“Keep your friends close and your enemies, closer”
– Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather
Prince Klemens von Metternich, a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1815)
Prince Klemens von Metternich, thirty-two, scion of one of Europe’s most illustrious families, was a staunch conservative in politics. He didn’t believe in all the new found democracy and liberalism bullshit that had begun going around then. He believed that there were just two kinds of people – the rulers and the ruled.
A man of letters, he was a linguist who spoke fluent French and also an inveterate philanderer who considered himself a prize stud. Every imperial court in Europe feted him and considered having him as ambassador a kind of badge of legitimacy.
And so did Napoleon. Winning over a man of such influence and breeding could do no harm to his grand strategy of making Austria a weak satellite. And Metternich’s weakness for women could only help Napoleon win his confidence.
But Napoleon was an egotist. In 1806, when Metternich presented his credentials, the French strong-man acted aloof. He dressed well for the occasion but kept his hat on, something that was considered rude in those days.
After Metternich’s short and ceremonious speech, Napoleon went into a harangue, pacing the room and spewing his take on regional politics in a way that made it clear he was in command. He was not some Corsican hill-billy for the sophisticated Metternich to act condescending toward.
Over the next few months, Metternich had many more audiences with Napoleon. The French emperor had planned to charm the Austrian prince but the charming ran inescapably the other way. Metternich was an attentive and sharp listener. He was ready with praise, his words complimenting Napoleon on his strategic insights though never fawning.
At those moments Napoleon would preen inside. Here was one of Europe’s most distinguished aristocrats appreciating his genius. He began to crave Metternich’s presence and their discussions of European politics became more and more frank. The two even became friends, as much as two political heavyweights can become friends.
Hoping to take advantage of Metternich’s weakness for women, Napoleon set up his younger sister, Caroline Murat, to have an affair with the prince. Through her, he gleaned some political gossip about the goings on inside Europe’s other imperial courts and he beamed when she told him that Metternich had come to respect him.
Caroline was a scheming shrew who hated her sister-in-law, the Empress Josephine. She told Metternich that Napoleon was unhappy in his marriage and was considering divorce since Josephine could not bear him any children. Napoleon did not seem upset that Metternich knew such details about his personal life.
In 1809, seeking revenge for its ignominious defeat at Austerlitz, Austria declared war on France. Napoleon only welcomed this, since it gave him a chance to beat the Austrians still more soundly than before. The war was hard fought, but the French prevailed and Napoleon imposed a humiliating settlement, annexing whole sections of the Austrian Empire. Austria’s military was dismantled, its government was overhauled and Napoleon’s friend, Metternich, was named foreign minister – exactly where Napoleon wanted him.
Meanwhile, word about Napoleon’s unhappy marriage must have reached the Austrian monarch, Francis I, through his crafty foreign minister. Now, Frankie was an astute ruler. The monarch who dissolved the Holy Roman Empire which he had ruled as Francis II, he had gone on to found the Austrian Empire as Francis I, the only monarch in history to have been a ‘double emperor’, Francis I and II.
Francis I was also Emperor of Germany, Hungary and Bohemia and in time, the Austrian Empire came to be known as the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire or the House of Hapsburgs, which ruled for a hundred years and ended with it’s defeat in the First World War.
On hearing that Napoleon was looking for a bride, Francis I sent him an emissary with a message that caught Napoleon slightly off guard but delighted him. The Austrian emperor offered him his eldest daughter, the Archduchess Marie Louise, in marriage. Napoleon surmised that this had to be Metternich’s work. Alliance by marriage with Austria would be a strategic tour de force, and Napoleon happily accepted the offer, first divorcing Josephine and then marrying Marie Louise in 1810.
The wedding of Napoleon and Archduchess Marie Louise (Image courtesy: Wikimedia)
Metternich accompanied the archduchess to Paris for the wedding, and now his relationship with Napoleon had grown even warmer. Napoleon’s marriage made him a member of one of Europe’s greatest families and to a Corsican, family was everything. He had won a dynastic legitimacy he had long craved. In conversation with the Prince, he opened up even more than before. He was also delighted with his new empress, who revealed a keen political mind. He let her in on his plans for a pan-European Empire.
Considering himself invincible, now that Austria was effectively neutralised and no longer a threat, Napoleon embarked upon his most ambitious military adventure yet – the conquest of Russia.
