The Reading Room

OLL’s May Birthday: Friedrich von Gentz (May 2, 1764 – June 9, 1832)

This May’s Birthday Essay is in honor of the political journalist and statesman Friedrich Gentz.  Though born a commoner, he called himself von Gentz after he was knighted by the Swedish crown in 1804.  Gentz made an intellectual journey over the course of his life, from revolutionary liberal, to Whiggish “conservative liberal,” to reactionary practitioner of Realpolitik, all in the context of the Napoleonic age.
Gentz was born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) to a father who was a civil servant and a mother who belonged to the venerable colony of French Huguenots in Berlin. The young Gentz soon associated himself with his mother’s ancestry, especially after the family moved to Berlin, and he subsequently wrote all of his personal diaries, journals, and correspondence in French. A serious illness in his youth left him bedridden for extended periods, but he used his enforced leisure to learn English as well. 
He was a bright, handsome, and personable young man, whose prodigious intellectual gifts and studies under Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) while at the University of Kōnigsberg did not dampen his enjoyment of parties, gambling, and the company of women. Upon completion of his studies he got a job in the Prussian civil service (following in his father’s footsteps) in 1785 and worked his way up to a position as Secretary in the Ministry of War by 1796.
In the meantime, the French Revolution had broken out and thrown Europe into turmoil. His Kantian background contributed to his strong liberal predilections, and he initially was a strong supporter of the Revolution, but soon soured on what he saw as its excesses. A real turning point in his intellectual and political development came after he read Edmond Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (which he translated into German and published in 1794). He was deeply impressed not only by Burke’s treatment of events in France, but also by his overall approach to history and politics. His attitudes toward the Revolution hardened even further after the Outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition and, especially, the rise of Napoleon. Around the same time, while still working as a civil servant in the Prussian government, he launched and edited a series of journals in which he published works of history and political philosophy.  It was in one of these journals, the Historisches Journal, that he published in 1800 an extended essay comparing the American and French Revolutions.  The former, which he supported, was admirable because it represented the demands for the honoring and protecting of traditional rights and privileges against the depredations of the British Crown. The French Revolution, by contrast, advocated wooly-headed, invented “rights” and dangerous new ideologies.  
His opposition to Napoleon led him to advocate a united European opposition to him that would lead to what he referred to as “Free Europe.” He hoped that Prussia would take the lead in the anti-Napoleonic, pan-European crusade, but Prussia’s cautious neutrality between 1795 and 1806 thwarted his aims. A chance encounter with the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Stadion (1763-1824), quickly led to a friendship, and the offer of a position at the court in Vienna. Gentz, feeling stifled in Berlin (and facing marital troubles besides) eagerly accepted the opportunity, divorcing and abandoning his wife in Berlin in the process.  
In Vienna Gentz soon became very popular in court, and was eventually promoted to the high rank of Hofrat (privy councilor).  He successfully advocated for Austria to take the lead in the war against Napoleon - with disastrous consequences. Deeply discouraged by the French victory at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) and the subsequent end of the War of the Third Coalition, Gentz became melancholy and discouraged. His spirits revived after Napoleon’s debacle in Russia quickly spawned the so-called War of Liberation, which ended with Napoleon’s downfall in 1814. Gentz’s association with the new Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), deepened into a friendship during this time, and Gentz was deeply influenced by his friend’s cold, calculating Realpolitik. With Metternich’s help, Gentz became an increasingly important figure in European diplomatic circles (helped in no small part by his linguistic capabilities). By the time of the convening of the Congress of Vienna (1815), Gentz was selected as the General Secretary of the Congress, in effect, its president. As such he presided over the construction of the post-revolutionary, conservative order in Europe. His youthful advocacy of liberalism, freedom of the press, and civil liberties was long gone, and in the years after 1815 he contributed his intelligence and energy instead to the suppression of individual and political freedom.  The young man who had once extolled the liberties enshrined in the American War of Independence became, in 1819, the conservative diplomat who was one of the authors of the brutal and reactionary Carlsbad Decrees. 
His final years were marked by cynicism and depression, lighted somewhat by a love-affair with a beautiful young ballerina, Fanny Elssler (1810-1884). When their relationship ended, he sank into despair and died soon thereafter. Although he had amassed a fortune during his life from various sinecures and gifts, his estate was auctioned off after his death to settle accounts with his many creditors, and his old friend Prince Metternich had to pay for his funeral.