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

World Order by Henry Kissinger

This book was reviewed in the New York Times under the title “The House that Richelieu Built.”  Upon seeing it, a friend who knew my interest in the period informed me about it, and I quickly bought the book.


While I am glad that Kissinger cites the beginning of the state system at the Congress of Westphalia — because who doesn’t want his area of specialty to be marked out as important? — I’m afraid I can’t agree with much that he writes about it.  I have not even read the rest of the book (though I intend to) and I suspect I will find much to agree with in it.  But it is clear from the few pages devoted to Westphalia that Professor Kissinger has not spent much effort studying this period that he deems so foundational.

Since this is only a small section of the book, I thought I would deal with each problematic passage individually.  If I don’t mention it here, I did not find anything seriously objectionable to it — but that is a lamentably small portion of the part on the Peace of Westphalia.

“peace emerged from a series of separate arrangements made in two different Westphalian towns” (p.24):  One could make a case for this statement, but it is misleading.  The Peace of Westphalia is traditionally regarded as the treaty between France and Sweden, on one hand, and the Holy Roman Empire, on the other.  This treaty is embodied in two separate “peace instruments,” the Instrumentum Pacis Osnabrugensis (IPO) and the Instrumentum Pacis Monasterensis (IPM).  While these are two separate documents, they declare themselves to constitute a single treaty, and they were signed on the same day in the same town (Münster).  The treaty between Spain and the Netherlands, known as the Treaty of Münster, was concluded earlier in the same year.  You could say that this makes for “a series of separate arrangements,” but it hardly seems that way compared to the treaties ending the War of the Spanish Succession (Utrecht, Rastatt, and Baden) or World War I, which was concluded not simply by the treaty of Versailles (which was between the Allies and Germany), but also the treaties of Saint-Germain (Allies and Austria), Neuilly-sur-Seine (Bulgaria), Trianon (Hungary), and Sèvres (Ottoman Empire), and which stretched over a period from June, 1919, to August, 1920.

“Catholic powers…gathered in the Catholic city of Münster. Protestant powers gathered in the…city of Osnabrück”:  France sent representatives to Münster, Sweden to Osnabrück, the Empire to both.  The issue was primarily one of precedence between France and Sweden, not religion.  It is true that, among the Imperial estates, Protestants primarily gathered in Osnabrück and Catholics in Münster.  However, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, a Protestant power, negotiated in Münster only.

 “no official conference head or mediator”:  there were two mediators, one each from the papacy and Venice (and Denmark was designated to mediate before its war with Sweden made this impossible).

“It was now taken for granted that peace would be built, if at all, through balancing rivalries” (p.25):  balance of power thinking was present, but it was by no means a premise of peacemaking, and was not even a major policy guide of any of the signatories.

“No single treaty exists to embody its terms”: see above.

“The war had shattered pretensions to universality or confessional solidarity”: any pretensions to universality in political terms had been ended at least several centuries earlier, no later than around 1300.  Confessional solidarity among Catholics had failed, but then, France had been fighting on the side of Protestants at least since the 1550’s.

“Every party had been abandoned at some point during  the war by its ‘natural’ allies”:  it is hard to tell how he is defining “natural” allies here, or which ones he means with regard to particular states (which of Spain’s allies abandoned it? Bavaria’s?).

“none signed the documents under the illusion that it was doing anything but advancing its own interests and prestige”:  the French certainly claimed that they were helping the Imperial estates, and indeed all of Europe.  Although their claims seem incredibly self-interested, I have not read anything to make me doubt that they believed what they said.

“old forms of hierarchical deference were quietly discarded. The inherent equality of sovereign states, regardless of their power or domestic system, was instituted”:  this is among the worst of his comments.  Every state strove to improve its own status, but even those on the bottom of the ladder, such as the United Provinces, recognized that they had to accept a subordinate role to older monarchies.

