By: Patrick Shrier
The Thirty Years War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, was finally brought to an end by the peace Treaties of Munster and Osnabruck, which is commonly known as the Peace of Westphalia for the German state in which negotiations took place. The Congress of Westphalia that negotiated the treaties dragged on for almost six years while armies still fought and common people suffered. The parties involved in the negotiations were not only Germans, the French, Swedish, Dutch, Danes, Swiss, Spanish, and Poles all had representatives at the Congress with their own axes to grind. The reasons negotiations for an end to the Thirty Years War took almost six years is that the differing parties were invested so heavily in their own war aims that they were willing to continue the war rather than compromise.
It is impossible to understand the reasons for the length and complexity of the Congress of Westphalia without understanding the war it was called to stop. The Thirty Years War ostensibly began in 1618, although the rivalries and disputes that precipitated the war date back to the 1555 Peace of Augsburg and subsequent decay of the power of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. The interests of the House of Hapsburg, which had separate branches ruling over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Spain; were central to the causes of the war. These interests were also at work in ensuring a regional rebellion in Bohemia, an independent state that had elected Hapsburg kings since the fifteenth century, engulfed the whole of Germany.
Religion played a major role in shaping the course of the war specifically the rights of rulers to choose their subjects religion. The roots of the religious aspect date to the rise of Lutheranism in the sixteenth century and specifically to the provision of the Peace of Augsburg known as Curious Regio, Ejus Religio, which provided that rulers had the right to enforce either Catholicism or Lutheranism within his own lands. The main problem was that the Peace of Augsburg predated the rise of Calvinism and therefore the Peace did not address the rights of Calvinist rulers and whether the principle of Curious Regio, Ejus Religio also applied to them, the Calvinists claimed it did while the Lutherans and Catholics predictably claimed it did not.
The trouble was that the Holy Roman Emperor was not a hereditary office, but rather an elective one as was the throne of Bohemia. The Catholic Hapsburg dynasty had consistently been elected as Holy Roman Emperor since 1452 and the house had expanded to include the kingdom of Spain with the ascension of the Hapsburg, Charles I (1500-1558) to the throne of both Castile and Aragon in 1516, he also reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 1519.
In 1618, the diplomatic situation in Europe was unsettled with the Hapsburg dynasty controlling a huge area of Europe from Spain, Italy, The Netherlands minus the United Provinces, and the territory of the Holy Roman Empire. Spain was Catholic along with France and approximately half the principalities of the Empire; England, the United Provinces, and the other half of the Empire were Protestant, both Lutheran and Calvinist. The French were concerned with what they perceived as the threat of Hapsburg domination of the continent because of their extensive dynastic domains. The Hapsburgs were mainly concerned with the imminent succession of the imperial throne because the Emperor Matthias (1575-1619) was childless, which meant there was an opportunity for the Protestants to elect a Protestant Emperor since the king of Bohemia was also an elector.
The initial cause of the war was related to the succession of the Bohemian throne, which was interconnected, with the imperial succession due to the status of the Bohemian king as an Elector. There were two candidates for the throne of Bohemia, the Catholic Hapsburg, Ferdinand of Styria (1578-1637) and the Protestant, Frederick V, Elector Palatine (1596-1632). Ferdinand of Styria was elected King of Bohemia on June 17 1617.
The Catholic leaders left in charge in Bohemia clamped down on Protestantism in the kingdom and this led to revolt in May 1618 in which Ferdinand I’s governors were thrown from the windows of Hradschin castle in Prague and his rule was ended. After the coup Ä Ä—tat in Prague, the Bohemian nobility attempted to negotiate with Ferdinand for the security and privileges of the nobility and the Protestants but Ferdinand resorted to arms to put down the rebellion. On August 26 1619, the estates of Bohemia met and deposed Ferdinand I and subsequently elected Frederick V, Elector Palatine (1596-1632) and fellow Protestant, by a margin of one hundred forty six votes for to seven against. On August 28 1619, Ferdinand I of Styria was elected Holy Roman Emperor at a meeting of the imperial Electors held at Regensburg by a unanimous vote and subsequently took the throne as Ferdinand II.
