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Of Human Rights and Nation-States

From humble beginnings in a few small German kingdoms, the Reformation slowly spilled out beyond the Holy Roman Empire to the surrounding German-speaking kingdoms such as Austria, and then throughout north-central Europe to Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Bohemia. It provided momentum for the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church in 1537, and the establishment of Protestant state churches in Scotland. Outside of Central Europe, the Reformation would meet stiff resistance, as large established monarchies fought the rise of the first religious minority groups in their kingdoms. Eventually, these kingdom, such as France, would form coalitions to attempt to slow the spread of Protestantism.

Understanding the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire is very important to understanding this conflict. It was a complicated political entity, one with no modern equivalent. Think of it as a decentralized, limited elective monarchy consisting of kingdoms, principalities, and other territories with varying degrees of sovereignty, with representation in the “Imperial Diet” of the Empire, essentially its legislative body. The rulers of these territories were technically vassals who owed the emperor their allegiance, but they also possessed privileges that gave them de facto independence within their territories. Because some rulers controlled multiple kingdoms, and some kingdoms were split among multiple rulers, voting rights in the Diet were held individually by each territory. This was how the Empire came to have a Hapsburg on the throne, while still controlling several kingdoms independently within the empire, separate from the imperial throne. Other states outside the empire could control constituent kingdoms within the empire. Bohemia is such a case; it was a constituent kingdom of the Hapsburg monarchy within the Holy Roman Empire.

16th century map of the Holy Roman Empire

This was the backdrop that eventually led to the Thirty Years War, one of the most devastating wars in European history. It was fought from 1618–1648 and featured almost all the major powers of Europe. Initially it started as yet another war between the Protestant and Catholic kingdoms of Germany, but would eventually spread to include a coalition of Catholic nations led by the Hapsburg kingdoms of Austria and Spain to defend the Holy Roman Empire, and an opposing, nominally Protestant coalition consisting of England, Sweden, Prussia, and other kingdoms.


Religious tensions had persisted since the signing of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, and violations of its terms with respect to the practice of religion where routine. The events leading to the war where triggered by one of these violations. An election of a Catholic king of the kingdom of Bohemia, chosen in 1618, made some of the Protestant Bohemian estates (essentially sub-kingdoms) fear for their religious liberty. Under the Peace of Augsburg, the new Catholic king had a right to impose Catholicism on the entire kingdom. The king elect sent two Catholic representatives to Prague castle to administer the government, but an assembly of Protestants seized them and threw them out a window, know as the Second Defenestration of Prague. The conflict would eventually spread into a full rebellion, forcing the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, to call on King Phillip II of Spain, also a Hapsburg, for assistance. The two formed an alliance with the Catholic League, an association of Catholic German kingdoms.

Depiction of the Second Defenestration of Prague

A coalition of Protestant German states emerged to defend against Ferdinand II and his Spanish allies. The Bohemian estates would apply for admission to a coalition of Protestant German states known as the Protestant Union, with the subtext that the Union’s leader, the Protestant estates original preferred candidate for king, Frederick V, would become king of all of Bohemia. This attempt to undermine the election result and the will of the Catholic Bohemian estates and other estates who supported the Catholic king undermined their support in the Protestant Union. This division would lead to Bohemia and its Protestant Union allies to being routed at the Battle of White Mountain, and Frederick V was outlawed and all of his lands surrendered to Catholic nobles. Catholicism was forcibly imposed on Bohemia by the Catholic League and its allies. The result also led to the dissolution of the Protestant Union, effectively removing resistance to the imposition of Catholic rule to the entire empire, and greatly increasing the power of the Hapsburg kingdoms of Europe. This would have major geopolitical consequences, as the non-Hapsburg powers felt threatened.

Battle of White Mountain, oil painting by P. Snaijers

Over the next few decades, various alliances, some motivated by religious concerns and some by geopolitics and the balance of power would fight a series of conflicts that would pit a coalition of the Hapsburg ruled kingdoms and their allies against a coalition of kingdoms seeking to curb their power. The primary belligerents in the anti-Hapsburg coalition included France, Sweden, Denmark and various Protestant German kingdoms. Supporting the Hapsburgs where Spain, Bavaria, the Holy Roman Empire, and various Catholic German kingdoms. The Thirty Years’ War devastated entire regions, resulting in high mortality from hunger and disease and the death of 20% of the German population. Some kingdoms, such as Brandenberg, had death tolls approaching 50% of their populations. Looting and tribute from local communities was a common method of supporting armies.


Finally, the exhausted combatants entered into negotiations in 1844 to put an end to the overlapping conflicts. These negotiations produced a collection of treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia, which would ratify and extend the concepts of the Peace of Augsburg to all of Europe. Negotiations between the French and Hapsburgs began in Cologne, Germany in 1641. Cardinal Richelieu, one of the most powerful political figures in France, would initially block these negotiations and insist on the inclusion of all allies of France, including other fully sovereign kingdoms and kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. This was done to ensure eventual inclusion of all belligerents to create a lasting and final peace. The Treaty of Hamburg, signed between France and Sweden in 1641 had clarified their relationship as allies who would not enter into a separate peace, which meant Sweden would also be involved in any other negotiations.

The final negotiations took place in a demilitarized zone surrounding the neighboring cities of Münster and Osnabrück. The negotiations in Münster (which was a strictly Catholic kindgom) involved the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, and the new Dutch Republic, which had just gained its independence from Spain. This allowed the Catholic powers who fought in opposition to the Hapsburgs to negotiate on Catholic controlled soil. It was the preference of Sweden, a protestant kingdom, to negotiate with the Holy Roman Empire on Protestant held soil in Osnabrück. The negotiations were extensive, including a total of 109 delegations representing all of the belligerent kingdoms, none of which met simultaneously. Delegations were sent by 16 independent European States, 66 Imperial States, or constituent kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire, and 27 interest groups and mediators, including the papacy.

