The Myth of Westphalia

Understanding Its True Legacy Could Help the Middle East

Map of Europe in 1648.

Some myths die hard, and the notion that the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, established a system of full sovereignty for the princes of the Holy Roman Empire and the European powers is a tenacious one. Selim Sazak repeats this error in his recent critique of our article on the Westphalian peace for Foreign Affairs.

In that article, we wrote:

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…set up a system of limited sovereignty for the numerous states of the Holy Roman Empire.…

Sazak ignores this core distinction between the full sovereignty of many European powers (which existed well before 1648) and the limited, quasi-sovereignty of the German Imperial Estates, which was in fact downgraded rather than increased at Westphalia, at least in confessional matters. He posits that “the peace treaty, in and of itself, did not bring about peace.” But it did—the fighting continued throughout the negotiations and ended only when the treaty had been signed. Sazak argues that peace came about through four supposedly preexisting dynamics—“dynamics that enabled the peace treaty’s mechanisms to work: the secularization of politics, the homogenization of polities, the internalization of differences, and the externalization of rivalries.”

But Westphalia did not create a secular order, and a secular order certainly did not precede the treaty. Westphalia was explicitly a Christian peace, which further imprinted an improved, mutually acceptable confessional balance onto the imperial constitution, as it was a compromise settlement that regulated relations between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists in a highly detailed set of confessional laws.

Sazak’s account of what he calls the “homogenization of polities” is similarly misleading. Despite massacres—

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