1648: the Peace of Westphalia and the invention of the Present
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1648 – a landmark in the course of European history. In the middle of the no-man’s-land of the North German Lowlands, in the towns of Münster and Osnabrück, hardly famed as bustling cities, something incisive was achieved: the Peace of Westphalia was signed.


This peace treaty stands for a great deal. It stands for the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Europe’s greatest man-made catastrophe until that point (which was not to be exceeded until the world wars of the twentieth century); it stands for the assertion of the idea of the sovereign state (what we now call “Westphalian sovereignty”); and it stands for the birth of international law and the beginning of European congress diplomacy.


Simultaneously, however, the Peace of Westphalia is also a sign of another fundamental shift, one which has gained little attention to date: the discovery of the present.


Gathering hundreds of diplomatic representatives from all over Europe was difficult not only because such a peace congress had never been organised before, but because it concerned a huge number of contentious issues and because many participants would not negotiate directly with one another for reasons of religious aversion, requiring third-party mediation. In fact this congress, which went on for several years, was also a major feat in terms of organising appointments.


The envoys from Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy had to arrange meetings and coordinate with their governments – a long-winded procedure in the days of correspondence by letter and horseback deliveries. Despite all the difficulties, the patient participants enabled something that has become standard procedure for us in the twenty-first century, but was not yet established practice in the seventeenth century: the synchronisation of (in this case, diplomatic) actions and procedures by differing participants.


This was also not quite straightforward because two calendar systems were operating in parallel in Europe at the time. The majority of Protestants followed the old Julian calendar that had been established since Roman times, while the Catholics abided by the more recent Gregorian calendar. There was a ten-day difference between them, requiring all documents to bear two separate dates.


Producing the present, therefore, initially meant arranging meetings face to face with the enemy under the difficult conditions of differing religious convictions, interests, languages and even calendars, and continuing to do so until an agreement was reached. Since the Peace of Westphalia, a perceived triviality has become a constitutional factor of international political actions: we have to be able to produce and organise presentness – in the temporal and the spatial sense.


Since the seventeenth century, political projects like the European project have thrived to a not insignificant extent on vibrant congress diplomacy. It is often ridiculed, but the personal encounter is essential even in the age of the video conference. We have to try to solve problems among those present in the here and now. The alternative would not infrequently be battles – which in turn require a different kind of presentness.



However, the Peace of Westphalia is not only an indication for the production of presentness because temporal coordination played such a decisive role in its success. Above and beyond that, it forced the signatories to practise self-denial – denial of the exclusive right to know the correct path to the future and to have acted correctly throughout the past.


Instead, it was essential to accept plurality in the present – and that was by no means to everyone’s taste. The Thirty Years’ War brought forth not only incredible human suffering, but also demonstrated to all those involved and observing, in the cruellest conceivable manner, the possible consequences resulting from the conviction of possessing the ultimate truth.


The war had shown that the recent past could no longer serve as an idealised model and that there was no way to make clear and certain predictions about the future. The only remaining way out was to coordinate diverging designs for the world in the present day. From that point on, congresses have been seen as appropriate forms of organisation, not to make such differences disappear, but to address them and learn to acknowledge them.


The present thus became a temporal way out for dealing with differences. And that was true not only of the Peace of Westphalia. As a whole, the European seventeenth century proves to be a period that discovered the present in order to tackle problems there or to postpone problems from there that could not be dealt with in any other way.


In many areas of life, it emerged that the previously idealised past was no longer an entirely useful model and that the future once defined in terms of salvation was proving increasingly uncertain. Be it the invention of the newspaper, the dispute over the precedence of ancient or present-day art, the appreciation of fleeting fashions, the rise of imprisonment as temporal punishment or the invention of insurance policies – these and many other aspects can show how the European knowledge of time shifted to a broadening of the present during the course of the seventeenth century.


We cannot see this as the solution to all problems, by any means. The denial of temporal clarity, the surrender of the perceived certainty of the whence and whither of an allegedly clear historical process, raises many questions, problems and uncertainties. Yet ever since, it has also forced us to keep the question of Europe awake and present at all times.


Translation by Katy Derbyshire