The Peace of Westphalia and German Society Post-30 Years War

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The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster

The Peace of Westphalia, as represented in the above image of the ratification of the treaty of Münster, finally brought an end to the 30 years war in 1648. (Wiesner-Hanks 323). This peace had major impacts on all of Europe, but especially the political landscape of the Holy Roman Empire. Protestantism was reaffirmed in the North and larger principalities became effectively sovereign, thus ending Hapsburg hopes of forming a unified German state (Wiesner-Hanks 323). In addition to these impacts, the Peace of Westphalia also played a major role in shaping German politics, culture, and society all the way through the demise of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. However, there is some dispute regarding the exact outcome it caused.

Many historians in the mid 20th century, such as A. J. P. Taylor and Geoffrey Barraclough, believed that there was an extended period of societal and cultural deterioration in Germany following the peace of Westphalia. Barraclough would go on to claim. “for a century and more after 1648 Germany stagnated. Petty dynasties, class-bound nobilities and corrupt oligarchies, all guided by narrow motives of self-interest, exercised a harsh and oppressive domination over a peasantry and a middle class both ruined by the Thirty Years War.” (Blanning 2). These bleak views of a backward empire that exploits its own people are then epitomized by Taylor when he says that when the Empire finally fell in 1806 that, “it left no gap, for it had been a nullity since 1648.” (Blanning 2).

In stark contrast to this old view, contemporary historians, like Tim Blanning, assert that the Peace of Westphalia allowed Germany to flourish, both culturally and politically, as it never had before. Blanning believes that the positive impact of the Peace of Westphalia, apart from ending the war, it that it acted as a durable written constitution for the Holy Roman Empire that would last until the Empire’s fall (Blanning 3). Furthermore, Blanning supports the belief that this is actually a parliamentary constitution that resulted in an active and transparent form of government where the rule of law prevailed over absolutism (Blanning 4). Moreover, Blanning claims that the autonomy granted to various German principalities following the Peace resulted in a de facto Freedom of the Press in Germany because, “what could not be published in Prussia could be published in Württemberg, and what could not be published in Hamburg could be published ten paces away in [Danish-ruled] Altona.” (Blanning 7). Thus, not only does Blanning claim Germany enjoys the freedom of the press, but also that it stems from the peace of Westphalia itself.

Regarding the two opposing views on the status of the Holy Roman Empire during its later years, I concur with Blanning. While the opposition is correct in saying that the Peace of Westphalia ended any chance of the formation of a unified German state, this idea is not inherently linked to the deterioration of society. On the contrary, the weakened centralized government allowed Germany to flourish in many ways. Since Hapsburg hopes of forming a nation were ended, their rule would go on to be characterized by an emphasis on their own domain rather than the empire. This can be linked to Austrian state development that occurred in the 17th century and the enlightened ideals that took place there. The following decades would also see the rise of Prussia; a state that was even able to challenge the power of the Hapsburgs and also contributed to the spread of the enlightenment. Thus, although the Holy Roman Empire was forever changed following the Peace of Westphalia, this event should be viewed more as a transition for the empire rather than the end of its story.