The International Relations of Westphalia: What Happened to the Fiefdoms of Europe?

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia included both the treaties of Osnabrück and Münster[1]. The treaties were drafted near the end of The Thirty Years’ War, a religious conflict on the continent of Europe between 1618-1648 in which the majority of casualties occurred within Germany, the well-known birthplace of the reformation that began in the 1500s and sparked the divide between agents of Catholicism and agents of Protestantism. Religion provided the justification for the conflicts but it was power, in the form of state religious doctrine and expansionary economic aggression that acted as the true impetus for the war. Political leaders sought to choose the state religion of their territories–this offered an avenue from which princes could throw off the yoke of the Catholic church and its pope, who could use his direct channel to God to tell political leaders what to do. If the Princes chose not to follow his holy advice, they could be excommunicated or other forms of significant pressure could bear down on his majesty. It was a delicate balancing act between state and church, from which the state was eventually able to succeed.

The Peace of Westphalia acknowledged the sovereignty of German leaders that had constituted the Holy Roman Empire. The leader, or sovereign, was given a legal recognition of command over his territory, that allowed him to be free from any higher legal authority. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia “codified […] the right of the more than three hundred German states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire to conduct their own diplomatic relations–a very clear acknowledgement of their sovereignty[2].” The internal affairs of these states were expected to be autonomous, or free from interference by other states[3]. There was now a society of states that did not only include the small German states of Bavaria, Hessen, Bohemia, or Württemberg–but these conditions were also stretched to the great powers of Europe, like France, Sweden, and Austria. Academic-turned-statesman Henry Kissinger expounds that “The distinguishing feature [of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648] was [that it] elevate[d] a fact of life–the existence of a number of states of substantially equal strength–into a guiding principle of world order[4].” This occurred in 1648 essentially because none of these states had the ability to orchestrate more then a stalemate in their military competition between one another. Reminiscent of the Italian city-states or the Greek city-states, a balance of power was in effect. A stalemate did not mean a ceasefire however, as statesman would continue to use war, generally of a limited prescription, until the Napoleonic wars. Coalitions, deception, diplomacy, and trade as an extension of war would all become tools to strengthen one state at the expense of another.

In fifteen hundred, a great many states, many small and of local heritage (like the German states mentioned earlier) were sovereign. The crumbling of the Roman and then Holy Roman Empire limited the availability of an imperator that could, by force, hold the territories together under one banner. But as the middle ages came to an end and the strength of European states increased, competition for land and resources increased as well. The stronger states could afford larger armies, and thus integrate the weaker states into their expansionary empires. Napoleon Bonaparte would seriously endanger the smaller states, as he incorporated them into the French empire, including for example Switzerland. By eighteen hundred his empire, as well as the Prussians and Austrians, would incorporate some of these Germanic states into their own sovereign kingdoms or empires. However by the end of the congress of Vienna some were maintained purposely, to keep them out of the hands of Prussia and maintain Austrian influence.

  • [1] Both of which are cities located in the German region of Westphalia.
  • [2] Steven Lamy & co, Global Politics (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2011), 26.
  • [3] Sovereign equality
  • [4] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 21.

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