Myth of 1648

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) has been marked as a turning point in European political history, the origin of the modern international system of sovereign territorial states.

Benno Teschke (Myth of 1648) summarizes the thesis: “After 1648, formalized relations between modern sovereign states suspended the criss-crossing relations between heterogeneous feudal actors capped by the hierarchical claims of the Empire and the Church,. The consolidation of exclusive sovereignty, resting on the international monopolization of the means of violence, translated into rulers’ exclusive control of the instruments of foreign policy – the army, diplomacy, and treaty-making. By the mid-seventeenth century, only rulers holding these prerogatives were subjects of international law, based on mutual recognition to the exclusion of rival power centres. With the arrogation of the means of violence by multiple sovereigns and the concomitant establishment of bounded territoriality, the field of politics was formally differentiated into distinct domestic and international spheres, based on internal political hierarchy and external geopolitical anarchy. After the Westphalian settlement, non-territorial political actors, city-states, city-leagues, feudal lords, and other corporate actors ‘dropped out’ of international politics. International relations were institutionalized in permanent embassies, co-ordinating international affairs through regular diplomatic intercourse governed by codified and binding diplomatic protocols and culminating in the regular convocation of multilateral congresses” (2-3).

This had direct implications for the relationship between religion and European politics: “political sovereignty and the discourse of raison d’Etat secularized international relations by undermining religion as a mode of legitimacy, curtailing the universalizing ambitions of the Roman Catholic Church. The separation of politics and religion and the concomitants idea of self-determination entailed the principal of peaceful coexistence among legally equal members of international society,” which was expressed in a code of international law (3).

Thus “universal conceptions of empire and papal aspirations to moral primacy in the context of the res publica christiana gave way to the balance of power as the natural regulator of competitive international relations in a multipolar, anarchical environment” (3).

Teschke contests this view of 1648 on several grounds. He argues that Westphalia didn’t create a new system but rather marked the culmination of a longer era of stat formation. Rather than creating the international system, “it marked the recognition and regulation of the international – or, to be more precise, inter-dynastic – absolutist, dynastic politics” (3).

That last observation points to the role of class and social relations in the post-Westphalian international system (his subtitle is “Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations”). Westphalia gave form to a “non-modern” order, a fact clarified when one unpacks the “social relations of sovereignty that underwrote the Westphalian order” (3).

Regarding the religious issue, Teschke argues that Westphalia stabilized and restored the system (cuius regio eius religio) established by the Peace of Augsburg a century earlier (1555). The Augsburg principle did break “the empire’s monopoly on determining the official faith” of a region, and thus marked “a major change in sixteenth-century European politics” (24).

Teschke, though, wants to ask which direction the change went: “To the extent that rulers gained the right of religious self-determination, that of their subjects was lost. Subjects were forced to adopt the faith of their rulers. The maxim cuius region eius religio was thus decidedly absolutist in charaqcter. If anything, 1555 points to the non-separation of politics and religion in the sixteenth century; the state was not secular, even if denominational pluralism was allowed within the empire. Spanish religious universalism was selectively replaced by plural religious absolutisms” (240).

Westphalia adjusted the situation by stipulating that “every territory was to retain ‘in perpetuity’ the religion it had on 1 January 1624,” which was used as the Normaljahr. Thus Westphalia demanded “an international prescription of the territorial distribution of different confessions.” True, “rulers could change their creeds,” but it didn’t matter: “the official faith of the land was there to stay” (241).

Thus, Westphalia represented a “reversal of Augsburg” since it lodged the decision for religion not in the hands of rulers but in the hands of the international community. Estates replaced rulers as “the guardians of the religious status quo,” and this “severely restricted” the ability of territorial princes to carry on reforming efforts.

In short, there was “an attempt to ‘freeze’ the distribution of confessions so as to minimize conflict. An international treaty that imposes religion on territories can hardly be deemed a step towards internal sovereignty” (241). Westphalia “constituted the internationalization of territorial confessional status – a turning back of the religious clock to 1624, and in constitutional terms to before 1555 – not in order to achieve self-determination, be it either princely or popular, but to ensure peace” (241).

1648 wasn’t the beginning of secular European politics but something close to the opposite: “the res publica christiana was renewed by a pax Christiana” (241).

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