Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia

Ratification of the Peace of Münster between Spain and the Dutch Republic in the town hall of Münster, 15 May 1648., Gerard ter Borch, public domain

Ratification of the Peace of Münster between Spain and the Dutch Republic in the town hall of Münster, 15 May 1648., Gerard ter Borch, public domain

Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia

This article shall examine the Peace of Westphalia, or the Treaty of Westphalia (that was agreed upon in 1648) within the context of international relations. Many have argued that the Peace of Westphalia (Treaty of Westphalia) is one of the most important events with regards to state sovereignty. In this article, we shall examine key historical events such as the Thirty Years War, the negotiations of various powers in attempts to end the conflicts in Europe, the contents of the treaty of Westphalia that resulted from these discussions, and the implications of the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia on ideas of the state, sovereignty, and related issues international relations.

The Thirty Years War

In order to understand the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, it is critical that one has an understanding of the events that led to the establishment of the Peace of Westphalia. And one of the key historical events prior to the Treaty of Westphalia was the Thirty Years War. Some have suggested that “[t]he Thirty Years’ War was one of the greatest and longest armed contests of the early modern period” (Asch 2014). In terms of its origins, “The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) began when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II of Bohemia attempted to curtail the religious activities of his subjects, sparking rebellion among Protestants. The war came to involve the major powers of Europe, with Sweden, France, Spain and Austria all waging campaigns primarily on German soil” (, 1996). Furthermore, “This conflict, which redrew the religious and political map of central Europe, began in the Holy Roman Empire, a vast complex of some one thousand separate, semiautonomous political units under the loose suzerainty of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Over the previous two centuries, a balance of power had emerged among the leading states, but during the sixteenth century, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation had divided Germany into hostile Protestant and Catholic camps, each prepared to seek foreign support to guarantee its integrity if need arose” (, 1996).

As mentioned, the factors that led to the Thirty Years War varied. Many see the conflict as starting due to religious tensions between the Bohemian state and the citizens. In 1618, Ferdinand II started to restrict religious freedoms in Bohemia. As a result, citizens in Bohemia turned to other Protestant entities in the region such as England, Denmark, and The Dutch Republic (, 1996), following their uprising against Ferdinand II (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). Ferdinand II responded to this by approaching various Catholic allies in Europe. For example, he attempted to shore up his alliance with the papacy, along with other Catholic rulers. This led to the beginning of a conflict within Bohemia. In 1619, for example,

“Ferdinand (elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1619) and his allies won a major victory at White Mountain (1620) outside Prague that allowed the extirpation of Protestantism in most of the Hapsburg lands. Encouraged by this success, Ferdinand turned in 1621 against Bohemia’s Protestant supporters in Germany. Despite aid from Britain, Denmark, and the Dutch Republic, they too lost, and by 1629 imperial armies commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein overran most of Protestant Germany and much of Denmark. Ferdinand then issued the Edict of Restitution, reclaiming lands in the empire belonging to the Catholic Church that had been acquired and secularized by Protestant rulers” (, 1996).

Furthermore, Asch (2014) writes that during this time, there was

an almost unbroken series of Catholic victories in central Europe. The Palatinate was occupied by Bavarian and Spanish troops in 1622, the palatine electoral dignity was transferred to Maximilian of Bavaria, and the army of the Catholic League led by Count Johann Tserclaes of Tilly threatened to dismantle the remaining Protestant strongholds in northern Germany. The troops of the Dutch Republic were too busy defending their own country to intervene in Germany. In fact, the important Dutch fortress of Breda had to surrender in 1625 to Spanish troops, a victory immortalized by Velázquez in his famous painting, La rendición de Breda (16341635; The surrender of Breda). However, King Christian IV of Denmark, who was also, as duke of Holstein, a prince of the empire and who hoped to acquire various prince-bishoprics in northern Germany for members of his family, decided to stop Tilly’s advance in 1625. Hoping for financial and military support from the Netherlands and EnglandCharles I of England was the exiled elector palatine’s brother-in-lawhe mobilized the Imperial Circle (Reichskreis) of Lower Saxony for the Protestant cause. However, he had not anticipated that the emperor would raise an army of his own (counting initially 30,000 soldiers and growing fast), commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian nobleman and the greatest military entrepreneur of his age. Christian’s troops were routed at Lutter am Barenberge (1626). Christian’s ally Charles I of England was equally unsuccessful in his fight at sea against Spain, and France, which might have given support to the opponents of the Habsburgs, was paralyzed by a Protestant revolt during the years 16251628, in which England became involved in 1627. Thus Ferdinand II was able to crush his enemies. Christian had to withdraw from the conflict and signed the Peace of Lübeck in 1629, giving up his claims to several prince-bishoprics in northern Germany but retaining Holstein and Schleswig.”

