The Westphalia area of north-western Germany gave its name to the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War, one of the most destructive conflicts in the history of Europe.
The war or series of connected wars began in 1618, when the Austrian Habsburgs tried to impose Roman Catholicism on their Protestant subjects in Bohemia. It pitted Protestant against Catholic, The Holy Roman Empire against France, The German princes and princelings against the emperor and each other, and France against the Habsburgs of Spain. The war was largely fought on German soil and reduced the country to desolation as hordes of mercenaries, left unpaid by their masters, lived off the land.
Rapine, pillage and famine stalked the countryside as armies marched about, plundering towns, villages and farms as they went.
‘We live like animals, eating bark and grass,’ says a pitiful entry in a family Bible from a Swabian village.
‘‘No one could have imagined that anything like this would happen to us. Many people say that there is no God…”
The peace conference to end the war opened in Münster and Osnabrück in December 1644.It involved no fewer than 194 states, from the biggest to the smallest, represented by 179 plenipotentiaries. There were thousands of ancillary diplomats and support staff, who had to be given housing, fed and watered, and they did themselves well for close to four years, despite famine in the country around. Presiding over the conference were the Papal Nuncio, Fabio Chigi (the future Pope Alexander VII), and the Venetian ambassador.
A special postal system handled reams of letters between the envoys and their principals at a time when it took ten days or more to send a communication from Münster to Paris or Vienna and twenty days or more to Stockholm or Madrid. Slowly deals were hammered out. Even then it took almost three weeks just to organize the signing ceremony, which commenced at 2pm on the afternoon of Saturday, 24 October 1648.
The treaty gave the Swiss independence of Austria and the Netherlands independence of Spain. The German principalities secured their autonomy. Sweden gained territory and a payment in cash, Brandenburg and Bavaria made gains too, and France acquired most of Alsace-Lorraine. The prospect of a Roman Catholic recon quest of Europe vanished forever. Protestantism was in the world to stay.
Written By: Tayyeba Sana (Student of IR at IIU)