The war thus began that would last for thirty years, at the outset this was not simply a war in which the players were internal to the Holy Roman Empire, all of Europe was interested in the outcome of the succession of both Bohemia and the Empire because that outcome affected the balance of power on the continent. As the war continued, even more countries were drawn into taking active part in the fighting because of either religious sympathies, or the hope of gaining territory, or both. By the end of the war, all the major powers of Europe were involved and had staked their national prestige on the outcome.
The Congress of Westphalia was only the last of many diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting, almost from the outset of the war there had been attempts at diplomacy. In 1620, a French delegation negotiated a treaty between Maximillian of Bavaria (1573-1651) and troops of the Protestant Union for a cease-fire and withdrawal in the Treaty of Ulm. The French expected Emperor Ferdinand II and Frederick of the Palatinate to negotiate a similar truce, but Ferdinand II refused, instead using this opportunity to seize Upper and Lower Austria from the Protestants.
In April of 1621, the Protestant Union signed the Mainz Accord with the Spanish General Ambrogio Spinola (1569-1630) in which they agreed to disband their armies if he would guarantee the neutrality of the states of the Protestant Union. In the spring of the same year, James I of England (1566-1625) and the Spanish attempted to persuade Frederick to relinquish his claim to the Bohemian throne in return for the restoration of his German lands. Frederick V of the Palatinate refused to renounce his claim to the Bohemian throne and the war continued. This would not be the last diplomatic attempt to end the war, but this episode highlights how, what had started as an internal Protestant revolt in Bohemia against a Catholic ruler had morphed into an international politico-religious conflict to maintain the balance of power in Europe.
It would be almost 8 years before the next significant attempt to stop the fighting and it too would accomplish little. In 1625, the war widened with the intervention of King Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648) on the side of Frederick and the Protestant cause. Christian IV, as Duke of Holstein, which was an imperial territory entered the war to secure what he thought were his and his coreligionist’s rights against imperial aggression. Initially the Danish entry into the war was a bad decision as during 1626 and 1627 Christian IV was defeated by the imperial forces and driven back to the Danish islands for refuge.
After the Danish defeat, Christian IV made a pact with Sweden guaranteeing free travel in the Baltic while Christian IV rebuilt his army. In the spring of 1628, the imperial forces under Wallenstein laid siege to the Baltic port town of Stralsund. The Danes and Swedes successfully relieved the city and the Swedes occupied the town thus giving the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) his first toehold in northern Germany.
The next significant peace effort was the Peace of LÃ¼beck, signed on May 22 1629, in which the King of Denmark Christian IV regained all his holdings in Germany in return for a personal pledge to cease intervening in the affairs of the Holy Roman Empire. This peace was desired by all, as the depredations of Wallenstein’s army had exhausted the capability of the north German states to support his army any longer.
With the defeat of Denmark, Emperor Ferdinand II felt confident enough of Catholic supremacy in Germany that in 1627 he began discussions with the Catholic leaders in Germany about the restitution of church lands that the Protestants had taken. This Edict of Restitution, as it has come to be called, was promulgated in 1629 by Imperial Decree and its provisions would become one of the biggest causes of disagreement in the final peace agreed at Westphalia.
The Edict of Restitution supposedly just reaffirmed the terms of the Peace of Augsburg and called for the restoration of church lands taken after 1552, but it also went further, claiming that ecclesiastic rulers had the same right as secular rulers to enforce religious conformity. This was a significant expansion of the Peace of Augsburg and raised fears of plans by the Emperor to suppress Protestantism completely in Germany.
From July to October 1630 what was initially conceived of as a meeting of the Imperial Electors at Regensburg, instead morphed into an international conference that provided another opportunity for stopping the war. Both the French and Spanish sent ambassadors, but what was missing was the participation of the Protestant Electors who refused to attend in person in protest against the Edict of Restitution. The agenda of the meeting was almost solely focused on events outside the Empire. The Spanish wanted German help in subduing the Dutch, the French did to their best to ensure this help would not be forthcoming, mentioning the many times Spain had intervened in the affairs of the Empire. The Catholic electors demanded that Wallenstein be replaced as commander of the Imperial Army, Ferdinand II was not certain he could relieve him because of the power Wallenstein had gained, but Wallenstein resigned with little protest when he received the Emperor’s request.
