Saturday, May 15, 1993

The Peace of Westphalia: Where Does It Fit Into the General Crisis Theory?

An academic paper submitted at Middlebury College during the 1992-1993 academic year.

It is not disputed among historians that the Treaty of Westphalia was an important event in the history of early modern Europe. What is debated and discussed quite ably by many prominent historians is whether the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was the ending point of a general crisis, or whether, as E.J. Hobsbawm argues, it was a beginning to an era of change that was to last for the remainder of the century.[1] Mr. Hobsbawm argues most strongly that 1648 marked a beginning rather than an end. Mssrs Hobsbawm, Trevor-Roper, Rabb, and Elliott all seem to agree that there was a general crisis at some point between 1500 and 1700.[2] However, with the exception of Mr. Hobsbawm, all of them view the period of the middle of the seventeenth century (during which, of course, the Peace of Westphalia was made) primarily as an end to the time of general crisis.

Mr. Hobsbawm's argument is almost entirely economic; despite all but ignoring most other factors, he does an excellent job of describing the beginning of an economic crisis dating to around the middle of the seventeenth century. He notes the decline of trade in Europe, most notably in Denmark (with the Sound tolls falling to a low before the 1650s and staying depressed for about thirty years[3]) and the Mediterranean (where trade became primarily localized[4]).

He relates also the number of revolts throughout Europe.[5] He notes that many historians have seen this rash of social revolution as a signal of a general crisis, and emphasizes the role of eastern European uprisings in heralding a general crisis, but Mr. Hobsbawm does not leave this as his only evidence; indeed, it is brought in as relevant information adding strength to his economic argument by showing that people were tired of being taxed to pay for the war.[6]

Mr. Hobsbawm notes that previously, the conditions summarized above, and others which are equally relevant but for which there is no space nor call here,[7] have been explained as resulting in various ways from the Thirty Years' War.[8] He points out that this explanation is not always consistent, and his examples are quite true: there was crisis in areas that remained peaceful and success in war-torn regions.[9] It does seem logical, however, that effects of war elsewhere affected places where war was not so that peaceful regions were in similar conditions as the rest of war-plagued Europe. Similarly, war-ravaged areas bordered by peaceful, successful regions must have been buffered by the proximate economic strength and stability.

Where, then, does the Peace of Westphalia figure into this? This was my original question, and now, having described the conditions from Hobsbawm's point of view, I may begin properly to address it. The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War, and it has been portrayed as a requisite precursor to other events that came later in the seventeenth century:[10] it created an environment of peace that had been absent from Europe for the previous three decades, allowing for a rebuilding process to begin.

After wars, economies tend to recess from the frenzy of wartime production.[11] The Thirty Years' War did an immense amount of damage (both structurally and economically), especially when taken in terms of the relatively short time in which it took place.[12] It is certainly feasible that widespread recession following the war could cause much of the crisis on its own, and if a general crisis was already beginning, the economic repercussions of the end of the war definitely contributed to it.

Mr. Hobsbawm's descriptions of trends appearing before 1648 can also be at least partially explained by the effects of long-term war in a wide area, one vital to Europe's well-being. Central and eastern Europe have traditionally been the breadbasket of Europe, as well as providing economic stability to the continent.[13] When they were destroyed by war this could only have led to a continent-wide economic decline.

Revolts are also linked to the Treaty of Westphalia. In the treaty was established the policy of cuius regio, eius religio, which was the right of the monarch in a territory to dictate the religion of his subjects.[14] This angered people in states where the monarch was of a religion different from that of his people, and they were prone to revolt, at least initially.[15]

A more long-lasting effect of the Treaty of Westphalia is the creation of a new diplomatic canon. Mr. Rabb points out that the treaty was seen by its writers as an answer to major problems and not a temporary truce.[16] Other, subsequent treaties (those of the Pyrenees, Copenhagen, Olivia, and Utrecht were specifically named by Mr. Rabb), were seen both by historians today and, Mr. Rabb argues, by their framers, as modifiers to Westphalia.[17] Westphalia, when viewed in this context, is certainly the beginning of a period of change in European politics, as well as the economic factors enumerated in Mr. Hobsbawm's article.

