With sadness, I report the death of one of the giants of the history of the Peace of Westphalia, Konrad Repgen. He passed away on Sunday, April 2nd in Bonn, his home for the last 50 years, at the age of 93. In the early 1960’s, he and his advisor, Max Braubach, began the Vereinigung zur Erforschung der Neueren Geschichte (VENG). The name in English would be “Association for the Study of Modern History,” an extremely broad title for an organization that is known chiefly for its publications on the Congress of Westphalia and related areas. The most important of these is the Acta Pacis Westphalicae (APW), a series of dozens of volumes of documents related to the Congress of Westphalia: correspondence, diaries, minutes, official documents, and more. Although some collections on the same theme have appeared before, sometimes with a very similar name, none can compare to the depth and breadth of the APW. Correspondence, which constitutes the bulk of the APW, is extensively annotated, marginalia and corrections noted, enciphered text indicated, with a summary (sometimes quite lengthy) at the beginning of each letter and numbers pointing to the previous and subsequent pieces of correspondence in the series. The editors invariably spent years with their documents and often produced historical monographs based on them. Any scholar working on this subject must be grateful for the enormous effort dedicated to it over a long period of time, with Professor Repgen as its leader for most of its existence. (He retired officially in 1988, but has remained active in the profession and in particular with the VENG.) In recent years, Repgen approved the release of these important, but very large and expensive, books in an electronic form, freely available to anyone and easily searchable (although most volumes were printed with an amazingly detailed index, the ability to search the text for specific words is a major bonus).
His primary interest was Church history and his first contribution to the Peace of Westphalia was a tome on papal policy. To the best of my knowledge, the book began with the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and never got to the Congress of Westphalia. There was supposed to be a second volume but it was not published. The fact that Repgen thought it necessary to go into that much background is typical of his work. He is more noted, I think, for numerous articles on the Peace of Westphalia, as well as other topics, including the Third Reich. In spite of the thoroughness of his writing, he was not afraid to tackle broad questions such as “What is a religious war?” or “The Peace of Westphalia and the origins of the European balance of power”, and one of his articles provides a very helpful summary of the negotiations at Westphalia which is otherwise lacking. In addition to the publication of the APW, as head of the VENG Repgen also fostered many monographs into publication and oversaw the doctoral research of numerous students.
I met Professor Repgen just once when I was doing my dissertation research in Bonn in 1993. He was genial and helpful in the little time I spent with him. Even back then, he seemed like a product of a different era, from the Latin poem inscribed over his fireplace to his traditional approach to diplomatic history. It seemed entirely in character that, when the APW released its first documents online, it was under the heading “Supplementa Electronica”: an ancient language used to describe cutting-edge technology.
It also seems an appropriate symbol of how far Repgen brought the study of the Congress of Westphalia: previously more of a curiousity, we now know it in great depth. There are still plenty of gaps to be filled, but there is no doubt that future scholars working on these lacunae will owe much to Professor Repgen, as I do.