I found a reference to the Peace of Westphalia in an unlikely place today: in an article on free expression. “The idea of free expression traces itself back to the Peace of Westphalia,” reads the dubious sentence. I understand that the author is trying to connect religious liberty with freedom of thought, and freedom of thought with freedom of expression, but this is a tenuous chain at best. I can assure you that no one in Westphalia was thinking of “freedom of expression” (or speech, or press) when they agreed to the compromises there. Even freedom of religious practice was severely restricted: some religious minorities had their own churches, others were allowed to hold services only in private homes, and many were granted only freedom of conscience.
If you’re like me, when you saw the title of this post you wondered, “Has the country of Somalia changed its name?” But, no, Somaliland is not an alternative name for Somalia, but rather the name for a region that is fighting for independence from Somalia (see map at right).
I do not intend this site to become focussed on would-be independent countries, but I do have to admit that the question fascinates me and partly drew me to the Peace of Westphalia in the first place. In the 1640’s, partially sovereign states in Portugal, Catalonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Transylvania (as well as some shorter-lived ones) struggled for recognition. In the modern world, we see much the same thing as Taiwan, Tibet, Somaliland, South Sudan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Catalonia, and the Basque territories struggle to obtain or retain autonomy and international recognition. These places at a a wide range on the spectrum of independence: Tibet can only dream of independence at this time; Taiwan is fully independent but China undermines its sovereignty at every opportunity (most recently by insisting that airlines serving China not use the name “Taiwan” on their routes); Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian puppet states; Catalonia and the Basque territories are firmly part of Spain but have varying degrees of autonomy and strive for more; South Sudan is recognized as independent but struggles to maintain control over its own territory. (This is an incomplete list, of course.)
I was not even aware of Somaliland’s would-be independence until recently, which is ironic because it has been de facto independent for 25 years. (For some background information, check out the BBC site and Wikipedia.) In colonial times, Somaliland was administered by Britain and Somalia by Italy. They both became independent in 1960 and agreed to merge into a single government, which seemed like a good idea at the time. However, differences between the two regions became obvious as the first national leader imposed military rule, eventually leading to civil war. Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 and has been functionally sovereign ever since.
There is one qualification: no other country formally recognizes Somaliland’s sovereignty. Legally, Somaliland claims that it was an independent country for a short time in 1960 and has a right to reclaim its independence, just as Syria separated from its voluntary union with Egypt in 1971 and Senegal from Gambia in 1989. Politically, Somaliland is surprisingly democratic and is rated as more free than any of its neighbours by Freedom House.
So why the hesitation to accept it as a member of the international community? The political reason is fear that it would lead to even more independence movements in the region. I find this logic curious, since Djibouti and South Sudan are recognized internationally and both are far more problematic (from what it appears) than Somaliland. It is true, however, that Somaliland has border disputes with several other would-be independent regions of Somalia, and sorting out all those claims would be tricky. The other reason Somaliland may have trouble gaining recognition is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, which means there are no major nations with a vested interest in its economic stability. Compare this with the case of China, whose Communist government was not widely recognized until the early 1970’s: unlike Somaliland, China was simply too big to ignore and offered too many advantages to countries who were willing to overlook Taiwan’s situation. Moreover, Somaliland has been free from the kind of catastrophe that mobilized world opinion in support of South Sudan. Ironically, Somaliland seems to be doing fine without official recognition, so there is little incentive to rock the boat.
I find Somaliland’s situation fascinating. Every country’s claim to independence is different; some have a stronger legal justification, others have established institutions that make its de facto sovereignty something that other states are likely to recognize eventually. I think Somaliland has both a strong legal justification and a generation of functional independence, which makes the failure of anyone in the international community to recognize them puzzling. If the situation continues for another generation, I suspect other nations will eventually accept the fact that Somaliland is independent, regardless of what problems that might theoretically create in the region. In the meantime, they are only a step away from being reunited forcibly with Somalia, as they are too poor to defend themselves against a determined attack and owe their continued independence to the complete inefficacy of the central government in Somalia.
Independence movements have been a lot on my mind since the harsh European reaction to Catalonian independence. Actually, independence movements have always been a lot on my mind; one of the main reasons I wanted to study the Peace of Westphalia was to learn about how the European map achieved its modern shape. One aspect of that shape is the fact that Catalonia is part of Spain rather than France or an independent country of its own.
The situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia obviously owes nothing to the Peace of Westphalia. The conflict and complicated mixture of languages, ethnicities, and religions in the Caucasus is far older and infinitely more complex: if you think the Balkans are difficult to sort out, they have nothing on the Caucasus. The similarity is that all three regions — Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Catalonia — wish to be independent (or, at any rate, contain a sizeable proportion of people who wish to be independent) but are not widely recognized in the West. Catalonia, of course, is not at all independent at the moment. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been de facto independent since the early 1990’s, but they remain so only thanks to major support from Russia. The only other nations that recognized their sovereignty are Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru; in the last month, Syria has joined that list. The obvious connection between these four states is their close relationship with Russia (or, in the case of Nauru, financial aid). The rest of the world presumably considers the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia as illegitimate, and European nations have stated as much explicitly.
At least the West is being consistent in supporting the “territorial integrity” of both Spain and Georgia in these cases. But what about the territorial integrity of Russia, which following 1989 lost Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia along the Baltic, as well as a series of Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.), and several nations in the Caucasus, among them Georgia itself? Who in the West spoke out for the territorial integrity of Russia against these independence movements? A similar scenario unfolded in Yugoslavia, where Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia broke away from Serbia.
One could argue, of course, that the circumstances were different. These newly independent nations had their own languages, cultures, and histories that predated Russian or Yugoslavian control. On the other hand, the same is true of Catalonia, and to some extent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I have seen people argue against Catalan independence on the grounds that Catalonia has never been independent. This is mostly true (leaving aside some brief periods following revolts, e.g. in 1640), but it is equally true of almost all of the new countries. Very few of the new Balkan nations had ever experienced independence, and it had certainly been a long time since Georgia and Azerbaijan had ruled themselves. The Baltic States were independent for about two decades following World War I, but apart from that Latvia and Lithuania had hardly ever existed as independent polities.
Should this matter? If a country has a distinct culture and history, is that enough to warrant its right to independence? What about the people who live in the country but don’t want to be independent of its current government? The Spanish government is quick to point out that opinion about independence in Catalonia is divided, although since they outlawed a vote on the matter and actually dragged people away from polling places, it is hard to see how the Catalans could prove that a majority support independence. In the United States itself, arguably only a minority supported independence against Great Britain in the 18th century, yet we still celebrate the results of our revolution.
What of a nation’s viability as an international political actor? South Ossetia is home to only about 50,000 people, which is clearly not enough to maintain its independence from Georgia without major outside support. Then again, Nauru, one of the five countries that has recognized it, has only a fifth as many as that. I frequently think about this when I hear of objections to the creation of an independent Kurdistan because it would be a landlocked nation with territorial claims in various neighbours (assuming that it would be created from only some of the countries that currently occupy the Kurish homeland, perhaps Iraq and Syria but very likely not Turkey or Iran). Sure, one could argue that an independent Kurdish nation would be a “source of instability” in the Middle East, but since when has that been a dominant concern in our foreign policy? What people have ever suffered so much at the hands of their rulers that they deserved a chance at independence more than the Kurds? Unless, indeed, one were to cite the Jews, whose homeland was explicitly created as a safe haven against hostile rulers. Would anything that could happen with Kurdistan be more destabilizing than the existence of the state of Israel?
I raise these points, not because I have answers, but because it seems some people don’t want to acknowledge that they are difficult questions. The people who support Spain and Georgia against separatists seem to do so without asking themselves under what circumstances they could be convinced to change their minds. It is, of course, idealistic of me to think that nations would ever pursue a coherent foreign policy based on rational principles, but I think it is worth striving for. Indeed, it is not so much the governments themselves that disappoint me as the people who are not government officials who are so quick to oppose independence movements. As one Russian researcher said about the question of independence, “International law is ambivalent. On the one hand, it gives the people the right to self-determination, and on the other hand it protects the territorial integrity of states. In each specific case, a country decides which of the principles for it is more priority.”
(N.B. The last quotation, as well as my original source for learning about Syrian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was an article in Izvestiya. My Russian is pretty limited, and I pasted that translation directly from Google. There has been little Western news about Syria’s diplomatic moves, but you can find articles on it in English, e.g. https://sputniknews.com/world/201805291064903741-syria-ossetia-abkhazia-recognition-reaction/.)