Mr. Rabb also notes that popular perspective changed after Westphalia. They had hope for a better future, and were glad that the ordeal of the previous thirty years was over.[18] This was a new feeling for the people of Europe -- that they were in some sort of control over their own destiny and that there was some sort of framework within they would act. It was a sense of order that had certainly not been present during the Thirty Years' War, or, for that matter, since before 1618.[19]

Mr. Trevor-Roper adds that after Westphalia there was a new intellectual atmosphere in Europe: beginning around 1650, "for another century and a half we have another . . . climate, the climate of the Enlightenment."[20] This is a manifestation of the new attitude among Europeans; as new opportunities were seen, scholars began to examine new ways to take advantage of them. This resulted in the new theories of government and social reform seen emerging in the late eighteenth century.[21]

These new ideas on ruling affected diplomacy as well; as rulers saw themselves as independent of each other and saw their reigns as derived from the newfound "truths of humanity,"[22] they behaved differently toward each other than before the Thirty Years' War. Where before the Thirty Years' War (and this change began during the war) religion and religious alliances had been prominent in Europe, after 1648 religion took more of a back seat in defining diplomatic interaction.[23]

This, as well as the initial revolts (as mentioned earlier in this paper) stems from the cuius regio, eius religio clause again; with princes suddenly permitted to exercise their religious freedom within their own states, they were inclined to do so outside their realms as well. Religious bias obviously cannot but destroy international relations under these circumstances; princes were more likely to declare themselves to be the religion they truly believed in, as it no longer mattered to the Holy Roman Emperor, and Protestants had stopped caring about the Pope.[24]

Gone were the days when appearance was everything and Henri IV "converted" to Catholicism to end public outcry that a Protestant was taking the French throne.[25] With the rulers' religions as diverse as they must have been (what with all the small German states in the Holy Roman Empire), considering the religion of an ally or enemy was confusing at best, and completely divisive at worst. All of the smaller German states would have no hope of exercising any international power had they not ignored religion in favor of political expediency.[26 ]

Despite this evidence of the period surrounding Westphalia as a beginning, it is important not to ignore the other side of the coin; that is to say, if Westphalia is seen as a beginning to an era, there must certainly be something ending and giving way to the new, changed world explored above.

Mr. Trevor-Roper states that there was "[f]rom the end of the fifteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth century . . . one climate, the climate of the Renaissance." The focus of Mr. Rabb's book Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe is just this cultural climate. Mr. Hobsbawm also states that until the middle of the seventeenth century, the "taste" of revolution does not become more than an addition to the "medieval or feudal dish" present in Europe.[27] Mr. Rabb begins the "before" period at the year 1500, lasting for a century and a half, until around 1650.[28] There is, then, a consensus among these prominent historians that the period from around 1500 to around 1650 set the stage for the large changes that took place in the middle of the seventeenth century. We shall now explore what ended so that the Peace of Westphalia could begin a new era, keeping in mind that Westphalia somehow serves as a formal closing to the preceding age.

Mr. Trevor-Roper observes, quite correctly, that international warfare was also common, particularly in the final thirty years of the period in question.[29] He goes on, however, to state that the Thirty Years' War was a continuation of the Bourbon-Habsburg wars of the sixteenth century; wars that had ended but with unsatisfactory and inconclusive compromises like the Treaty of Câteau Cambrésis in 1559.[30] Thus previous military and diplomatic (if war can be called such) history had created an environment suitable for war and, subsequently, massive change.

The Peace of 1648 is certainly the end to a destructive thirty years of war. It was the end of the old Habsburg domination of Germany and the surrounding area; the success of the Prussians established the Hohenzollerns as a powerful force in the northern German region.[31] It was an end, Kagan, Ozment, and Turner also point out, to the hegemony of the Ottomans, Swedes, and Poles in eastern and central Europe.[32] There was, then, an air of international instability (importantly, though, a peaceful one) after Westphalia. This was the general political atmosphere, related to but different from other, non-political areas of culture and civilization.

Mr. Trevor-Roper's description of the Renaissance style of Europe in 1500-1650 as creating a need for change is equally important. He writes that there was a great deal of expansion in Europe, in all fields from industry to academia, but that it lacked a key element, which was to surface in the postwar Enlightenment: curiosity. He writes, "they [great writers of the time] adventure, observe, describe, perhaps mock; but they do not analyse, criticize, question."[33] This is in keeping with the sense of group identity that was present in Europe in the sixteenth century. Spain, for example, had a striking sense of unified mission in its exploration and religious endeavors in the New World. Scholars examined this at the time, but no-one dared criticize it.[34]

Mr. Elliott deals primarily with the revolutions of the mid-seventeenth century as they relate to those in the mid-sixteenth century.[35] He complains that the revolutions in the 1500s were "overlooked" as a sort of "general crisis of the sixteenth century."[36] However, the earlier revolutions were not part of a general crisis because they lacked other factors that the seventeenth century possessed (economic decline and general international turmoil are two important ones that surface in the 1600s that did not in the 1500s).[37] But he does raise a vital issue: the revolutions in the sixteenth century were largely failures due to governmental suppression.[38] There was another chance for revolt to induce change a hundred or so years later, and the opportunity was taken.

Again the question arises: where does Westphalia become a part of this? The reply to the first issue, that of questionable diplomacy is that it ends the trend of poor treaties, and, as discussed above, is a strong one that begins a new trend. It seems to resolve the needs of the international diplomatic community in Europe in that the structure of Europe as created at Westphalia is quite clear and agreeable to all parties involved.[39] This ends the period of incapable diplomats writing treaties as stop-gaps between wars, to allow time to recover and fight again.

