The Plan for peace of Heinrich
Rantzau

 

 

 

 

 

by Ulrich Vogel

The Plan for peace of Heinrich
Rantzau

 

 

 

 

 

by Ulrich Vogel

Heinrich Rantzau is known as a humanist and patron of the arts, as a politician and as one of the richest men in the North. What is less well known is that he drafted a peace plan that was far ahead of its time. The plan was based on the principle of freedom of faith and conscience and aimed to establish a lasting peace throughout Europe. It is considered one of the boldest political designs of the early modern era. Heinrich Rantzau was born on 11 March 1526 at Steinburg Castle near Itzehoe in Holstein.

Ein Brief für den Frieden

Duke Ulrich of Mecklenburg could not believe his eyes when he read the letter from his friend. In it, Heinrich Rantzau, the Danish king’s governor in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, opened up to him his plan for a “general peace” in which faith and conscience were to be “left unconstrained”. A peace between all hostile European powers on the basis of freedom of religion and conscience – wasn’t that completely utopian?

Ever since Duke Alba had overrun the Dutch provinces with terror and violence, Spanish rule had been abysmally hated by the population, with no end in sight to the strife in which the Calvinist Netherlands fought for its independence.

Rantzaukapelle innen; CC3.0 Quoth; Link zum Bild

This also applied to the conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. The sinking of the Armada had shown that the Spanish world power had a powerful opponent in the island kingdom.

Finally, France offered a picture of confessional disunity and, in the St Bartholomew’s Night, had shown all of Europe where religious fanaticism led. The world was further away than ever from peace and tolerance.

Rantzau wanted the duke to promote his plan among the princes of the empire. He had also put Count Karl von Arenberg, Philip II’s advisor, in the picture and hoped that Spain would also support him. So he was serious. Had he become a hopeless idealist in his old age?

Der heimliche Herrscher

In the many years they had been on friendly terms, Ulrich had followed the steep career of his ambitious friend. As a Holstein nobleman, Rantzau had achieved what could be achieved at all. From the council of the Danish king, he had risen to become governor of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Thanks to his many contacts throughout Europe, he was always well informed about world affairs near and far. He enjoyed the confidence of the Danish king and represented him in negotiations with foreign powers; to some, the “vicarius regis” was regarded as the secret ruler of the kingdom. This unprecedented success story, however much it was his own merit, would hardly have been possible without his illustrious origins.

Heinrich Rantzau came from one of the richest and most distinguished families of the Holstein knighthood. His father Johann stood loyally at the side of his king, and as a successful army commander he was princely rewarded with lands from the funds of the monasteries secularised after the Reformation. He sent his son to study in Wittenberg. The young Rantzau sat at Luther’s table and was probably also instructed by Philipp Melanchthon, the great star among the humanists. Throughout his life, he used the solid knowledge of Latin he acquired there to cultivate scholarly correspondence with the intellectual greats of his time. Afterwards, he moved in the entourage of Duke Adolf von Gottorf to the court of Emperor Charles V for six years and thus into the world of high politics and court life. When he entered the service of the Danish king, he was already an educated and worldly young man.

Unlike his father, Heinrich Rantzau did not become a soldier, but a civil servant; he wielded the pen, not the sword. He knew about war mainly from books. He himself wrote works about war, including one on the Dithmarsch Peasants’ War. When Johann Rantzau militarily decided the war against the Dithmarschers, who had defended their independence for generations, in favour of the Danish king in 1559, Heinrich was instrumental in dividing the spoils and reorganising the land.

In his view, this war was the just punishment for the unruly and rebellious peasants, “so that they would finally learn to submit to a true and righteous authority”. For Heinrich Rantzau, it was the perfect example of a just war.

But unlike the author, the politician Rantzau developed into a man of peace. In 1585, after more than thirty years in the service of the king and six years before his peace initiative, he confessed in a letter to Duke Ulrich: “A burdensome peace is always better than a just war”. There had been enough occasions for a rethink: One was probably the Nordic Seven Years’ War, which went down in history as the “War of the Three Crowns”.

Schloss Rantzau, ehemaliger Stammsitz der Familie; CC3.0 PodracerHH; Link zum Bild

It was triggered, among other things, by the question of whether Denmark could continue to use the three Swedish crowns in its coat of arms, even though Sweden had left the union with Denmark. When the resources of both warring parties were exhausted and neither side could gain the upper hand, they found themselves ready for peace. Rantzau took part in the 1570 negotiations in Stettin as Copenhagen’s representative. However, the dispute over the three crowns could not be settled there either.

Die Ein-Mann-Renaissance

For Heinrich Rantzau, keeping the peace was not only an imperative of reasons of state; it was also in his own interest. Apart from the Three Crowns War and the short Dithmarsch campaign, the lands between the North Sea and the Baltic were an oasis of peace. But in the confusing mix of political-confessional tensions, it did not take much for the fury of war to afflict the duchies as well. In such a case, Rantzau would have had much to lose. As the owner of 71 castles and manors, he was one of the richest men in the country. In addition, his position as bailiff of Segeberg provided him with lucrative income. The profits made from the mining of gypsum at Kalkberg flowed to a large extent into his own pocket.