I recently learned that Catalonia is scheduled to vote on independence on October 1st, which is less than a week away. How is this related to the Peace of Westphalia? Very closely, as the fate of Catalonia was perhaps the touchiest part of the negotiations, and was certainly the main reason France and Spain could not reach an agreement. When they finally made peace 11 years later, it was only after the Catalonian issue had been completely resolved by Spain’s reconquest of the province.
Catalonia has its origins as the Spanish March that Charlemagne had conquered from the Muslims — a very small and early beginning of the Reconquista. It ended up a part of the Kingdom of Aragon, but France retained a claim to it until the 13th century. In 1640, Catalonia rose up against Spain and declared its independence. This marked the beginning of a drastic downturn in Spain’s military fortunes. Shortly thereafter, Portugal also declared independence, meaning that, without Catalonia’s revolt, it is possible that Portugal might not have become independent.
France was quick to recognize Catalonia’s independence, but a determined Spanish counterattack convinced the Catalonians that they stood little chance as an independent state; consequently, they placed themselves under French protection. Catalonia became a part of the French monarchy, under guarantees that France would respect its rights and privileges that Spain had violated leading up to the revolt. Based on other cities and territories that accepted French protection (such as in Alsace), I feel confident that Catalonia would have ultimately been disappointed with their new arrangement. In the short run, it created a nearly intractable legal problem in that Philip IV refused to accept the withdrawal of Catalan obedience, but Louis XIII (and soon thereafter his son, Louis XIV) could not consent to the return of Catalonia to Spain. There were actually two things preventing France from returning Catalonia. One, as it had now become part of the royal patrimony, it was considered inalienable, and going back on that principle would call into question a French legal doctrine dating back two centuries that had been used to justify the impossibility of ceding land to other states. Two, as France had agreed to protect Catalonian rights against Spain, the mere suggestion that they might be willing to return the province to Philip IV would have seemed like betrayal and would have hurt France’s international reputation severely, not to mention the likelihood that Catalans might have tried to strike a deal with Philip IV at the first hint of French treachery, which could deprive France of all the advantages it had gained from the province’s rebellion. The situation regarding Portugal was similar, but France did not have the liability of actually having agreed to make Portugal part of the French crown, so it had more flexibility.
The best either side could hope for was a truce in Catalonia. For France, the longer the truce was for, the better, as it would enable them to incorporate the province into royal government and gain legitimacy by prescription. It wanted a truce of at least 30 years. Spain hoped for just the opposite: as short a truce as possible, just enough for Spain to disentangle itself from its other conflicts (notably with the Dutch Republic) and focus its efforts on Catalonia. The Dutch, who had no particular desire to continue the war either then or in the future for the sake of French conquests in Iberia, eventually made peace with Spain while the French-Spanish war continued. Thanks in part to unrest in France, Spain was able to retake Catalonia in the years immediately following 1648.
The fate of Catalonia also has particular significance for me for two further reasons. One is that my dissertation advisor’s dissertation advisor, J. H. Elliott, wrote his dissertation on the Catalan revolt. Second, I chose the Peace of Westphalia as my dissertation topic because I wanted to know about the factors that shaped Europe’s borders. I was particularly concerned with Alsace in my dissertation, but Catalonia would certainly make an equally interesting case. It ended up remaining with Spain, but it would not be difficult to imagine a French Catalonia, or even an independent Catalonia.
In point of fact, the borders in Western Europe have changed remarkably little in the past 500 years or so. Looked at from one perspective, it seems almost inevitable that the modern states would take on the shapes that they have: how would France not encompass all the French-speaking peoples, Italy the Italian, Spain the Spanish, and so forth. But this only appears true until one looks at the cases more closely. Alsace was a Germanophone territory until the 17th century and only gradually switched to French over the next two hundred years. There are many French speakers in Belgium, mixed with Flemish speakers, whose language is very close to Dutch. Switzerland includes German, French, and Italian speakers. And Catalan is a distinct language from Castilian; very similar, it is true, but then Portuguese is also very similar, and Galician is closer to Portuguese than to Castilian. In short, much of what we take for granted about Europe’s borders only appear so because territories have been stable and have homogenized over time, and because we tend to dismiss anomalies.
The borders in Eastern Europe have been more fluid, and I have witnessed in my lifetime quite a number of significant changes: the creation of independent states in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Modova, and the Ukraine, the breakup of Yugoslavia into a number of smaller, more homogeneous countries, and the division of Czechoslovakia into two states. Most of these changes have been welcomed in the West as a chance for people with a distinct language and culture to become independent and self-determining. (The way that Yugoslavia broke up was a tragedy, of course, but now that it has happened, I haven’t heard anyone other than Serbs urging a reunion.) Strangely, though, anything resembling an independence movement in Western Europe is usually treated as an impending disaster. Even the British withdrawal from the European Union, which is quite a young organization and is not yet a proper government, brought about great howls of protest. Similarly, the Catalonian referendum generally seems to be viewed unfavourably (if I may judge from a tiny bit of reading) outside of Catalonia itself.
As so often happens, I take the less popular side. In general, I sympathize with independence movements wherever they occur. I don’t always agree with them or think they would be for the best, but I understand why one group of people would feel like they don’t belong with another, and I am very conscious of how difficult it is to get any government to part voluntarily with any part of itself. Spain tried to grant some concessions to Catalonia in 2006, but the nation’s courts ruled many of them illegal and unconstitutional. I’m not surprised that Spain’s government would object to the independence of Catalonia. It is almost a given that a government will cede power and land only to force. Arguably a government’s main purpose is to keep people united, so I don’t expect it just to wave goodbye at any region that happens to vote itself independence. What astonishes me is that people with no stake in the government in question, and who purport to believe that governments are founded on the will of the people, should be so hostile to independence movements. How can a popular democracy insist that no region may legally secede and still be consistent with its principles? How can it be right to force a people to remain in a voluntary union?
In some cases, the creation of a new, independent country out of an older, larger one presents difficulties in international relations. The breakup of Austria-Hungary after WWI left a number of small, unstable, and relatively weak countries in Germany’s vicinity, and these countries were easy targets for German alliance offers — or, in case they refused, for German invasions. Changing gears to the present, the union of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran into an independent Kurdistan would introduce a major complication into an already messy international situation in the Near East. Arguably, a landlocked country under Kurdish rule would be unstable and would have unresolved territorial claims against virtually all of its neighbours, which could mean even more warfare. In my view, Kurds have suffered enough and deserve the opportunity to rule themselves; but it’s hard to disagree that the creation of Kurdistan would spawn all sorts of unknown issues that we can’t possibly expect to anticipate.
One hundred years ago, instability in the international system would have been a major concern regarding independence movements. But I can’t believe that anyone seriously expects an independent Catalonia would make war more likely on the Iberian penninsula, any more than one would expect Britain’s exit from the EU to increase the likelihood of war. The same goes for independence movements in the Basque territories, Scotland, Flanders, Northern Italy, and Quebec. So, while most of the West laments every independence movement as a social breakdown, I support them as a chance for people to determine their fate as part of a smaller, more homogeneous group; ironically, as a chance for them to unite more closely to people whose principles they share, rather than to participate anonymously in the ever-widening circle of global culture. Although my optimism is rather limited on this score, count me in Junts pel Sí.
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.
“Everyone has by nature a right to act deceitfully. and to break his compacts, unless he be restrained by the hope of some greater good, or the fear of some greater evil.” This quotation, which sounds like it could come straight from Queen Christina’s aphorisms, is in fact from Baruch Spinoza’s “A theological-political tract.” I have just been reading it, but I wish I had done so before publishing my book, for Spinoza expresses in words exactly the sense of international relations that was practiced by the diplomats of which I wrote.
He says of an alliance for mutual defense,
“Such a covenant is valid so long as its basis of danger or advantage is in force: no one enters into an engagement, or is bound to stand by his compacts unless there be a hope of some accruing good, or the fear of some evil: if this basis be removed the compact thereby becomes void: this has been abundantly shown by experience. For although different states make treaties not to harm one another, they always take every possible precaution against such treaties being broken by the stronger party, and do not rely on the compact, unless there is a sufficiently obvious object and advantage to both parties in observing it. Otherwise they would fear a breach of faith, nor would there be any wrong done thereby…”
In other words, statesmen were right not to trust each other, because agreements are only valid so long as a state stands to benefit from their continuation. Not only is this normal (“this has been abundantly shown by experience”), it is a positive moral right, for, “if we consult loyalty and religion, we shall see that no one in possession of power ought to abide by his promises to the injury of his dominion; for he cannot keep such promises without breaking the engagement he made with his subjects, by which both he and they are most solemnly bound.”