This was, we can assume (given the unlikely nature of its change otherwise), a mostly deliberate response to a need. This need had not been observed before, because social commentators were not big on questioning. After 1648 the Enlightenment's opportunities for social question and change were new and different; the old pattern of looking closely but not analyzing or modifying had drawn to an end. Westphalia and its success mark the first example of Europeans taking advantage of this new consciousness.

After Westphalia, notably in the Netherlands, the new courage of thinkers to question themselves and to challenge society to change became evident. The crises of 1650 and 1672 (as well, Mr. Trevor-Roper notes, as the one in 1618 -- he also notes that the Netherlands were an anomaly in this regard) were not general crises in a small area but were instead less significant political crises on top of a solid social structure.[40] "[T]he top-heavy apparatus of the State had been purged [as a result of inquiry and dissent]: society beneath was sound."[41]

Mr. Elliott's problem of unsuccessful revolts is similar to the crises in the United Provinces, in that they were not broad enough in their urgency to qualify as general crises. The Treaty of Westphalia ended the call for these specific revolts (though not, it must be noted, the call for revolts entirely) by satisfying, for the most part, all interested parties, including, in the end, the populace of Europe.[42]

Quite a bit happened to the population of Europe in the period between 1500 and 1800. Directly in the middle of this period falls the Treaty of Westphalia. It would be fallacious to assume that everything before 1648 was building in a concerted effort to the treaty, as it would also be wrong to claim that everything after that time had as its major cause the end of the Thirty Years' War. But the Treaty of Westphalia was not in any way insignificant in early modern European history. It was a result of the century and a half leading up to it, and was a definite division point in European history. Westphalia formalized what had been needed for a hundred and fifty years, and set the stage for further development of change for the next fifteen decades or so.

[1]Hobsbawm, E.J., "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century," in Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660, ed. Trevor Aston (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1965), 5.

[2]Hobsbawm, 5. Trevor-Roper, H.R., "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century," in Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660, ed. Trevor Aston (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1965), 59. Rabb, Theodore K., The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe, (Oxford University Press: New York, 1975), 36. Elliott, John, "Revolution and Continuity in Early Modern Europe," in The General Crisis of the 17th Century, ed. Geoffrey Parker (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1978), 111.

[3]Hobsbawm, 9-10.

[4]Hobsbawm, 10.

[5]Hobsbawm, 12.

[6]Hobsbawm, 12-13.

[7]For more information on these issues, read Mr. Hobsbawm's article entitled "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century," one source of which is listed in footnote #1.

[8]Hobsbawm, 14.

[9]Hobsbawm, 14.

[10]Rabb, 78. See later in this paper for further discussion of this issue.

[11]Examples of this include the Hundred Years' War; see Ross, James Bruce and Mary Martin McLaughlin, The Portable Renaissance Reader, (Penguin: USA, 1977), 60. The timetable points out the end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453 and, simultaneously, the decline of two major powers (the Hanseatic League and Bruges, as well as agrarian changes.

[12]Kagan, Donald, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage Volume B (Macmillan: New York, 1987), 457.

[13]Monod, Paul, lecture at Middlebury College, 15 September 1992.

[14]Friedrich, Carl J., "The Religious Motive Reaffirmed," in The Thirty Years' War: Problems of Motive, Extent, and Effect, ed. Theodore K. Rabb (D.C. Heath & Co.: Boston, 1964), 33.

[15]Rabb, 81-82.

[16]Rabb, 78.

[17]Rabb, 78.

[18]Rabb, 79.

[19]Rabb, 79.

[20]Trevor-Roper, 63.

[21]Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, 636-644.

[22]Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, 644.

[23]Rabb, 80-81.

[24]Rabb, 81.

[25]Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, 435.

[26]Rabb, 81.

[27]Hobsbawm, 5. Mr. Hobsbawm does not, however, explore this idea further in his paper, and instead, as described earlier in this paper, goes on to detail the future developments, after the middle of the seventeenth century.

[28]Rabb, 36.

[29]Trevor-Roper, 61.

[30]Trevor-Roper, 61-62. "[T]he Treaty of Câteau Cambrésis effectively ended France's exploits in Italy and left Spain [and the Spanish Habsburgs] supreme there." from The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, ed. Judith S. Levey and Agnes Greenhall (Avon: New York, 1983), 421.

[31]Kagan. Ozment, and Turner, 535.

[32]Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, 535.

[33]Trevor-Roper, 68.

[34]Monod, lecture at Middlebury College, 6 October 1992.

[35]Elliott, 112.

[36]Elliott, 112-113.

[37]Rabb, 36.

[38]Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, 440.

[39]Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, 459.

[40]Trevor-Roper, 88.

[41]Trevor-Roper, 88.

[42]Elliott, 130.