Between 1618 and 1648, central Europe, and the Holy Roman Empire in particular, was devastated by a series of conflicts that were caused by competing visions of political order, great power, and dynastic rivalries, and that were exacerbated by religious differences. This soon came to be called the Thirty Years’ War. But the Peace of Westphalia, which successfully ended the German phase of the conflict, has been much misunderstood.
The 1648 settlement is widely thought to have inaugurated a modern system of sovereign independent nation-states in Europe (often referred to as the Westphalian system). And, as the argument goes, when that concept was later applied to the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it actually contributed to much of the region’s current dysfunction. But in reality, the Westphalia settlement did something quite different from what has been commonly thought. It set up a system of limited sovereignty for the numerous states of the Holy Roman Empire (formally known as imperial estates, which were the component territories of the empire, ruled by princes or city councils). It also created legal mechanisms for settling disputes and offered mutual guarantees for upholding the treaty’s terms, which taken altogether, formed a system of collective security.
Correcting this mischaracterization is not only important for our understanding of modern conflicts in the Middle East, but also for finding ways to end them. Westphalia can be used, not as a blueprint for a new treaty for the region, but rather as a guide and a toolbox of ideas and techniques for negotiating a future peace.
THE REAL WESTPHALIA
The Thirty Years’ War began with a rebellion by Protestant nobles in Habsburg Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic) against the centralizing policies of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (who reigned from 1619-37), which were disadvantageous for non-Catholics. The war spread from the Habsburg lands and engulfed large parts of Germany after the elector-Palatine (the ruler of a substantial Protestant territorial state and also a feudal subject of the
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