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Report on 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' Seminar Three: 23 April 2016

last modified May 13, 2016 04:06 PM

Report on 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' Seminar Three: 23 April 2016

'The Peace of Westphalia — Setting up the solution'

We held the third seminar of the series 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' on the afternoon of 23 April in the Alison Richard Building, University of Cambridge, before a lively audience.

The seminar was in some ways the centrepiece of Phase One of the series (the first four seminars which set out the geopolitical problems and crises in central Europe c.1570—1648, and the resolution of these problems with the Peace of Westphalia), as it directly tackled the questions of how peace was achieved at the Westphalian peace congress, what the terms of the peace were, and which lessons this can furnish for a possible solution to the challenges of the Middle East.

The main speakers were:

  • Peter H. Wilson (Oxford)
  • Maria-Elisabeth Brunert (Bonn)
  • Ralf-Peter Fuchs (Duisburg-Essen)
  • Guido Braun (Bonn)
  • Anuschka Tischer (Würzburg).

Chairing the panels and commentating were:

  • Christoph Kampmann (Marburg)
  • Laura James (Cambridge)
  • Ronald G. Asch (Freiburg)
  • Andreas Whittam Smith (First Church Estates Commissioner)
  • David Trim (Archives, Statistics and Research, Seventh-Day Adventists)
  • Payam Ghalehdar (Cambridge).

Co-convenors Brendan Simms (Cambridge), Michael Axworthy (Exeter), and Patrick Milton (Freie Universität Berlin) welcomed the participants and introduced the event. Michael Axworthy officiated as chairman of the convenors.

Having established the broadly analogous nature of conflict preceding the Peace of Westphalia in Central Europe and that in the current the Middle East (ME), the seminar turned to the nature of Westphalia as a possible inspiration for a future ME settlement. The main points to emerge include the following:

  • Peace negotiations continued throughout the Thirty Years War, in parallel to hostilities. Although there were several important breaks in the fighting when it seemed as if peace had been achieved (1623-24, 1629-30, 1635), peace-making proved to be a more challenging task than expected, and it took five years of negotiations (1643-48) at the Westphalian congress towns of Münster and Osnabrück for definitive treaties to finally be concluded. A lasting peace was so elusive because there was a repeated failure to engage in effective crisis containment. As the war was fought over competing visions of the chiefly confessional elements of the constitutional balance of the Empire, the Habsburgs' practice of punishing and dispossessing enemies (both noble subjects in their hereditary lands, and Imperial Estates, i.e. ruling princes of the German territories) as 'notorious rebels', created an altered constitutional balance in favour of a more hierarchical, centralised Imperial monarchy. This in turn triggered foreign (Danish, Swedish, and French) intervention. The expropriation and displacement of rebel nobles produced large exile communities around which other Habsburg enemies could rally, and who helped recruiting troops for use by the foreign intervening powers. Because systems of regular war financing collapsed from the 1620s, rebel lands and territories needed to be redistributed to allies to ensure their continued assistance. The inability to return these as concessions without losing the means to achieve victory perpetuated conflict. The belligerents fought not to exterminate the enemy but to achieve an acceptable settlement, which paradoxically made it more difficult to end the war.
  • The eventual success of the peace negotiations at Westphalia were in no small measure due to the participation of most Imperial Estates, which made it a 'universal' (i.e. general, multilateral) congress, and permitted the achievement of a compromise settlement which was satisfactory to all members of the Empire. An all-inclusive congress on this scale was unprecedented and it was the willingness of the participants to explore unknown diplomatic terrain that helped the congress succeed. A core cross-confessional grouping of princes that were ready to compromise emerged as a third party, and functioned as an informal mediator between the Emperor's and foreign crowns' plenipotentiaries, which greatly propelled the peace process in its final phase. The role of informal contacts and discussions, as well as non-verbal forms of communication among the envoys and plenipotentiaries was recognised, although more research is needed on this topic.
  • The settlement reached at Westphalia consisted of three main elements: a reformed Imperial constitution; related to this, a revamped religious settlement for the Empire; and an international peace treaty. The participation of the Imperial Estates affected the eventual balance between the Emperor's and the princes' prerogatives that was reached with the adjusted constitutional settlement of 1648. According to the compromise, the princes' 'territorial superiority' was enshrined, giving them a degree of political autonomy, as was their right of participating in decisions on major Imperial policy areas, concluding alliances with other Imperial Estates and foreign powers, maintaining armies, waging war and making peace. On the other hand, their alliance-making capacity was limited by the caveat that alliances must not be directed against the Emperor, the Empire or the Peace settlement. The princes remained subjects of the Emperor as their feudal and judicial overlord, and the Empire and its supreme courts retained judicial oversight over their territories and jurisdiction within them. The still-widespread view of an 'Westphalian system' that supposedly created an order of equal, sovereign states that do not intervene in each other's domestic affairs is therefore fallacious.
  • The true diplomatic masterstroke of the peace settlement was its optimised religious constitution, which laid the foundation for an improved 'juridification' of sectarian conflict. After long negotiations and numerical haggling, 1624 was selected as the 'normative year' according to which the confessional possessions, rights of public (demonstrative) worship, and the confessional status of each territory were frozen. The princes' ability to impose their faith onto their subjects through the 'Right of Reformation' was thereby effectively abolished. Princely conversions (a possible parallel in the ME being revolutions) should no longer have consequences for the subject populations' religious liberties. A graded form of toleration was applied to all adherents of the recognised confessions (to which Calvinism was added). The success of the normative year derived from its gradual acceptance, during the 1630s and 40s, as a benchmark for the re-setting of confessional conditions to a mutually agreed, negotiated point in time. It can be rated as a successful peace-seeking effort on the part of electoral Saxony and other Imperially loyal, Lutheran princes. It was an innovative vehicle for the re-establishment of trust, which had been eroded between the confessional groups from the later sixteenth-century.
  • As an international peace treaty, the foreign crowns gained a limited amount of territory from the Empire as 'compensation' for their efforts at defending 'German Freedom' (princely prerogatives) on behalf of the Imperial Estates. While Sweden, and indirectly France, had also championed Protestant rights at the peace congress, both crowns were frustrated at the tenacious loyalty of the Imperial Estates to its Empire, a factor which scuppered proposals of radical curtailments of the Emperor's prerogatives and authority. The external guarantee of the peace settlement by France and Sweden was of long-term significance because it provided the crowns with a right to intervene in the Empire, after a certain sequence of steps, in order to defend Westphalian terms and stipulations.


