The Peace of Westphalia—A Turning Point in Europe

“FOR so many European heads of State to be gathered together as are gathered here today is certainly a rare event.” Roman Herzog, former president of the Federal Republic of Germany, made that statement in October 1998. When he made that comment, his audience included four kings, four queens, two princes, a grand duke, and several presidents. The event, sponsored by the Council of Europe, was a highly important one in the 50-year history of the modern state of Germany. What was the occasion?

October 1998 was the 350th anniversary of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia. Peace agreements are often crossroads where history turns a corner, and in this respect the Treaty of Westphalia was something special. The signing of this agreement in 1648 brought to an end the Thirty Years’ War and marked the birth of modern Europe as a continent of sovereign states.

An Old Order Is Shaken

During the Middle Ages, the most powerful institutions in Europe were the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was made up of hundreds of estates of various sizes and covered an area now occupied by Austria, the Czech Republic, eastern France, Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and parts of Italy. Since the German estates comprised its major part, the empire came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Each estate was ruled semiautonomously by a prince. The emperor himself was a Roman Catholic of the Austrian Habsburg family. Therefore, with the papacy and the empire in power, Europe was firmly in Roman Catholic hands.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the established order was shaken. Throughout Europe there was widespread dissatisfaction with the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. Such religious reformers as Martin Luther and John Calvin spoke of a return to Biblical values. Luther and Calvin found widespread support, and out of this movement grew the Reformation and Protestant religions. The Reformation split the empire into three faiths—Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist.

Catholics viewed Protestants with distrust, and Protestants held their Catholic rivals in disdain. This climate led to the formation of the Protestant Union and the Catholic League in the early 17th century. Some princes of the empire joined the Union, others the League. Europe—and the empire in particular—was a powder keg of suspicion that needed just one spark to send everything up in smoke. When that spark finally came, it started a conflict that lasted for the next 30 years.

A Deadly Spark Sets Europe Aflame

Protestant rulers tried to influence the Catholic Habsburgs to allow more freedom of worship. But concessions came grudgingly, and in 1617-18, two Lutheran churches in Bohemia (the Czech Republic) were forcibly closed. This offended Protestant gentry, who stormed into a palace in Prague, seized three Catholic officials, and threw them out of an upstairs window. This act was the spark that set Europe aflame.

Although they supposedly were followers of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, members of opposing religions were now at one another’s throats. (Isaiah 9:6) In the Battle of White Mountain, the League inflicted a crushing defeat on the Union, which disintegrated. Protestant noblemen were executed in Prague’s marketplace. All over Bohemia, the property of Protestants who would not recant was confiscated and shared among Catholics. The book 1648—Krieg und Frieden in Europa (1648—War and Peace in Europe) describes this confiscation as “one of the greatest shifts in ownership ever in central Europe.”

What started as a religious conflict in Bohemia escalated into an international power struggle. Over the next 30 years, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden were drawn into the fray. Catholic and Protestant rulers, often driven by greed and the urge for power, jockeyed for political supremacy and commercial gain. The Thirty Years’ War has been divided into stages, each named after the emperor’s major opponents. Several reference works cite four such stages: the Bohemian and Palatine War, the Danish-Lower Saxony War, the Swedish War, and the French-Swedish War. Most of the fighting took place on imperial territory.

Weapons of the time included pistols, muskets, mortars, and cannons, with Sweden as a major supplier of arms. Catholics and Protestants were locked in conflict. Soldiers went into battle crying either “Santa Maria” or “God is with us.” Troops pillaged and plundered their way across German estates, treating opponents and civilians like animals. The war degenerated into barbarity. What a contrast to the Bible prophecy: “They will not lift up sword, nation against nation, neither will they learn war anymore”!—Micah 4:3.

A generation of Germans grew up knowing nothing but war, and the weary population longed for peace. Apparently, peace would have been possible were it not for the conflicting political interests of the rulers. Politics came more and more to the fore as the war lost its religious character and became increasingly secular. Ironically, one man who promoted this change was a high official of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Richelieu Wields the Scepter

The official title of Armand-Jean du Plessis was Cardinal de Richelieu. He was also the prime minister of France from 1624 to 1642. Richelieu aimed to make France the major power in Europe. To that end, he tried to erode the power of his fellow Catholics, the Habsburgs. How did he do this? By financing the Protestant armies of the German estates, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, all of which were fighting against the Habsburgs.

