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The Peace of Westphalia, 1648

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia signalled the end of a decades old European conflict. It is difficult to decipher the true meaning of the Peace of Westphalia because it represented the end of a war which ended in a way which was different from where it began. Religious confrontation morphed into a struggle and opportunity to advance state strategic interests. However, Leo Gross, Andreas Osiander, and Derek Croxton each make varying arguments on the effects of the Peace of Westphalia.

In The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948, Leo Gross contends that the Peace of Westphalia is significant because it “consecrated the principle of toleration by establishing the equality between Protestant and Catholic states and by providing some safeguards for religious minorities.” [1] Thus, he states the “Peace of Westphalia was the starting point for the development of modern international law.” [2] Essentially, no one country would have a right (divine or other) to have power over another, as each states was acknowledged as sovereign. However, although this would be nice in theory, history has shown that Europe bled itself dry because of conflicts in the centuries following the Peace of Westphalia. Gross states that the Peace of Westphalia “marked man’s abandonment of the idea of hierarchical structure of society and his opinion for a new system characterized by the coexistence of a multiplicity of states, each sovereign within its territory, equal to one another, and free from any external earthly authority.” [3] This statement is fundamentally flawed, although perhaps in theory, each state was equal they were absolutely not equal. It would be foolish to treat all states following the Peace of Westphalia as equally sovereign. For example he German states gained the right to ally themselves with states outside of the Holy Roman Empire, but the Swiss and the Dutch gained de facto sovereignty. Gross strengthens his argument when he acknowledges precedents set by previous treaties; however his constant romanticization of the Peace of Westphalia harms his argument, as it seems he focuses on his nostalgic viewpoint of the Peace of Westphalia. [4] Because no formal declaration of sovereignty existed at the time of the Peace of Westphalia, the parties involved found it individually beneficial to advance their national strategic interests, by enhancing state power. For example, France’s cardinal Richelieu was a brilliant realist strategist. Even though the Austria and Spain were Catholic powers, he believed that France’s national interest could be advanced by opposing these two powers. France even continued to fight Spain while seeking a separate peace with Austria. Moreover, Gross’s argument contains a glaring post hoc ergo. Gross states that we should “search not so much in the text of the treaties themselves as in their implications, in the broad conceptions on which they rest and the developments to which they provided impetus.” [5] The fallacy is that Gross claims that because the Peace of Westphalia was before our modern conception of sovereignty, it does not necessarily follow that the Peace of Westphalia alone created our modern conception of sovereignty. There were many more factors at play. Gross’s argument is too straightforward as it assumes that all actors following the war were fundamentally equal.

In Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth, Andreas Osiander contends that The Peace of Westphalia is “a product of nineteenth and twentieth century fixation on the concept of sovereignty. I conclude by discussing how what I call the ideology of sovereignty has hampered the development of IR theory” [6] According to Osiander the (Thirty Year’s) war continued because the Swedish and French crowns wanted to enhance their positions in Europe. [7] He comes to a conclusion that “if the war war not fought to ward off a threat to the independence of other European actors posed by the Hasburg dynasty, then the tradition of the 1648 peace cannot be right either” [8] “Nineteenth and twentieth century historians readily espoused the view somehow that the Danes, Dutch, French, and Swedes were really ‘defending’ themselves while also selflessly helping others to ward off oppression” [9] He claims this is why the Peace of Westphalia is often seen as an anti-hegemonial order. [10] He directly accuses Leo Gross as spreading this false view. Osiander claims that many subsequent literature on this view, assume Gross’s views to be self evident and implied in the treaty. Osiner strengthens his argument when he quotes another scholar who agree with him, Stephen Krassner. Osiander claims that history has viewed the Hasburgs as the villains of the Thirty Years War, and that the original crisis “did not break out because the Hasburgs were powerful, but because they were weak.” [11] Andreas Osiander views the Peace of Westphalia through the viewpoint of a postmodernist. He is challenging our previous knowledge of the Peace of Westphalia, and underlying assumptions held by previous scholars. He is purposely reversing traditional notions of historical interpretations such as the belief of the Hasburg dynasty as the ‘villains’ of the Thirty Years War. Osiander is correct to warn there may be a harm of placing our values, our beliefs, onto historical events. Osiander’s argument is important as it forces us to re-examine commonly held beliefs about the Peace of Westphalia and its significance. Moreover he claims that “Sovereignty as currently understood does not go back to the seventeenth century; that even then and nevertheless, relations among autonomous actors were perfectly possible without waiting for the concept to be invented; that the degree of autonomy of the actors might very.” [12] He strengthens his argument when he acknowledges that the relationships between the actors involved in the Peace of Westphalia were very complex.

In The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the Origins of Sovereignty, Derek Croxton doubts as whole, that sovereignty was a main principle of the Peace of Westphalia. Croxton’s main argument is that “de facto sovereign states existed at a time when few statesmen had anything like the modern conception of sovereign equality as the founding notion of the international system.” [13] Croxton acknowledges that the main difficulty of the origins of sovereignty lies not in rulers which claims themselves to be sovereign but other leaders who acknowledge that sovereignty. [14] He accurately points out that papal authority was already in decline, the Peace of Westphalia just quickened the pace of the decline. [15] Croxton states that many scholars claim that sovereignty was dispersed to kings and princes in the Holy Roman Empire following its defeat in the Thirty Years war. However, he bluntly and correctly notes that the “Holy Roman Empire lasted for another 158 years” [16] and that “although the estates were given new rights, including the right to make alliances with outside powers and a ‘territorial right’ of dominions, the rights demonstrate the limits to their sovereignty rather than its triumph superiority within their own.” [17] Moreover, Croxton claims that “The idea of sovereignty was not new in the 1640s; the question was whether sovereignty should be multipolar.” [18] This view correctly challenges the assumption that the Peace of Westphalia was a groundbreaking event, even though it did make changes to the international system of politics.

Throughout the readings, it is apparent that the relationship between the European states was very complicated, intricate, and included interrelationships based upon numerous factors. These factors could include a balance of religious, imperial, interstate and intrastate relationships. The Peace of Westphalia promoted the division of power, but ironically it also created a new balance of power among the European states. The The Peace of Westphalia promoted more moderation on behalf of all states, as whenever a power tried to dominate Europe (i.e. Napoleonic France or Hitler’s Germany), there emerged a coalition of opposing forces to restore the balance of power. The balance of power did not avoid crisis, but it did create an equilibrium in which no one state had the ability to completely dominate the others.

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