The Desert Peace of Westphalia

To some surprise, 1648 did mark the end of the war. On January 30th the Netherlands and Spain concluded the Peace of Münster, ending their almost eighty year old war. It’s hard to understate how strange that must have been for everyone involved, and the treaty’s signing helped speed the end for the rest of the German conflict. Spain had even been experiencing something of a revival in their Flanders fortunes in 1647, but nowhere near enough to justify a better treaty. For the sixth time in a hundred years they had been forced to declare bankruptcy; meaning the writing wasn’t just on the wall, it was sprayed in fifty foot high lettering. Less clear to them was how to conclude their war with France. If it was to continue, they desperately wanted Ferdinand by their side.

The ratification of Münster. Photo Credit: Gerard ter Borch

The Emperor felt the same in his heart, but in his mind he knew there was no continuing. Ferdinand hadn’t lost Vienna or his hereditary lands yet, and he was in no hurry to personally die for this lost cause. He decided it was time to look inwards and save what he could. Treaties were formally signed in Münster and Osnabrück to come into effect on October 24th[1], and by 1654 the last occupying forces from France and Sweden withdrew from the territories that were still part of the somewhat partitioned Holy Roman Empire. As to what Münster and Osnabrück (the two components of Westphalia) actually solved, here’s the list:

  1. For everyone’s intentions going forwards, every state within the Holy Roman Empire’s Imperial Diet could now control their own affairs and foreign policy. Under no circumstances could this diet use majority rule to cram some new religious change down people’s throats. They could still form blocks to discuss issues and negotiate, but consensus was the only way forward.
  2. The Principle of Cuius Regio, Eius Religio was reaffirmed again, but with a caveat. Freedom of private worship was now acceptable, and ideally no mass expulsions or executions would occur for which version of a Christian god someone followed in their own home. A baby step towards toleration at least, and one that helped place nations ahead of religions as the source of future conflict.
  3. To clarify, Calvinism was now snuck into the Peace of Augsburg as one of the acceptable religions, just to put that behind everyone.[2]
  4. Additionally, 1624 became the marked cutoff date for much of the religious transfer. The Edict of Restitution was officially revoked as well, though this didn’t matter in places like Austria and Bohemia, where a generation of persecution had effectively purged the minorities there.[3]
  5. Maximilian of Bavaria stuck a partial landing in the war, and was allowed to keep the Upper Palatinate, and an Electoral Title. Our favorite instigator, conniving weasel, and generally clever survivor leaves the stage with a piece of what he wanted. However, Charles Louis, the second son of the Winter King retrieved the Lower Palatinate and acquired a new Electoral Title.[4]
  6. Another partially stuck landing was Johann Georg of Saxony, who got to walk away with his original Lusatia conquest added to Saxony. Whether he thought it had been worth the mayhem was another matter.
  7. Another winner was Friedrich Wilhelm and Brandenburg, or Prussia as it was soon to be known. Playing a weak hand to the hilt, he wish boned half of Pomerania with the Swedes and kept the nucleus of Brandenburg’s holdings in the west of Germany as well. Effectively Friedrich Wilhelm became the new public face of the Calvinists, though in time Prussia would grow to become so much more than that.
  8. The Emperor’s claims over Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia were established. These were now hereditary lands, which prevented any future Bohemian Counts named Thurn from launching any new insurrections.
  9. Matters in Italy settled in an earlier 1631 Treaty were confirmed. Mostly these matters served as noise in the next room, but they been a major source of tension between the French and Spanish for the years.
  10. Sweden’s gains over Denmark at Brömsebro were affirmed as well. Several Baltic Islands, a portion of Norway and southern Sweden, and virtually the entire northern German coastline became Swedish. An indemnity of 5 million Thalers was also paid to Sweden, mostly so that they could safely pay off their forces and disband them.
  11. France acquired several lands to the right of the Rhine, several bishoprics, and most notably a concrete control over Alsace and Lorraine. Naturally this matter was completely settled, and the regions would never, ever, become a source of contention between Germans and French ever again.
  12. The United Provinces of the Netherlands were now independent, and their gains in the Spanish Netherlands were retained. Appealing to the uglier tendencies of Dutch liberties, no guarantees were made for the freedom of worship for Dutch Catholics, and Antwerp remained under a hamstringing blockade. Regardless, the Dutch could now comfortably go on to a well-deserved golden age.
  13. Inexplicably, the Swiss Confederation was formally recognized for the first time.
The post-Westphalian Holy Roman Empire. In theory, the treaty would establish state recognized sovereignty, but this is at best a historical irony. Westphalia involved multiple states carving up another with little regard for the opinions of its rulers. That its precedent has helped shape the modern world is undeniable, that this is entirely a good thing is more complex. Photo Credit: Astrokey 44 adapted from William R. Shepherd.

