The End of the Thirty Years’ War: The Treaty of Westphalia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The Thirty Years’ War was not decided by one final and conclusive victory that gave a decisive edge to one side or another. How did the conflict end?  

A painting of the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.
The Treaty of Westphalia was ceremonially signed on October 24, 1648.
(Image: Gerard ter Borch / Public domain)

A great and general longing for peace grew as the Thirty Years’ War of religious wreckage continued unabated. Since the war was not decided by one final and conclusive victory that gave a decisive win to one side or another, this would need to be ended by peace or compromise, and obviously it would need to be based on principles other than the religious orthodoxies that had sparked the conflict at the beginning.

Learn more about the Reformation and the disastrous Thirty Years’ War.

Initial Negotiations of the Treaty of Westphalia

Negotiations opened in the West German land of Westphalia in 1643. It was an area of mixed Catholic and Protestant populations. But oddly enough, the negotiations coincided with fighting—the fighting continued even as talks were going on, which complicated the discussions immensely. Since, if one side was winning, it was a lot less likely to make concessions and vice versa.

The negotiations took place in two separate towns, Münster and Osnabrück. These towns were diplomatically exempted from any further warfare. The empire’s negotiations with Sweden took place in Osnabrück and the negotiations with France and Spain in Münster, running in parallel. Some 200 rulers and thousands of diplomatic officials participated

The negotiations dragged on for five years. In part, this was because it was unprecedented. Nothing quite like these negotiations had ever happened before. This was a peace congress for all of Europe, to establish a pax generalis, a general peace. Diplomatic ceremony and etiquette, for example, questions of who had precedence over whom in entering a hall, were symbolic matters that this age took very seriously.

The first six months were taken up with these precedence questions. For instance, the representatives of the Dutch Republic scandalized some old-fashioned diplomats by insisting on being called Excellency, just like the representatives of kings. This seemed outrageous to conservatives. Such disputes inevitably prolonged the negotiations.

It is crucial, however, to notice that this conference was not presided over by a universally recognized authority. It was not presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor. After all, he was one of the parties in the war. Nor were these negotiations presided over by the pope, because the pope refused to recognize agreements with the Protestants, who in turn rejected his claims to authority.

This was in contrast to the way in which Spain and Portugal had called on the pope to settle a political question, to mediate their Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 after Columbus’s voyages, essentially to divide up the world. The claims to authority of the emperor and the pope clearly were not central to these proceedings, so what new order did emerge?

Learn more about the world before the Treaty of Westphalia

The New Treaties with Old Formulas Drawn and Signed

The treaties that were arrived at confirmed that rulers of territories would have superiority in all matters, religious as well as political, in their own lands. The religious compromise of this treaty essentially repeated the formula of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, almost a century before. This must have been a sad thing for keen observers to recognize. There had been all this war and suffering, and the result was essentially something that had been arrived at about a century ago.

The Map of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia.
The Treaty of Westphalia provided sovereignty to the individual nation-states, and paved way to maintain the balance of power in the world. (Image: Robert H. Labberton/Public domain)

In fact, the new formula did recognize some changes, the Calvinists, for instance, were included in the settlement. The settlement also guaranteed the ability of religious minorities to practice their religion in territories, so it already represented a gesture towards recognizing the rights of minorities.

In general, these treaties moved toward sovereign independence for territorial rulers as a practical solution, not as a theoretical model. The United Provinces and Switzerland were recognized as independent, and within the Holy Roman Empire, the princes of the empire were given the right to make peace or war at will, except against the emperor.

All this further weakened the remaining structures of the Holy Roman Empire, as did the loss of German territories to France and Sweden. In many ways, Germany would remain a power vacuum until it was nationally unified later in the 19th century. It is not a coincidence that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would later often rant about the Thirty Years’ War and the unjust Peace of Westphalia as Germany’s humiliation that must never be repeated.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Public’s Response to the Treaty of Westphalia

The negotiations were followed anxiously by the general public, and this showed the impact of the print revolution. The first newspapers were started in Germany at this time, and they reported to a wider public how the peacemaking was going.

The treaties were finally ceremonially signed on October 24, 1648. What actually happened when the news of peace spread? How did the people react? In Prague, where the war began, the church bells rang and rang in long, deafening peals of joy. In Germany, countless villages and towns organized special celebration feasts. Commemorative coins and prints were printed carrying the image of a dove with an olive branch, a symbol for peace.

Common Questions about the Treaty of Westphalia

Q: What were the main points of the Treaty of Westphalia?

The Treaty of Westphalia recognized the full territorial sovereignty of the member states of the empire. The idea was to have peace by maintaining a balance of power.

Q: What is the Peace of Westphalia and what did it accomplish?

The Peace of Westphalia was a series of peace treaties that were signed in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties, essentially, ended the European wars of religion, including the Thirty Years’ War.

Q: How did the Peace Treaty of Westphalia impact international cooperation and conflict?

The Peace Treaty of Westphalia had a profound impact on international relations as it set a political precedent for state sovereignty, inter-state diplomacy, and balance of power in Europe and across the world.

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