Map of Europe in 1648.

The Myth of Westphalia

Understanding Its True Legacy Could Help the Middle East

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—through which he claims “the ‘different’ were…murdered to extinction”—there was no comprehensive confessional cleansing in most territories and states. Indeed, the Peace of Westphalia was largely about the better management of confessional coexistence, not at all the result of an emerging homogenization. This was also the case outside Germany. In France, the Edict of Nantes granted substantial rights to Protestants and secured their existence within a largely Catholic monarchy between 1598 and 1685, and even after the edict’s revocation and the expulsion of most Huguenots, enough of them remained to stage a major rebellion from 1702 to 1710. The majority of German princes were not able to “demarcate exclusive territorial jurisdiction,” as Sazak argues, because of the empire’s overlapping web of legal regimes and not least because of the continued supervisory role of the imperial tribunals and the emperor. Nor did the confession of the majority of the population necessarily coincide with that of the princes in many German territories, especially after the conversion of rulers or change of dynasty in such states as Brandenburg in 1613, the Palatinate in 1685, and Saxony in 1697.

Sazak’s claim that an “internalization of differences” and “externalization of rivalries” preceded the Westphalian peace is similarly unconvincing, not least because major civil wars and revolts continued into the seventeenth century, such as the Fronde in France, civil war in England, the revolts in Catalonia and Portugal, and, of course, the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire. Sazak implies that violent internal “homogenization” was a precondition for a stable and peaceful order of European states that then exported their conflicts to colonial arenas. This is simply untrue, as European interstate conflict and rivalry continued: primarily in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy.

The general mistrust for precooked European models of the sovereign nation-state is certainly understandable, and may well be sound, but that mistrust is no reason to reject ideas derived from Westphalia, such as legal dispute mechanisms and external guarantors to help uphold the treaty’s terms, which we explain at length in our original article.

It would be rash to claim with any certainty that a solution inspired by Westphalia will work in the Middle East, but few would dispute that fresh ideas are needed. The potential value of a broad Westphalian approach, which created a system of collective security (rather than the narrow application of specific treaty articles), is clear in light of the analogous nature of strife in both cases and the fact that the 1648 treaties successfully ended a highly complex interpenetrating web of conflicts. But to assess whether such an approach could work, it is crucial to have a more accurate and historically informed understanding of the actual nature of the 1648 settlement and its early modern European context—one that avoids simplistic conceptualizations.

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