Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Post-Westphalian Age

The treaties were signed, but peace was far from eternal.

After tearing itself apart for 30 years, the various powers of Europe; Spain, France, Sweden, the Dutch, the Habsburgs and others had made their peace, but not completely. Spain remained at war with France. France was consumed by a revolt led by some of its court's highest profile noblemen. The Dutch remained locked in a struggle across the sea with Portugal in modern-day Brazil, and of course, foreign intrigue and competition was forever in the background of all dealings that were concluded by European statesmen.

A simple map of Europe c. 1648

A rather more depressing map of the HRE that brings it all home. The different tones show the variation in the drop in population that the war caused.

The Thirty Years War had revealed the limits of power in Early Modern Europe.  States could only go so far when mobilising their populations or resources. They could only push their people so far before revolt threatened. Events in France vindicated this, as did events in Spain, where revolution in Catalonia and its Portuguese vassal had ripped its prospects apart. In addition for Spain, there was no escaping the fact that in the case of its longest running revolution, the Dutch, its failure to quell that corner of its empire's dissension had resulted in the transformation of the European balance of power.

The Dutch were embarking on their Golden Age, a fact that would set them on a collision course with virtually all of their neighbours. For the moment though, their prospects looked bright. Their former overlord Spain was enmeshed in its own numerous problems, a fact which enabled the Dutch to become the most important trading partner of the Iberian Peninsula. The Dutch success was made that much easier by the utter chaos that their sometimes geographical rival England had fallen into.

The English Civil War consumed the entirety of the British Isles. Uncertain loyalties in Ireland, Scotland and in the New World necessitated campaigns of notable ferocity and destruction in these regions. By the late 1640's Charles I had been captured by forces loyal to the Parliament and the first phase of the civil wars appeared to be nearing an end. The most striking acts of this play had yet to come however; a head had yet to roll, a Commonwealth had yet to be declared and a protector had yet to be named. All of these would come in time, but for the moment England was not in a position to stake its claim to the international system as it once had, leaving, for the moment, the task of assessing and acting to preserve the balance of power to the Dutch.

The face of change: Oliver Cromwell in 1656. 

The head that would roll. Charles I of England and Scotland. 

But the Dutch weren't the only state transformed by the wars of before. The Swedish Empire had been born from them. Having emerged from the obscurity of Scandinavia and from under Denmark's shadow thanks to the exploits of its conquering king Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden had gone on to endure difficult periods and incredible highs, to the point that it was an undeniable first class power by 1648. Unlike other powers of its time, Sweden had made its name and achieved this new rank purely by force of arms alone. Few other powers could claim the startling rise to power that it could, but the majority of Sweden's neighbours had more binding them together after 1648 than the threat of Swedish armies. The consequences of this fact will be felt in future, but as the daughter of Gustavus, Cristina, came of age in 1644, Sweden appeared destined to remain at its newfound place of prosperity.

Johan de Witt, the de facto PM of the Dutch Republic from 1653-1672

The definer of an era: William III of England began his career as William III, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder in the States of Holland. His incredible career and rivalry with Louis XIV is one which is long overdue a film, or at least a long series on Netflix. 

A typical Dutch painting of sailboats, 1679. Note the abundance of orange.

Of course, it had reached this new level at the expense of its neighbours. Poland and Denmark in particular still had notable bones to pick with the Swedes. In the case of the former, dynastic ties and an ugly family feud meant that the two lines of the Vasa family sat at very different ends of the European spectrum in 1648. This rivalry would erupt over the coming years, but for the moment Poland was occupied with its quest to quell nationalist rebellion from its Cossack minority, and Denmark was still reeling from the devastating campaign of assassination that Sweden had launched against it only a few years before. For Poland in particular, the growing power of Russia was a cause for concern, and indeed for Swedish policymakers, focusing on the need to protect their newly won Baltic territories, the Russians seemed like the enemy of the future. Over the previous years they had modernised and expanded their army greatly, as well as see the extension of the Tsar's power over lands to the east, north, west and south of Moscow.

Russia could not expand forever though. To its south lay the formidable Ottoman Empire, whose stake in Balkan affairs would not be shifted for another three centuries. The Thirty Years War had certainly given it a reprieve from any wars with the distracted Habsburg family, but its vassals in the Crimean Tartars and Transylvania had been very busy indeed. Their control over an effective buffer zone led to permanent unease in Vienna, and in the Habsburg court a future war with the Turk seemed both likely and necessary. The Thirty Years War had changed how the Holy Roman Empire operated, but it remained the primary cultural and political nerve centre of the Germans. This would not change for the remainder of the century, but signs were already emerging that things would not be the same after Westphalia.

The Habsburg hereditary lands that encompassed most of the Austrian Empire formed the backbone of the HRE. Surrounding it was Bavaria, its sister Catholic heartland and its valuable ally throughout the war. To the north things became more complex. Brandenburg-Prussia straddled Pomerania and some critical Imperial fiefs. Saxony remained a Protestant stronghold and a centre of European learning. The Rhineland and its Palatine family had fingers in numerous pies despite their humiliation and exile in years past. First and foremost, the election of a new emperor, though it would seem to be mostly a formality by this stage, remained an important European event. Until that fact changed, and until Europeans could ignore the pull of Vienna in favour of another capital, the Empire of the Germans would always be relevant.

Great contemporaries: Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor 1658-1705

Tsar Alexis I of Russia, 1645-1676

The Sun King Louis XIV, King of France 1643-1715, though ruling solo only from 1661.

The Thirty Years War had left many scars; it was hard to imagine that such a war could ever occur in Europe again; the extent to which the ordinary man had had to bear the brunt of such savage conditions meant that an indelible imprint had been left on the European, but especially German psyche. War had by no means vanished from the plethora of tools at a statesman's disposal, but it had certainly lost much of its sheen, and the reasons for waging it had notably been altered. Sovereignty and independence, state power and the absolute rights of kings; these were issues which concerned Europeans now. Whether they would lead to the same level of warfare and destruction as the previous thirty years had wrought remained to be seen, but many issues remained at the top of European politics that could not be ignored, and many figures were waiting in the wings to take these issues to their logical conclusion, as their father's statesmen and their grandfather's statesmen had done so terribly before. War would always be on the horizon in post-Westphalia Europe; what remained to be seen was where conflict would be experienced next.


Hello history friends! Welcome to a new season of WDF! Season 3, if my calculations are correct. This new season will see me present to you a new series of wars. Some would call these wars obscure, others would consider them essential for understanding how modern Europe came to be. It is my pleasure to attempt to bring these wars to you, and to bring to life new eras of history which were simply dying to be discovered. I hope you'll join me for the ride! Thanksssssssss! :D

Zack (B.A.)

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