Thirty Years War relations between states | Example History Essay

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What was the significance of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) for the relations between States? To what extent is Modern diplomacy Renaissance diplomacy in disguise?

The conflicts known as the Thirty Years’ War fundamentally altered the balance of power in Europe. Indeed, it could certainly be argued that modern diplomacy is ‘Renaissance diplomacy in disguise’, largely as a result of this. The conflict forced into being allegiances and alliances that can still be seen today and which in part shaped subsequent conflicts within European nation states.

Initially, the Thirty Years’ War was a religious conflict, though resulting from a ‘complex sequence of events’ , but it quickly escalated into a more comprehensive power struggle in the Holy Roman Empire:The Thirty Years’ War may be viewed from two aspects–a European and a German one. In respect of the first, it was the last of the great religious wars, closing the epoch of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, proving to the Catholic Powers of Europe that their ideal unity was no longer attainable and teaching mankind, by the rudest possible process, the hard lesson of toleration. In respect of the second, it had a somewhat similar effect. Germany was a Europe in miniature; her nominal unity under the Hapsburgs was a parallel to the Catholic ideal unity of Europe under the Pope and the Emperor. This unity was blasted forever by the muskets of the opposing armies. But worse than this; when the war began Germany was a rich country, as the countries of Europe then went. She was really full of cities, which, though their main threads of commerce were fast snapping, might yet fairly be called very flourishing. When the war ended she was a desert.

The decimation is extremely significant since it gives an insight into why the proactive, even aggressive, aspect to German territorial diplomacy in modern terms can be seen to be historically traceable and Renaissance diplomacy allied to it in embryo. In addition, it can be seen that the conflict itself was an integral part of the way in which countries were perceived and in how they perceived themselves, for example

‘Renaissance Denmark’ was expanding and wished to gain control with Sweden over ports on the Baltic which were in German hands. This period of aggression facilitated individual concerns such as this, both within and outside of the Empire, as well as exposing entrenched grievances and Church power over lands which they were reluctant to give up even after changing religion: ‘Everything depended on bringing the doubtful ecclesiastical principalities into the hands of men whose power and whose orthodoxy should alike be undoubted’ . Thus, it can be seen that the Thirty Years’ War is not easy to define in terms of the precise nature of its cause. Like most conflicts, its outbreak was due to reasons many and various and its progression and aftermath reflected this state of fragmented relations. In many ways, the Thirty Years’ War was as much evidence of the failure of Renaissance diplomacy as anything else:

That particular moment in history, the dozen years between the Twelve Years Truce of 1609 and the fatal spreading of the Thirty Years’ War, offered Spanish diplomats a unique opportunity. Between 1598 and 1609 some sort of peace was patched up, first with France, then with England, and finally with the rebellious provinces of the Netherlands so that, although many problems were left unsolved, there was again something like a community of nations in which diplomats had room to manoeuvre. At the same time, though Spanish power was little more than a husk, Spanish prestige was scarcely diminished.

The significance of the Thirty Years’ War for the relations between States, therefore, is to a great extent connected with both contemporary and modern diplomacy, with the current diplomatic relations and practices amongst states very much an echo of Renaissance diplomacy ‘in disguise’. The ‘patched up’ peace referred to above had an inherent inevitability of failure because it did not take into account the way in which individual imperatives would not only conflict with but also capitalise on the years of conflict:

In 1618, over half a century of festering religious, dynastic, and strategic tensions erupted into civil war in the Holy Roman Empire, subsequently engulfing the entire European continent in thirty years of exhausting and utterly devastating warfare. Wars are seldom simple affairs, but the Thirty Years’ War was even more complex than most, prompting endless scholarly debates about its causes and the motives of the major protagonists.

Thus, it can readily be seen that as with the Danish desire to wrest Baltic control from the Germans the long held ambitions of individual states were given the capacity to develop under the umbrella of the conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War. Clearly, the tensions which continue to exist within Europe and the way in which modern diplomacy operates can be seen to be rooted in the same entrenched desires. Indeed, even the ending of the protracted conflict in the terms of the Peace of Westphalia, has strong resonance for contemporary commentators on the way a diplomatic resolution at one point can evolve into further conflict, as the terms of the Treaty of Versailles are frequently seen as the root of the First World War:

The product of seven years of diplomatic wrangling and protracted negotiation, the Peace of Westphalia is generally seen as a crucial watershed in the transition from a heteronomous system of rule to a system of territorial sovereign states. […] This representation of the Westphalian settlement has attained almost canonical status in the discourse of international relations, but it should not be overdrawn. Significant as they were, the Treaties of Munster and Osnabruck were but one step in the territorialization of sovereign authority.[…] the Treaties of Westphalia played a crucial role in defining the scope of territorial rule. That is, they defined and codified an historically contingent range of substantive areas over which princes and monarchs could legitimately exercise political authority. The geographical extension of these political rights, however, was left ill-defined, with the reach of dynastic ties and ancient feudal rights defying the clear territorial demarcation of sovereignty.