However, these actions by the various Catholic militaries attracted a response by other Protestants such as Gustavus Adolphus, who beat the Imperialists and drove many of them out of Germany following his Battle at Breitenfeld in 1931. (, 1996). He was also able to win over “many German princes to his anti-Roman Catholic, anti-imperial cause” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014) (In fact, some viewed these actions more about power in Europe compared to the Habsburgs (Osiander, 2001). Others victories by different Protestant forces against Catholic forces “continued until in 1634 a Spanish army intervened and at Nordlingen defeated the main Swedish field army and forced the Protestants out of southern Germany. This new Hapsburg success, however, provoked France-which feared encirclement-to declare war first on Spain (1635) and then on the emperor (1636)” (, 1996). This war brought in a number of other actors during this time. For example, Poland led a military invasion in Russia in 1634 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). Thus,

“The war, which in the 1620s had been fought principally by German states with foreign assistance, now became a struggle among the great powers (Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria) fought largely on German soil, and for twelve more years armies maneuvered while garrisons-over five hundred in all-carried out a “dirty war” designed both to support themselves and to destroy anything of possible use to the enemy. Atrocities (such as those recorded in the novel Simplicissimus by Hans von Grimmelshausen) abounded as troops struggled to locate and appropriate resources. Eventually, France’s victory over the Spaniards at Rocroi (1643) and Sweden’s defeat of the Imperialists at Jankau (1645) forced the Hapsburgs to make concessions that led, in 1648, to the Peace of Westphalia, which settled most of the outstanding issues” (, 1996).

The makeup of Europe was altered following the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia. It has been written that

“When the contending powers finally met in the German province of Westphalia to end the bloodshed, the balance of power in Europe had been radically changed. Spain had lost not only the Netherlands but its dominant position in western Europe. France was now the chief Western power. Sweden had control of the Baltic” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). The Peace of Westphalia (Treaty of Westphalia) put an end to the Eighty  Years War that pitted Dutch and Spanish forces against one another (Hawtin, 3). Furthermore, “The United Netherlands was recognized as an independent republic. The member states of the Holy Roman Empire were granted full sovereignty. The ancient notion of a Roman Catholic empire of Europe, headed spiritually by a pope and temporally by an emperor, was permanently abandoned, and the essential structure of modern Europe as a community of sovereign states was established” (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2014). Furthermore, there were other outcomes of the Peace of Westphalia. 

Map of the Holy Roman Empire in 1648, after the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years' War. Astrokey44, CC 3.0

Map of the Holy Roman Empire in 1648, after the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War. Astrokey44, CC 3.0


The Peace of Westphalia and State Sovereignty

The reason that the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia is discussed so frequently in the studies of international relations has to do with the implications of the Treaty of Westphalia on the international system, namely with regards to the notion of state sovereignty. The reason that there is so much attention to the Peace of Westphalia was because it altered that way that political power structures existed. For example, before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, there was a feudal system in existence throughout much of Europe (Hassan, 2006). And while sovereignty did exist, it was not universally respected across all states the same way. For example, while there were some cases of complete sovereign states, there also existed some entities that were not fully sovereign (Hassan, 2006). However, the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia changed all that, as “[i]t emphased the separation of States. Therefore Christendom was ivided into sovereign secular States with a thick line between them and the government were the absolute authority inside that line. This change brought a new image in every sovereign territorial limit, that is, all Governments are the exclusive authority and their decisions and arguments are exclusively carried out within their territorial limit, as the concept of Westphalian sovereignty is tied to State territory. According to territorial sovereignty, within a territory there is only one absolute temporal power, the Government of that territorial State” (Hassan, 2006).

And because of the Treaty of Westphalia’s ability to place state sovereignty at the forefront of international relations, Hassan (2006) argues that “It recognised the hornogenial system and acknowledged all Princes or States as equally sovereign. It removed temporal power from the church. It was therefore a fundamental charter in nature. As a fundamental and comprehensive charter it established many rules and principles of the new society of states. Some of the general ideas clearly expressed by this charter have been echoed in the following international settlements and in the permanent congress of the League of Nations and United Nations” (65). Thus, the idea of the state leaders to govern themselves without outside interference was the primary contribution and legacy of the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia. However, others have also argued that the Peace of Westphalia (Treaty of Westphalia) also established principles of secularism as a political state structure (Straumann, 2007).

It will be interested to see how the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia continues to influence international relations and the international system. Not only are issues of sovereignty debated, particularly as states commit human rights violations, but additional globalization has also led some to re-examine the ideas of sovereignty set forth by the Peace of Westphalia Okhonmina (2010), since sovereignty has continued to evolve in international relations, even shortly after the Peace of Westphalia was established (Kelleh, 2012), with different approaches to sovereignty, and more attention to non-state actors such as individuals, as well as multinational corporations (Cutler, 2001).



ASCH, R. G. (2014). “Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. 10 Oct. 2014 <>.

Culter, A.C. (2001). Critical Reflections on the Westphalian Assumptions of International Law and Organization: A Crisis in Legitimacy. Review of International Studies, Vol. 27, pages 133-150.

Encyclopedia Britannica (2014). Thirty Years’ War. Available Online:

Hassan, D. (2006). The Rise of the Territorial State and the Treaty of Westphalia. Yearbook of New Zealand Jurisprudence. Vol. 9, Available Online:

Hawtin, J. Political Theory & The Treaty of Westphalia. Available Online: (1996). Thirty Years’ War. History Channel. Available Online:

Kelleh, F. (2012). The Changing Paradigm of State Sovereignty in the International System. Masters Thesis. University of Missouri-Kansas City, Available Online:

Okhonmina, S (2010). States Without Borders: Westphalia Territorality Under Threat. Journal of Social Science, Vol. 24, No. 3, pages 177-182.

Osiander, A. (2001). Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth. International Organization. Vol. 55, No. 2, pages 251-287.

Straumann, B. (2007). Peace of Westphalia (1648) as a Secular Constitution. Constellations, IILJ, Vol. 15, No. 2, pages 1-24.

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