It is very Hobbesian, in a sense, except more chaotic, because Hobbes considers the pledge to obey a sovereign to be an absolute right that, once surrendered, is gone forever; whereas Spinoza, although he writes that a sovereign power can never commit wrong against a subject “however absurd [its commands] may be,” also believes that the sovereign only retains its right to power so long as it can enforce it. Anyone may dare to overthrow the sovereign, with the risk that, if he lose, he will be justly punished for treason; but if he win, he is in the right to do so.
I am not surprised to find the morality of the 1640’s being embodied in a philosopher writing several decades later, for, as I explained in the book, the theorists of “reason of state” were not so much representative of the practice of the Congress of Westphalia as of an earlier generation. I have always been much struck by John Maynard Keynes’s assertion that
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
And, being the contemplative sort myself, I like to think it is true. However, in the period I study, at least, philosophers followed practice rather than preceded it, and I grudgingly acknowledge the justice of Hegel’s famous quotation that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”
History repeats itself, and historians repeat each other. We are witnessing a case of one or the other in the current situation in Syria, where religious conflict has called to mind the religious conflicts of 16th and 17th century Europe. If Europe ended its religious wars with the Peace of Westphalia, the thinking goes, a new Peace of Westphalia may be the prescription for bringing peace to Middle East.
A quick recap of the events leading up to the first Westphalia: Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517, and a major competing version of Protestantism arose in the 1530’s under John Calvin. Every Christian state in Europe struggled to come to grips with this movement, but the ones that saw the most fighting between Protestants and Catholics were France, the Low Countries, and the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany). In 1618, civil war broke out in the Empire between Protestants and Catholics, and gradually drew in other European states until nearly the whole Continent was fighting. It was over a generation before the fighting in Germany finally stopped. The settlement, signed in 1648 in two small towns in Westphalia, gave considerable latitude to subordinate rulers within the Empire to manage religious affairs within their realms, while guaranteeing certain basic rights to religious minorities – a federalist solution that would make Americans proud.
Islam has its own problem with disputing versions Shia and Sunni, dating back to the 7th century. Only recently, however, have Westerners begun seeing it as an analogue to Europe’s religious struggles. As long as Sadam Hussein and Bashar Assad managed the religious divisions in their countries, however ruthlessly, the split within Islam was peaceful for the most part. With the breakdown of authority in Iraq and Syria and the bloody wars there between the two Islamic sects, religious differences have suddenly become an international issue of the first order. Unlike the war against generic “Islamic extremists,” which could be viewed in terms of the long-term conflict between the West and Islam, these new civil wars can’t be easily pigeon-holed and are causing analysts to stretch their imaginations to come up with solutions.
As far as I can tell, the first person to compare the situation in Syria with the Peace of Westphalia was Henry Kissinger, in 2012. He did so in entirely conventional terms: Westphalia, he wrote, is the foundation of our international order, and it is based on state sovereignty. Intervening in Syrian affairs would compromise the principle of sovereignty and thereby risk unleashing another Thirty Years’ War on the world. Ironically, within a few years scholars were drawing the exact opposite lessons from the past, seeing the Peace of Westphalia not as a reason to stay out of Syria but as a model for intervention. At least two academic conferences have been organized on the basis of comparing Europe’s religious wars with the Middle East’s, one of them explicitly pointing toward the Peace of Westphalia as a model for a solution.
These scholars are certainly right about one thing: the Peace of Westphalia says nothing about sovereignty or non-intervention. We can blame the tradition of “historians repeating themselves” that the connection between Westphalia and sovereignty ever became popular in the first place, as one writer after another repeated the claim without investigating its origins until it became an unquestionable orthodoxy. Anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Prudhon, who first proposed that Westphalia endorsed the principle of sovereignty (as an aside in an article that he wrote on the much later treaties of 1815), would probably have been astonished how thoroughly his idea informed international relations theory in the second half of the 20th century. Instead of approving non-intervention, Westphalia did the opposite: it endorsed France and Sweden’s intervention in the Holy Roman Empire to protect the rights of religious minorities.
