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The Peace of Westphalia

On October 24, 1648, the Peace of Westphalia formally ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia consists of two different documents, the Peace Treaty of Osnabrück (Instrumentum pacis Osnabrugensis)  between the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (HRE) and Sweden, and the Peace Treaty of Münster (Instrumentum Pacis Monasteriensis)  between the HRE and France. In addition to bringing an end to the war, the peace treaties also greatly influenced the constitution of the German Empire until its dissolution in 1806. It has also been argued, although not without criticism, that the Peace of Westphalia was an important benchmark for the development of international law and international relations by bringing about a sovereignty-based international system.

“Das von süsser Friedens-Ruh schlaffend, und über heuntigen Welt- und Kriegs-Lauff Träumende Deutschland”. Print showing historical figures, scenes and symbols relating to the Thirty Years’ War. Between 1610 and 1650. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c33278.

Historical Background

The decentralization of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the war. The HRE had been in existence since the year 962 and covered most of Central Europe. It had a multi-ethnic and decentralized structure. The Emperor was nominally the ruler of the HRE, but the Imperial estates were largely autonomous.

Before the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Western Europe had been Roman Catholic for about 1,000 years. During the Reformation, a number of princes converted to Protestantism. Although there had been religious conflicts in the sixteenth century, the Thirty Years’ War was an extended, brutal conflict. The war began in 1618 when the Catholic Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to enforce religious uniformity on the Empire. Swedish and French intervention soon turned it into a European conflict concerning the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire, religion, and the power to rule in Europe. It was one of the most gruesome wars in European history, killing nearly 20 percent of the total population of Germany.

The Peace Treaties

The Peace Treaty of Osnabrück (IPO) consists of seventeen different articles, whereas the Peace Treaty of Münster (IPM) is composed of 120 sections. A lot of the IPO articles are included with identical, or almost identical, wording in the IPM, in particular the provisions on peace. In other instances, the IPM refers back to the provisions of the IPO and declares them to be of binding force. Differences between the two treaties stem from the fact that some issues were only of relevance to Sweden or France. The IPM for example contains provisions on the cessation of the dioceses and cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun in Lorraine, Alsace, and Sundgau to France. (IPM, §§ 69-91).

The preamble and several provisions of the treaties embrace the concept of an eternal and perpetual peace. Article I of the IPO (§ 1 of the IPM) generally states the wish of the contracting parties that the peace will be universal and perpetual, whereas article II of the IPO (§ 2 of the IPM) provides for a general and perpetual amnesty for everyone who took part in the hostilities. All parties were obligated to “defend and protect all and every article of this peace against anyone, without distinction of religion.” (IPO, XVII, 5; IPM, § 115). Another way that the parties tried to guarantee a lasting peace was by stipulating in article XVII, 2 of the IPO (IPM, § 112) that the treaty should have the status of permanent binding law (perpetua lex et pragmatica imperii sanctio) and be perpetually incorporated into the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. Both treaties were eventually inserted into the constitution in 1654. (Jüngster Reichsabschied (Recessus Imperii Novissimus) [Youngest Recess], May 17, 1654, §§ 5, 6).

Articles V and VII of the IPO deal with religious rights in the Empire (IPM, § 47). Article V states that the Treaty of Passau of 1552 and the Religious Peace of Augsburg (Augsburger Religionsfriede) of 1555 must be observed. This meant that the Catholic and Protestant (Lutherans and Calvinists) religions were recognized as equal and that the princes were allowed to choose a religion for their territory and to force their subjects to conform to their religion (cuius regio eius religio). However, Protestants living in Catholic territories were allowed to continue practicing Protestantism if they were already doing so in 1624. (IPO, art. V, 2; IPM, 47). With regard to individual religious freedom, the treaty provided that Catholics in a Protestant region and Protestants in a Catholic region were allowed to practice their religion at home, to attend religious services, and to bring up their children according to their religion. (IPO, art. V, 34; IPM, § 47). Furthermore, they were allowed to emigrate to another region in which their religion was observed within a specified time frame. (IPO, art.V, 37; IPM, § 47).

The treaties also recognized the de facto independence of the Imperial estates. They were allowed to choose the religion for their territory as mentioned above, and were allowed to enter into alliances with each other and with foreigners for their security or preservation as long as the alliances were not directed against the Emperor, the Empire, the public peace, or the terms of the Westphalian Peace Treaties. (IPO, art.VIII, 2; IPM, § 63).

Further Reading

If you would like to know more about the Peace of Westphalia, the Thirty Years’ War, or German history in general, please consult the resources available at the Library of Congress. A selection can be found below:

One Comment

  1. Chibli Mallat
    October 25, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Good note, but shouldn’t we correct the record?
    “Rather than the famous “Westphalian Order” emerging from the Treaty under that name and putting an end to the thirty-year wars of religion in Europe in 1648, the enduring system of nation-states rests more solidly on the foundations of the European peace that was conceived in Utrecht.”

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