On a bright summer’s day in June 1812, Napoleon rode into Russia at head of a 500000-strong Grand Armée. As he marched deeper and deeper, his men met with only token resistance, something that should have set off an alarm in his brain, but did not. As the Russians retreated further east, they destroyed everything they left behind – granaries, crops, buildings, everything that could be used to feed and shelter an invading army.
Now Metternich came to him with a request – the raising of an army of 30,000 Austrian soldiers that he claimed he wanted to place at Napoleon’s disposal. Napoleon saw no harm in this step. He was allied with Austria by marriage and rearmament there would only help him in the end, he surmised.
Months later the Russian invasion had turned into a quagmire. Recognizing that pursuing the fleeing Russians east was a bad idea, given the weather and the dangerously low supply stocks, Napoleon was forced to retreat, his army decimated not so much by battle but more by the forces of nature – the harsh Russian winter. Napoleon had dreamed of a Russian surrender but it never happened, the Russians choosing to instead retreat east. There was a lot of land in the east to retreat to.
Meanwhile, whenever Napoleon wanted the Austrians to join in with the 30000 troops that he had allowed them to build, they always seemed to be tied down in fighting border skirmishes with Russia. In actual fact, the Russians were obliging Metternich with contrived battles that would seem to tie down Austrian forces and thus make them unavailable for Napoleon. Napoleon of course had no clue about Metternich’s perfidy.
1814 and it was coup de grâce time now. Eager to teach Napoleon a lesson for all his aggression through the years, the major European powers – Russia, Sweden, Prussia and Sweden started building another coalition against him. Metternich appeared once again out of the mist, offering his services as a mediator between France and the others. Centrally placed as it was, Austria had performed that task in the past.
In any case, weakened by the Russian misadventure, his forces a quarter of what he had started out with, worn and battle-weary men, Napoleon had little choice. He needed time to recoup. Even if Austria’s role as a mediator allowed it to reassert its independence, he had little to fear from his own in-laws, he said to himself. By the spring of 1813 however, peace negotiations between a badly damaged France and the coalition were going nowhere. A new war seemed imminent, one that looked as though it would spell the end of the French Empire.
By this time the Austrian army had grown considerably and Napoleon realized that he had to get it firmly under his control, but his spies reported that Metternich had entered into a secret agreement with the coalition. Surely this had to be some sort of ploy? How could the Austrian emperor fight his son-in-law?
Within a few weeks, it became apparent that Metternich’s shenanigans were not a ploy. The Prince sent Napoleon a message – unless France negotiated a peace, Austria would drop its mediating position and join the coalition against France.
Napoleon could not believe what he was hearing. He traveled to Dresden for a meeting with Metternich and the moment he saw the Prince, he felt a shock. The friendly warmth was gone. Coldly, Metternich informed him that France must accept a settlement that would reduce it to its original boundaries. Austria was obligated to defend its interests and the stability of Europe, Metternich asserted.
Metternich, Napoleon meeting at Dresden and the hat incident (Image courtesy: Wikimedia)
Finally it dawned on the French Emperor that Metternich had been playing him all along, the family ties had been a ploy to blind him to the Austrian rearmament and independence.
“So I have perpetrated a very stupid piece of folly in marrying an archduchess of Austria?” Napoleon blurted out.
“Since Your Majesty desires to know my opinion,” Metternich replied, “I will candidly say that Napoleon, the conqueror, has made a mistake.”
“You are all aiming at nothing less the dismemberment of the French Empire!” stormed Napoleon, “You expect me to leave behind half of Europe and lead back my legions, arms reversed, across the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees and place myself and my future at the mercy of those whose conqueror I am today! Ah, Metternich, how much has England paid you for turning against me?”
Screaming, Napoleon threw his hat on the floor. If this had happened in the Palais des Tuileries, pre-1811, Metternich would have hurried to pick the hat up as a show of respect. Now, he pretended not to have seen it. Napoleon, pacing up and down the gallery, continued to rave and rant about how his armies could still crush France’s enemies as he had done before.
Napoleon had always prided himself on his ability to outwit his enemies, but this time he found himself at the short end. Metternich had studied Napoleon skillfully, using his gracious demeanor to get close to the French Emperor. He had noted Napoleon’s struggle to suppress his rustic Corsican roots and his craving to be accepted as a social equal in the snobbery of 18th century Europe, when only noble blood mattered.
