Journey to the Westphalia

Johan Oxenstierna, son of Axel and head of the Swedish delegation. Photo Credit: Pieter de Jode

Against the background of a war that now stretched from Catalonia to Denmark, 1643 marks the inauspicious beginning of the Westphalian Congress. In keeping with the eternal drudgery of this narrative, even this start was the belated result of literally two years spent negotiating just what, where, and how peace terms could be talked about. Not only was conceding anything considered a sign of weakness, but even the authority of each nation’s plenipotentiary varied from nation to nation.

The Emperor Ferdinand had first proposed Cologne as neutral ground to talk terms in 1641. The French and Swedes rejected that, suggesting sites like Hamburg instead. After repeated games of chicken the diplomats involved had finally agreed that the cities of Münster and Osnabrück would become the sites where French and Swedish diplomats would respectively set up shop and discuss terms with everyone else. The scope of the discussion for the 235 official diplomats and their staff-nothing less than Peace in Europe.[1]

While Westphalia’s success in the short term was a modest one in the midst of an era filled with genocide and chaos, the format itself was considered a long term template. In another modern touch, 27 German newspapers even placed correspondents in the cities to report on the various going’s on of the negotiations. Later Congresses like Vienna in the 19th Century would follow the protocols laid out for Westphalia, including the right of free passage for diplomats, titles and honorifics, and neutral zones to host the debates.

This was no small feat. In an era obsessed with title and national honor, even handling the thorny problem of multiple kings, an emperor, etc. required settling on acceptable terminology. For instance, the Spanish Ambassador was representing Phillip IV included among his many, many, titles[2] was King of Portugal and Catalonia. The same territories that were now in open revolt, and in the case of Portugal actually enjoyed official recognition by France, Sweden, and the United Provinces. Merely by entering the room and rattling off their titles the ambassadors were stomping on a minefield. Just as thorny was the recognition of less imperial titles, like the Dutch Republic. Almost by necessity a shorthand set of honorifics had to be hammered out on the fly to avoid a diplomatic crisis every time someone rose to make a statement.

Elector Charles Louis I of the Palatine, son of Frederick and at this point owner of a self-styled title and little else. Photo Credit: Christoph le Blon

Even with the titles resolved, countless obstacles ensured Westphalia’s negotiations would drag on for years. Some were practical. A favored delaying tactic among these representatives was writing home for instructions, then waiting as long as five weeks[3] for a note back. There was also the issue of when each nation agreed to negotiate. Though Westphalia was open for business in 1643, most delegations did not arrive until 1644. The Dutch would not bother showing up until 1646 (our cover image this post), after they had sorted their internal politics on the matter. Some were subjective. Who was even to blame for starting this entire mess was still considered an open question.

But most of excuses for the delay boil down to the realist game every nation was now playing. The war had been expensive and exhausting for everyone, but no one had been dealt the knockout punch that necessitated unconditional surrender. Granted, the Hapsburgs seemed to be teetering that way, but each campaigning season usually gave them some thread of hope they could cling to. As a result each time a nation was at a military low ebb they would bid for time so they could use a victory in the field to strengthen their hand at the table. The true masters of this were the French, who were able to leverage Swedish victories to compensate for their own shortcomings. Their added relationship with the ever present Maximilian of Bavaria also allowed them to pressure the imperial side through him when Bavaria was threatened.

Other disputes stemmed from questioning just who even was permitted at the negotiating table. Ferdinand III really wanted Germany to speak only through his official mouthpieces, while the allies wanted absolutely every possible microstate present and squawking against the Hapsburgs. Another favored negotiating tactic was lodging representative claims on behalf of one insurrectionary faction or another. The Spanish petitioned for Lorraine to get an independent seat, while the French pushed for Catalonia and Portugal. All three were denied, but hung around like ghosts haunting the conference.[4] Joining them on haunting duty were long aggrieved refugees like Charles Louis of the Palatine or the exiles of Bohemia. Other neutral parties like the Swiss attended with full credentials, merely seeking whatever advantage could be gained from having so many powers in the same place.

