The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 16

Author: C. Edmund Maurice  | Date: A.D. 1816

The Holy Alliance;
European Reaction Under Metternich

A.D. 1816


Before the allies had withdrawn from Paris after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, three Continental powers of Europe entered into a new alliance, from which England held aloof. It was formed by Alexander I of Russia, Francis I of Austria, and Frederick William III of Prussia, each of whom personally signed the agreement at Paris, September 26, 1815, when France also joined the alliance.

This event marked the beginning of a concerted reactionary policy on the part of the contracting powers, and led to the long ascendency of Prince Metternich, the Austrian minister, in European affairs. From this time he was leader of the repressive movement against popular aspirations for constitutional government and liberal institutions. The declared purpose of the alliance was to follow the teachings of the New Testament in political conduct. The sovereigns promised to rule "strictly in accordance with the precepts of justice and Christian love and peace. The relation of sovereign and subject was to be that of father and son. However sincerely founded, the alliance was soon perverted into an instrument of tyranny, sure to provoke fresh revolts, and after the French revolution of 1830 the league came to an end.

The part played by Metternich, the principal actor in those affairs with which the Holy Alliance concerned itself, is skilfully portrayed by Maurice, the historian of the later revolutionary period in Europe, who speaks with the highest authority of the reactionary influences against which, in due time, the progressive forces themselves reacted.

IN the year 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte ceased to reign over Europe, and, after a very short interregnum, Clemens Metternich reigned in his stead. Ever since the fall of Stadion, and the collapse of Austria in 1809, this statesman had exercised the chief influence in Austrian affairs; and, by his skilful diplomacy, the Emperor had been enabled to play a part in Europe which, though neither honorable nor dignified, was eminently calculated to enable that prince to take a leading position in politics, when the other powers were exhausted by war, and uncertain of what was to follow. But Francis of Austria, though in agreement with Metternich, was really his hand rather than his head; and thus the crafty minister easily assumed the real headship of Europe, while professing to be the humble servant of the Emperor of Austria.

The system of the new ruler resembled that of Napoleon in its contempt for the rights of men and of nations; but it was to be varnished over with an appearance of legality, a seeming respect for the rights of kings, and a determination to preserve peace and avoid dramatic sensations, which made it welcome to Europe, after eighteen years of almost incessant wars or rumors of wars. As he looked round upon the countries that had fallen under his rule, the contemplation of the existing state of Europe seemed to promise the new monarch a fairly successful reign. France had been satisfied by the preservation of Alsace and Lorraine, and by the sense that, from having been the focus of revolution, she had now become the cornerstone of legitimacy. England had at first seemed to give pledges to the cause of liberty by her promise of independence to Genoa, and her guarantee of the Sicilian Constitution; but with the help of Castlereagh, whom Metternich described as "that upright and enlightened statesman," the Austrian Government had succeeded in persuading the English to consent to look on quietly while Genoa was absorbed in the kingdom of Sardinia, and while the Anglo-Sicilian Constitution was destroyed by Ferdinand of Naples; and the English zeal for independence had been happily diverted from the support of constitutions and civic liberties to the championship of the most contemptible of Napoleon’s puppets, the King of Saxony.

The King of Prussia, who in 1813 had seemed in danger of becoming the champion of popular rights and German freedom, was now, with his usual feebleness, swaying toward the side of despotism; and any irritation which he may have felt at the opposition to his claim upon Saxony had been removed by the concession of the Rhine province.

Among the smaller sovereigns of Europe, the King of Sardinia and Pope Pius VII alone showed any signs of rebellion against the new ruler of Europe. The former had objected to the continued occupation of Alessandria by Austrian forces; while the representatives of the Pope had even entered a protest against that vague and dangerous clause in the Treaty of Vienna which gave Austria a right to occupy Ferrara.

