The Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War and guaranteed the rights of Catholics and Protestants within the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Peace of Westphalia, which terminated the Thirty Years’ War
Within a few years, this initially isolated incident in Prague expanded into a general European war. Indeed, the four phases that can be distinguished in the conflict emphasize its international scope: the Bohemian-Palatinate period, 1618-1625; the Danish period, 1625-1629; the Swedish period, 1630-1635; and the Swedish-French period, 1635-1648. The major battleground was the Holy Roman Empire. During the first two periods of the war, the Catholic forces under Emperor Ferdinand II completely overwhelmed the Protestant opposition. The revolt in Bohemia was suppressed and the Rhenish Palatinate was conquered, as was Denmark, which had entered the conflict on behalf of the Protestant cause. The year 1629 found the Catholic cause everywhere triumphant; only the Netherlands, engaged since 1621 in a continuation of the Wars of Independence with Habsburg Spain, managed to hold its own.
Although religious issues played an important role throughout the conflict, they became increasingly subordinated to political interests during the last two periods of the war, when the Swedes and the French cooperated in an attempt to break the power of the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs
Once the Swedes had been deprived of the brilliant generalship of Gustavus II Adolphus through his death in battle in 1632, however, the imperial armies experienced a partial recovery, and a stalemate ensued. This situation was not substantially altered by the direct participation of France in the war after 1635 against the empire and Spain or the continued strength of the Swedish armies, led after the king’s death by the generals Johan Banér
Because fighting continued, diplomatic and military events delayed the formal opening of the peace conference at Osnabrück until July, 1643, and that at Münster until April, 1644. For all practical purposes, however, the congress, plagued by incredible problems of protocol and lack of a definite agenda, did not settle down to serious work until the end of 1645, when Count Maximilian von Trauttmansdorff
Because of their close interrelationship, the major provisions of the Treaties of Münster and Osnabrück,
This purely religious equality had its political counterpart in that the Catholic and Protestant states of the empire were now considered to have equal status in imperial affairs. The victory of equality, however, was limited as to the free exercise of religion by individuals. The princes in several states still had the unqualified right to determine the religion of their territories, a principle rigorously enforced in Austria long after 1648. This principle, known as cuius regio, eius religio and roughly translated as “The religion of the ruler determines the religion of the ruled,” did not solve the problem of individual civil rights, but it made sure that there would always be places where persecuted Catholics or Protestants could find toleration. Finally, ecclesiastical territories were to remain in the possession of the upholders of whichever religion held them on January 1, 1624.
As to the major political provisions of the treaties, Sweden
The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was a landmark in European history. On the religious side, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation had ended. Religion no longer played a critical role in the issues that divided European states. Politically, Sweden emerged as a great power in northern Europe for at least the following sixty years. Likewise, the position of Brandenburg-Prussia was greatly strengthened. The Holy Roman Empire, however, became more loosely organized than before. Modern historians tend to criticize the near-anarchy of hundreds of basically self-ruling principalities that were unleashed within the empire; eighteenth century thinkers such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, though, praised the pluralism of the revised imperial constitution.
Spain’s decline, obvious by 1648, was all the more evident when peace was finally made with France in 1659. France under Louis XIV emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century as the leading Continental power, eager to challenge anew its old adversaries, the Spanish and the Austrian Habsburgs.
As historian C. V. Wedgwood has commented, “the Peace of Westphalia was like most peace treaties, a rearrangement of the European map ready for the next war.”