Finally, there was the issue that what was necessarily good for the French wasn’t good for the Dutch or the Swedes, and all three allies furiously sniped at one another to strengthen their own hand. Most especially, while the Dutch were happy to see the backs of the Spanish, they didn’t want to swap out their hereditary enemy for a grabby French neighbor, and argued bitterly to keep France from annexing a major portion of the Spanish Netherlands.

It would almost be understandable if the resulting delays had not meant that talks in the neutral zones would drag on for five more bloody years before an understanding was reached. In 1643 The Swedes burned down the city of Kremsier in Bohemia (modern day Kroměříž) to a degree even Torstensson compared to the sack of Magdeburg. But that was not Münster or Osnabrück. Outside the neutral zones there may have been famine and death everywhere, but inside there was wine, food, and bribes aplenty. No seeming reason to hustle to a conclusion could be felt by the diplomats inside.

As the diplomats argued for their own national interests and the 1644 rolled over to 1645, the war ground on. Along the Rhine Bavaria’s Franz von Mercy continued to hold the line against the French. After conquering the city of Freiburg in south west Germany Mercy was attacked by both Turenne and Conde in one of the bloodier battles of the war. For days the two sides circled each other, Mercy repeatedly tricking the French into attacking his stronger defenses and trenchworks. In the end, Mercy triumphed, but with both armies horribly battered Turenne and Conde outmaneuvered the Bavarians to plunge back into the Imperial controlled lands of the Palatine.

In Denmark, the belligerent may have changed but the results were the same for the Danish. After a bitter naval engagement Christian managed to defeat a fleet of Dutch mercenaries. Even better, he pinned the Swedish fleet into a narrow bay, but the Swedes slipped back out in the dead of night. On October 23, 1644 the reinforced Swedes caught the Danish navy near Fehrman Island by surprise and slaughtered them.

On the Jutland Peninsula, Torstensson quickly ran rings around the imperial forces under Gallas. Matthias Gallas had inherited none of his old boss Wallenstein’s brilliance, and after years of backslide was now drunk far more often than he was sober. Just to really put the icing on the cake for Gallas and the imperials, György I, the son of good old Bethlen Gabor in Transylvania, decided this was the perfect time to carve off a slice of Hungary for himself. Gallas was ordered to turn around and head south to face the new threat, 550 miles away. With the Swedes nipping at his heels the entire way, Gallas’ army was mostly trapped up inside the barren country around Magdeburg, and the force effectively ceased to exist. Less than 3,000 men reached the relative safety of Bohemia, out of a possible force of 12-20,000. Termed the “Army Wrecker” by his surviving men, Gallas finally resigned in disgrace to vanish down the neck of a bottle in private.

Christian IV rallies his men, in a later Danish painting putting the bravest of faces on their steamrolling. Photo Credit: Wilhelm Marstrand

Having already lost his right eye and an ear personally, Christian IV decided he was ready to face the music and sued for peace. He was in luck, as Queen Christina had finally come of age in Stockholm. Just as assertive and intelligent as her father but nowhere near as lead-from-the-front-in-a-buff-coat suicidal, Christina’s first ambition was to end the war in Germany. Christian could have peace and keep his kingdom, but Christina would still pull a great number of concessions from the Danish King.

By 1645 the Treaty of Brömsebro put Denmark out of commission, left Ferdinand down another army he couldn’t replace, and allowed Torstensson and the Swedes to come roaring back into the main war. Faced with the prospect of another furious invasion out of the north, Johann Georg in Saxony decided it was time to bow out as well, and became the second major figure to ask for and get a separate peace from Sweden in September 1645. Exhaustion, as much as anything else, was finally driving the war to resolution.

[1] Along with substantially pettier disputes such as who got to enter the rooms first, who sat where, etc…

[2] From the official version in the Münster Treaty in 1648: “Don Philip the Fourth, by the grace of God king of Castile, Leon, Aragon, the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, Seville, Cerdagne, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the Eastern and Western Indies, the islands and terra firma of the Ocean, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Barcelona, lord of Biscay and Molina, etc.”

[3] The Brandenburg diplomats became notorious for this.

[4] The Spanish actually raided the Portuguese offices in Münster.


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