Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Metternich, Bismarck and Franco Reveal Reactionary-Conservatism’s Political Struggle with the Rise of Populist, Liberal-Republican Equality


It is fair to assess the era from 1814 through 1945 as reflecting a particular historical movement. This roughly 130 year period marks the struggle by the powerful elite to maintain control over European governments, their national and international economies, and cultural affairs against the rising tides of middle class demands for liberty, equality and liberal-republican styled, representative governments. Acceptance of the ancient premise that a Divine plan separated humanity into natural stations by hereditary lineage found opposition in the minds of an ever-growing, ever-increasingly educated, middle class. The result was a period dominated by reactionary policies determined to stem the tide of progress as it spread liberal-republican ideals. As the power of privilege saw its position challenged and eroded over this 130 year era, reactionary politics grew in strength and increased in the ugliness of force and policies used to hold onto power and maintain the status quo regarding distribution of wealth and power.

In May of 1814, the old European political order lay strewn on the ground like rubble, in the wake of the changes wrought by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the execution of Louis the XVI, and the reign of Napoleon. The Enlightenment elicited popular movements based on the ideas of equality, no one is born with a right to rule over others, and governments only find their legitimacy by pursuing the best interests of the people, not the ruling class.

These ideas were taken up by revolutionaries as Europe became a breeding ground for the notion of equality and representative government. The rise of the French middle class and the spread of education among that middle class proved a sufficient incubator for Enlightenment ideals to take root. The resulting French Revolution and decapitation of the monarch, Louis XVI, led to an experiment in liberal-republican government in France. Even though Napoleon turned out to be an aggrandizing megalomaniac who wanted to dominate Europe, his initial stated desire, and much of the result of his conquest of Europe, was to rid it of its repressive monarchies and to proliferate the continent with notions endemic to the Enlightenment. He also increased the level of education and vesture of mid-level political power among the middle class.

With the defeat of Napoleon, the politicians tied to the old order were returned to a position of continental leadership. How they put this Humpty Dumpty Europe back together would determine whether or not a progressive or conservative approach would govern Europe in the following decades. In this climate, the power vacuum of post-Napoleonic Europe, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich thrust himself into the spotlight, determined to be the light of Europe who would lead her into the future.

The Age of Metternich

Napoleon’s defeat delivered to Europe the consequence that Metternich’s influence emerged preeminent in Europe. “Confirmed of the falsity of the French ideas, Metternich determined to employ his vast authority to suppress if not extinguish them. He would labor to restore the old order” (May 5). Metternich’s vision entailed a return to the traditional principles from the preceding century.

The heads of state from Britain (Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh), Russia (Tsar Alexander I), Prussia (King Frederick William III) and, of course, Austria (Prince Metternich) gathered in Vienna in 1814 in what was called the Congress of Vienna. Since someone had to negotiate on behalf of France to avoid the appearance that the resulting new order was imposed on the French without their participation and consent, the new French government’s Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, was included. The resulting accord which came into being reflected Metternich’s desire of returning Europe to a semblance of her pre-Napoleonic and pre-French Revolution form, including a revision of borders which sought to establish a balance of power on the continent and his considered ideal form of government, monarchy.

Poland was reduced to a tiny nation-state which barely included enough territory to surround Krakow. The rest of the former kingdom was divvied up between Prussia, Russia and Austria to satisfy each of their appetites, the desires by the victors over Napoleon for territorial acquisitions they deemed their rightful spoils from the war. Other territorial modifications were made upon the map of Europe as well since Prussia received territories including Saxony and Pomerania, Bavaria’s borders were increased from the Prussian border to Alsace, Holland received Belgium from Austria, and a new Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg was created under the sovereignty of the King of the Netherlands. Switzerland’s borders were also expanded at the expense of France. Norway was ceded to the king of Sweden for his role in repelling Napoleon. Lombardy and Venetia were annexed by Austria while Genoa went to Piedmont as part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Pope was returned to control over the Papal States, and relatives of the Austrian Emperor were made sovereign over Modena and Tuscany. As a consequence no state on the Italian peninsula possessed the military might to challenge the authority and hegemony of Austria. Monarchies were also returned to both France and Spain (May 9-18).

