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Report on 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' Seminar Two: 19 March 2016

last modified Apr 01, 2016 12:58 AM

Report on 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' Seminar Two: 19 March 2016

'The sixteenth and seventeenth century crisis in central Europe - Setting up the problem'

We held the second Seminar of the series 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' on the afternoon of 19 March in the Alison Richard Building, University of Cambridge, before an enthusiastic audience.

A Westphalia for the Middle East: Session 2

The Seminar took place under the title 'The Peace of Westphalia – Setting up the Solution'. We designed it to explain the origin and course of the Thirty Years War, explaining the nature of the complex conflicts in Germany and Europe in the 17th century and establishing the context for the Peace of Westphalia, while continuing to point up parallels with the contemporary Middle East (ME); following on from our previous seminar at KCL on 2 March.

The main speakers at the event were Michael Kaiser (Max Weber Stiftung/Cologne), Peter Wilson (Oxford), and Christoph Kampmann (Marburg). Chairing and commentating were Ali Ansari (St Andrews), Andreas Whittam Smith, Malik Dahlan (Quraysh Foundation), and Philip Bobbitt. Brendan Simms (Cambridge) and Patrick Milton (Freie Universität Berlin) welcomed the participants and introduced the event on behalf of the Forum for Geopolitics, and Michael Axworthy officiated as chair of the convenors.

Some of the main points that emerged included -
1. The erosion of certainties and the loss of faith in unifying structures and structures for dialogue in the years preceding the outbreak of war in 1618; Spaniards took over from Turks as popular bogeymen; moderates were marginalised and a sense grew that normal politics was dissolving into the false certainties of sectarianism, which coincided with institutional paralysis in the consultative bodies of the Holy Roman Empire.

2. Many myths persist about the 30YW – e.g. that Germany was a victim, and that the war was senseless and ran out of control. But in fact the German states retained 'agency' (an echo of comments about the ME in our first seminar) and the commanders had plans, objectives and their own idea of control up to the end of the 1640s; what looked out of control to civilians had nonetheless a logic and a form of control for commanders. One way to see the 30YW was as an Imperial Civil War, with management of the Imperial constitution and especially church property and ecclesiastical territory as the prime points at issue.

3. It is common to see 30YW as a war in which neighbouring states fought proxy wars on German territory (an echo of the victim idea) but equally, external powers were sucked into the conflict as it became imperative to protect their interests. War was not inevitable; moderates were always in a majority and all of the participants were militarily weak most of the time.

4. The 30YW took place against a background of longer-term dynastic struggles in Europe; between France and Spain since the late 15th century, and between Spain and the Netherlands since the 1560s; internationalisation of the conflict was delayed, but after the catastrophe (for the Imperialists) of the Swedish intervention in 1631, the Emperor strove hard to de-internationalise the conflict and appeal to Imperial sentiment, through the conclusion of the Peace of Prague (1635), which drew in almost all German princes. By this stage, however, the war had arguably become irreversibly internationalised with the foreign crowns determined to remain engaged and belligerent until the Imperial constitutional balance returned to a less monarchical and more federal equilibrium, and until they had secured other forms of 'compensation' for their interventions on behalf of so-called German Liberties.

5. Parallel between the exploitation of new technologies for exacerbating sectarianism in the 17th century (pamphleteering) and now (internet, twitter); and between the (fading) unifying effect of hostility to the Ottoman Turks in 17th century Europe, and hostility to Israel in the contemporary ME, also fading as sectarianism and other tensions gained ground.

6. When wars drag on, spread, deepen and just keep going, like the 30YW, they enter a new category and raise questions about the health and viability of underlying structures. We look at the ME crisis now, but that crisis also questions our own assumptions about the national state and relations between states.

7. The relevance of often-contentious historiographical debates among experts on the Thirty Years War to the accuracy and persuasiveness of the ME/16th-17th C. central Europe analogy was recognised. On one side of the debate, the interpretation of the 30YW as not being a religious war, but instead resulting from competing interpretations of the Imperial constitution in which confession was enmeshed with law and politics—an Imperial Civil War—seems to paint a picture less analogous to the ME than other interpretations of the 30YW, which stress the role of growing confessional antagonism and polarisation in the road to conflict, and the importance of incremental internationalisation in its perpetuation.

8. The return of religion as a phenomenon both in Europe at the turn of the 16th-17thC. and in the ME of the last decades: The 1555 Religious Peace of Augsburg had established a durable working compromise between Catholics and Lutherans (inaugurating the second longest period of peace in German history, surpassed only by 1945—present) but Imperial politics became confessionally confrontational again from late—16th C, as have sectarian relations in the ME in the last 30-or-so years.

9. Consequently, as in the first seminar (a conceptual parallel in itself), some questioned the tendency to sideline, qualify or otherwise relegate the importance of religion. The idea of an underlying cause of the war being the radicalism of Calvinists and the drive of the Emperor to roll back the Reformation with the help of Spanish troops and Spanish gold still had its adherents.

10. An obvious difference between the two epochs/regions is the absence in the ME of an overarching and hierarchical constitutional-political framework such as the Holy Roman Empire, with a shared and binding legal-political culture and national identity. Nevertheless, a parallel can be discerned between the Emperor and the King in Saudi Arabia now; the latter with the responsibility and prestige as custodian of the holy places, central to Islam as a whole, but without the Imperial culture of the former at his disposal, which in the end had been a prime mechanism for bringing the war to an end.

11. Law and legal structures had been important in facilitating the Westphalia peace; parallels in the ME needed to be explored; the questions of state sovereignty and conditional sovereignty were central as they had been in the first seminar.

12. The instincts of Germany and Europe in the 17th century had been highly conservative – yet the idea of a universal congress which brought about the Westphalia peace had been a bold and ground-breaking innovation (largely French-inspired) - similar boldness was needed in the ME now.

13. One way to view 1648 is that the Empire was reinventing itself (after the previous effort at the end of the 15th century) - similarly, reasonable to see ME as a post-Imperial (post-Ottoman) space in which the post-1918 arrangements had failed.


Our next seminar will be on 23 April, in Cambridge, when we will explore the Westphalia treaties and their immediate context in more detail.

As before, all those who have attended up to now are invited for the next and successive seminars, but please do confirm your attendance if you have not already done so. We urge everyone to keep coming and to keep contributing as they did so effectively on 2 and 19 March.
In particular, we are looking forward to the second phase of the project, which will take place in the first months of 2017; this is planned in outline but we are still very much open to ideas and offers for participation.