Because the settlement is envisaged as in some way a possible inspiration for a future Middle East settlement, and the parallels between the two regions/epochs largely end before the opening of the congress, discussions of applicability to the Middle East were of a more speculative and tentative nature than in the previous seminars.

The relative absence of normative consensus on legitimacy and an overarching political framework in the ME was again noted; centuries of co-existence under the feudal-political and legal umbrella of the Reich produced a tenacious sense of belonging despite civil war, and the Imperial constitution was a shared reference system in Germany. These factors explain the continual willingness among most belligerents to countenance peace and contributed to the success of the treaties, which were explicitly conceived as a pax christiana (Christian Peace). The possible creation of a comparable framework in the ME merits consideration; indeed the widespread desire in the ME of the achievement of a stabilising and pacifying overall structure was noted. Nonetheless, the former Ottoman Empire did historically function as an overarching order.

Despite undeniable contextual contrasts, much can be learned from the successful settlement of a highly complex and challenging set of problems in the 1640s. Given the importance of inclusivity at the Westphalian peace talks, the issue of granting a seat at the negotiating table to entities such as ISIS becomes salient. In the Westphalian case, non-state actors such as the Bohemian and Austrian exiles sought representation but were excluded as their participation would have been intolerable to the Habsburgs. Similarly, the Habsburg negotiators successfully exempted (with minor caveats) the Emperor from the duty of respecting subjects' new Westphalian confessional rights within his own hereditary lands, where the Emperor as a territorial ruler retained a virtually unfettered Right of Reformation. Through a series of such opt-outs and exemptions, as opposed to blanket applicability, similar challenges in the ME could possibly be overcome—be they the question of admitting ISIS as a negotiating partner, or the probable unwillingness of the King of Saudi Arabia, like the Emperor in Vienna before him, to countenance legally grounded interferences or interventions in his kingdom.

The graded form of religious toleration, which guaranteed a minimum level of rights and security for minority groups according to the normative year, yet still recognised a dominant, official confession in most territories, could possibly have a greater chance of general acceptance and therefore practical success in the ME, than an attempted blanket imposition of full universal toleration.

In light of the strong mistrust of external intervention among local actors in the ME, one would need to consider carefully who the external guarantors of any Middle Eastern settlement should be, so as to ensure success—the importance of the general acceptance of the guarantee among inhabitants of the Reich after 1648 (although less so during the sole rule of Louis XIV) is relevant in this context.
Discussion also centred around the question of whether the negotiation process at Westphalia might serve as a useful model for a ME peace process. Mediators played a role at Westphalia, and in the Early Modern period mediating could be seen to bring glory, whereas a stance of neutrality often had negative connotations. The length of the congress had advantages as well as disadvantages; as military conduct became locked into the peace negotiation. Pre-modern European concepts of honour prescribed the insistence upon achieving an 'honourable peace' (pax honesta), and the willingness to continue fighting in pursuit thereof in the hope of achieving one more victory so as to improve one's bargaining position at the negotiating table, largely accounts for the longevity of the congress.

Finally, it was pointed out that rather than serving as a model (which might evoke problematic notions of a template or blueprint), Westphalia might more usefully be conceived as providing a 'toolbox' in aid of peace-making in the Middle East.

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