But, on the other hand, the King of Sardinia had shown more zeal than any other ruler of Italy in restoring the old feudal and absolutist regime which the French had overthrown. And though Cardinal Consalvi, the chief adviser of the Pope, was following for the present a semi-liberal policy, he might as yet be considered as only having established a workable government in Rome. And the Pope, who had been kidnapped by Napoleon, was hardly likely to offer much opposition to the man who, in his own opinion, was the overthrower of Napoleon.

Yet there were two difficulties which seemed likely to hinder the prosperity of Metternich’s reign. These were the character of Alexander I of Russia and the aspirations of the German nation.

Alexander, indeed, if occasionally irritating Metternich, evidently afforded him considerable amusement, and the sort of pleasure which every man finds in a suitable subject for the exercise of his peculiar talents. For Alexander was eminently a man to be managed. Enthusiastic, dreamy, and vain; now bent on schemes of conquest, now on the development of some ideal of liberty, now filled with some confused religious mysticism; at one time eager to divide the world with Napoleon, then anxious to restore Poland to its independence; now listening to the appeals of Metternich to his fears, at another time to the nobler and more liberal suggestions of Stein and Pozzo di Borgo; he was only consistent in the one desire to play an impressive and melodramatic part in European affairs.

But, amusing as Alexander was to Metternich, there were circumstances connected with the condition of Europe which might make his weak love of display as dangerous to Metternich’s policy as a more determined opponent could be. There were still scattered over Europe traces of the old aspirations after liberty which had been first kindled by the French Revolution, and again awakened by the rising against Napoleon. Setting aside, for the moment, the leaders of German thought, there were men who had hoped that even Napoleon might give liberty to Poland; there were Spanish popular leaders who had arisen for the independence of their country; Lombards who had sat in the Assembly of the Cisalpine Republic; Carbonari in Naples, who had fought under Murat, and who had at one time received some little encouragement, even from their present king. If the Emperor of Russia should put himself at the head of such a combination as this, the consequences to Europe might indeed be serious. But the stars in their courses fought for Metternich and a force that he had considered almost as dangerous as the character of Alexander proved the means of securing the Czar to the side of despotism.

Nothing is more characteristic of Metternich and his system than his attitude toward any kind of religious feeling. It might have been supposed that the antireligious spirit which had shown itself in the fiercest period of the French Revolution, and to a large extent also in the career of Napoleon, would have induced the restorers of the old system to appeal both to clerical feeling and to religious sentiment as the most hopeful bulwark of legitimate despotism. Metternich was far wiser. He knew, in spite of the accidental circumstances which had connected atheism with the fiercer forms of Jacobinism, that, from the time of Moses to the time of George Washington, religious feeling had constantly been a tremendous force on the side of liberty; and although he might try to believe that to himself alone was due the fall of Napoleon, yet he could not but be aware that there were many who still fancied that the popular risings in Spain and Germany had contributed to that end, and that in both these cases the element of religious feeling had helped to strengthen the popular enthusiasm. He felt, too, that however much the clergy might at times have been made the tools of despotism, they did represent a spiritual force which might become dangerous to those who relied on the power of armies, the traditions of earthly kings, or the tricks of diplomatists. Much, therefore, as he may have disliked the levelling and liberating part of the policy of Joseph II, Metternich shared the hostility of that prince to the power of the clergy.

Nor was it purely from calculations of policy that Metternich was disposed to check religious enthusiasm. Like many of the nobles of his time he had come under the influence of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century; his hard and cynical spirit had easily caught the impress of their teaching; and he found it no difficult matter to flavor Voltairism with a slight tincture of respectable orthodox Toryism.

The method by which he achieved this end should be given in his own words: "1 read every day one or two chapters of the Bible. I discover new beauties daily, and prostrate myself before this admirable book; while at the age of twenty I found it difficult not to think the family of Lot unworthy to be saved, Noah unworthy to have lived, Saul a great criminal, and David a terrible man. At twenty I tried to understand the Apocalypse; now I am sure that I never shall understand it. At the age of twenty a deep and long-continued search in the Holy Books made me an atheist after the fashion of Alembert and Lalande; or a Christian after that of Chateaubriand. Now I believe, and do not criticise. Accustomed to occupy myself with great moral questions, what have I not accomplished or allowed to be wrought out, before arriving at the point where the Pope and my cure begged me to accept from them the most portable edition of the Bible? Is it bold in me to take for certain that among a thousand individuals chosen from the men of whom the people are composed, there will be found, owing to their intellectual faculties, their education, or their age, very few who have arrived at the point where I find myself?"

