibility of an alternative.

Once the existing legitimacy has been challenged, no real discourse between the contenders is possible any longer, for they cease to speak the same language. It is not the adjustment of differences within a political system which is now at issue, but the political system itself.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1954

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1 Metternich, , Aus Metternich's Nachgelassenen Papieren, 8 vols. (Vienna, 1881), Vol. 8, p. 562Google Scholar. This collection will be hereinafter cited as NP.

2 NP, Vol. 8, p. 235.

3 March 14, 1848, the day of Metternich's resignation as Staatskanzler.

4 NP, Vol. 8, p. 232.

5 NP, Vol. 3, p. 542.

6 NP, Vol. 3, pp. 52ff.

7 NP, Vol. 8, p. 197.

8 NP, Vol. 1, p. 35.

9 NP, Vol. 3, p. 322.

10 NP, Vol. 8, p. 184.

11 NP, Vol. 1, p. 33.

12 NP, Vol. 3, p. 242, or p. 357, among many examples.

13 That Catholic Austria should have as its First Minister an intellectual contemporary of Kant and Voltaire may appear a paradox. But the relationship of the Holy Roman Empire to the Pope was not uninfluenced by the memory of five hundred years of struggle. Nor had the reforms of Joseph II, who had expelled the Jesuits and broken the political influence of the Church, ever been repealed. Moreover, the Pope was to Metternich not only a spiritual ruler but a second-class Italian prince and Metternich was determined that Austria dominate the Italian peninsula. At the Congress of Vienna his treatment of the Papal Secretary of State was peremptory and in 1817 he even toyed with the idea of making an Austrian archduke a Cardinal, the better to cement his position at the Vatican. Not religious ties but philosophical and political agreement characterizes Metternich's correspondence with the Papal Secretary of State when the Church and Austria marched hand in hand. See Metternich et Consalvi, Correspondence, ed. van Duerem, Charles (Louvain, 1899)Google Scholar. The following letter by Metternich to Nesselrode, the Russian Foreign Minister, makes clear his attitude towards the Church: “… No Catholic power is more independent, … of the views of the Court of Rome than we. The heir of so many Holy Roman Emperors and the nephew of Joseph II knows what he owes God and what to his honor: our ecclesiastical departments may extend their dogma regarding the rights of the Crown too far, and if it is too far it is surely not in favor of the Court of Rome that they tip the scale.” NP, Vol. 3, p. 57. Metternich was not irreligious, but he admired the Church more for its utility and its civilizing influence than for its “truth.”

14 NP, Vol. 1, p. 334.

15 NP, Vol. 7, p. 636, Vol. 8, p. 525.

16 NP, Vol. 7, p. 637.

17 NP, Vol. 7, p. 635.

18 NP, Vol. 8, p. 557f.

19 NP, Vol. 8, p. 468.

20 NP, Vol. 7, p. 638.

21 NP, Vol. 8, p. 242.

22 NP, Vol. 3, pp. 400 ff.

23 NP, Vol. 3, p. 405.

24 NP, Vol. 8, p. 218

25 NP, Vol. 3, p. 409.

26 Webster, Charles K., The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 2 vols. (London, 1931), Vol. 1, p. 547Google Scholar.

27 NP, Vol. 3, p. 415.

28 Sbrik, Heinrich, Metternich, der Staatsmann und der Mensch, 2 vols. (Munich, 1925), Vol. 1, p. 354Google Scholar.

29 NP, Vol. 3, p. 375.

30 NP, Vol. 3, pp. 347 ff.

31 NP, Vol. 8, p. 467. He did not apply this to Great Britain, where he saw the permanence of authority expressed in the phrase “His Majesty's Government.”

32 NP, Vol. 8, p. 235.

33 NP, Vol. 7, pp. 633 ff.

34 NP, Vol. 1, p. 334.

35 NP, Vol. 7, p. 626; Vol. 8, p. 212.