In addition to a reconstitution of monarchies, the map of Europe was redrawn in a manner which facilitated the desired balance of power between the continental powers of Prussia, Russia, France and Austria. Metternich found success in one of his main objectives, the re-creation of the eighteenth century notion of balance of power. He saw this balance of power as a guarantee for peace for the nineteenth century (May 19-20). “Just as the people were given no opportunity to indicate the flag under which they preferred to dwell, so no chance was allowed them to determine the character of the government they should have” (May 20). Metternich and his cohorts, in the grand tradition of previous centuries, executed aristocratic privilege as its right to impose on the peasant class whatever political outcomes they deemed expedient to assure a continuation of nobility’s control over European commerce, culture and politics.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of reactionary repression arose from the concept of the Concert of Europe and its early attempt at international government. The idea originated with Castlereagh. The Quadruple (and later Quintuple, since it was enlarged to include France) Alliance formed the basis. The powers Austria, Britain, Russia and Prussia (and later France as well) agreed to maintain peace in Europe as defined by the terms negotiated at the Congress of Vienna in the second Treaty of Paris (May 21-22).

Between 1815 and 1848, members of the Alliance convoked conferences to deal with uprisings in areas of Europe where people attempted revolts in the name of liberal-republicanism and/or nationalism. Invariably, Metternich and/or Alexander I of Russia used these conferences to obtain the blessing (and military assistance) of one or more of the other powers when one or both men deemed it necessary to invade some nation as a means of quelling popular movements that sought the progressive advancement of liberty, liberal-republicanism, and equality.

The British refused to assist in these military actions, in large part because Britain was a Constitutional Monarchy which incorporated many liberal-republican principles. The Brits also did not feel it was their place to force the will of outside powers on the people of other nations when the matters giving rise to the military intervention were solely internal and did not threaten the peace of Europe. However, in the eyes of Metternich and Alexander I: 1) anything which threatened monarchy as an institution threatened the peace of Europe because the ideas could spread to their Empires and lead to revolt, and 2) if popular revolts were allowed to overthrow governments put in place by the Congress of Vienna, then the theoretical balance of power in Europe would be at risk, thus creating a climate which might be conducive to some power or group of powers to seek territory or other hegemony through war. Revolts and attempts at revolution in various states on the Italian peninsula, Spain, Poland and the Balkans led to military incursions by the Austrians and Russians on many occasions in the 1820s and around 1848-1849 (May 30-71).

Ultimately, the world order Metternich created crumbled as the rising tide of nationalism trampled it beneath the boots of the coming Prussian armies. Metternich could not stop the revolutionary movements no matter how much force he used or how deeply he bankrupt the economics, diplomatic strength and military might of the Austrian Empire to do so. The seeds of unrest in the Balkans would lead to future wars the Austrians could no longer win. The erosion of influence on the Italian peninsula and throughout the German Confederacy would lead to the creation of nations out of the nationalist, liberal-republican spirit sweeping through Europe. He was forced out of office and even out of Austria during the violence of 1848-49. His world order would not survive long without his force of will and the Austrian soldiers who could enforce it.

Bismarckian Opportunist Realpolitiks

Otto von Bismarck’s career cannot be as easily categorized as Prince Metternich’s. Metternich stayed true to his single-minded purpose throughout the age which bears his name. Bismarck, on the other hand, allowed his policies to be dictated by whatever necessity presented itself at the moment. He was an enigma who confounded German politicians and European statesmen because he was, “the entrenched defender of the status quo, the apparent reactionary, who brought to his campaigns the armament of the revolutionary and the temperament of a Jacobin” (Crankshaw 41). Nonetheless, Bismarck can be said to have had two major foci which dominated and shaped his political maneuverings.

Bismarck believed in monarchy as the safest form of government because it prevented power from falling into the hands of the mob and resulting in revolution which would upset the order of the things (Crankshaw 177). However, unlike Metternich, Bismarck was not concerned with maintaining traditional control over Europe by the landed aristocracy. Bismarck’s elitist ideals were far more self-centered. He didn’t trust anyone but himself and felt that both king and parliament should be subjected to his control. He was, however, dedicated to building a united Germany. “German unity was the proper desire of all who spoke German, he declared” (Crankshaw 59). His dream of German unity had Prussia as its dominant force ruled by the Prussian King. That was a self-serving dream because Bismarck’s wish for a Germany united under the Prussian King as Emperor of a new German Reich was only entertained in that fashion so it could offer him an avenue to dictatorship over that German Empire (Crankshaw 177).

