How to Make Peace

Cover page of the publication of the Peace of Westphalia from 1648.

Instrumentum Pacis

Printed in 1648, 1649 and 1650 by Nikolaus Heil in Mainz, published by Philipp Jakob Fischer in Frankfurt


Many people think of the Second World War when they are asked to name the military conflict that had the largest impact on the area we call Germany today. But there is another conflict at the beginning of the history of the FEDERAL REPUBLIC. During the Thirty Years’ War, the emperor fought for his power over the princes while the princes fought in alliance with foreign powers for their independence from the central power. The princes won – but the German population had to pay a high price for it!

Almost half of the Germans did no longer live at the end of the Thirty Years’ War – at least in parts of the empire. Trade and the crafts sector collapsed everywhere. Assets had been destroyed, as had the vital infrastructure.

The economy of all warring parties had fallen apart, and they were no longer able to finance their huge armies. Groups of ragged soldiers tramped through the entire country and plundered so as not to starve to death.

No Quick End to a Decade-Long War

At some point, everybody just wanted this terrible war to end. But, of course, only provided that what one had fought for so fiercely and sacrificed so much for would be included in the treaty.

In addition, there were problems regarding the protocol: Obviously, the emperor was still the highest ruler. But what about the king of France and the queen of Sweden? Whose position in the hierarchy should be higher? How should all the large and small powers be taken into account appropriately? After the first exploratory talks in 1637 it took four more years until the parties agreed on a location and on which warring parties would have the right to take part in the discussions.

Eventually, the emperor’s ambassadors, the Imperial State and the Swedish met in Osnabrück. Catholic France met with the Imperial envoys in Münster mediated by the Curia and Venice. Otherwise, papal nuncios would have had to sit together with Protestants at one table! Shocking!

The invitation to the congress took place in 1641. The negotiations started in June 1645. And on 24 October 1648, the representatives of Emperor Ferdinand III, King Louis XIV and Queen Christina of Sweden finally, finally signed the treaty.

Treaties and Settlements

It was no simple treaty but a comprehensive set of treaties that the more than 70 diplomats had agreed on. Every sentence, every word, every comma had been discussed before proceeding to the final signatures.

And yet, the two treaties written in Latin concluded by the emperor and the French king and the emperor, the Imperial State and the Swedish queen were only the beginning. In other words, they were no more than a general declaration of intent that the parties actually wanted to make peace now. Only later – while the armies continued to scorch and plunder through Germany – the details of the new peace order were negotiated. And so, the points of detail only were discussed in the treaty of 1649: Now the parties decided when who would have to cede which territory and who would receive which war reparations at what time.

Once again, two treaties were concluded: The so-called Interim Settlement (“Interims-Rezess”) in September 1649, and the Imperial Main Peace Settlement (“Reichs-Friedens-Haupt-Rezess”) in July 1650.

And How Does the General Public Get to Know About it?

There had probably been no other war that had changed the daily life of large sections of the population as much as the Thirty Years’ War. Therefore, it was no surprise that there was large interest in the peace conditions. Not only among specialised lawyers. Every educated citizen that was politically active in his hometown wanted to know exactly what had now been agreed on. This broad interest made the set of treaties around the Peace of Westphalia an excellent business opportunity for publishing houses.

The treaties were published in Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Leipzig, Vienna and Münster – of course with an Imperial privilege – in the original language Latin and / or translated rather poorly into German. Already the contemporaries complained about the bad translations with their many mistakes! Yes, there were even reviews warning lawyers of using the German versions as a legal basis.

An impressive total of 19 editions of the treaty between the emperor and France was published. The demand for the treaty between the emperor, the Imperial State and Sweden was even higher. 38 editions were published in order to meet the gigantic demand.

Our copy was produced by the master printer Nikolaus Heil located in Mainz. Nikolaus Heil owned the Imperial printing plant and worked on behalf of the elector of Mainz, the archchancellor of the empire and thus the empire’s highest prince after the emperor himself.

However, Mainz was a bit remote for the purposes of book trade. The annual book fair was held in Frankfurt! Therefore, Nikolaus Heil collaborated with the Frankfurt publisher Philipp Jakob Fischer, who guaranteed the distribution across the entire empire.

A Fundamental Document Until the End of 1806

The set of treaties became the foundation of the Roman Empire of the German Nation. Once, it was part of every library that dealt with legal issues. And even today, prints of this treaty are not uncommon.

They tell us about the capacity of human beings to find a compromise as soon as all parties involved in the conflict gather around a table in order to find a solution. They tell us that it is not easy to make peace. Acting to the detriment of the weaker party – as it is often demanded at the regulars’ table, in comments on the internet and by populist politicians – does not pay. Only if all parties actually support the solution once it has been found, there is a chance for peace in the long run.

That does not mean, however, that no war was waged in the empire after the Peace of Westphalia. Quite the opposite. Again and again, politicians had to gather at round tables in order to find peaceful solutions. But the wise among them had understood that it was reasonable to also grant the loser a seat at the table.

What a pity that nowadays it is unfashionable to learn from history.


Obviously, the treaty did not only affect Germany, this dissertation deals with the importance of the Peace of Westphalia for the evolution of international law.


If you understand the German language and want to gain more in-depth knowledge about this topic, there is a dissertation about the contemporary media of the time and about the reception of the Peace of Westphalia in those media. Stefan Mayer-Gürr’s work can be downloaded in PDF format.

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