Notably absent from all of this was Spain. Their diplomats had lost everything, and the final peace didn’t resolve matters between them and the French. Though the Thirty Years War was “over”, many of the players had just chosen to continue their high stakes game at another table. Now bereft of their allies, the Spanish would be slowly and methodically beaten into submission after the French recovered from their own military troubles. Not until the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees would Spain finally concede final defeat.

Adding that up, what had the Westphalian Peace really done? It would be easy to dismiss much of it out of hand looking over the results. Most of its territorial changes simply acknowledged what had happened over the course of the war. Of course Bohemia was now imperial, likewise it made sense that Pomerania was Swedish and Lorraine French. Even the Emperor was still running a sizeable portion of the nominal Holy Roman Empire. If a treaty had been signed in 1635, or 1628, then perhaps all of Germany would have looked dramatically different along religious lines, but instead it constituted a move towards reducing religious tension.

Certainly ardent believers were no fans of what they saw. Here’s one incendiary review from Pope Innocent X: “Null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time”.[5]

Here’s another, sadder review from one of the surviving Bohemian exiles, “They have sacrificed us at the treaties of Osnabrück”.[6]

loss of German lives in thirty years war
Another map worth noting. Population shifts in the Thirty Years’ War by region. It should be noted this does not mean all the inhabitants were killed. Relocation and refugees would redefine much of Germany’s internal boundaries.

Bohemia, Catalonia, and other smaller players were left as bargaining chips on the table. The Portuguese themselves would be forced to fight until 1668 for their own independence. Also left out of Westphalia, the average German citizen. By the end of the war, even the uprisings of the peasants had become less frequent. Time, loss and horror had numbed their ability to resist. Equally omitted was the average soldier and camp follower. Facing the news of peace, one camp woman attached to the Swedish army spoke in a daze, “I was born in war, I have no home, no country and no friends, war is my wealth and wither shall I go?”[7] It was a question soldiers and peasants all over Germany would have to answer. Sweden and the Empire faced the monumental task of decommissioning three hundred thousand fighting men and their families and hangers-on.

What Westphalia offered was a peace of scope and a change in mindset. It attempted to solve every problem that had sparked the war in the Holy Roman Empire, and to dispense with these causes in ways that would prevent them from emerging again. Even Charles Louis and the Palatine was back, one of the exile causes men had championed. More importantly, everyone was so exhausted by the length and pain of the war that they were willing to give a peace between each other at least a passing chance. At least in Germany, at least for now.

To emphasize how done the Germans at least were with war, just a few years later Friedrich Wilhelm began to escalate a territorial and religious dispute around his new boundaries in west Germany with what was mockingly termed the Cow War in 1651.[8] In no uncertain terms Friedrich Wilhelm’s allies promptly told him to cut it out. The crisis could have boiled over into a return to war, but no one wanted it. Perhaps everyone acknowledged the Cow War was just too stupid to die for.

Westphalia did offer a model for future peace, and it began to set the boundaries of what would become the new territorial norms. Ferdinand III was now willing to turn his considerable energies inwards. Having learned a valuable lesson about settling for less, he began to turn Austria into the kind of power that was still respected and dangerous centuries later. Germany itself was permanently fractured though, and the Holy Roman Empire would no longer dominate the center of Europe. Power now shifted to the ascendant France and to individual nations instead of religions lines, who would play out their dramatic bid for control off and on until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. A Congress which would follow the same political rules and norms that Westphalia had created.