To that extent, it makes sense to look to Westphalia as a model for a peace in Syria that would be brokered by outside powers such as the U.S. and Russia. But if we look at the comparison any closer, we find that it is an exceeding weak model for peace. Whereas the Holy Roman Empire already had a history stretching back 700 years or more by 1648, Syria is a relatively recent creation of the retreating colonial powers that owes more to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 than to the sort of organic process that created the Empire over centuries and fostered such a strong sense of unity among its inhabitants. During that time, the Empire had become politically decentralized, managing to continue to exist in spite of the fact that its subordinate duchies, counties, and cities conducted their own foreign policies and even raised their own armies. It was a difficult task, and there was a tendency for border regions of the Empire to become independent (such as the Dutch Republic in 1648) or get incorporated into other states (such as Alsace, which was absorbed into France before the end of the century). Yet it was functional to a surprising extent. The quasi-independent units paid taxes, submitted to Imperial justice, and even waged war as part of the Empire.
It is difficult to imagine Syria surviving a similar decentralization. Hardly anything binds Syrians together that does not also bind them to other people – Muslim Arabs, Kurds, Druze – in neighbouring states. Regional governments exist, but have no tradition of operating independently or of co-ordinating their relations with each other. The division of Syria into smaller, more religiously homogeneous regions would likely result in civil war, possibly leading to re-unification, or to the regions’ withdrawing entirely from Syria and joining with those they share most in common with. Would Syrian Kurds be more likely to stay with Syria or to try to join with other Kurds in Iraq? This even presumes that relatively homogeneous units could be created out of Syria, which may be the case for Sunnis and Shi’ites, and perhaps Kurds, but what about Syria’s other religious groups, such as the Druze (3% of the population) or Christians (10%)? What about people who share a religion but are an ethnic minority, such as Armenians, Turkomens, and Circassians?
Then again, Syria would not have the advantages of settled neighbours the way the Holy Roman Empire did. The Empire was the last Christian state to resolve its religious problems in 1648, so it had little to fear from rebel groups in adjacent countries raiding or fomenting division among its provinces. Syria faces the opposite situation, as Lebanon and Iraq are still violently divided and show no signs of resolving their problems any time soon. To the contrary, it seems certain that extremists on both sides of the Islamic divide will continue to do their best to unify the region under a single religious law; and, failing that, to spread terrorism, fear, and disorder wherever they cannot control. No purely Syrian solution is going to solve the underlying conflict of goals because there are parties that have no intention to restrict themselves to national boundaries. That includes many Syrians, who may be forced to accept an agreement for a time, but are likely to ignore it as soon as the immediate threat is over.
The Westphalian model for Syrian peace, therefore, fails because the historical situations are only superficially similar. The Thirty Years’ War was the last war in Europe fought primarily for religious reasons. Does anyone think that the Syrian civil war will be the last Middle Eastern war fought for religious reasons?
I’m the kind of person who can’t help cringing equally when I read praise of my work and when I read criticism, so going through the reviews of this book has been a challenge. This is especially the case because I really poured myself into this book in a way that I didn’t with my two prior works. I wrote it with no advisor and did not submit it to an editor until I was satisfied with it, so the book is really what I wanted it to be and not something created to please others. Then, too, it was the culmination of 20+ years of thinking and reading about the Peace of Westphalia, so I had plenty of opportunity to consider what I wanted to say. (In fact, I remember sitting in the archives at the Quai d’Orsay doing research for my dissertation in 1993 and wondering what one would say about the negotiations in general, and formulating my first ideas at that time.)
I am fortunate that almost all the reviews I have read so far have been thoughtful and balanced. (There is one notable exception that seems to be the result of a cursory skimming, but I won’t single out that review here.) I am also delighted that almost every reviewer has understood the main lines of my argument. I would like to give myself some credit for that, because I edited and re-edited and re-re-edited the entire manuscript repeatedly until I could make sense of everything without having to puzzle it out. This was especially problematic for the conclusion, where I had lots of ideas but had no clear overall sense of what I wanted to say until I had re-written the whole thing several times. I was on much firmer ground on the narrative parts, but those, too, had to be worked over several times to produce a discussion in which each sentence followed from the last without logical jumps, unintroduced concepts, or simple lack of clarity. (If the writing on this site does not match the quality of the book, it is not surprising, because I write most of this in a single sitting and put little effort into reworking it.)
Obviously, my writing still fell short of what it could have been in some respects. One reviewer lamented “several awkward sentence constructions,” which actually doesn’t seem too serious in a book of 200,000 words. Only one reviewer complained that the text was “excessively detailed and often simply confusing,” noting that I “[yield] too easily to the temptation to digress.” The only place I confess to leaving in more detail than I needed was in the discussion of Denmark, because I just find Christian IV so fascinating a figure. Even there, I cut out one of my favourite stories in a very late draft when I realized that it was too peripheral.