In order to fashion German unity, Bismarck had to resort to war, not once, but on two occasions. His war policies showed complete disdain for human life and suffering – people were mere pawns in Bismarck’s high stakes games of political intrigue. Bismarck conceived a master plan long before war was even considered. He built up the military and seduced the Minister of War (Roon) and commanding General (Moltke) into his sphere of influence as facilitators of his master plan. The quick defeat of the Austrians in 1866, to the surprise and consternation of the most powerful nations of Europe, created fervor and excitement among the German states. Austria was forced out of the German Confederation and the minor kingdoms and principalities turned to Prussia for leadership, protection and economic stability. Bismarck used this moment to unite many of those states with Prussia. At the same time, his masterful diplomacy in negotiating treaties with the heads of the major powers to forestall any action on their part in the event of war, and his ability to capitalize on the moment and strike when his military had been properly prepared for aggression but his adversaries remained unprepared for hostilities, outmaneuvered the Austrians in 1866. Then, in order to complete the final unification of Germany, he repeated the process against the French in 1870-71. Bismarck created a new power in the center of Europe which completely upset the balance of power (Crankshaw 189-300).

Once he had consolidated the disparate states into a new German Empire, Bismarck ruled it with an iron hand. The nationalist spirit he manipulated among the masses to excite them into abetting his creation of the new Empire through war had come with expectations for a more liberal-republican government subservient to a constitution and parliament. However, just as he played the heads of Europe with subterfuge and secrecy to set the stage and facilitate the progress of his war plans, Bismarck used the force of his character and will, the dynamism of his spirit and strength, and the genius of his foresight and long range planning to outmaneuver parliament, bully the Emperor, and rule as a near dictator. His policy of Kulturkampf destroyed the power and influence of the Catholic Church (Crankshaw 303-311).

In the later years of his Chancellorship, Bismarck gave up the Kulturkampf to fight socialism and the Social Democrats’ movement to raise the standard of living and improve the workers’ conditions. Bismarck marked his stewardship of the new German Empire by economic strength and prosperity. That prosperity only trickled down to a few and was mainly vested among the industrial capitalists (Crankshaw 355-360). “On the face of it Bismarck’s triumph was complete. The entire network of Social Democratic activity was torn to pieces and destroyed. The infant trade union movement was strangled. But in fact the very thing that Bismarck most feared, a conspiratorial and fighting opposition, was being born” (Crankshaw 360).

Like those autocrats of every generation before him, the seeds of the undoing of the political empire Bismarck created were sewn by his unwillingness to see the coming changes and progressive new movements on the horizon. His determination to make every aspect of the German Empire conform to his vision even in the face of popular movements for greater equality and liberal-republican government led to the rise of an opposition which would ultimately take control of Germany, even though it took some 60 years.

Franco and Fascism

Generalissimo Francisco Franco rose to power in 1930s Spain as a fascist dictator who repressed his people and killed anyone whose ideas reflected equality, redistribution of wealth and property, and liberal-republican ideals, all of which he deemed anathema and treasonous to the new state he created. His rise to power stemmed from a military coup which came about to counter a newly formed, liberal-republican government that replaced Spain’s failed monarchy in the 1920s.

Franco’s “intention was to crush the Republican army completely, a project which, along with the repression in the captured areas, aimed to lay the foundations for an enduring dictatorship” (Preston 275). Franco refused to submit to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s constant pressure put to rush his war and take the country quickly. Even though Hitler and Mussolini funded and armed Franco’s forces in addition to sending troops and officers to lend assistance, he fought his war according to his understanding of how to achieve not just the short term goal of victory over the Republican forces but his long range plans for Fascist domination over the country and maintenance of the position and prestige of the privileged class. Franco intended to defeat the Republican armies in lengthy battles which inflicted the heaviest of casualties possible. Then, a slow process of pacification of the territory ensued in which all Republican sympathizers were rooted out and either killed or jailed. If they were jailed, in time they would end up dead anyway (Preston 274-281).