Fireworks in Nuremburg at the news of Westphalia. Photo Credit: Bild Archiv

By 1650 virtually all foreign troops had departed their former territories, and the Thirty Years war ended in a shower of fireworks. By 1654, the final foreign garrisons had fully withdrawn from the Empire. Behind them, they left a set of small nations struggling to pick up the pieces. Though historians continue to hurl books at each other in the endless fight over just how “bad” the war actually was, it left a permanent scar on German psyches. Later writers like Friedrich Schiller would cite the war as the beginning of a general decline in German fortunes. It marked the end of their ability to speak with unity and authority as Germans, and the beginning of “Prussian” or “Hessian” nation states. Certainly it was a theory the Prussians embraced as they called for a return to national unity. Though there were signs of economic recovery whenever the war shifted to a different region, it would take decades to account for the 20 to 30 percent of Germany’s population that was lost to the conflict. Death came in a myriad number of forms, many Germans had starved. Others had died of disease either home grown or brought from foreign shores by the marching boots of so many armies. Still others had been cut, shot, stabbed, tortured, or obliterated in the heat of battle or the sack of a town. For comparison the USSR in World War II could only claim to have lost 12 percent. In 1712, Magdeburg would still have signs of rubble and ruin. If nothing else, Germans could know that they were far from the only people suffering through the 17th Century.

The Frozen Thames in 1677. Noting the height of the ice this marks a period of prolonged and abnormal cold that was typical for the Century. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Some historians like Geoffery Parker refer to the 17th Century by the term The General Crisis,[9] which seems to do some justice to the scale of anarchy that was sweeping the planet at the time of the Little Ice Age. Famine, plague, and war seemed the apocalyptic watchwords regardless of where a person lived. The last Ming Emperor had hung himself in 1644, and records indicate as much as half of the Chinese population died in the turmoil between the falling Ming and rising Qing dynasties. The Mughal Empire in India was wracked with civil war in 1647-48. Charles I, King of England, was executed in 1649. The Ottoman Empire experienced a profound contraction over the century, including two civil wars and at least three regicides. The French generals Turenne and d’Enghien returned home to find each other fighting on opposite sides of a gruesome five year civil war known as the Fronde, the result of Richelieu and Mazarin’s centralist policies and taxes. Sweden’s monarch Catherine abdicated in favor of leaving her cousin with the bill for a decade of war. With only the war hammer in hand to solve his problems, new King Karl X went off to invade something else. Within five years the Swedish Deluge would obliterate Poland, more effectively destroying the capitals in Krakow and Warsaw than even the Nazis would do centuries later.

What can we really make of the Thirty Year’s War? Fighting continued for decades afterwards, and had been ongoing for years before in some areas. It wasn’t a case of remarkable stupidity on any leader’s part. Even the now one-eyed Christian IV of Denmark was considered a gifted king. Yet there was a difference between smart and wise. Leave it to one of the smartest men in the room to say it best. Axel Oxenstierna had presided over the entire Swedish involvement in the war. His own son was the lead negotiator for Sweden in what became the Peace of Westphalia, and the young man was understandably nervous. Writing to his father, he expressed worry that he wasn’t wise enough to lead yet. The response from his father: “Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”

The phrase seems to ring truer than we may like in our own time.

Postcript: Thanks to all who have stuck with this series. At 70 pages, the text alone is easily the longest single thing I have ever written. Bartered History will be on break for a month while I work on the next topic. Stay tuned.

[1] In a final delay, this signing was a full three weeks after the treaty was agreed, and a full hour after it was scheduled. Late to the end.

[2] This is not to say that general religious tolerance was now part of the protocols of the Empire. Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and any other sects were still considered fair targets for unfair persecution.

[3] Again, with some caveats. So much of the Empire needed to be almost recolonized that religious considerations were often waived aside.

[4] The latter was unhappy with this, but given that his uncle King Charles had just been beaten like a tin drum in the English Civil Wars the Elector had to take what was on offer.

[5] Wedgwood 2005

[6] Twamley 2014

[7] Wedgwood 2005

[8] Full casualties of the War: Two civilians and a herd of cows.

[9] Or Global Crisis: War Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century.


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