The Treaty of Westphalia is 360 years old today. Why no candles or at least a party hat?

October 25, 2008 |

The Thirty Years War of 1618 – 48 has sunk into relative, if not complete, obscurity with most historians.  Or least those that write for the masses.  Interest in military history tends to focus on the struggles of the twentieth century followed by the American Civil War and the the Napoleonic War. The Roman conquests and those of Ghengis Khan continue to fascinate of course and why not. They are amazing feats.  That said their impact on modern society pales into insignificance to what the Thirty Years War did to Europe and the impact of the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in Munster this day 360 years ago.

The Thirty Years war started out as a war of religion, the post reformation clash between Protestant and Catholic powers, fought mainly in Germany, and ended up a war between the two (Catholic) Superpowers, France and Spain. It marked the transition from battle being fought largely with cold steel and the push of the pike to the mass use of firepower in the form of musketry and artillery.  It was also one of the most brutal wars ever fought.  It cost 350,000 dead on the battlefield and 8 million civilian casualties.  Germany lost 40 percent of its population.  By way of comparison in World War II, Byelorussia, which suffered the greatest loss per capita losses, (followed closely by Poland) lost 17 per cent of its population.  When the city of Madgeburg was stormed on 20 May 1631 only 5,000 of 25,000 survived the pillage.  By the end of the War the German countryside, usually incredibly fertile, couldn’t support 2,000 men the march. That had a huge impact on the way wars were subsequently fought, in Europe at least. While they were bloody affairs they had a formality about them and there was very little plundering.  For over 200 years wars had relatively little direct effect on a civilian population unless the poor schmucks were in a city under siege or living on or near a battlefield.  Wars revolving around religion became an anarchronism. Modern ideologies of Communism and Fascism are the closest modern manisfestation and that took over 250 years to re emerge (and the analogy is stretched too thin even with that comparison).  It wasn’t until the twentieth centuries conflict that indiscriminate violence on the civilian population became endemic and the notion of making war on an entire people (with bomibing of cities and deliberate starvation policies).

It is a conflict sparsely covered in English literature and even less on the celluiod screen.  On the latter I thoroughly recommend The Last Valley  starring Michael Caine and Omar Shariff.  It was made in 1971 and has that ultra realistic grim look that films of that era loved.  Everything is crap and is only going to get worse.  Such a cynical time in film making, with Three Days of the Condor etc… It is a great story and seems to capture the feel of the period.  Michael Caine’s German accent takes a bit getting used to.   

The significance of the Treaty of Westphalia is hard to underestimate.  It established the basis of the nation state we know it today.  That underpins the way international law operates.  An international Magna Carta if you will.  It deserves to be dusted off regularly.  This Treaty, along with the the Treaty of Versailles would have been Prime Minister Rudd’s ultiamate historical fantasy.  Me, I’ll settle for a night of naughtiness with Cleopatra, or truth be told, Rita Hayworth.  She is the WOW in neon lights!

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