It is a long book, I admit. I wanted to tell the whole story, not just hit the high points. It would doubtless have been much shorter if there had been other English-language narratives where readers could find more information; as there weren’t, I felt compelled to include a lot of specifics even though I knew it would make the book longer and more confusing. Perhaps I need to produce a condensed version next. (Actually, at a very early stage I had proposed a book of about 200 pages and was advised that it needed to be longer.)
Fortunately, most reviewers found the narrative at least tolerable, using phrases such as a “detailed but comprehensible account,” an “engaging account” and a “lucid overview,” and a “clear and concise outline of all these aspects…of the complex tableau of the actual negotiations.” One reviwer said I was successful “in the balancing act of going into the negotiation details where necessary (without, however, losing himself in them) and, on the other side, the constant struggle to write in a way intelligible to all” (my rough translation from the German). On the whole, I am very pleased with this assessment.
My goal was to write a book that anyone could pick up and read. Perhaps I undermined my own efforts by making the book so long. I will only say that length is rarely an object if the author writes clearly enough. I remember starting to read Thomas Pakenham’s 738-page “Scramble for Africa” book, a subject about which I knew nothing and thought I cared little, but getting so intrigued that I finished it a few days later. I would not claim that I write as well as Pakenham, only that no one complains about the length if he is enjoying what he reads. The reviewer for “Choice” began his review with “Here is everything you could want to know about the Peace of Westphalia, and more.” I felt that the “and more” was intended to suggest that the book could have been shorter.
One reviewer noted (correctly) that the book was written for an American audience without a background in the subject. I was probably too ambitious, but I figured that specialists could skip the stuff they already knew, and non-specialists would be grateful for anything that gave them a handle on the subject. I tried to introduce unusual concepts with comparisons to the modern world, especially America, because my experience is that one such comparison, however crude, can be more use that pages of detailed explanations. Only one reviewer commented on this specifically, and said that he appreciated my “adroit” use of modern examples. I am grateful to my foreign reviewers for not holding these examples aimed at an American readership too much against me, which I feared they would.
On the other hand, I correctly assumed that European reviewers would focus on the shortfalls of my scholarship more than American ones. This is largely because hardly anyone in America actually specializes in the Peace of Westphalia, whereas numerous historians in Europe do so. One reviewer complained that I was behind the times in my discussion of ceremonial and language, which I will admit to, because I honestly do not understand the significance of much of what I have read on these subjects. The fact that I missed out on a recent biography or two of Ferdinand III I attribute partly to the declining interest in political history (hence libraries are slower to acquire such works than they used to be) and partly to the fact that I have not been a professional academic for over 15 years. It is difficult enough to get access to scholarly research, especially in foreign languages, when one is not associated with a university. I am fortunate that the University of Virginia, which is in my home town, allows all state residents to check out books, so it is actually easier for me than it would be in many other states. However, getting things through interlibrary loan, where they can be found at all, means paying a significant chunk of money: money that I do not expect to recoup through sales. Nor could I find these books even in the Library of Congress, which is close enough that I could (and did) visit to look at other sources not available locally. I also wish I could have seen one of several recent biographies of Axel Oxenstierna, but I haven’t located them, either.
The fact that I did not cite Paul Sonnino’s work “Mazarin’s Quest” has a more prosaic explanation. He found no value in my book on Mazarin, and I was equally impressed with his.
Other reviewers regretted that there was no list of unprinted primary sources, or the fact that most of the primary sources I used were from the French correspondence with which I was already familiar. I plead guilty. I would have loved to have had the occasion to read more primary material, but it would take a lifetime to do that, and I have a day job that takes most of my time. I cited as many primary sources as I could, because there are so many interesting quotations, but my goal was to produce a synthesis rather than a piece of original research.
Of courser, some reviewers found factual errors, which I knew was inevitable even though I went to extraordinary lengths to avoid them. (Where possible, by finding out the truth; elsewhere, by rewording what I said to avoid saying something that might be wrong.) I have nothing to complain about here; I will only note that I found out about one particularly embarrassing error through a blog by an art historian, of all places. This gentleman discovered that I misplaced the sack of Rome by two years, placing it in 1525 rather than in 1527.
