The Impact of the Treaty of Westphalia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

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

The Treaty of Westphalia put an end to the universal authority of the pope or the Holy Roman Empire. The new world order emerged and with it many more challenges. Is the present order moving beyond the Westphalian international system?

An illustration of the United Nations' logo.
The Treaty of Westphalia provided the world with a framework for negotiations instead of engaging in futile wars. (Image: Yuriy Boyko/Shutterstock)

The Immediate Impact of the Treaty of Westphalia

In Germany, countless villages and towns organized special celebration feasts. Commemorative coins and prints featured one symbol in particular—the dove with an olive branch, a symbol for peace that’s still current today.

But the good news traveled very slowly to places that were further away. In the Moluccas, the Spice Islands, the Dutch beat the Spanish in a great battle in 1649, a year after the treaty had been signed establishing peace, because none of them had yet heard the news from Europe.

When Pope Innocent learned of this treaty, he condemned it. In the papal bull entitled Zelo domus Dei, he declared it “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, and devoid of meaning for all time”. That’s a pretty harsh review. He didn’t like it. But this protest does not mean that the treaty had produced a new secular politics, some sort of total break with the past. In fact, the opening text of the treaty started with the pious and shared hope, “That there shall be a Christian and universal peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere amity.” Religion remained important.

Learn more about binding continents.

The Long-Term Impact of the Treaty of Westphalia

So, what was the ultimate significance of this turning point? Firstly, the Westphalian international system, as it has been called, recognized that world politics would not be under the rule of one universal authority, whether the pope or the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, there would be a constant, shifting dynamic interplay of states, seeking to preserve their sovereignty and their own advantage.

The negotiators had not aimed to create a new world around a new model. If you spoke to them about the Westphalian model, they would not have understood what you were talking about. Rather, they were seeking a pragmatic solution, and yet their pragmatic solution pointed towards a new conception of international order and authority.

Now, the worldview of contemporaries increasingly saw international politics not in terms of a divinely ordained hierarchy, but rather in terms of balance, the interaction of these sovereign states. This concept of the ‘balance of power’ would be a key model for how the world works, politically, up to our own times.

Secondly, this turning point was not one that was carefully and consciously planned. The most immediate priority for the negotiators was just ending the torment of their continent, to craft a peace of exhaustion, and end the scandal of doctrinal slaughter. The changes that they introduced happened not for abstract theoretical reasons, but out of pragmatism. So the Peace of Westphalia was not the singular moment where all of this happened at once; rather, it started a movement toward sovereignty.

The movement toward sovereignty as a model predated 1648 and continued afterward. This was not the case of an absolute and clean break, but it was nonetheless a turning point. At the ground level, for ordinary people, this new model of territorial sovereignty brought authority closer to their own lives, but only slowly and over time. To begin with, the main emotion of everyday people was simply relief that war was over at last.

Finally, the Treaty of Westphalia had lasting effects as a precedent for later peacemaking. Obviously, the Peace of Westphalia did not end future wars, but it did give a template for how to negotiate. The very institution of an international peace congress could now be duplicated, and was seen, for example, at the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, and in countless summit meetings in our own times.

The desire for peace and the will for peace that had been powerfully demonstrated in 1648 remained relevant. Also very relevant for peacemaking was the intellectual shift that the horrors of war produced: the very notion of using violence to impose and enforce religious truth had become increasingly delegitimized. Yes, wars continued, and religion remained important, but this shift was an important and necessary one to begin.

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

The Future of the Westphalian Model

An image of the EU flag.
The EU is seen as a step beyond the Westphalian settlement as it pools individual countries’ sovereignty. (Image: Julinzy/Shutterstock)

Some scholars today ask whether we are now moving past the Westphalian settlement. For instance, the European Union involves ceding or pooling individual countries’ sovereignty to achieve a more perfect union. Other examples are the Internet and the forms of community that can be built in cyberspace which are no longer territorial. So, where does that leave the sovereignty of the territorial state?

Other scholars pose questions about sovereignty itself. Sovereignty excludes outside interference of other powers in domestic issues. What happens when a sovereign state uses its powers to abuse people under its control or to commit genocide? May outside powers justifiably intervene? Or is there, in fact, as some have suggested, a duty to intervene and to protect? These kinds of questions are urgent in our own times and are still being worked out.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

Common Questions about the Impact of the Treaty of Westphalia

Q: What is the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia in international relations?

The Treaty of Westphalia is regarded as a key step in the development of tolerance and secularization across the world. It also strengthened nations since they could now enter into foreign alliances and decide important matters, such as peace and war.

Q: How did the people in Germany react to the Treaty of Westphalia?

People organised special celebration feasts in villages and towns.

Q: Did the Peace of Westphalia put an end to wars?

No, the wars continued to affect the humanity. The Peace of Westphalia taught the world the power of negotiations.

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