While a student in Strasbourg Metternich witnessed revolutionary excesses, to which he later credited his extreme conservatism and hatred of political unrest. In 1795 he married Eleonora von Kaunitz, granddaughter of the Austrian statesman Wenzel von Kaunitz. She brought Metternich great estates and admission to the highest court circles. Metternich began his state career in 1797 as representative of the Westphalian college of counts at the Congress of Rastatt, and he became Austrian ambassador to Saxony (1801) and to Prussia (1803). The favorable impression he made upon the French envoy while in Berlin led Napoleon I to request that he be sent as Austrian representative to France (1806).
Metternich's influence greatly increased when he succeeded Johann Philipp von Stadion as foreign minister (1809). Until 1813 he pursued a policy of acquiescence to French supremacy, but he constantly sought to strengthen the diplomatic and military position of Austria in order to make future resistance possible and to disrupt the alliance between Napoleon and Czar Alexander I. He was successful in securing the marriage of Archduchess Marie Louise to Napoleon (1810) and a temporary alliance with France (1812).
The middle course that Metternich pursued between France and Russia developed into a policy of armed mediation, and was supplanted by one of substituting Austrian for French supremacy in 1813. The Quadruple Alliance was formed, and war of the coalition against France resulted in the allied victory at Leipzig (1813). Although Metternich wished French domination checked, he had no desire to see the country crushed, for he did not want Prussia and Russia too greatly strengthened and the balance of power upset. He hoped to make Austrian influence supreme in Italy and, while vigorously opposing German unity, sought Austrian ascendancy in the newly formed German Confederation.
Although his role in Austrian affairs was weakened by rivalry with the liberal minister Franz Kolowrat, the period 1815-48 has been called the Age of Metternich, for during this time he was the chief arbiter of Europe. Using skillful diplomacy as the leader of conservatism in Europe, Metternich was the guiding spirit of the international congresses at Vienna (1814-15; see Vienna, Congress of), Aachen (1818), Carlsbad (1819; see Carlsbad Decrees), Troppau (1820; see Troppau, Congress of), Laibach (1821; see Laibach, Congress of), and Verona (1822; see Verona, Congress of) and was the chief statesman of the so-called Holy Alliance. In 1813 he was created prince. His brilliant assistant was Friedrich von Gentz.
The Metternich system depended upon political and religious censorship, espionage, and the suppression of revolutionary and nationalist movements. His name became anathema to liberals, and the revolutions of 1848 (which forced him to seek refuge in England) were in part directed at his repressive system. Metternich returned to Austria in 1851.
Metternich's memoirs were published posthumously (1880-84), as was his correspondence (1899). The authoritative work on Metternich is Heinrich Ritter von Srbik's Metternich, der Staatsmann und der Mensch (1925).
See also biographies by H. du Coudray (1935), A. Cecil (3d ed. 1947), C. de Grunwald (tr. 1953), and A. Palmer (1972); studies by E. E. Kraehe (1963) and A. G. Haas (1963); A. J. May, The Age of Metternich (rev. ed. 1963).