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The 350th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia in 1998 was marked by a flurry of conferences and publications by historians, but it was largely ignored in the discipline of international relations (IR). This oversight is odd because in IR the end of the Thirty Years' War is regarded as the beginning of the international system with which the discipline has traditionally dealt. Indeed, the international system has been named for the 1648 peace.  For some time now, this "Westphalian system," along with the concept of sovereignty at its core, has been a subject of debate: Are the "pillars of the Westphalian temple decaying"?  Are we moving "beyond Westphalia"? 
In this debate, "Westphalia" constitutes the taken-for-granted template against which current change should be judged. I contend, however, that the discipline theorizes against the backdrop of a past that is largely imaginary. I show here that the accepted IR narrative about Westphalia is a myth.
In the first section of the article I discuss what this narrative says about the Thirty Years' War. In the second section I discuss the alleged link between 1648 and the creation of a new, sovereignty-based international system. In the third section I discuss the Holy Roman Empire--with which, though this is seldom noted, the Peace of Westphalia was almost exclusively concerned. In the process it will become clear that "Westphalia"--shorthand for a narrative purportedly about the seventeenth century--is really a product of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century fixation on the concept of sovereignty. I conclude by discussing how what I call the ideology of sovereignty has hampered the development of IR theory and by suggesting that the historical phenomena analyzed in this article may help us to gain a better theoretical understanding of contemporary international politics.
The Thirty Years' War and the Problem of Hegemonial Ambition
According to the standard view, the Thirty Years' War was a struggle between two main parties. On one side were the "universalist" actors: the emperor and the Spanish king, both members of the Habsburg dynasty. Loyal to the Church of Rome, they asserted their right, and that of the Pope, to control Christendom in its entirety. Their opponents were the "particularist" actors, specifically Denmark, the Dutch Republic, France, and Sweden, as well as the German princes. These actors rejected imperial overlordship and (for the most part) the authority of the Pope, upholding instead the right of all states to full independence ("sovereignty").
Quotes showing the prevalence of this view in IR are easily adduced. David Boucher states that the settlement "was designed to undermine the hegemonic aspirations of the Habsburge,"  Hedley Bull says that it "marked the end of Habsburg pretensions to universal monarchy."  According to Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham's Dictionary of World Politics, the settlement "marked the culmination of the anti-hegemonic struggle against the Habsburg aspirations for a supranational empire."  For Kal Holsti the war was mainly fought over "religious toleration ... and the hegemonic ambitions of the Hapsburg family complex."  According to Michael Sheehan, the peace "refuted the aspirations of the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire to recreate a single Christian imperium." 
Albeit widely shared, this interpretation is dubious. It hinges on the notion that the Habsburgs were a threat to the "nascent" individual states.  But, quite apart from the fact that most of the states in question had been around for a long time, neither their survival nor even their independence was at stake in this war. None of the actors fighting the Habsburgs went to war for defensive purposes, as I show in the remainder of this section. 
The Bohemian Secession and the Near Collapse of Habsburg Power in Central Europe
The original Bohemian crisis did not break Out because the Habsburgs were powerful, but because in important respects they were weak. In the early seventeenth century the system of government throughout much of Europe, including the Habsburg territories in central Europe, was "dualist" (the technical term employed by historians). Power was shared between the prince and the notables of the realm, known as the estates. The "balance of power" between these two poles might favor one side or the other; in the case of the Habsburg kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary it had increasingly come to favor the estates. While the dynasty remained Catholic, the estates were largely Protestant. Anxious to forestall any attempt by the crown to limit their religious freedom, the Bohemian and Hungarian estates took advantage of a quarrel within the dynasty to strengthen their constitutional position.
To consolidate those gains and to maintain their own influence, in 1618 the radicals among the Bohemian estates initiated an uprising that sidelined the pro-Habsburg "doves" and eliminated any remaining power of the Habsburg-held crown. Eventually, following the death of Emperor Matthew, a Habsburg, in 1619, the Bohemian estates deposed his heir, Ferdinand, and persuaded the elector Palatine Frederick, a German Protestant, to be their king. The Hungarian estates also elected a Protestant, Gabor Bethlen, to replace Ferdinand. The Habsburgs seemed set now to lose the imperial title as well. The Bohemian king was a member of the seven-strong electoral college by which the emperor was chosen. With the Bohemian crown in Protestant hands, there would be a Protestant majority in the college.
