Review of Conference “Performances of Peace. Utrecht 1713-2013”
History has not been kind to the Peace of Utrecht. For almost three centuries the treaty, signed in 1713, has hardly been discussed by historians, but carefully buried in the graveyard of our past. In The Netherlands this oubliance had much to do with the creation of a nationalistic past in the nineteenth century, which gave priority to more momentous treaties: the 1648 Peace of Westphalia carried greater importance because it acknowledged Dutch independence, while the 1813 Vienna Conference established the Dutch monarchy. Moreover, even contemporaries seemed at a loss to explain what the Peace of Utrecht had accomplished, other than ending the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713). The Earl of Peterborough famously quipped that the treaty, “like the peace of God, is beyond human understanding”. Fortunately the tercentenary of the Peace prompted an international conference held in Utrecht from 24th to 26th April, with the aim of examining more closely what the peace was about, and what its impact has been around the world.
The conference offered a dazzling array of perspectives on the Peace of Utrecht. Indeed, one of the strengths of this conference was its interdisciplinary approach. Rather than focussing exclusively on the negotiations between the gathering of diplomats and the political manoeuvring of the states involved, many of the speakers also explored the “culture of peace”. They pointed out how the treaty stimulated the production of music, theatre, literature and histories that reflected on the peace or simply provided entertainment. The musical ensemble Camerata Trajectina actually performed some of the songs produced in this period, from humble tunes to solemn marches. The ongoing war also gave rise to a volatile public opinion, fed by news reports and rumours. In Sicily for example, which was then part of the Spanish empire, officials tried to control public opinion by arresting those who spread “sedition”, while official propaganda celebrated Spanish victories.
One must also applaud the conference organisers for inviting scholars from around the world, who in their contributions considered the Peace of Utrecht from a global rather than a Eurocentric perspective. In contrast to earlier conflicts, the War of the Spanish Succession was a world war, as battles were also fought in the colonies over commercial interests. Englandemerged as the big winner: the peace treaty granted England the asiento, the monopoly on trading slaves with Latin America, while France lost much of its territory in North America. Nonetheless the war was to have serious repercussions for England later in the eighteenth century. As the American colonists realised that English troops could not protect them against French and Spanish incursions, they adopted a unilateral course that would eventually lead them to break away fromEngland.
Although religion was not a central theme of this conference, some speakers did stress the importance of religious interests during the war and at the peace conference. Scholars have often heralded the Peace of Westphalia as the birth of the modern system of international relations: they have argued that from 1648 onwards rulers and diplomats conducted politics in the national interest, rather than being misled by religious strife. Yet historians have recently begun to question this assumption, showing that religious interests were no less real after 1648. Indeed, during the War of the Spanish Succession the allied powers often supported oppressed religious minorities, such as the Camisards in France, because they hoped these communities would destabilise their enemies.
All these perspectives are brought together in a large exhibition in the Centraal Museum, just a short walk away from the town hall where the peace was signed in 1713. The exhibition offers visitors a long-term perspective of the War of the Spanish Succession, emphasising the many dynastic and religious origins of this conflict. I was particularly struck by a painting of the French celebrating Mass in the cathedral of Utrechtin 1672, next to a sculpture of Louis XIV trampling the Huguenots in 1685 – both episodes that would later mobilise Protestant powers to check the ambitions of Catholic France. Paintings of all key players during the war (including gorgeous portraits of Louis XIV and the Duke of Marlborough), as well as the many unique objects, such as contemporary weapons and a copy of the peace treaty signed in 1713, make this beautifully designed exhibition a real must-see.
The interesting question that remains is how to assess the long-term importance of the peace treaty. Although the exhibition is keen to stress that the Peace of Utrecht established a tradition of solving conflicts through treaties and negotiations (screenshots of the first UN Assembly in 1948 and the Berlin wall tumbling down in 1989 illustrate this point), the participants in the concluding roundtable were less optimistic. After all, peace treaties have proved a poor instrument in preventing conflicts over the past three centuries. Rather than celebrating the Peace of Utrecht, it therefore seems more fruitful to commemorate this episode as a reminder that peace is more fragile than paper agreements might suggest.
David van der Linden (Erasmus University Rotterdam)