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Comparative Religious Wars

Last Friday was Peace of Westphalia Day — the 366th anniversary of the signing of the treaties.  I was, appropriately enough, delivering a paper on the Peace of Westphalia.  I was at a conference at Columbia University that brought together specialists to compare early modern Europe’s religious wars with the current religious conflicts in the Middle East.  This seems like a bit of a stretch for historians, but not so much for political scientists.  Fortunately, both I and the other member of my panel, Wayne Te Brake, were open to the comparative perspective.  Professor Te Brake is most known for Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500-1700, but he is currently working on a book on the ends of Europe’s religious wars.  Hopefully there will be a publication coming out of this conference some time next year.

I recently bought and started to read Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, which begins (of course) with the Peace of Westphalia.  Perhaps ironically, he also compares the Thirty Years’ War to contemporary Islamic wars, although from a cynical perspective:  “Much like the Middle Eastern conflagrations of our own period, sectarian alignments were invoked for solidarity and motivation in battle but were just as often discarded, trumped by clashes of geopolitical interests or simply the ambitions of outsized personalities” (pp.25-26).  You can read my comments on it here.Everything Peace of Westphalia


The Peace of Westphalia and…the Constitution?

I’ve been reading The Federalist Papers recently, and I was a little surprised to find that they talk about the Holy Roman Empire, and, peripherally, the Peace of Westphalia.  I expected them to mention the Dutch and Swiss constitutions, but I did not expect the Imperial constitution.  Publius (Madison and Hamilton) offers the Imperial confederation as an example of what happens when the central government has too little power, eventually coming to the following:

Previous to the peace of Westphalia, Germany was desolated by a war of thirty years, in which the emperor, with one half of the empire, was on one side, and Sweden, with the other half, on the opposite side. Peace was at length negotiated, and dictated by foreign powers; and the articles of it, to which foreign powers are parties, made a fundamental part of the Germanic constitution.

He then raises the question, “It may be asked, perhaps, what has so long kept this disjointed machine from falling entirely to pieces?”  But if this judgment seems harsh, he is if anything harsher regarding the Dutch Republic, whose constitution, he says, has resulted in “imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.”  The peace of 1648 is also mentioned here, where he correctly mentions that “the treaty of Westphalia, in 1648, by which their independence was formerly and finally recognized, was concluded without the consent of Zealand.”

It is easy to forget that our nation was conceived during the ancien régime, when people had very different views of government than they do now.  Not that much of the Federalist Papers would sound out of context in a modern political debate (when suitably reworded), but that they had such different models to look to.  Even the French Revolution had not begun during the majority of the debates on the Constitution, much less all the other trends of the 19th and 20th centuries that our so central to our understanding of politics and political societies.