Ask Dr. Westphalia

Which piece of Australia is this site about?

New South Wales.

Why should I care about the Peace of Westphalia?

You shouldn’t, apart from the fact that it is the single most important document in the history of mankind.

We have the following interesting question from Hossein:

I watched your explanation on Youtube and I liked the intensity with which you tried to study your subject of interest. I am looking for the origin of the idea of “nationality”. It is said that the Peace of Westphalia is the origin of such context, but to be honest, I guess back then even those who signed the treaty would have not been able to give an example sentence with the word “nation”. I am using this picture to emphasize the idea that the term “nation” probably didn’t exist in the language back then, that’s a pure guess, because I am not a historian and I don’t know. What do you think? How would you describe the idea of “nation”? Or would you rather say, it was something invented by the governing body and the peasant nor had any idea what it mean, neither care about it, because there was not much difference in being a nation or an empire. How do you think does it come, that nowadays the majority of the population asks “where do you come from” and almost always answers it with a nation state. or if it is asked on national level, the answer is still a political definition, for example a province, a city …

Historians have devoted a lot of effort to asserting that the idea of a “nation” the way we think of it is a relatively modern invention, some time in the 19th century, and I am sure there is considerable truth in the notion.  However, the concept was certainly not foreign to the 17th century.  People around Europe were stereotyped based on national characteristics:  the Spanish were patient, the French impetuous, the Swedes morose, and the Dutch inveterate drinkers, for instance.  (This is elaborated in chapter 5 of my book.)

But people also had a national identity in a positive sense as well.  This was most clear to me in the case of the Holy Roman Empire, which was, politically, one of the furthest away from a modern nation-state.  Repeatedly, however, I read in the sources laments for “our dear German Empire” and the suffering it had gone through during the war.  If such a diverse polity as the Empire could host national feeling, it is not surprising that states such as France and Sweden, which were largely unified linguistically, would have similar sentiments.  Cardinal Mazarin experienced this in a negative way as the leading member of the French government:  as an Italian, many French resented his power in their kingdom as they had resented another Italian, Concini, earlier in the century.  Concini was assassinated, which cannot have been encouraging for Mazarin.

One state that seemed less subject to nationalism was Spain.  Although there was undoubtedly a sense of Spanish identity — as far back as the early 16th century, they had resented having a Dutchman appointed as viceregent — their empire encompassed Italians, French, and Flemings, among other nationalities, and Spain does not seem to have attempted to Hispanicize them in any meaningful way.  I was surprised at how easily the Spanish agreed to conduct negotiations with both the United Provinces and France in the French language, until I realized that the affected territory of the Spanish Netherlands was largely French-speaking, and some members of the Spanish delegation spoke French as their first language.

I wouldn’t say that national in itself played much role in the Congress of Westphalia.  Ambassadors did speak occasionally of things like national boundaries, but most of the arguments were either legal (whether a state had the right to annex a territory) or political (whether it was advantageous to allow a state to annex a territory).  Nationalism was a subtext that didn’t become developed for another 150 years.


Do you have a question for Dr. Westphalia?  Ask him by email at drwestphalia at

8 Responses to “Ask Dr. Westphalia”

  1. L.V. Prott Says:

    I am interested to know which are the clauses which allowed the recuperation of goods which had been taken during the war and had to be returned (Munster) and allowed the Swedish queen to keep what she had managed to take (Osnabrueck) (hope I have got these right).

  2. Sarah Says:

    1. How do you think the Treaties of Westphalia impacted our modern lives?

    2. What do you find most interesting about the subject?

    3. Do you consider the Peace of Westphalia as an event that fits the theme of Exploration, Encounter, Exchange?

    4. Name a few specific ideas involved in the Treaties of Westphalia that you consider most important.

  3. dcroxton Says:

    L.V. Prott: I apologize for taking a week to respond to your questions. The IPM (Instrumentum Pacis Monasteriensis) does not deal directly with restitution save for some particular cases such as Alsace and Trier. The IPO includes two articles (III and IV) that address restitution in general (and the IPO was considered to be a part of the IPM, so you could say that the IPM deals with it to that extent).
    The clauses concerning Swedish “satisfaction” (territorial conquests) are in IPO article IX.