This statement of his attitude of mind is taken from a letter written to remonstrate with the Russian ambassador on the patronage afforded by the Emperor Alexander to the Bible societies. But how much more would such an attitude of mind lead him to look with repugnance on the religious excitement that was displaying itself even in the archduchy of Austria! And to say the truth, men of far deeper religious feeling than Metternich might well be satisfied with the influence of the person who was the chief mover in this excitement.

The Baroness de Kruedener, formerly one of the gayest of Parisian ladies of fashion, and at least suspected of not having been too scrupulous in her conduct, had gone through the process which Carlyle so forcibly describes in his sketch of Ignatius Loyola. She had changed the excitements of religion, and was now preaching and prophesying a millennium of good things to come, in another world, to those who would abandon some of the more commonplace amusements of the present. The disturbance that she was producing in men’s minds especially alarmed Metternich; and, under what influence it may be difficult to prove, she was induced to retire to Russia, and there came in contact with the excitable Czar.

Under her influence Alexander drew up a manifesto, from which it appeared that, while all men were brothers, kings were the fathers of their peoples; Russia, Austria, and Prussia were different branches of one Christian people, who recognized no ruler save the Highest; and they were to combine to enforce Christian principles on the peoples of Europe. When the draft of this proclamation was first placed before Metternich it was so alien from his manner of thinking that he could only treat it with scorn; and Frederick William of Prussia was the only ruler who regarded it with even modified approval. But with all his scorn Metternich had the wit to see that the piety of Alexander of Russia had now been turned into a direction which might be made use of for the enforcement of Metternich’s own system of government; and thus, having induced Alexander, much against his will, to modify and alter the original draft, Metternich laid the foundation of the holy Alliance.

But there still remained the troublesome question of the aspirations of the German nation; and these seemed likely at first to centre in a man of far higher type and far more steady resolution than Alexander. This was Baron von Stein,1 who, driven from office by Napoleon, had been in exile the point of attraction to all those who labored for the liberty of Germany. He had declared, at an early period, in favor of a German parliament. But Metternich had ingeniously succeeded in pitting against him the local feeling of the smaller German states; and instead of the real parliament which Stein desired, there arose that curious device for hindering national development called the "German Bund."

This was composed of thirty-nine members, representatives of all the different German governments. Its object was said to be to preserve the outward and inward safety of Germany, and the independence and inviolability of her separate states. If any change were to be made in fundamental laws, it could only be done by a unanimous vote. Some form of constitution was to be introduced in each state of the bund; arrangements were to be made with regard to the freedom of the press, and the bund was also to take into consideration the question of trade and intercourse between the different states. All the members of the bundestag were to protect Germany, and each individual state, against every attack. The vagueness and looseness of these provisions enabled Metternich so to manage the bundestag as to defeat the object of Stein and his friends, and gradually to use this weakly constituted assembly as an effective engine of despotism.

But in fact Stein was ill fitted to represent the popular feeling in any efficient manner. His position is not altogether easy to explain. He believed, to some extent, in the people, especially the German people. That is to say, he believed in the power of that people to feel justly and honorably; and, as long as that feeling was expressed in the form of a cry to their rulers to guide and lead justly, he was as anxious as anyone that that cry be heard. He liked, too, the sense of the compact embodiment of this feeling in some institution representing the unity of the nation. But with the ideas connected with popular representation in the English sense he had little sympathy. That the people or their representatives should reason or act, independently of their sovereigns, was a political conception which was abhorrent to him.

