Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

I read a lot of articles that only mention the Peace of Westphalia as a throw -away line about the origins of sovereignty, so I was excited to get to this one that went into considerable depth on the history of the treaty. Surely, I thought, the author would have something interesting to say.

I was wrong.

The article began interestingly enough, by citing an important speech by Tony Blair in Chicago in 1999 in which he laid out the case for one state’s violating another’s sovereignty. It does not appear that he mentioned the word “Westphalia” in the speech, but he later wrote of it,

before Sept. 11, I was already reaching for a different philosophy in international relations from a traditional one that has held sway since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648; namely, that a country’s internal affairs are for it, and you don’t interfere unless it threatens you, or breaches a treaty, or triggers an obligation of alliance.

Apparently the author of this article doesn’t like the idea of violating Westphalian sovereignty, so he attempts to justify it by explaining its origins. After discussing how horrible things were in the century or so prior to 1648 — in which he seems to coin the phrase “Little Dark Age” — he attributes to Cardinal Mazarin, of all people, the desire to save Europe from barbarism. “[F]orces yearning to revive the policies of Louis XI and Henry IV and unite Europe in peaceful co-existence,” the author writes in the best tradition of using the passive voice to imply the existence of mysterious, inchoate “forces,” “were organized around France’s Prime Minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin.”

The things I don’t know about this period could and do fill volumes, but I know enough about Cardinal Mazarin that I can assure you that no such forces formed around him.

The author then gives special attention to the first two clauses of the Treaty of Münster, arguing that they laid out a bold new vision in that “1) That all nations will now be guided by the concern for the benefit of their neighbors and 2) the forgiveness for all past transgressions.” These almost wholly formulaic articles, which appeared in every treaty of the age, established no new principles and certainly no new practice (even though the author assures us that “These were not pretty words on parchment”).

To give life to these principles, the author goes on to say that Mazarin had a vision for economic provisions for the betterment of Europe, one which he passed on to his protegé, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. He seems to be getting a lot of these notions from a curious paper called “The Peace of Westphalia and the Water Question,” an ostensibly scholarly article which doesn’t cite a single primary source. The editors who allowed it into their collection should be ashamed of themselves. This other author’s entire evidence seems to be that Mazarin tried to abolish tolls along the Rhine.

It is amusing to see just how wrong someone can be, but it is not very rewarding work, so I will not elaborate further. I will, however, take a moment to discuss two common historical fallacies found in this article.

The first is the fallacy of historical inference: Mazarin negotiated the Peace of Westphalia; therefore, Mazarin must have been interested in peace; therefore, French subjects who were interested in peace must have rallied around Mazarin. There are several problems here. The author does not consider the fact that Mazarin took over the negotiations after they had been arranged by Richelieu, so he was not so much spearheading peace as simply following through on his predecessor’s work. Nor does the fact that Mazarin arranged a peace treaty mean that Mazarin was primarily interested in peace. He wasn’t. Mazarin’s goals were the glory, power, and security of France; peace was not one of his main goals, and it definitely was not important insofar as it contradicted any of his primary goals. This would be obvious to anyone who investigated Mazarin’s policies, but that would require research, and that means work.

Historians make this sort of historical inference all the time. It is understandable, because history is such an enormous topic and it is impossible to understand everything. I went to great lengths in my book never to claim an historical inference as fact unless I had researched it myself. If I couldn’t find evidence, or just didn’t have time to get to a subject, I always worded it in such a way that it was clear that I was making an assumption.

The second fallacy is what I might call the sufficient evidence fallacy. The author claims that Mazarin supported economic developement in Germany because he proposed abolishing tolls on the Rhine. Mazarin may have made such a proposal, but one piece of evidence does not rise to the level of a policy, let alone constitute sufficient reason to suggest it as a primary motive. I have read virtually every one of Mazarin’s letters to his representatives in Münster through 1646, and I can assure you that economic developement — especially the economic developement of the Empire — was not important to him. I can’t recall it’s ever having been mentioned, but even if he mentioned it on numerous occasions, it was clearly a small piece of his policy compared, for example, to weakening the Habsburgs.

One of my professors once explained the problem this way: “If you want to prove that every name in the phone book starts with an “M,” you can find a lot of evidence to support your hypothesis.” Your case won’t be convincing to anyone, yet I see historians (and especially armchair historians) use this sort of logic all the time. Person X said he supported position Y, therefore this was an important part of his policy. People don’t seem to appreciate that humans say all sorts of things without being committed to them. In fact, one of my great revelations in writing my dissertation was that statesmen say contradictory things without seeming to realize the contradiction. Teasing out which of the two contradictory points is actually more important to them is very difficult. Taking one thing that a statesman says and treating it as important without putting it in the overall context of his policy is an absolutely futile way of approaching history.

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