“…the delgations, demanding absolute equality, devised a process of entering the sites of negotiations through individual doors, requiring the construction of many entrances, and advancing to their seats at equal speed so that none would suffer the ignominy of waiting for the other to arrive at his convenience”:  this did not happen at Westphalia, he seems to be mixing it up with an actual incident from the Congress of Utrecht.

“The Peace of Westphalia became a turning point in the history of nations because the elements it set in place were as uncomplicated as they were sweeping”:  there is very little uncomplicated or sweeping about the Peace of Westphalia.  The ambiguity of the terms ceding Alsace are legendary, and disputes over some of the religious terms lasted until the end of the old regime rendered them irrelevant.

“The right of each signatory to choose its own domestic structure and religious orientation free from intervention was affirmed”:  no such affirmation was made on behalf of any of the signatories, because such a right was assumed for all except the Holy Roman Empire.  In the case of the Empire, the right of estates to determine their religion was affirmed, but they were not parties to the treaty.  (Some of them indeed signed, but on behalf of the Empire, not themselves; and most did not sign.)

“the principles of a system of ‘international relations’ were taking shape, motivated by the common desire to avoid a recurrence of total war on the Continent” (pp.26-7):  there was no talk of total war or the need to avoid it.  The winning states (France and Sweden) were concerned to avoid the recurrence of war — but only because they wanted to protect their gains.

“Diplomatic exchanges, including the stationing of resident representatives in the capitals of fellow states…were designed to regulate relations”:  resident ambassadors did become more common after Westphalia, but they existed before and hardly sprang into existence suddenly in 1648 (or because of it).

“The parties envisioned future conferences and consulations on the Westphalian model as forums for settling disputes before they led to conflict”:  it’s hard to tell exactly what the parties envisioned to avert future war.  There was talk of something like an alliance to mediate disputes, and France and Sweden had the right to intervene on behalf of the estates, but there is nothing to indicate that they expected to have conferences, let alone on the Westphalian model.

“International law, developed by traveling scholar-advisors such as Hugo de Groot (Grotius) during the war, was treated as an expandable body of agreed doctrine aimed at the cultivation of harmony, with the Westphalian treaties themselves at its head”:  the traditional of international law went back at least to the 16th century, and in any case it played very little role in the negotiations, if any.

“Yet the structure established in the Peace of Westphalia represented the first attempt to institutionalize an international order on the basis of agreed rules and limits and to base it on a multiplicity of powers rather than the dominance of a single country” (p.30): it is hard to stress enough that the Peace of Westphalia was an agreement between France, Sweden, and the Empire, not a concert of most European Christian states.  (If you include Spain and the United Provinces, realize that their agreement was totally separate and put them at considerable odds with France — not the sort of thing upon which one can base “agreed rules and limits,” let alone institutionalize anything.)  The predominance of French power in the second half of the 17th century was probably the closest Europe had come to the dominance of a single country in many centuries; the multiplicty of powers was a reality, not a principle.

“The concepts of raison d’état and the ‘national interest’ made their first appearance, representing not an exaltation of power but an attempt to rationalize and limit its use”:  reason of state dates from the late 16th century.  The concept of state interest had nothing to do with limiting the use of power.

“Armies had marched across Europe for generations under the banner of universal (and contradictory) moral claims”:  no state or monarch made universalist claims that I am aware of.  Wars in the early modern period were based, as in the Middle Ages, on specific legal claims.

There you have it.  Although one might dispute my arguments (and I invite readers to do so in the comments), there is undoubtedly too much wrong or questionable here.  It gives a very misleading perspective on the negotiations and the peace treaty (or treaties), which makes for a shaky foundation for a state system.  Since sovereignty and balance of power (Kissinger’s two basic rules of the state system) did exist, arguably it doesn’t matter as much whether they originated in the Peace of Westphalia or elsewhere.  But it would be reassuring if such a foundational point received a more accurate treatment.Everything Peace of Westphalia





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