The relations between states which the Thirty Years’ War established were entrenched within territorial sovereignty and this was to have extreme repercussions over succeeding centuries of diplomacy. From this point onwards, in fact, sovereignty would be a major issue in all diplomatic negotiations and remains so. Indeed, it might be argued that the Peace of Westphalia was as significant for what it failed to achieve as for what it accomplished, since it established political authority but could not take into account the extent of historical and dynastic connections or the influence of feudal rights, as stated above. Therefore, the creation or affirmation of sovereign states at the culmination of the Thirty Years’ War attempted to impose or redefine territorial rights which in many cases went against historical claims:

In medieval Europe political authority was decentralized and nonexclusive; a multitude of actors held rights to rule, and the content and jurisdictional purview of these rights varied temporally, spatially, and substantively, often overlapping in complex and contradictory ways. Originally, such rights were held en fief, bestowed by a superior lord in return for aid and counsel. In the late medieval period, however, the possession of feudal rights hardened; the idea that they were bestowed from above and maintained by conditional bonds of mutual obligation receded into the background, and feudal rights came to be seen as patrimony, as rightful inheritance.

The Peace of Westphalia, in creating sovereign states, altered the essential dynamic of relations between states. The new treaty, ending the Thirty Years’ War did not take account of these rights, replacing them with a new system of sovereign rule created, it is often said by faulty law and Machiavellian diplomacy: Hinsley argues that the Treaties of Westphalia 2came to be looked upon as the public law of Europe” but that law is questionable in its effectiveness, validity and viability, both contemporaneously and in its effects in the present day. The significance of the Thirty Years’ War for the relations between States, therefore, is closely allied to the assessment of to what extent Westphalia was effective, or indeed lawful:

It is clear from the texts of the treaties, and from accounts of the negotiations, that the settlement’s legality did not derive from the existence of formal ‘contractual’ agreements between the princes and monarchs of Europe, or at least not primarily. The treaties were written and duly signed accords, but the bases of their legal sanctity lay elsewhere.

The diplomacy which brought about this somewhat equivocal ‘peace’, therefore, needs to be examined in greater detail.

Renaissance diplomacy relied heavily upon the desire by those with power to expand and protect that power. The territorial claims which emerged and developed during the course of the Thirty Years’ War had little to do with the original religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics which began the war in the Holy Roman Empire and everything to do with the Renaissance diplomacy which was rooted in the desire to maintain and expand power. Rulers, of feudal origin, had mostly seized the power they possessed, could not rely on the loyalty of their subjects and needed to sustain their wealth by territorial alliances and self-serving allegiances. Morality had little, if anything, to do with Renaissance diplomacy and everything to do with what could be gained by power hungry individuals, including the ‘princes of the Church’, who even when they changed their religion were reluctant to sacrifice the control they had. After the creation of sovereign states by the Peace of Westphalia, these feudal lords were often compelled to comply with laws that were imposed upon them, parts of which can still be seen in significant aspects of contemporary diplomacy, for example permanent ambassadors with rights of impunity and foreign offices. Both of these were designed, and still are, to ensure that the power of a sovereign state was established and upheld in territories beyond their own. In this case, it can be clearly seen that modern diplomacy is indeed Renaissance diplomacy in disguise. Further, the territory of an embassy was established as being a foothold of the sovereign state it represented even though established in a foreign land. All of these aspects of Renaissance diplomacy remain fundamental to modern diplomacy and to the relationship between states. The European Union has affected this in abstract but has struggled to enforce its challenges in practice, with sovereignty a passionately debated issue in most treaties. Therefore, although it is important to remember that, ‘the peace treaties [of Westphalia] do not specifically include much evidence for the claim that Westphalia is the crucial turning-point in the emergence of sovereignty [and] there is no mention of the word “sovereignty” , essentially, the diplomacy which produced the treaty at the end of the Thirty Years’ War is still in place and even though ‘with the birth of the Modern Age […] the diplomatic institution underwent a profound transformation’ its connection with Renaissance diplomacy is still evident.

In conclusion, it must be stated that after the Thirty Years’ War, the power of individual feudal laws and lords was irrevocably diminished and there was more incentive for sovereign nation states to form mutually and generically beneficial alliances. However, as is clear from wars between such states trough the centuries, it could not achieve lasting peace, though its importance in developing relations between nation states and establishing diplomatic procedure is profoundly important:

Westphalia is not a literal moment of political transformation but, rather, the symbol of that change. Westphalia symbolized putting one of the final and most decisive nails in the coffin of the medieval claim that all European states were subject to the spiritual leadership of the pope and the political leadership of the Holy Roman Emperor. After Westphalia that was a hollow claim. As one historian puts it: ‘this extraordinary compromise saved the theory of religious unity for each state while destroying it for the Empire.’ A modern society of sovereign states had been created out of the political debris of a ruined medieval Christian empire.

Nevertheless, there is a school of thought that reduces the importance of Westphalia, stating particularly that: ‘the rise of the sovereign state was over three centuries old by the time of Westphalia’ . Notwithstanding, the profound effect that the Thirty Years’ War had on the development of the recognition of the sovereign state is difficult to overestimate and certainly, there is strong evidence of Renaissance diplomacy today.


Jose Calvet De Magalhaes, Bernardo Futscher Pereira, The Pure Concept of Diplomacy, (Greenwood Press, New York, 1988).

Kevin Cramer, The Thirty Years’ War and German Memory in the Nineteenth Century, (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE., 2007).

Paul Douglas Lockhart, Frederik II and the Protestant Cause: Denmark’s Role in the Wars of Religion, 1559-1596, (Brill, Boston, 2004).

C.R.L. Fletcher, Gustavus Adolphus and the Struggle of Protestantism for Existence, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1890).

Ernest F. Henderson, A Short History of Germany, (Macmillan Company, New York, 1902).

Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003).

Andrew Macrae, ‘Counterpoint: The Westphalia Overstatement’, International Social Science Review, Vol. 80, 2005.

Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy, (Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, NY, 1989).

Christian Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ., 1999).


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