The Peace of Westphalia - a treaty whose ideas are still effective today

On October 24, 1648, the peace treaty was signed by the Roman-German Emperor Ferdinand III, France's King Louis XIV, and Sweden's Queen Christina. One day later, the peace was proclaimed from the steps of the town hall in Osnabrück.

For five years, the envoys in Osnabrück and Münster wrestled over compromises. The extensive treaty was to become the basic law for the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation for the next 150 years and the model for a peaceful Europe.

The most important results at a glance:

  • All Christian denominations were granted equal rights...: The peace treaty confirms the Augsburg Religious Peace of 1555: Catholics, Protestants and - newly - Calvinists have equal rights. If the prince changed religion, however, the subjects now no longer had to follow him.
  • The emperor had to hand over power to the princes: The princes became politically independent. However, their alliances and wars were not allowed to be directed against the emperor and the empire.
  • Patchwork: The rule over many territories was redistributed. The individual territories of the German Empire gained independence and weight. Germany was now a loose federation of almost 300 individual states and 1400 territories directly subordinate to the emperor.
  • International law: The treaty not only ended a long war, but also developed a completely new idea: the European idea. It created a law of nations to which all laws, privileges, decisions and papal decrees had to be subordinated. The most important point was the principle of religious and political diversity.

The Osnabrück handshake

Not far from Osnabrück's town hall, the peace congress entered its decisive phase in August 1648. The quarters of the Swedish envoy Johan Oxenstierna at the Große Domsfreiheit were known for their precious red wallpaper and their dining room with silver tableware. Envoys gathered in its Great Hall on the second floor on this day in August.

For six hours, the imperial envoy Isaac Volmaar read out the draft of the peace treaty - word for word. Even though there were still discussions and corrections - on the whole the envoys agreed with the work. There was only one problem: the Swedes did not want to sign the treaty on the spot, out of consideration for their French allies. But then came the redeeming idea: a handshake would do the trick. And so, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the envoys promised each other peace "in the hand" as a sign that "nothing further shall be changed" in the peace treaty, as can be read in Isaak Volmar's diary. The document was legally valid.

On the way to the final end of the war, only the peace treaty between the emperor and France remained to be signed. And this too was brought to Osnabrück ready for signing. The French envoy Abel Servien, who had transferred from Münster especially for the Osnabrück handshake, negotiated the last open points with the envoys of the German princes and drew up the final version of the treaty. Although the diplomats subsequently traveled to Münster at the Emperor's request to sign the treaties on October 24, 1648, the decisive breakthroughs to the Peace of Westphalia were achieved in Osnabrück.

The house in which the Swede Johan Oxenstierna resided so ostentatiously no longer exists. Today, the Bishop of Osnabrück lives (approximately) in this place.

  • For more information on the Osnabrück handshake, see Siegrid Westphal, Der Westfälische Frieden (Munich 2015) and Gerd Steinwascher, Osnabrück und der Westfälische Frieden (Osnabrück 2000). As well as Der schwierige Weg zum Westfälischen Frieden:Wendepunkte, Friedensversuche und die Rolle der "Dritten Partei" Edited by: Volker Arnke and Siegrid Westphal (Berlin/Boston 2021).


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