Treaties and Turning Points: The Thirty Years’ War

Historians need to dispel the myths that have grown up around the Peace of Westphalia.

Cormac Shine | Published in 01 Feb 2016

The Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 1648, by Gerard ter BorchThe Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 1648, by Gerard ter BorchThe Peace of Westphalia, which brought the brutalities of the Thirty Years’ War to an end in 1648, still looms large as a major turning point in the history of both international law and international politics. Indeed, few historical events can match the prevalence of the Westphalian myth, which holds that the Peace marked the emergence of the sovereign state and the modern international system as we know it.

The source of this enduring myth can be traced to an influential article by Leo Gross, described by one critic as ‘the Homer of the Westphalia myth’, which was published in the American Journal of International Law in 1948. Writing on the tercentenary of the Peace, soon after the founding of the United Nations, the Austrian-born legal scholar described 1648 as ‘the majestic portal which leads from the old into the new world’ and ‘the starting point for the development of international law’. This is still the dominant image of Westphalia: a major turning point between the medieval and the modern, the birth certificate of the international legal order. Political and legal theorists generally adopt wholesale the views promoted by Gross, while historians have done little to dispel this myth.

Even today, when scholars regularly invoke the need for a ‘post-Westphalian’ order, or wonder what lies ‘beyond Westphalia’, they implicitly take Westphalian sovereignty as their natural starting point. It is rare to ask ‘why Westphalia?’, though it is a far more useful query if we aim to broaden the scope of the history of international law and politics. 

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SA Jural Assembly Comment: today we are sitting with this very problem where fiction “sovereign states” of the New World Order are claiming to rule over we the sovereign people;

“The words “sovereign state” are cabalistic words, not understood by the disciple of liberty, who has been instructed in our constitutional schools. It is our appropriate phrase when applied to an absolute despotism. The idea of sovereign power in the government of a republic is incompatible with the existence and foundation of civil liberty and the rights of property.” Gaines v. Buford, 31 Ky. (1 Dana) 481, 501.

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