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The Significance of the Treaty of Westphalia

The Treaty of Westphalia is a collective name given to the settlements which the Imperial-Habsburg delegates drew up with France, at Munster, and with Sweden, at Osnabruck. It represents an important landmark in modern European history, as it had a considerable impact on the religious situation in Germany, on the political development of the major powers and the German states, and on international relations for the next hundred and fifty years.

Germany had been torn apart by religious conflict ever since Charles V's Edict of Worms (1521). The princes had attempted to reach a working compromise at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 which had been translated into the cuius regio eius religio formula contained in the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555). Nevertheless, all attempts at co–existence had ultimately failed. Catholic and Protestant unions had been formed for armed combat, contributing to the outbreak of the Schmalkaldic War and the Thirty Years’ War. The Treaty of Westphalia definitely improved the religious situation in Germany, and introduced a more rational and stable settlement.

In the first place, rulers were encouraged to show a greater degree of tolerance towards the religious beliefs of their subjects. One of the major defects of the Religious Peace of Augsburg had been that the right to religious choice had been granted to rulers only, which meant that the princes were entitled to impose either Catholicism or Lutheranism as the only religion within their states. The Treaty of Westphalia allowed rulers to maintain the state religion of their choice and to direct the institutions of that religion but, at the same time, urged them to acknowledge the right of their subjects to practise minority religions in private. There were two loopholes in the settlement. No attempt was made to force the Emperor to grant toleration in Habsburg lands, a grave deficiency since it had been the religious situation in Bohemia which had provided the immediate background to the Thirty Years’ War. Secondly, any German ruler was entitled to expel religious dissidents who had not been free to practise their faith in 1624; this power was, however, circumscribed by special rules, one of which allowed religious emigres to own property in absentia.1Even though these reservations diluted the religious clauses of the Treaty, there was a far greater degree of acceptance of the spirit of toleration and there were no further religious ‘test cases’ like the Cologne issue (1583–4) or the Donauworth Incident (1607). The possibility of another intensive period of the secularization of Church property or of winning back Lutheran areas to Catholicism was prevented by a provision of the Treaty that the year 1624 was to be regarded as the criterion for the demarcation between Lutheran and Catholic states. This meant the withdrawal of the unpopular Edict of Restitution (1629) and the restoration to the Protestants of some of the areas conquered by Tilly during the War.

Another shortcoming of the Religious Peace of Augsburg was remedied by the Treaty of Westphalia. The principle of cuius regio eius religio had applied only to Catholic and Lutheran princes; other forms of Protestantism had been excluded. Between 1555 and 1618 the most militant form of Protestantism had been Calvinism and the rapid deterioration of the religious situation in this period was due primarily to the conflict between Calvinism and the revived Catholicism of the Counter Reformation. The Peace of Augsburg was, therefore, out of date very shortly after its inception, since it had terminated only the conflict between Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Treaty of Westphalia included Calvinism in its religious clauses, providing it at last with legal status. The territorial distribution which existed in 1648 was now based on Lutheran domination in the northern part of the Empire, Catholic control of the south and important centres of Calvinism along the Rhine.

All Protestant princes, whether Lutheran or Calvinist, had felt insecure before 1618 on political grounds, for the Imperial Diet could always be influenced or swung by an ardent Catholic Emperor. Ferdinand II (1558–64) and Maximilian II (1564–76) had respected the Protestant princes and had not attempted to use the Diet to exert political pressure on them. The same, however, was not true of Rudolf II (1576–1612), whose attempts to make Germany Catholic by force had destroyed the concept of equal religious representation in the Diet and had resulted in the collapse of the Diet itself in 1608. The Treaty of Westphalia provided more concrete constitutional guarantees for both Protestant and Catholic princes. The Diet could no longer decide upon policies concerning religion by a simple majority; now, Protestant and Catholic deliberations would be conducted apart in the Corpus Evangelicorum and the Corpus Catholicorum.1 This removed the possibility of the Emperor passing legislation on the basis of a drummed–up majority in the Diet, since both groups had to be in agreement for any religious issue to be dealt with.