The Habsburg position in central Europe was thus on the brink of collapse. Twice in 1619 rebel troops reached the suburbs of Vienna. The Spanish king sent both money and troops, but the imminent resumption of the Spanish-Dutch war (at the expiry in 1621 of a twelve-year truce) made it difficult for him to put his full military weight behind Ferdinand. In this situation, a crucial question was what the German princes would do. Some Protestant princes and free cities of the empire had formed an anti-Catholic alliance, called the "Union." Its leader was none other than the elector Palatine, soon to be the new Bohemian king. A counteralliance named the "League" was headed by the duke of Bavaria, the most powerful of the Catholic German princes. In the past, he had played second fiddle to the Habsburgs but had done his best to rival their influence in the empire. Now, with Ferdinand (to whom he was also closely related) in a desperate situation and dependent on League support, the ambitious duke found himself an arbiter of his kinsman's fate.
As it turned out, rather than welcome the opportunity to bring the Habsburgs down, the German princes, including, crucially, both the Protestant ones and Bavaria, instead distanced themselves from Frederick. His collusion with rebels against their legitimate ruler alienated his fellow princes. Moreover, he was expected to take advantage of the religious dimension of the conflict and use his position as head of the Union to defend his "ill-gotten" royal title. This would almost certainly lead to war in the empire at large between the Union and the League, a prospect universally dreaded.
When the imperial throne was left vacant by the death of Emperor Matthew, the electoral college elected Ferdinand emperor in August 1619. Significantly, it did so unanimously, with all three Protestant votes going to Ferdinand. A member of the college, Frederick sought to delay the proceedings until after the Bohemian estates had deposed Ferdinand. But though they did so a few days before the election, Ferdinand, not Frederick, was allowed to cast the Bohemian vote. Contrary to what Frederick had hoped and worked for, the duke of Bavaria refused to be a candidate against Ferdinand. In the end, Frederick voted for Ferdinand himself to avoid a gratuitous further provocation.
Although Frederick did mount the Bohemian throne, he failed to obtain the British and Dutch support on which he had counted. In Germany, the Union eventually put its desire to prevent the crisis from spreading to the rest of the empire ahead of other considerations. Despite Frederick's position as its leader, the Union accepted a nonaggression pact with the Catholic League. This enabled the League to assist Ferdinand against the elector Palatine. The Union then fell apart: while religious affiliation always played an important role in the conflict, at no point between 1618 and 1648 did it produce stable cleavages along religious lines. Aided not only by the duke of Bavaria and League troops but also by troops of the Protestant elector of Saxony, Ferdinand reconquered the Bohemian capital in November 1620 and drove Frederick into exile. Gabor Bethlen stepped down as ruler of Hungary and made peace with Ferdinand.
The Habsburgs thus preserved their position in central Europe, but, inevitably, Ferdinand emerged from the crisis a somewhat diminished figure. He was emperor now, but the power of that office was limited and subject to constitutional checks and balances (see the third section). He was also heavily indebted, not just morally but financially, to the rulers of Saxony and Bavaria. His fate had been in their hands, and he had been forced to buy their support through the promise of significant rewards. Ferdinand transferred important Habsburg territories--respectively, Lusatia and Upper Austria--to their temporary ownership since he could not meet his obligations to them immediately (and would not for a long time to come; in fact, Lusatia was eventually transferred to Saxony for good).
The Danish Bid for Expansion and the Sudden Rise and Decline of Habsburg Hegemony in Germany
Throughout this initial phase of the war, key actors regarded Habsburg power as less threatening than the prospect of its collapse. This only changed in the second, "Danish" phase of the war (1625-29).
Of the two branches of the Habsburg dynasty, the Spanish branch was the more powerful; but though its position in the European system was formidable, it did not threaten the independence of other actors. Its dominions formed the largest monarchy in Europe in geographical, but not demographical, terms; militarily, this was not an undiluted advantage. In the Spanish-Dutch conflict the Dutch were well able to hold their own. On its expiry in 1621, a twelve-year truce between the two actors could have been renewed or even turned into a proper peace treaty. There was a peace party on both sides. Despite the truce, however, the Dutch had continued to harass the Spanish colonies, and the trade with them, doing much economic damage. In resuming the war, the Spanish government had few illusions that Dutch independence could be undone. It did hope to improve the terms on which Dutch sovereignty would finally be recognized over those accepted in 1609 and regarded as humiliating; meanwhile, open war might relieve the pr essure on the colonies. Conversely, in 1621 the prevailing view among the Dutch was that resuming the war would bring greater concessions from Spain. 
Dutch willingness to engage the Spanish--who, therefore, would not be able to intervene forcefully in Germany--emboldened the Danish king to prepare a military strike against troops of the Catholic League (not the emperor) who remained garrisoned in north Germany after the fight against Frederick. The king, a Protestant, feared that these troops would be employed to repossess some north German ecclesiastical principalities that had passed into Protestant hands--illegally, from a Catholic point of view.