Rantzau was not only a large landowner and entrepreneur, but also a passionate collector, builder and patron. Due to the enormous resources he had at his disposal, the cultural development of the country is primarily associated with his name. In the historiography of Schleswig-Holstein, the 16th century is regarded as the Rantzau era; the epoch of Renaissance and Humanism in the far north was, in a sense, a one-man enterprise. At Breitenburg Castle, his headquarters near Itzehoe in Holstein, the largest and for a long time the only library worth mentioning between the North Sea and the Baltic was established.

Portret van Heinrich von Rantzau, Hendrick Goltzius, 1587 – 1591; CC0 Rijksmuseum

For all his cosmopolitanism, he was closely connected to his homeland, the “Kimbrian Peninsula”, and devoted himself intensively to its history. It is thanks to him that today we possess many artistically and historically valuable views of Schleswig-Holstein towns, from Tondern to Kiel to Ratzeburg – in many cases the first and for a long time the only ones.

“Dulce bellum inexpertis” – war is only loved by those who do not know it. Rantzau would certainly have signed this aphorism by Erasmus of Rotterdam, who liked to use ancient authors as crown witnesses for his appeals for peace. He was by no means alone in his desire for peace as the basis of every civilised way of life. The humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries, which was dedicated to the intellectual renewal of Europe, was also a peace movement. The real tricky question here was: how could one find a way out of the spiral of violence and create a lasting peace?

Konturen einer neuen Weltordnung

In Charles V’s view, the emperor alone had the task of securing peace and preserving the unity of Christendom. The Habsburg tried one last time to impose the idea of a universal Catholic emperorship with all his might in Europe. But spectacular victories were always followed by setbacks. Heinrich Rantzau experienced the highs and lows of imperial politics. He was there when Charles besieged Metz, occupied by the French, in vain. The fact that the most powerful ruler in the world, in whose empire the sun never set, had to leave in disgrace must have been a key experience for the young knight from Holstein.

The emperor could not prevent the spread of the “accursed heresy”. The centrifugal forces that the Reformation had unleashed proved stronger. Finding faith through one’s own conviction rather than through ecclesiastical authority was an irresistible experience of maturity and freedom for the people of the 16th century. When Luther did not recant before the emperor at the Diet of Worms, Johann Rantzau and the Danish heir to the throne, later Christian III, were among those present. Both were deeply impressed.

The Reformation was not only a matter of faith, it also developed enormous political explosive power. At the latest since the Augsburg Religious Peace of 1555, in which the Protestant creed was recognised in the empire, it was clear to Charles that his policy had failed. On the European stage, the conflicts between Habsburg and France, Spain and the Netherlands continued to smoulder even after his abdication. By the end of the century, a European system of states had emerged based on the principles of sovereignty and equality. No hegemon, but a concert of powers was to determine the fate of the continent for the next centuries.

Rantzau observed this development very closely and drew his conclusions from it: the confessional division was irreversible; faith and conscience could not be “forced”.

A general peace was therefore only possible on the basis of religious tolerance. It would only last if all parties negotiated on an equal footing and mutually guaranteed the contractual provisions. The fact that Rantzau recognised the contours of the dawning new world order and made it the pivotal point of his peace plan shows that he was a far-sighted realpolitik politician. Its realisation, on the other hand, had to remain utopian in his time.

„Der Friede von Münster“, Gerard ter Borch; Rijksmuseum – On loan from the National Gallery, London. Presented by Sir Richard Wallace, 1871; CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

The end before the beginning

Thus the advance ended even before it had begun. From the beginning, Duke Ulrich had wondered how “such a great work could be begun and accomplished with permanence”. The Spanish side did not even take up the proposal; Arenberg instead demanded that Denmark close the Öresund to hit the trade of the Dutch. A serious intention for peace could not be discerned in this. Rantzau did not pursue the project any further after that.

It was not until two generations later that his ideas were to become reality, at least in part. The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was the result of an international peace congress involving all the warring powers. The price of learning was immense: after thirty years of war, Central Europe had lost a third of its population, many regions were devastated. In contrast, freedom of faith and conscience were still centuries away from being realised. Individual human rights as we know them today were not formulated until the Enlightenment and, unlike in Rantzau’s time, were no longer founded on the spirit of Protestantism but on natural law. And yet a path leads from his thoughts, even if it is long and winding, to Article 4 of our Basic Law.

More by Ulrich Vogel: In the 17th century, the Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel was considered a wonder of the world. The playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was among its famous librarians. Today it is one of the leading research libraries for the Middle Ages and the early modern period. It was created by Duke August the Younger of Brunswick-Lüneburg, a minor prince and great patron, a passionate collector and renowned scholar. In the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, he made it the largest library on the European continent. Who was this book prince, and how did he accomplish this amazing feat? – The author has pursued this question and draws a vivid picture of the duke against the background of his time.

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