1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kaunitz-Rietburg, Wenzel Anton, Prince von
KAUNITZ-RIETBURG, WENZEL ANTON, Prince von (1711-1794), Austrian chancellor and diplomatist, was born at Vienna on the 2nd of February 1711. His father, Max Ulrich,was the third count of Kaunitz, and married an heiress, Maria Ernestine Franziska von Rietburg. The family was ancient, and was believed to have been of Slavonic origin in Moravia. Wenzel Anton, being a second son, was designed for the church, but on the death of his elder brother he was trained for the law and for diplomacy, at Vienna, Leipzig and Leiden, and by travel. His family had served the Habsburgs with some distinction, and Kaunitz had no difficulty in obtaining employment. In 1735 he was a Reichshofrath. When the Emperor Charles VI. died in 1740, he is said to have hesitated before deciding to support Maria Theresa. If so, his hesitation did not last long, and left no trace on his loyalty. From 1742 to 1744 he was minister at Turin, and in the latter year was sent as minister with the Archduke Charles of Lorraine, the governor of Belgium. He was therefore an eye-witness of the campaigns in which Marshal Saxe overran Belgium. At this time he was extremely discouraged, and sought for his recall. But he had earned the approval of Maria Theresa, who sent him as representative of Austria to the peace congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. His tenacity and dexterity established his reputation as a diplomatist. He confirmed his hold on the regard and confidence of the empress by the line he took after the conclusion of the peace. In 1749 Maria Theresa appealed to all her counsellors for advice as to the policy Austria ought to pursue in view of the changed conditions produced by the rise of Prussia. The great majority of them, including her husband Francis I., were of opinion that the old alliance with the sea Powers, England and Holland, should be maintained. Kaunitz, either because he was really persuaded that the old policy must be given up, or because he saw that the dominating idea in the mind of Maria Theresa was the recovery of Silesia, gave it as his opinion that Frederick was now the “most wicked and dangerous enemy of Austria,” that it was hopeless to expect the support of Protestant nations against him, and that the only way of recovering Silesia was by an alliance with Russia and France. The empress eagerly accepted views which were already her own, and entrusted the adviser with the execution of his own plans. An ambassador to France from 1750 to 1752, and after 1753 as “house, court and state chancellor,” Kaunitz laboured successfully to bring about the alliance which led to the Seven Years' War. It was considered a great feat of diplomacy, and established Kaunitz as the recognized master of the art. His triumph was won in spite of personal defects and absurdities which would have ruined most men. Kaunitz had manias rarely found in company with absolute sanity. He would not hear of death, nor approach a sick man. He refused to visit his dying master Joseph II. for two whole years. He would not breathe fresh air. On the warmest summer day he kept a handkerchief over his mouth when out of doors, and his only exercise was riding under glass, which he did every morning for exactly the same number of minutes. He relaxed from his work in the company of a small dependent society of sycophants and buffoons. He was consumed by a solemn, garrulous and pedantic vanity. When in 1770 he met Frederick the Great at Mährisch-Neustadt, he came with a summary of political principles, which he called a catechism, in his pocket, and assured the king that he must be allowed to speak without interruption. When Frederick, whose interest it was to humour him, promised to listen quietly, Kaunitz rolled his mind out for two hours, and went away with the firm conviction that he had at last enlightened the inferior intellect of the king of Prussia as to what politics really were. Within a very short time Frederick had completely deceived and out-manœuvred him. With all his pomposity and conceit, Kaunitz was astute, he was laborious and orderly; when his advice was not taken he would carry out the wishes of his masters, while no defeat ever damped his pertinacity.
To tell his history from 1750 till his retirement in 1792 would be to tell part of the internal history of Austria, and all the international politics of eastern and central Europe. His governing principle was to forward the interests of “the august house of Austria,” a phrase sometimes repeated at every few lines of his despatches. In internal affairs he in 1758 recommended, and helped to promote, a simplification of the confused and subdivided Austrian administration. But his main concern was always with diplomacy and foreign policy. Here he strove with untiring energy, and no small measure of success, to extend the Austrian dominions. After the Seven Years' War he endeavoured to avoid great risks, and sought to secure his ends by alliances, exchanges and claims professing to have a legal basis, and justified at enormous length by arguments both pedantic and hypocritical. The French Revolution had begun to alter all the relations of the Powers before his retirement. He never understood its full meaning. Yet the circular despatch which he addressed to the ambassadors of the emperor on the 17th of July 1794 contains the first outlines of Metternich's policy of “legitimacy,” and the first proposal for the combined action of the powers, based on the full recognition of one another's rights, to defend themselves against subversive principles. Kaunitz died at his house, the Garten Palast, near Vienna, on the 27th of June 1794. He married on the 6th of May 1736, Maria Ernestine von Starhemberg, who died on the 6th of September 1754. Four sons were born of the marriage.
biographical sketch based on personal knowledge. Also see Brunner, Joseph II.: Correspondence avec Cobenzl et Kaunitz (Mayence, 1871);A. Beer, Joseph II., Leopold II. und Kaunitz (Vienna, 1873).