I was pretty certain that the chapter I called “Structures” would be one of the most popular, and it has proved so. Several reviewers commented on the value of this section, one of them noting that “it is refreshing to read an assessment of the peace’s historical significance that is informed by a detailed understanding of diplomacy’s practice, rather than its theory.” I might add that I also enjoyed writing this chapter a great deal as well.
It seems that almost every reviewer noted the book’s chronological structure, and while I don’t disagree with them, I was actually worried that the narrative was getting too squeezed by the introduction and conclusion, which are more topical (although the introduction does contain a significant amount of narrative leading up to the peace conference). Only one reviewer, to my surprise, complained that the title (“The Last Christian Peace”) was rather tenuously supported. I deliberately used that title to be provocative and to establish a setting that conflicts with the common assumption that Westphalia was the origin of the modern state system. I could not help thinking about Huizinga’s famous book on “The Waning of the Middle Ages” which he wrote in deliberate contradiction of the idea of a Renaissance — a rebirth — in the 15th century. (No, I’m not comparing myself to Huizinga, only noting that our titles serve a common purpose.) Reviewers generally proved willing to accept my view of Westphalia as looking backward as much as it looked forward, and were tolerant of my attempt to describe the peace in parallel with the baroque age. One reviewer did note that I argue “in leaps by analogy,” and perhaps this was part of what she had in mind. I did try to emphasize that the “baroque” label was more of a helpful way of thinking about the negotiations than an attempt to slap another label on them, and I was grateful that one reviewer specifically mentioned my discussion of the more modernizing aspects of the peace. One reviewer commented that I could have made more of dynasticism, which I suppose I could have; however, I did give the subject its own section in the conclusion, and another reviewer remarked on my discussion of the tension between dynastic and national interests.
Almost every reviewer commented on my view that Westphalia was not the origin of the idea or practice of state sovereignty, and none of them took issue with it. The 1999 article I wrote in the International History Review seems to have brought a lot of people around. Actually, I think that stumbling on to Prudhon’s article in which he appears to be the first person to connect Westphalia and sovereignty might be the most convincing evidence I have found; even more, in a way, than all the specific arguments showing that it was no such thing. It seems easier, to me, to believe that something was made up if you can point to a specific moment that someone came up with the idea.
Apart from the comments that the book was written clearly, I am most proud that people found it an accurate summary. Various reviewers noted that it is “a convincing interpretation of motivation and behaviour in shaping the negotiations,” “overall a solid and balanced summary…pulled into a coherent picture,” and valuable “for an understanding of the pressures and circumstances under which negotiators at Munster and Osnabruck actually worked.”
Only one reviewer commented specifically that the book was suitable for use in teaching the subject. If there is one thing I could wish, it is that more historians would agree on this. One of the values of the deep background, both the political geography and the physical structures of negotiation, was that it would make the book suitable for undergraduates learning about early modern diplomacy in general. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure there are any such students, or more than a handful in any event, so out of favour is diplomatic history these days.
Reviews that are cited here (not in alphabetical order, sorry):
Robert Tiegs. Review of Croxton, Derek, Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2014.
David Parrott. The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 87, No. 4 (December 2015), pp. 931-932
Robert Bireley, The Historian, Volume 77, Issue 4, pages 831–832, Winter 2015
Robert von Friedeburg, English Historical Review 2016 130: 1560–1562
Michael Rohrschneider, Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung: Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 567-9
Peter Wilson, The American Historical Review (2015) 120 (3): 1130-1131.
Claire Gantet, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 2014/4 (n° 61-4/4 bis), pp.165-66.
Choice Reviews Online (I regret that I can no longer find the author and text of this review)
Not cited are the generous historians who reviewed my book for Palgrave and who provided cover quotations.
It appears that two years is the approximate gestation period for academic reviews: after seeing almost none in the first 24 months after my book was published, there has now been a flurry of them in the past 6 months. I intend to write a “meta-review” of them, summarizing what reviewers have identified as the good and bad points, but for now I will just upload this image I made highlighting the best comments.
Here is yet another article linking the Syrian civil war with the Peace of Westphalia (and the Thirty Years’ War). I don’t have anything to add to what I’ve already said here and here. The comparison is picking up steam (this is the fourth article that I can recall) in spite of my best efforts to point out that it doesn’t work very well. But, hey, people are talking about the Peace of Westphalia, so it can’t be all bad.