The religious settlement in the Empire was one of the more noteworthy achievements of the Treaty of Westphalia. Religious persecution declined in all but the Habsburg dominions, and rulers who made religious conflicts a base of their foreign policy became increasingly unpopular. For example, both Catholic and Protestant princes joined the League of Augsburg from 1686 to resist the aggressive polices of Louis XIV. The fact that the Emperor, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and England also joined the League indicates that religious issues came to be regarded by the majority of states as dangerous when mixed with diplomacy. Although the Treaty of Westphalia did not, as such, end all religious wars, it did provide a settlement which made them anachronistic and which gave stability to Catholics and Protestants in most countries. As far as Central Europe was concerned, the territorial distribution of the main religions was largely undisturbed until the ideological upheaval, frontier changes and massive resettlement of peoples following the destruction of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The major powers participating in the war were affected in fundamentally different ways by the Treaty of Westphalia. For some, like Spain, 1648 began a sharp downward trend into decline. For others, like France, Westphalia was a significant phase in the ascent to military supremacy. There were variations, too, between these extremes. Sweden reached her apex at Westphalia but set into slow decline shortly afterwards. Austria started a downward trend but recovered later in the century and once again became a formidable power.

Spain was excluded from the deliberations between the powers in 1648 because of French resentment at the separate peace treaty concluded between Spain and the Netherlands. The Treaty of West-phalia did not attempt to solve the territorial disputes between France and Spain in Franche Comte; nor did it guarantee peace in the southern Netherlands. The war between France and Spain, in fact, continued until it was concluded by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 (by which Spain lost substantial territory in Flanders). Nevertheless, the Treaty of Westphalia indirectly weakened Spain in two ways. First, French territorial gains along the Rhine threatened the Spanish hold on Flanders and Franche Comte and drove a wedge into the traditional power bloc of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs in Central Europe. Second, the Treaty killed off any remnants of the ambitious foreign policy inherited from Charles V by Philip II, which had been to establish Spanish dominance over Europe and to crush Protestantism and incipient nationalism. Spain had burned herself out as a major power by 1648, and for the rest of the seventeenth century was further weakened in a series of wars with France. By the time of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) Spain's ties with Austria had been permanently severed and she had lost to the latter those European territories not already annexed by France. Although Spain did experience a period of revival in the eighteenth century (occasioned partly by this reduction of responsibilities), she was never again to reach her earlier peak of power and influence in European affairs.

France, by contrast, entered a period of great prosperity, and of success in diplomacy and warfare. Richelieu had seen her major problem as the combined threat of two Habsburg powers: Spain and Austria. The Treaty of Westphalia destroyed this combination and greatly increased the strength of France along the frontier with the Holy Roman Empire. French gains included Metz, Toul, Verdun, the Sundgau, the two bridgeheads of Breisach and Philippsburg and the control of ten imperial cities along the Rhine. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that France became the most aggressive and successful military power of the second half of the seventeenth century, as Mazarin and Louis XIV pushed back the frontier of the Holy Roman Empire in the west and threatened the independence of the German states in the Rhine area. It is with good reason that Volume V of the New Cambridge Modern History (1648–88) is called The Ascendancy of France.

Sweden was one of the victorious powers in 1648 and considered herself the diplomatic equal of France (hence the insistence on negotiating separately). By the Treaty of Westphalia Sweden, too, gained substantial territory, including Western Pomerania, Stettin, Wollin, Wismar, Rugen and the Bishoprics of Bremen and Verden. Having now become a major German power, Sweden was also granted the right to deliberate and vote in the Diet. Her future should have been as promising as that of France. The rest of the century, however, saw her gradual decline and inability to take advantage of her gains. Indeed, the Treaty of Westphalia had a deleterious effect on Swedish power; from 1648 Sweden devoted most of her limited resources to maintaining German territories which were by no means essential for her major power status. She came into conflict with Brandenburg when the Great Elector of Brandenburg (1640–88) prodded at Swedish territory in northern Germany and weakened Swedish military power at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675). The struggles between Sweden and Brandenburg were one of the unfortunate results of the 1648 territorial settlement and considerably weakened Sweden's capacity to resist the later and much greater threat of Russian expansion into the Baltic. When Peter the Great of Russia joined the Great Northern War (1700–21) Sweden was already in decline; and the Treaty of Nystadt (1721) was a formal recognition of Sweden's ‘second division’ status.