    Dr. Westphalia

  4. dcroxton Says:

    Sarah: very thought provoking!
    > 1. How do you think the Treaties of Westphalia impacted our modern lives?
    The treaties do not have much contemporary relevance. The Holy Roman Empire doesn’t exist any more, and our conception of international relations has changed drastically in the past 350 years. Probably the main enduring effect was the end to religious conflict in the Empire. Although it did not completely solve religious disputes in Europe, it did resolve the largest remaining problem where it was a source of civil war.

    > 2. What do you find most interesting about the subject?
    I started studying the Peace of Westphalia because I wanted to learn about the transfer of territory between governments. The terms for the French acquisition of Alsace are complex and ambiguous. I also find it fascinating that it was a source of German bitterness in the 19th and early 20th centuries. You could say they never forgot, but really the loss of Alsace and Lorraine bothered them more and more as time went on and nationalism became more important.

    > 3. Do you consider the Peace of Westphalia as an event that fits the theme of Exploration, Encounter, Exchange?
    Those terms sound like they are aimed at overseas contact. I guess you could say that there was definitely an “encounter” element to the Congress of Westphalia, as governments of different religions were forced to deal with each other as diplomatic equals. This wasn’t entirely new, but many statesmen resisted the idea.

    > 4. Name a few specific ideas involved in the Treaties of Westphalia that you consider most important.
    Religious tolerance would be the most important. It wouldn’t qualify as true tolerance by our modern definition, but it allowed freedom of conscience in most of the Empire, which was a big change. The idea of collective security — signatories agreeing to submit disputes to arbitration, and to join together and enforce the treaties if necessary — was remarkably modern, although it was never fully implemented.

    Dr. Westphalia

  5. Ray Lee Says:

    Hello Dr Westphalia,

    How did Westphalia affect the distribution of sovereignty within the Holy Roman Empire?



  6. dcroxton Says:

    Hi Ray, thanks for your question. Classical theorists of sovereignty, beginning with Jean Bodin, would not have understood the idea of a “distribution” of sovereignty, since it could only reside in one body. Cardin Le Bret even said that it is indivisible, like a geometrical point.

    Obviously, this didn’t fit the situation in the Empire very well, which is why theorists had so much trouble classifying it, and why Pufendorf said it was “like a monster.” Many writers have claimed that the Peace of Westphalia granted sovereignty to the territorial units of the Empire (cities, duchies, etc.), but this isn’t entirely true. If it were, the Empire would have been no more than a federation. It did, however, continue to function as a state, albeit a weak one. The Imperial Diet sat continuously from 1663 until the end of the Empire in 1806 and was effective enough to declare war on France during the 1670’s and maintain a tolerable system of justice.

    The locus of power in the Empire, therefore, shifted toward the estates and their representative body, and away from the Emperor. But this was as much a matter of the Emperor’s weakening than of specific provisions in the Peace of Westphalia, which contained virtually none of the clauses that France and Sweden wanted that would have taken power explicitly from the Emperor.

  7. Finn B. Says:


    How was the peace of Westphalia received in the natural law tradition?

    Many thanks and best wishes.

  8. dcroxton Says:


    I apologize for being so slow to respond. Most of the delay has been caused by the fact that I don’t have a good answer, as I am not as knowledgeable about the reception of Westphalia as about its creation, nor do I know much about natural law. I do know that Spinoza wrote from a natural law perspective and his views summed up those of the Westphalian negotiators at their least scrupulous. He believed that individuals and states were only required to honour their commitments as long as it was in their best interests. Most statesmen at Westphalia took a similarly dim view of their opponents and sought to protect themselves, not via agreements, but through physical security measures: more land, more fortresses, more power. However, Spinoza did not refer to Westphalia as far as I am aware, at least not in his Ethics or his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

    The best source for natural law and Westphalia would be Samuel Pufendorf. I would be surprised, however, if he discussed the treaty much as a part of international law. Westphalia was generally viewed primarily as a religious settlement, at least for the first century; it became more associated with international law in the 18th century, but even in the late 19th century histories of international law mentioned Westphalia only briefly, if at all. It was only in the 20th century that it came to be viewed as a foundational document of the international system.

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