The treaty signed at Regensburg in 1630 was mainly concerned with events outside the Empire however, it did contain a provision that the French refrain from entering into any alliances with princes inside the Empire. The Treaty of Regensburg was signed on October 13 1630 but it did not settle the confessional differences within the Empire that were fueling the war. While the Catholic princes of Germany as well as the French and Spanish were engaged at Regensburg, the Swedes inserted themselves more fully into the war by invading Pomerania on July 6 1630.
The Swedish invasion of Germany marked a widening and more intense expansion of the war. Over the next two years, Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus would sweep over much of northern Germany and smash the old leagues and alliances with new ones growing in their place. Gustavus created a coalition through threat and persuasion that after his death at the Battle of LÃ¼tzen (November 16 1632), became formalized as the League of Heilbronn with some additions in 1633 under the new Regent, Oxenstierna.
Wallenstein who had been reinstated in command in 1632 had been deposed and murdered in 1634 and the Catholic cause lost one of their most effective commanders. With Wallenstein dead, the Emperor placed his son Ferdinand III, King of Hungary (1608-1657), in command of all the armies of the Empire. In September 1634, a combined Spanish, Bavarian, and Imperial army defeated the Protestants at the Battle of Nordlingen (September 5 1634). This defeat prompted the French to invade and occupy the Rhineland and in May 1635, the French declared war on Spain after the Spanish occupation of Trier.
In the summer of 1634 John-George I, Elector of Saxony (1585-1656) opened negotiations with the Emperor to end Saxon participation in the war. The negotiations resulted in a preliminary agreement at Pirna in November 1634 but the final peace was not finalized and published until May 30 1635 at Prague. This treaty, the Peace of Prague essentially ended Saxony’s participation in the Thirty Years War.
The terms of the Peace of Prague were substantial in that they mostly removed the religious component of the war and made the belligerents war aims mostly political. Under the treaty, the Edict of Restitution was to be held in abeyance for forty years; and the normative date for the enforcement of the Peace of Augsburg was held to be 1627, a commission was to be established to determine the final status of religious lands in the Empire. John-George gained the territory of Lusatia and was reconciled to the Emperor. Lastly, all foreign conquests in Germany were to be restored by the force of a new Imperial army, paid for and serving at the behest of the Emperor. All the Protestants states except the states of the Upper German Circle, WÃ¼rttemberg, Baden, and Austrian vassals in rebellion, which were specifically excluded, were invited to accede to the treaty and accept the amnesty offered.
After the Peace of Prague, the war continued with the significant difference that the French and Swedes were now fighting without the support of the majority of their former German allies who signed on to the Peace of Prague. The Swedes and French continued the war in an attempt to limit Hapsburg power and prevent the Habsburgs from gaining hegemony over most of Europe. Ferdinand II died in 1637 and was succeeded as Holy Roman Emperor by his son Ferdinand III who continued imperial involvement in the war on the same basis as his father. Following the Peace of Prague, the war took on a more international appearance as the French, Swedes, and Spanish continued to fight to determine which nation would have dominance in determining the affairs of the Holy Roman Empire. Advantage in the conflict swung from one side to the other until the Spanish army was virtually destroyed as a fighting force at the Battle of Rocroi in May 1643.
In June 1643, only weeks after the Spanish defeat at Rocroi, Ferdinand III assented to the opening of negotiations with the French, Spanish, and all interested parties for what he hoped would be an end to the war. Ferdinand III thus set in motion the train of events that would lead to the convening of the Congress of Westphalia, the gathering of nations that would hammer out a final peace and end the war.
While the initial moves toward beginning the Peace Conference were made in 1643, it would not be until December 1644 that negotiations would begin in earnest. There are several reasons for the delay between the proposed conference and the actual start of negotiations as well as the conclusion of the peace itself. C.V. Wedgwood, in The Thirty Years War cites three reasons for the delay the first a quarrel between the Emperor and the German Estates, the second a weakening in the French position and a breach with the United Provinces, the third a rupture between Sweden and Denmark.
