The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Metternich and the Rise of the House of Rothschild in Vienna

The beginning of the nineteenth century is sometimes called “the Age of Metternich” after Prince Clemens von Metternich (1773-1859), the Foreign Minister and Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire and arguably the most powerful man in Europe. His credo, implemented through the “Metternich system,” was political equilibrium among the European powers, which would be a guarantee against wars and revolutions.

Portrait of Metternich by Sir Thomas Lawrence

He had started his career as a young man following his father on his diplomatic missions. When in Frankfurt he was said to have enthusiastically patronized the local brothels. The father must have been doing the same as, on one occasion, the two came across each other at one such establishment – or at least so the French newspapers at the time claimed. Contrary to puritanical expectations, these early signs of dissipation didn’t spell the end of young Metternich. In fact, for the rest of his long life he seemed remarkably well attuned to combining business with pleasure, hard work with keeping up with several mistresses at a time while being sincerely devoted to his wife with whom he had seven children (two much younger wives followed, Metternich survived all of them).

It was on a visit to Frankfurt that Metternich made sure to meet and invite for dinner the wealthy Jewish family of the Rothschilds. He actively encouraged them to set up a branch in Vienna and made all five brothers barons. Thus, it was Metternich who was directly responsible for the rise of the House of Rothschild in Vienna.

The Palais Rothschild in Vienna, one of the five Rothschild palaces in the city, demolished in 1954.

The Rothschilds never forgot what they owed Metternich. When the Chancellor was exiled after the revolution of 1848, it was they who provided him with a large loan. His granddaughter Pauline remembers the Christmas evenings at home, when “the most beautiful toys came from old Salomon Rothschild.”

Metternich has got quite a lot of bad press as an extreme conservative, committed to the ancien régime, fiercely opposing what we would call liberal democracy. At the same time, the author of the recent biography Metternich, the First European has remarked with some good historical insight that “in the 1930s European Jewry had reason to regret that the world was no longer ruled by men such as Metternich.” The moral seems to be that there are far worse things than frequenting brothels, being endemically unfaithful to one’s wife and sending little notes saying “I can’t live without you” to several women simultaneously.

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