In short, Stein’s antagonism to Metternich was as intense as that of the most advanced democrat; but it was not so much the opposition of a champion of freedom to a champion of despotism as the opposition of an honest man to a rogue. Metternich wrote in his Memoirs, when he was taking office for the first time in 1809: "From the day when peace is signed we must confine our system to tacking and turning and flattering. Thus alone may we possibly preserve our existence till the day of general deliverance." This policy had been consistently followed. The abandonment of Andrew Hofer after the Tyrolese rising of 1809, the marriage of Maria Louisa, the alliance with Napoleon, the discouragement of all popular effort to throw off the French yoke, the timely desertion of Napoleon’s cause, just soon enough to give importance to the alliance of Austria with Prussia and Russia and England, just late enough to prevent any danger of defeat and misfortune—these acts marked the character of Metternich’s policy and excited the loathing of Stein.

As he had been repelled from Metternich by arts like these, so Stein had been drawn to Arndt, Schleiermacher, and Steffens by a common love of honesty and by a common power of self sacrifice; but he looked upon them none the less as to a large extent dreamers and theorists; and this want of sympathy with them grew, as the popular movement took a more independent form, until at last the champion of parliamentary government, the liberator of the Prussian peasant, the leader of the German people in the struggle against Napoleon, drifted entirely out of political life from want of sympathy with all parties.

But it was not to Stein alone that the Germans of 1813 had looked for help and encouragement in their struggle against Napoleon. The people had found other noble leaders at that period and it remembered them. The King of Prussia remembered them too, to his shame. He was perfectly aware that he had played a very sorry part in the beginning of the struggle, and that, instead of leading his people, he had been forced by them most unwillingly into the position of a champion of liberty. It was not, therefore, merely from a fear of the political effects of the constitutional movement, but from a more personal feeling, that Frederick William III was eager to forget the events of 1813.

But if the King wished to put aside uncomfortable facts, his flatterers were disposed to go much further, and to deny them. A man named Schmalz, who had been accused, rightly or wrongly, of having acted in 1808 with Scharnhorst in promoting the "Tugendbund," and of writing in a democratic sense about popular assemblies, now wrote a pamphlet to vindicate himself against these charges. Starting from this personal standpoint, he went on to maintain that all which was useful in the movement of 1813 came directly from the King; that enterprises like that by which Schill endeavored to rouse the Prussians to a really popular struggle against the French were an entire mistake; that the political unions did nothing to stir up the people; that the alliance between Prussia and France in 1812 had saved Europe; and that it was not till the King gave the word in February, 1813, that the German people had shown any wish to throw off the yoke of Napoleon.

This pamphlet at once called forth a storm of indignation. Niebuhr and Schleiermacher both wrote answers to it, and the remaining popularity of the King received a heavy blow when it was found that he was checking the opposition, and had even singled out Schmalz for special honor. The great centre of discontent was in the newly acquired Rhine province. The King of Prussia, indeed, had hoped that by founding a university at Bonn, by appointing Arndt professor of history, and Goerres, the former editor of the Rhenish Mercury (Rheinischer Merkur), director of public instruction, he might have secured the popular feeling in the province to his side.

But Arndt and Goerres were not men to be silenced by favor, any more than by fear. Goerres remonstrated with the King for giving a decoration to Schmalz, and organized petitions for enforcing the clause in the Treaty of Vienna which enabled the bund to summon the staende of the different provinces. Arndt renewed his demand for the abolition of serfdom in his own province of Ruegen, advocated peasant proprietorship, and, above all, parliamentary government for Germany. The feeling of discontent, which these pamphlets helped to keep alive, was further strengthened in the Rhine province by a growing feeling that Frederick William was trying to crush out local traditions and local independence by the help of Prussian officials.