While the Congress was in the state of Westphalia, the opposing sides did not meet in the same town, instead, the deputations of France, Spain, and the Catholic states of Germany meeting at MÃ¼nster, and the deputations of Sweden, Denmark, and the German Protestant states meeting at OsnabrÃ¼ck. Messengers rode the forty-five kilometer distance between the towns during negotiations, this travel time was another reason the conference took so long to resolve as the delegates refused to meet face-to-face.
The Emperor convened a Deputationstag at Frankfurt am Main in 1643 in which he hoped to settle the internal religious differences of the Empire and then negotiate with foreign powers with one voice for the Empire. The Protestant Estates, led by Frederick William of Brandenburg objected because they felt that there rights would not be looked out for by the Catholic Emperor. In protest to the Emperor the various German state delegations gradually left Frankfurt and moved to the respective towns of MÃ¼nster or OsnabrÃ¼ck depending on religious affiliation. This dispute was finally settled in 1645 when Ferdinand III agreed to grant the Congress at Westphalia status as an Imperial Diet and its resolutions would then have the force of imperial law, this gave all the German states a voice at negotiation.
The second delay to the negotiations involved the continuation of the fighting and a struggle for military superiority between the Emperors army led by Maximilian of Bavaria and the French army, initially the French succeeded in driving the Imperial forces back but in 1644 the advantage turned and the French suffered great loss at the Battle of Friedberg. The French were also weakened by the death of Cardinal Richelieu and his succession by Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) whose position as first minister was not as secure.
The United Provinces feared the growing power of France after the destruction of the Spanish army at Rocroi. The French coveted the Spanish Netherlands since the twelfth century when it was part of the Duchy of Burgundy and the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which they regarded as rightly French. The Dutch were afraid that the French, if they acquired the land would then encroach upon Dutch liberties. They also feared the Catholicism of France and that religious toleration in the Provinces was at risk with France ascendant. Only through many assurances that France had no designs on the United Provinces were the Dutch mollified.
Another factor in the weakening of the French position was the conflict with Spain, the French did not wish to see the Congress promulgate a general peace in Europe, and instead, they wanted any peace negotiated at Westphalia to hold in Germany only. The dispute with Spain was both dynastic and petty at the same time. Both the French and Spanish kings claimed the throne of Navarre and Duchy of Barcelona and France further held that John of Braganza was the rightful king of Portugal. The French and Spanish also argued about the respective precedence of the kings of France and Spain.
The final issue that delayed the peace was the Swedish invasion of Denmark in 1643. The Swedes quickly overran both Holstein and Jutland only leaving Christian IV possession of the Baltic islands. The Emperor was powerless to stop and the Swedes continued the war despite the cession of French subsidies. The Congress was kept on track due to the accession of Queen Christina (1626-1689) to active rule in Sweden on September 18 1644. The new queen was desirous of peace even if it cost Sweden some conquered territory, with the Danish war winding down the Congress of Westphalia formally convened on December 4 1644.
The Congress would last for almost another four years before the final settlement. The major reason that peace took so long to achieve is that the parties involved were so entrenched in their interests that it was hard to reach agreement. The fighting also continued and the conditions for peace changed with the fortunes of the war. Perhaps if a general truce had been declared in 1643 the peace would have been achieved sooner and at less cost to the Hapsburgs. Another roadblock was the fact that the Emperor’s representative did not arrive in MÃ¼nster until November 1645, which kept substantive discussions from taking place. Lastly, in January 1646, the Dutch delegation arrived which complicated negotiations still further. After the arrival of the Dutch, the stage was set for the negotiation of a general peace in Europe, which was finally agreed upon and signed on October 24 1648.
What were the terms of this peace, which has been said to establish the modern system of nation states? The treaty itself is as complex as the negotiations that produced it. There were 194 European rulers represented at the Congress from states as large as France to German principalities that consisted of a Manor house and its associated fields. The treaty contains 128 articles, which cover such things elimination of debts to the settlement of ecclesiastical lands.