The Holy Roman Empire in 1848

The final settlement was a combination of three separate treaties. The first, unrelated to the central conflict of the Thirty Years War, was the Peace of Münster, which was signed by the Kingdom of Spain and the new Dutch Republic, marking its formal recognition of independence. This treaty allowed for the participation of the delegation from Holland and the United Netherlands in the wider peace negotiations. Spain still maintained control of the southern provinces, modern-day Belgium.

The two treaties dealing with the core conflict between the Hapsburg and anti-Hapsburg coalitions where known as the Treaty of Münster and the Treaty of Osnabrück. The first was concluded between France, the Holy Roman Empire, and their respective allies. The second included the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden and her allies. With respect to religion, the central tenets were the recognition of the Peace of Augsburg, or the right of self determination of religion within each kingdom, the right for individuals to practice their faith in private if not the established religion, or in public during certain hours. It also considerably limited the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, requiring him to respect the right of the constituent kingdoms within his empire to govern their internal affairs. To enforce this, it authorized the Kingdoms of Sweden and Frances, to act as guarantors of the integrity of the German kingdoms within the Holy Roman Empire with a right to intervene directly if necessary. The concept was conceived by Cardinal Richelieu as a fledgling attempt at collective security, which establishes that the security of one kingdom as the concern of all.

Map of Europe following the Peace of Westphalia

Various territorial adjustments were also made, further confirming the geopolitical considerations that led to the war separate from concerns over religion. The Swiss confederacy (modern Switzerland) and the Dutch Republic (modern Netherlands) achieved formal independence from Hapsburg rule from the HRE and Spain respectively. The kingdom of Sweden was given hereditary control of several German kingdoms in the region of western Pomerania. The Palatinate, the kingdom ruled by Frederick V before his accession to the Bohemian crown, was divided between the son for Frederick V and the kingdom of Bavaria. The kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia received Farther Pomerania in modern-day Poland, setting the stage for its later growth to a major European power. Various other disputes within the German kingdoms were also resolved.

With that, the Peace of Westphalia ended the religious wars in Europe, and the violence that had ravaged the continent for the 130 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It ended 30 years of military campaigns and overlapping conflicts that devastated Central Europe. It also created a new balance of power in Europe, with the Hapsburg kingdoms being curtailed, Bourbon France increasing in power, and the ascendancy of the Swedish Empire confirmed. It furthered the trend of weakening of the Spanish Empire, which would never again achieve great power status in Europe, and destroyed the power of the Holy Roman Empire.


The Peace of Westphalia, and the legacy of the wars of religion, continue to have a major impact on world affairs. The agreement is regarded as foundational to modern diplomacy and the very concept of the nation-state, and the principles governing their relations. Though there is still debate over its influence, the common view is that it resulted in a general recognition of the right of self-determination within sovereign kingdoms. This is broadly referred to as “Westphalian sovereignty”. This includes the principles of the inviolability of borders and the non-interference in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states. The principle in international law that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its own territory is established in the charter of the United Nations.

Council of Münster. Painting by Gerard Terborch.

The concept of Westphalian sovereignty changed the relationship of subjects to their rulers in a subtle way. Previously, many people had borne overlapping, sometimes conflicting political and religious allegiances. The inhabitants of a given state were understood to be subject first and foremost to the laws and edicts of their respective state authority, not to the claims of any other entity, be it religious or secular. Thus, it established the state as the sole political authority within its borders.

Another concept from the agreement, the guarantor state, enforced peace between kingdoms and was a predecessor to the concept of collective security. It said that the integrity of borders within the Holy Roman Empire was a concern for France and Sweden. This concern forms the bedrock of NATO and the defunct Warsaw Pact, where an attack against one nation was seen as an attack on all. This is a powerful deterrent for unwarranted aggression, and for maintaining global political stability.

Finally, the agreement established the concept of minority rights, since it provided for the freedom of worship for subjects of a kingdom if it differed from the official religion. Catholics could practice in Protestant states, with restrictions, and vice versa. Not only that, it used the guarantor role of France and Sweden to guarantee this right within the German kingdoms. It effectively established the recognition of rights of minority religious groups under a binding international agreement, with the concept of internationally guaranteed minority rights as a principle in international affairs.

There is still debate on the exact extent the Peace of Westphalia influenced modern diplomacy. Some argue that Westphalian sovereignty is an out of date concept in a world of globalization and failed states. Supranational entities, such as the European Union, routinely enforce their will on sovereign states for a variety of reasons. There is also broad agreement that it is the prerogative of some states to coerce other states to comply with various international agreements. But this still reflects the idea of a guarantor state, which forms a counterbalance to a strict interpretation of state sovereignty.

Either way you approach the issue, you can’t escape the principles established by this peace. Its legacy is still foundational to foreign affairs, legitimizing power sharing and joint sovereignty, and to human rights, with the establishment of a freedom to worship. These concepts did not rely on moral insight, or on the idea of god-given rights of people. It was the recognition of facts on the ground, that there was a status quo between the major Catholic and Protestant kingdoms, and that the price of fighting it was to great. It was through trial and error, historical experience, that we created the systems of government that make life today much more bearable and prosperous than in the past. We should remember these lessons of history, so we can build on the progress built on the sacrifice of those who came before, and not slip back into a world of chaos, death, and destruction.

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