So bitter was the anti-Prussian feeling produced by this conduct, that a temporary liking was excited for the Emperor of Austria, as an opponent of the Prussianizing of Germany; and Metternich, travelling in 1817 through this province, remarked that it is "no doubt the part of Europe where the Emperor is most loved, more even than in our own country." But it was but a passing satisfaction that the ruler of Europe could derive from this accidental result of German discontent. He had already begun to perceive that his opposition to the unity of Germany, and his consequent attempt to pose as the champion of the separate states, had not tended to secure the despotic system which his soul loved.

Stein had opposed tile admission of the smaller German states to the Vienna Congress, no doubt holding that unity of Germany would be better accomplished in this manner, and very likely distrusting Bavaria and Wurtemberg as former allies of Napoleon. Metternich, by the help of Talleyrand, had defeated this attempt at exclusion, and had secured the admission of Bavaria and Wurtemberg to the Congress. But he now found that these very states were thorns in his side.

They resented the attempts of Metternich to dictate to them in their internal affairs; and, though the King of Bavaria might confine himself to vague phrases about liberty, the King of Wurtemberg actually went the length of granting a constitution. Had the King lived much longer, Metternich might have been able to revive against him the remembrance of his former alliance with Napoleon. But when, after his death in 1816, the new King of Wurtemberg, a genuine German patriot, continued, in defiance of his nobles, to uphold his father’s constitution, this hope was taken away, and the South German states remained to the last, with more or less consistency, a hinderance to the completeness of Metternich’s system.

But the summary of Metternich’s difficulties In Germany is not yet complete. The ruler of another small principality, the Duke of Weimar, like the King of Wurtemberg, had taken advantage of the permission to grant a constitution to his people; and had been more prominent than even the King of Wurtemberg in encouraging freedom of discussion in his dominions. This love of freedom, in Weimar as in most countries of Europe, connected itself with university life, and thus found its centre in the celebrated University of Jena; and on June 18, 1816, the students of the university met to celebrate the anniversary of the battle of Leipsic. There, to the great alarm of the authorities, they publicly burned the pamphlet of Schmalz, and another written by the playwriter Kotzebue, who was believed to have turned away Alexander of Russia from the cause of liberty, and now to be acting as his tool and spy.

The head of the Rhine police, conscious, no doubt, of the ferment in his own province, remonstrated with the Duke of Weimar on permitting such disturbances. The opposition increased the movement which it was designed to check. Jahn, who had founded the gymnastic schools which had speedily become places of military exercise for patriotic Germans during the war, now came forward to organize a "Burschenschaft," a society that was to include all the patriotic students of Germany. Metternich and his friend had become thoroughly alarmed at the progress of the opposition, but again events seemed to work for him; and the enthusiasm of the students, ill-regulated and ill-guided, was soon to give an excuse for the blow that would secure the victory for a time to the champions of absolutism. The desire for liberty seems always to connect itself with love of symbolism; and the movement for reform naturally led to the revival of sympathy with earlier reformers. Actuated by these feelings, the students of Leipsic and other German universities gathered at the Wartburg, in 1817, to revive the memory of Luther’s testimony for liberty of thought; and they seized the opportunity for protesting against the tyranny of their own time.

Apparently the enthusiasm for the Emperor of Austria had not extended to Saxony; for an Austrian corporal’s staff was one of the first objects cast into the bonfire that was lighted by the students; while the dislike to Prussia was symbolized by the burning of a pair of Prussian military stays, and the hatred of the tyranny which prevailed in the smaller states found vent in the burning of a Hessian pigtail. The demonstration excited much disapproval among the stricter followers of Metternich; but Stein and others protested against any attempt to hinder the students in their meeting.

In the following year the Burschenschaft, which Jahn desired to form, began to take shape and to increase the alarm of the lovers of peace at all costs. Metternich rose to the occasion, and boasted that he had become a moral power in Europe, which would leave a void when it disappeared. In March, 1819, the event took place which at last gave this "moral power" a success that seemed for the moment likely to be lasting. Ludwig Sand, a young man who had studied first at Erlangen and afterward at Jena, went, on March 23, 1819, to the house of Kotzebue at Mannheim, and stabbed him to the heart. It was said, truly or falsely, that a paper was found with Sand, declaring that he acted with the authority of one of the universities. It was said also that Sand had played a prominent part in the Wartburg celebration. With the logic usual with panic-mongers, Metternich was easily able to deduce from these facts that the universities must, if left to themselves, become schools of sedition and murder.