One of the most important issues settled in the peace was the matter of religion. Article twenty-eight set the normative date for the Peace of Augsburg to be 1624. The same article went further and guaranteed the freedom of religion in private as well as public. In practice, this meant that many territories in Protestant municipalities had to be returned to Catholics but by far, more territories were reclaimed by Protestants than Catholics.
Another provision of the treaty called for a general amnesty of all imperial subjects who had been in rebellion at any time in the previous thirty years. This general amnesty was declared in article II of the treaty. There were also numerous territorial adjustments made in the treaty to France, Sweden, Spain, even Denmark, which was affirmed in its rights in Holstein again. The province of Alsace was ceded to France while Sweden retained ownership of Western Pomerania. The Electoral Palatine was restored his electoral rights and the Duke of Bavaria was confirmed in his thus increasing the number of electors to the imperial throne.
Article 117 established the most sweeping imperial concession and the one with the most far-reaching consequences was the imperial acknowledgment of the sovereign rights of each individual principality in the Empire. This article is worth quoting in full as the complete modern system of states is built on this one clause. That it shall not for the future, or at present, prove to the damage and prejudice of any Town, that has been taken and kept by the one or other Party; but that all and every one of them, with their Citizens and Inhabitants, shall enjoy as well the general Benefit of the Amnesty, as the rest of this Pacification. And for the Remainder of their Rights and Privileges, Ecclesiastical and Secular, which they enjoy’d before these Troubles, they shall be maintain’d therein; save, nevertheless the Rights of Sovereignty, and what depends thereon, for the Lords to whom they belong. The majority of the concessions made at Westphalia were made by Emperor Ferdinand III, in the interests of establishing a permanent peace.
The negotiation of the treaty stretched because all the parties concerned had entrenched positions and were determined to extract the maximum concessions they could in line with their needs. The hatred engendered by the war and the fears of Hapsburg domination shared by the United Provinces and France along with the territorial desires of Sweden and Denmark contributed to the difficulty of the peace. The ostensible cause of the war, religious tensions, was to be the most easily solved of the problems at the peace conference. It was the territorial and security guarantees required by the foreign powers of France and Sweden that were the hardest to work out. The reason negotiations for an end to the Thirty Years War took almost six years is that the differing parties were invested so heavily in their own war aims that they were willing to continue the war rather than compromise.
Atkinson, Chris. The Thirty Years War, http://www.pipeline.com/~cwa/TYWHome.htm
The Avalon Project. Treaty of Westphalia; October 24, 1648 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/westphal.htm
Madden, Thomas F. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, MD: Rowman ; Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2005
New Advent. The Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/index.html
Liddell Hart, B.H. Strategy, New York, NY: Penguin, 1991
Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Thirty Years War 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Routledge Publishing, 1997
Schiller, Friedrich Von. History of the Thirty Years War in Germany. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Co., 2006
Walker, Thomas A. A History of the Law of Nations: Volume 1. Boston, MA: Adamant Media Corporation, 2006
Wedgwood C.V. The Thirty Years War. New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2005
 Wedgwood, C.V. The Thirty Years War, pp. 70-71
 Ibid. pp. 44-45
 Madden, Thomas F. The New Concise History of the Crusades. p. 122
 Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War, p. 76
 Ibid. p. 95
 Parker, The Thirty Years War, p. 54
 Wedgwood, p. 134
 Parker, p.57
 Parker, pp. 71-72
 Ibid. p. 88
 Schiller, Friedrich Von, History of The Thirty Years War in Germany, pp. 94-95
 Wedgwood, pp. 253-256
 Parker, pp. 118-121
 Schiller, p. 243
 Parker, pp. 127-129
 Schiller, pp. 251-255
 Wedgwood, p. 445
 Parker, p. 155
 Wedgwood, p. 453
 Ibid, p. 455
 Parker, pp. 158-159
 The Avalon Project. Treaty of Westphalia; October 24, 1648
 Ibid, art. XXVIII
 Ibid, art. II
 Ibid, art. CXVII