In 1635, Richelieu sent French troops into the war for the first time. The book vivat pax—Es lebe der Friede! (Long Live the Peace!) explains that in its final stage, “the Thirty Years’ War ceased to be a conflict between religious parties. . . . The war became a struggle for political supremacy in Europe.” What started as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants ended with Catholics fighting alongside Protestants against other Catholics. The Catholic League, already weakened in the early 1630’s, was disbanded in 1635.

Peace Conference in Westphalia

Europe was ravaged by plunder, murder, rape, and disease. Gradually, a yearning for peace was intensified by a realization that this was a war that no one could win. The book vivat pax—Es lebe der Friede! remarks that “toward the end of the 1630’s, the responsible princes finally recognized that military power would no longer help them to achieve their goal.” But if peace was what everyone wanted, how was it to be achieved?

Emperor Ferdinand III of the Holy Roman Empire, King Louis XIII of France, and Queen Christina of Sweden agreed that a conference should be held where all parties to the war should assemble and negotiate peace terms. Two sites were selected for the talks—the towns of Osnabrück and Münster in the German province of Westphalia. They were chosen because they were midway between the capitals of Sweden and France. Starting in 1643, about 150 delegations—some with large teams of advisers—descended on the two towns, Catholic envoys gathering in Münster, Protestant delegates in Osnabrück.

First, a code of behavior was laid down to establish such matters as title and rank of the envoys, seating order, and procedures. Then peace talks began, with proposals being passed from one delegation to the next through mediators. After almost five years—while the war continued—peace terms were agreed upon. The Treaty of Westphalia consisted of more than one document. One agreement was signed in Osnabrück between Emperor Ferdinand III and Sweden, another in Münster between the emperor and France.

As news of the treaty spread, celebrations got under way. What began with a deadly spark ended with literal fireworks. They lit up the sky in various cities. Church bells rang, cannons roared in salute, and people sang in the streets. Could Europe now expect lasting peace?

Is Lasting Peace Possible?

The Treaty of Westphalia recognized the principle of sovereignty. This meant that each party to the treaty agreed to respect the territorial rights of all other parties and not to interfere in their internal affairs. Modern Europe as a continent of sovereign states was thus born. Among those states, some gained more from the treaty than did others.

France was established as a major power, and the Netherlands and Switzerland each attained independence. For the German estates, many of which had been ruined by the war, the treaty had its drawbacks. Germany’s destiny was to a degree decided by other nations. The New Encyclopædia Britannica reports: “The gains and losses of the German princes were determined by the convenience of the principal powers: France, Sweden, and Austria.” Instead of being drawn together and united into one nation, the German estates were divided just as before. Moreover, some territory was handed over to the control of foreign rulers, as were sections of Germany’s main rivers—the Rhine, the Elbe, and the Oder.

Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist religions were granted equal recognition. This did not please everyone. Pope Innocent X was vehemently against the treaty, declaring it null and void. Nevertheless, the religious frontiers that were drawn up remained largely unchanged for three centuries. Although religious freedom for the individual had not yet arrived, it came one step closer.

The treaty concluded the Thirty Years’ War, and with it most of the hostilities ended. This was the last major religious war in Europe. Wars did not cease, but their underlying cause shifted from religion to politics or commerce. That is not to say that religion lost all influence in European hostilities. In World Wars I and II, German soldiers wore on their belt buckle an inscription with a familiar ring: “God Is With Us.” During those horrendous conflicts, Catholics and Protestants once again lined up on one side to fight against Catholics and Protestants on the opposing side.

Clearly, the Treaty of Westphalia did not bring lasting peace. However, such peace will soon be experienced by obedient mankind. Jehovah God will bring everlasting peace to mankind through the Messianic Kingdom of his Son, Jesus Christ. Under that government, the one true religion will be a force for unity, not division. No one will go to war for any reason, religious or otherwise. What a relief it will be when Kingdom rule holds sway over the earth and “to peace there will be no end”!—Isaiah 9:6, 7.

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What started as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants ended with Catholics fighting alongside Protestants against other Catholics

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Soldiers went into battle crying either “Santa Maria” or “God is with us”

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Cardinal Richelieu

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Sixteenth-century drawing depicting the struggle between Luther, Calvin, and the pope

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From the book Spamers Illustrierte Weltgeschichte VI

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Religious leaders struggling: From the book Wider die Pfaffenherrschaft; map: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck