The Westphalian myth

Was the Peace of Westphalia and its implications for state sovereignty one big myth?

The apparently ineradicable notion (repeated even by many recent historians of the war) that the Peace of Westphalia sanctioned the “sovereignty” of Switzerland and the Netherlands and their independence from the empire demonstrates this. In the case of the Swiss it is based on a willful (and sometimes uninformed) interpretation of the relevant clause in the treaties, giving it a meaning that its drafters did not intend. And as to the Dutch the treaties do not even deal with them.

The complete autonomy of Switzerland vis-a-vis the empire was uncontroversial in practice, and the Swiss were reluctant to have anything to do with the peace congress. If they eventually allowed themselves to be represented there by the burgomaster of Basel, it was because this city had only joined the Swiss confederation after the other cantons had had their autonomy recognized in a treaty of 1499. The supreme courts of the empire (more particularly, the Imperial Cameral Tribunal) did not consider Basel to be exempt from their jurisdiction and allowed lawsuits against Basel and its citizens, a situation that had caused continual irritation. For this reason Basel insisted on having the immunity of the entire confederation reconfirmed in such a way that it would cover Basel, too. The request was granted, and a clause to that effect included in the treaties. This clause, which explicitly names Basel as its initiator and beneficiary, restates the immunity (exemptio) of the Swiss cantons from the jurisdiction of the empire and their complete autonomy (plena libertas).

Read the rest (pdf). All you Holy Roman Empire fans will enjoy it, too.

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