Terror was another of the techniques Franco’s troops employed to dishearten and dispirit the enemy as well as provide his army with an aura of invincibility and his campaign an appearance of inevitability. “The terror … was one of the Nationalists’ greatest weapons in the drive on Madrid” (Preston 123). In Toledo, there seemed no end to the killing. The firing squads of Franco’s troops averaged killing 30 prisoners a day for months. The prisoners included Republican soldiers and peasants, anyone who carried a trade union card, who was accused of having been a Freemason, or who voted for the Republicans in elections (Preston 123). In Madrid, 200 to 250 executions were carried out daily with an additional 150 a day in Barcelona and another 80 a day in Seville (Preston 320).

One of the grave consequences of the Caudillo’s policies (Franco was called the Caudillo which loosely translates into something like Fuhrer) was the mistreatment and torture of women. They were subjected to tar and feathering, being dragged through the streets after having their heads shaved, forced ingestion of castor oil so they would soil themselves in public, beatings, torture, sexual humiliation and rape. “As the Francoist forces captured Republican territory – in Castile and Galicia in the first few days, in the southern provinces in the late summer of 1936, along the northern coast in 1937 and then all over Spain once the war ended on April 1, 1939 – the feminist revolution of the Second Republic was reversed with extreme savagery” (Preston 207). The treatment of women by Franco’s Nationalist forces exhibited extreme cruelty and extraordinary humiliation. “Republican women would be punished for their brief escape from gender stereotypes by humiliations both public and private” (Preston 207).

The first objectives of the Franco regime were to maintain and reconstitute the ownership of land to the landed aristocracy and enforce strict control over the peasants and working class. Wages were slashed. Strikes were treated as sabotage and strikers subjected to long prison sentences. Travel and job searches were controlled by the Franco regime. Franco was especially committed to maintaining the social structure of rural areas (Preston 322). These objectives were intended to reconstitute and enforce the preeminence of the ancient landed nobility and the wealth and elitist position of the aristocracy which still existed in Spain, even through the years of the Republican government’s leadership and attempts to bring Spain into the 20th Century.

Franco’s power lasted until he died in 1975. His grip on power was enforced by his militarism: killing or imprisoning all opposed to his policies. He perpetuated his power by maintaining a strict government and through propaganda disseminated in schools and the media. No opposing views were permitted. No literature offering a contrary point of view was tolerated. Nonetheless, after his death, Spain quickly advanced socially and politically. The nation developed a constitution and a representative form of government. Again, as is always the case, the forces of progress may be impeded for a time if sufficient force is applied. However, progress and the advancement of progressive ideas cannot and will not be stopped.


I remain mystified by the persistence of belief in the value of conservative politics. If the history of the world has any lesson to offer, that lesson must be, at its most basic state, that progress cannot and will not, ultimately, be prevented. It may be delayed for a time, but progress refuses to be denied. The conservative position is, and has always been, something along the lines of, “Let’s keep things as they are because the current order works just fine.” The reactionary-repressionist extreme of conservatism evidences not only the traits described above, but seeks to enforce them with might, muscle, arms, propaganda and even by murdering all opposition.

If progress could be thwarted, we would still be living in caves, or alternatively, in agrarian societies run according to the principles of the feudalism which existed in the Middle Ages by ancient, hereditary family aristocracies without any possibility for economic or social upward mobility. None of us would possess books, let alone computers. Access to education (and hence knowledge), comfort, medical treatment, wealth (and consequently, the accumulation of possessions), and every other advantage available to people of all stations in life today living in lands administered by liberal-republican, representative governments would be controlled and lay vested solely among the descendants of those aristocratic, family, hereditary lines.

One can identify liberalism with the forces of progress, change and growth. The progressive movement belongs to everyone the world over. It must be encoded in our genes, because masses of people throughout time have always joined in popular movements to demand change, to improve conditions, to further the cause of liberty, to seek greater opportunity for self-expression, to create liberal-republican, representative governments, and to dream the dream of a world which promotes individual fulfillment.

Works Cited

Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: Viking Press, 1981. Print.
May, Arthur. The Age of Metternich, 1814 - 1848. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1933. Print.
Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

Poets said...

Great information.