The Emperor was riddled with insecurity and Metternich correctly gauged this trait in him. The prince understood that even the most powerful men are human and have human weaknesses. By entering Napoleon’s private life, getting closer to him, first through the emperor’s sister Caroline and then through the Archduchess Marie Louise, he recognized that he could blindside him into a false sense of security.
Having read Napoleon like an open book, Metternich set about crafting a strategy – the offer of marriage into the Austrian dynasty. To a Corsican, dynasty meant everything. Metternich’s genius was to recognize the real target – not Napoleon’s armies, which Austria could not hope to defeat, but his mind.
But then, in the end, Napoleon had to be Napoleon. He refused to accept Metternich’s dictated peace. In return Austria dropped its neutrality and joined the coalition, becoming their de facto military leader. And with Austria leading the way, they finally defeated Napoleon in April 1814 and exiled him to a tiny spit of an island in the Mediterranean that lay 20 kms off Italy’s west coast, named Elba.
Napoleon did make a come-back of sorts and ruled France for another hundred days but the magic had left him. Finally on an overcast summer’s day in June 1815, outside a quaint Belgian town called Waterlô, Napoleon met defeat at the hands of an Irishman, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, a military man who was the same age as he, but much more low-key in contrast.
Napoleon’s ambitions had been monumental – annexing not only Europe and Russia but also the Orient and South Asia. Wellington’s ambitions were just to be a damned good soldier. There was however one thing the two military leaders had in common – a single-minded determination to prevail. Napoleon had fought seventy battles and won sixty. Wellington had fought far less but won them all. For both men though, Waterloo would be their last battle. The Duke went on to become Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s entire armed forces and then it’s Prime Minister.
The shrewd Prince Klemens von Metternich rose even higher, to become the first Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As to Napoleon, concerned that he could make another comeback, the British did not want to take any chances. This time he was taken to the tiny British protectorate of St. Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic, 1000 miles off the coast of Angola and left to pass his remaining days there, alone.
The short stubby dynamo of a man passed into history in 1821 at St. Helena. Some say he was murdered by slow arsenic poisoning, at the hands of the British.
And by the by, I strongly doubt that Napoleon ever said, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”. I did however read somewhere that this is what he said when a reporter from the Times of London, a paper that he was fond of reading, interviewed him while he was in exile at the Mediterranean island of Elba. His words were apparently meant to be a lament that, at Elba he was powerless. The quote is a palindrome in English, ie: it reads the same both ways, but what use would a French guy have for an English palindrome?
Besides, those days it would take a reporter three weeks to reach Elba from England, a huge expense in time and money, not to mention the risks to body and mind that the round trip engendered. To do that just to talk to a washed-up windbag of an emperor for a half hour? Come on, does anybody want to interview George W? Even rednecks like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh don’t want to have anything to do with him anymore.
I started this piece with a quote from the gangster movie ‘The Godfather’. In the Mafia, when a hit is ordered on one of it’s own members, usually his closest friend in the mob is given the contract, the logic being two-fold : One, because he will never suspect anything right up until the very last minute when he is staring at the gun in his face and two, as a lesson to other Mafioso that even the closest friend is lesser than the Mafia.
The killing of Prohibition-era mob boss, Guiseppe ‘Joe the boss’ Masseria, comes to mind. Joe Masseria was a powerful New York Mafia boss with aspirations of becoming the first capo-di-tutti-capo (boss of bosses). He reigned over New York City between 1922 to 1931 when he was assassinated.
Gangland legend has it that Masseria was shot while having dinner and a quiet game of poker with his closest associate and right-hand man, an on-the-rise gangster named Charles “Lucky” Luciano. While they played cards afterwards, Luciano excused himself to go to the loo, when hoodlums Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Joe Adonis walked in and sprayed Masseria with bullets, his four bodyguards having mysteriously disappeared. He died with the ace of spades, considered the death card, clutched in a bejeweled hand.
The very man Masseria trusted most, Lucky Luciano, did him in. In the aftermath, Luciano stepped in to fill Masseria’s place, while Genovese, Anastasia and Adonis went on to become big-time bosses with their own crime families. The fourth killer, Bugsy Siegel, was the man widely credited to have turned a patch of barren Nevada desert into the gambling and entertainment mecca, Las Vegas.