Austria probably suffered more severely than any other major power from the actual destruction of the Thirty Years’ War. By 1648 she was substantially weakened by heavy Franco–Swedish pressure and by her military defeat at the Battle of Zusmarshausen. She gained nothing by the Treaty of Westphalia except the right to withold religious toleration in Habsburg territories. It appeared that the decline of Austrian Habsburg power was inevitable and would possibly be more rapid than that of Spain. For the rest of the century Austria fumbled her way through crises and wars but succeeded eventually in finding a new role. Prevented by the Treaty of Westphalia (and the failure of Wallenstein's plans) from gaining direct access to the Baltic, Austria was forced to expand eastwards instead and, after the rapid decline of Ottoman power from 1683 onwards, succeeded in reconquering much of Hungary. The War of the Spanish Succession provided Austria with further scope for recovery and, by the Treaty of Utrecht, she took over most of Spain's continental possessions.

The German states were affected in different ways by the Treaty of Westphalia, but the general trend was for the larger ones to grow more powerful at the expense of the smaller and weaker administrative units. Saxony, for example, received Lusatia, Brunswick was given the negotiating centre of Osnabruck, and Bavaria was enlarged to include the Upper Palatinate and received the honour of an Electorate (bringing the total number within the Empire to eight). But undoubtedly the main beneficiary of the settlement was Brandenburg. The Great Elector had used his troops in the 1640s to gain territory rather than to play a direct part in the war, with the result that Brandenburg was in a strong negotiating position in 1648. She eventually received eastern Pomerania (the Great Elector expressed great disappointment that western Pomerania was given to Sweden), the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, the Bishoprics of Halberstadt and Minden, and the Duchies of Cleves and Ravensberg.

The Treaty thus unintentionally released from the Empire a second German power, in addition to Austria. Brandbenburg initially concentrated her attention on the Baltic area, as the nature of her territorial gains in 1648 dictated, and came into conflict with Sweden. The enormous strengthening of Brandenburg in 1648 had still more significant long–term ramifications when her rulers eventually looked southwards. Prussia's rise created chaos in Central Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as she vied with Austria for the control of a substantial part of Germany.

The increase in the powers of the handful of more important German states was accompanied by a decline in the power of the Emperor. Ever since the thirteenth century, attempts had been made to recentralize imperial authority and to overcome separatism; both Maximilian I and Charles V had devoted many of their resources to this, without success. The Treaty of Westphalia ended the prospect of any further attempts on the same lines. The Emperor now had to obtain the consent of the states to declare war on behalf of the Empire, to impose taxes or to raise troops. The individual rulers were empowered to make separate treaties with other countries provided that they did not threaten the integrity of the Empire. Decentralization became a standard feature of the Empire and Germany, as a result, became, like Italy, a ‘geographical express ion’. The Treaty of Westphalia weakened the constitutional arrangements of the Empire beyond repair. Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 but no one sought to revive it after his downfall in 1815.

Can the Treaty of Westphalia be seen as a diplomatic turning point? According to C.V.Wedgwood this term is too strong, as the Treaty was, like most others, ‘a rearrangement of the European map ready for the next war’.2 On the other hand, for Georges Pagès the epoch represents ‘the transition from medieval to modern times in Western and Central Europe’.3 It is unlikely that any of the diplomats present at Münster or Osnabruck intended the arrangements to be permanent. The powers which had increased their territories would anticipate further gains in the future. Mazarin, as a pupil of Richelieu, intended to alter the French frontiers to destroy forever the Habsburg threat to France. The unsuccessful powers, like Spain and Austria, naturally aimed at recovering and extending their territory as quickly as possible. Some of the conflicts contained within the Thirty Years’ War extended, therefore, beyond the Treaty of Westphalia.

In retrospect, however, it is possible to see in Westphalia one of the definitive treaties of modern history. Most international treaties between 1648 and 1789 were modifications of Westphalia, and concentrated on reversing its imperfections or hammering home advantages gained from it. Furthermore, diplomacy tended to drift for a time away from ideology, concentrating less on religion and more on territorial gain and dynastic consolidation. Many territorial adjustments were made to the Treaty of Westphalia; for example, the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) reallocated many of Spain's possessions to Austria, and the Treaties of Aix-la-Chapelle and Hubertusburg (1748 and 1763) confirmed Prussia's acquisition of the Austrian province of Silesia. What made it possible for the major powers to involve themselves in dynastic wars was the settlement of the main religious issues in 1648 and the consequent removal of some of the fanaticism from diplomacy for the next hundred and fifty years.

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