The Duke of Weimar, with more courage, perhaps, than tact, had anticipated the designs of Metternich by a proclamation in favor of freedom of thought and teaching at the universities, as the best security for attaining truth. This proclamation strengthened still further the hands of Metternich. Abandoning the position which he had assumed at the Congress of Vienna, of champion of the smaller states of Germany, he appealed to the King of Prussia for help to coerce the Duke of Weimar and the German universities.

Frederick William, in spite of his support of Schmalz, was still troubled by some scruples of conscience. In May, 1815, he had made a public promise of a constitution to Prussia; Stein and Humboldt were eager that he should fulfil this promise, and even the less scrupulous Hardenberg held that it ought to be fulfilled sooner or later. But Metternich urged upon the King that he had allowed dangerous principles to grow in Prussia; that his kingdom was the centre of conspiracy against the peace and order of Germany; and that, if he once conceded representative government, the other powers would be obliged to leave him to his fate. The King, already alarmed by the course which events were taking, was easily persuaded by Metternich to abandon a proposal that seemed to have nothing in its favor except the duty of keeping his word. Arndt was deprived of his professorship, and tried by commission on the charge of taking part in a republican conspiracy; Jahn was arrested, and Goerres fled from the country, to reappear in Bavaria as a champion of ultra-montanism against the hateful influence of Prussia.

Then Metternich proceeded to his master-stroke. He called a conference at Carlsbad to crush the revolutionary spirit of the universities. A commission of five members was appointed, under whose superintendence an official was to be placed over every university, to direct the minds and studies of students to sound political conclusions. Each government of Germany was to pledge itself to remove any teacher pronounced dangerous by this commission, and if any government resisted, the commission would compel it. No government was ever to accept a teacher so expelled from any other university. No newspaper of fewer than twenty pages was to appear without leave of a board, appointed for the purpose, and every state of Germany was to be answerable to the bund for the contents of its newspapers. The editor of a suppressed paper was to be, ipso facto, prohibited from establishing another paper for five years in any state of the bund; and a central board was to be founded for inquiry into demagogic plots.

These decrees seem a sufficiently crushing engine of despotism; but there still remained a slight obstacle to be removed from Metternich’s path. The Thirteenth Article of the Treaty of Vienna had suggested the granting of constitutions by different rulers of Germany; and, vaguely as it had been drawn, both Metternich and Francis felt this clause an obstacle in their path. As soon, therefore, as the Carlsbad Decrees had been passed, Metternich summoned anew the different states of Germany, to discuss the improvement of this clause. The representatives of Bavaria and Wurtemberg protested against this interference with the independence of the separate states; and, although the representative of Prussia steadily supported Metternich, it was necessary to make some concession in form to the opponents of his policy.

It was, therefore, decided that the princes of Germany should not be hindered in the exercise of their power, nor in their duty as members of the bund, by any constitutions. By this easy device Metternich was able to assume, without resistance, the imperial bone that suited his position. The entry in his Memoirs naturally marks this supreme moment of triumph. "I told my five-and-twenty friends," he says, "what we want, and what we do not want; on this avowal there was a general declaration of approval, and each one asserted he had never wanted more or less, nor indeed anything different."

Thus was Metternich recognized as the undisputed ruler of Germany, and, for the moment, of Europe.

1This Prussian statesman had become the intimate counsellor of Alexander.—Ed.


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Chicago: C. Edmund Maurice, "The Holy Alliance; European Reaction Under Metternich," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 16 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: Maurice, C. Edmund. "The Holy Alliance; European Reaction Under Metternich." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 16, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Maurice, CE, 'The Holy Alliance; European Reaction Under Metternich' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 16. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from