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Mazarin's Quest: The Congress of Westphalia and the Coming of the Fronde Review


The most singularly impressive feature of Mazarin’s Quest: The Congress of Westphalia and the Coming of the Fronde by Paul Sonnino is the massive length of its bibliography and cited sources section, which reaches no fewer than 130 pages - compared to just 200 pages for the rest of the book! More than the author's own declarations, it is this which shows his focus - attempting to reconstruct a blow-by-blow record of the diplomatic events leading up to the Treaty of Westphalia, focused on the personality of Cardinal Mazarin. Almost maniacally detailed, it succeeds on both accounts.

Its ability to analyze Mazarin’s character is excellent: it shows the crucial flaw at the heart of the great French statesman, his narcissistic sense that he was always correct. Mazarin was unable to admit that he might be wrong, and he blamed his collaborators or the opposition for the failure to understand his positions or whenever things went wrong. And he was eternally optimistic, so that when failure threatened, he dug in his feet and convinced himself that he was right and would ultimately be vindicated. not only right, but the only man dignified to save France, to save it despite the French. Mazarin had a great will and tremendous talent, but one gets a sense in the pages of the book of how frustrating it was to deal with a man who was also cursed with one of the greatest failings: the inability to admit he was wrong, and a egomaniacal willingness to play for all the chips.

Sonnino eschews questions of principles, historical laws, and generalizations for the most part, although he does reveal some of the diplomatic principles of early modern Europe through his work. The Treaty of Westphalia is most often remembered less for individual clauses than for two, perhaps contradictory principles: that of sovereignty of states (starting out in terms of religious authority), and the internal balance of power in the Holy Roman Empire, assured by the signatories and which held it in an internal equilibrium. Sonnino doesn’t treat much these broad questions of principle, and indeed he questions to what extent the principle of sovereignty really was born at Westphalia in the European context, given the political limitations on foreign policy of the HRE states.

This has benefits and negatives. The extraordinary focus on the specific events leading up to Westphalia is revelatory for seeing how internal politics and battlefield events, as well as foreign diplomacy, interacted to make a peace difficult to achieve. Generally, the better one did on the battlefield, the more it resulted in diplomatic weakness, from fear of one's position among others, and vice versa - meaning peace could be very hard to achieve indeed! And there is some mention of Mazarin’s principles, such as his “policy of opposites,” where it was assumed that if the Spanish or Austrians wanted something then the French should a priori opposite it, and vice versa. This has a certain superficial logic, but it inherently made any attempt to push for peace extremely difficult - since it would assume that any enemy proposition should be automatically opposed. The lack of proscriptive principles in the book is paired with a lack of suggestion of what Mazarin could have done instead, and what a realistic foreign policy would have been. The vast amount of detail makes it easy to get lost in the book, in the reals of the minutiae. It would have been nice to have some guiding frameworks and counterfactuals to better put Mazarin in context.

Such an omission is unfortunate, since Sonnino is clearly capable of a more direct, frank, and even amusing style, pleasantly striking when it breaks into the colloquial. But this change from the sterility of many a diplomatic history is abandoned for a trudge through realms of documents without buttresses of conjecture, possibility, and context.

An excellent diplomatic history, revelatory of Cardinal Mazarin and the intricacies of French diplomacy in the period, but missing the possible support and author input to make it accessible to neophytes, and which hints at being capable of much more style and character.

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