The principalities in question were bishoprics whose incumbents had the same rights as secular princes of the empire except that their position was not hereditary. They were elected for life by the cathedral chapters. The 1555 religious settlement concluded among the princes and free cities of the empire gave them the power to determine freely whether their lands should be Catholic or Protestant. However, ecclesiastical territories were excluded from this provision by a clause known as the reservatum ecclesiasticum. With the important exception only of the Habsburgs and Bavaria, most secular princes in the empire and most of the free cities were Protestant, which made the reservatum ecclesiasticum crucial for maintaining the political role of Catholicism in the empire. Unfortunately for the Catholic side, this clause was contested by the Protestant camp and had not stopped further Protestant inroads into ecclesiastical territories.
Canons would turn Protestant and then elect to the episcopal see some member of a Protestant dynasty who they hoped would protect them, or who bribed or bullied them. And once a powerful princely house got hold of the see, dislodging it would be almost impossible, since it would then control the appointment of new canons. It was clear that the more bishoprics were lost to Protestantism in this fashion, the more the chances of recovering any of them for the Catholic camp diminished.
This problem of critical mass explains the importance of who would secure control of the north German bishoprics. No one understood this better than the Protestant Danish king. Operating in the shadow of the Bohemian crisis, in the early 1620s he had cajoled no less than three cathedral chapters--Bremen, Verden, and Halberstadt--into electing the second of his two sons to succeed the current incumbents (still alive at that point); and he was working on Osnabruck. With the promise of Dutch and British subsidies, and the hesitant support of the Protestant north German princes and free cities, he now deployed an army in north Germany. His main purpose was to defend his claims and north German Protestantism; but to qualify for Dutch and British subsidies he also had to adopt the cause of the deposed elector Palatine. With Spain distracted by the Dutch, the emperor and the Catholic League looked weak enough for the Danish venture to be promising.
Unpredictably, at this point an altogether exceptional figure entered the scene: Albrecht von Wallenstein. A nouveau riche Bohemian nobleman with uncommon managerial and strategic abilities, he offered the impecunious emperor an army, which he would raise and initially pay for himself (he would later bill the emperor punctiliously for all expenditures incurred). This flamboyant gesture struck many at the imperial court as too bizarre, and indeed humiliating, to accept; however, after much deliberation, the court did accept the offer in direct response to news that the Danish king was leading an army to secure the reinstatement of Frederick. The emperor at that time had few troops of his own; those of the League were not under his command and essentially were controlled by the duke of Bavaria. In 1629 Wallenstein forced the Danish king to accept a peace that basically restored the status quo ante. The king had to renounce the bishoprics to which he had had his son elected (but none of them had actually passed into the son's possession yet).
As a result of the failed Danish intervention, and thanks, in large part, to Wallenstein, north Germany now found itself under the military control of the emperor. Many feared that he would make himself "the master of Germany," as a famous anonymous pamphlet of 1628 put it, which no emperor had been in the past. In retrospect, it seems clear that this was not his aim; Habsburg archives have yielded no evidence for any such program.  But, in the heated atmosphere of the time, everything the emperor did was taken as corroboration of sinister, oppressive designs. Events in Bohemia seemed to set an alarming precedent. There, Ferdinand restored the leading role both of Catholicism and the crown by expropriating and expelling much of the Protestant nobility and enacting a new constitution that reduced the prerogatives of the estates. Would the emperor attempt something similar in Germany?
Having deposed the existing dynasty for supporting the Danish king, in 1628 Ferdinand made Wallenstein duke of Mecklenburg, a large north German principality. For the cash-starved emperor, this move was, not least, a means to dispose of some debts. But it caused strong antagonism. The Protestant camp was rattled by this transferal of a Protestant principality to a Catholic by a stroke of the pen, and the princes of the empire, Catholic and Protestant alike, were concerned about the summary removal of an ancient ruling family in favor of a despised upstart. In 1629 Ferdinand proceeded to decree the re-catholicization of all church assets that had passed into Protestant hands after the Augsburg religious settlement. This so-called Edict of Restitution, designed to enforce the reservatum ecclesiasticum of 1555, was to be applied to the entire empire.
We have seen how the Danish intervention was dictated by a combination of territorial ambition and concern over the religious balance of power in the empire. This concern was also behind the Edict of Restitution, whose main purpose was to stop, indeed reverse, the continual decline in the number of Catholic ecclesiastical princes of the empire since 1555 and to recover other assets (such as monastic endowments) for the Catholic church. Again, the measure caused much discontent. Not only would many Protestant princes suffer important losses; there was concern even among Catholic princes of the empire about this kind of imperial unilateralism.
It is often implied today that, in some roundabout way, the edict aimed at strengthening the emperor. More plausibly, its main motive was genuinely religious, since Ferdinand II was an extremely pious man. Any gain for the emperor himself …