Language and Society

How language used to create peace

What role did language have in the peace process?  Photo: Lise Gagne © iStockphotoWhat role did language have in the peace process?  Photo: Lise Gagne © iStockphotoHow were peace agreements reached in early modern times? What role did language have in the process? A group of historians, political scientists, social scientists and art historians from Mainz, Augsburg and Stuttgart joined forces on a far-reaching project to explore these questions.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of major events in history? Typically we think of wars, famous battles and military campaigns. Scientists from the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz, however, are convinced that it has always been an equally challenging prospect to do the opposite, namely to bring about peace and manage daily life.

The language of peace negotiations

Publication “Peace through language?” by Martin Espenhorst  Photo: © Vandenhoeck und RuprechtEven back in the 1970s, the former director of the institute in Leibnitz, Heinz Duchhardt, had begun researching the history of these international congresses. Collaborating with colleagues from the Institute for European Cultural History in Augsburg and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, the group's project, “Übersetzungsleistungen von Diplomatie und Medien im vormodernen Friedensprozess. Europa 1450–1789” (lit. Translations of diplomacy and media in early modern peace processes, Europe 1450–1789), researched how alliances and peace negotiations were handled in the early modern era. The focus of the joint effort was placed on language: Which languages did the participants use? How did they phrase the argumentation? What role did translations play? And how did they overcome communication issues?

Russians and Swedes negotiating in German

To get to the bottom of these big questions, the researchers looked more closely at a number of peace agreements as well as concepts, drafts, transcripts, mandates, pamphlets and memoirs from diplomats. Previous to that, as part of a project by the DFG, a research body, the institute in Mainz had collected and entered into a database over 2,000 documents of this kind from the period between 1450 and 1789. “It is a common belief that the peace agreements in the first half of the early modern era were written in Latin, as the Christian and European language of reference, and then later in French as the language of diplomacy. That is true, but only to a certain extent,” says Martin Espenhorst, who led the Mainz project with Heinz Duchhardt. “Often the language that was used was the language that was closest to the country or dynasty involved – Italian or Swedish, for example. On the other hand, some peace agreements were made in a language that none of the participants actually spoke. An example of this is the Russians and the Swedes carrying out their peace negotiations in German because the use of a neutral third language was seen as a necessary element of forging the agreement. Our partners in Augsburg have published an online database of all this.”

Language had played an immense role in the establishment of peace agreements at the time. Photo: marzolino © 123RFThe diplomats of the early modern era were very aware of the symbolic power of a language. They put a lot of thought into which terminology was used or not used, how misunderstandings were avoided or how they could be very selectively manipulated to reach a specific goal. “For a long time, for example, the preambles of these agreements contained an invocation to God or a reference to a divine blessing. But over time they realized, particularly in the peace negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, that those types of conventions could be very counterproductive. They were then changed or omitted after that,” explains Espenhorst. “There were also diplomats who – before publishing a document and without asking the contractual party – made changes or corrections that served their own selfish purposes.”

If you want peace, save the insults

Over the course of their research, Espenhorst and his colleagues were repeatedly reminded of the fact that language had played an immense role in the establishment, endowment and preservation of peace agreements at the time. “Back in the early modern age, language was used to overcome conflicts and discuss solutions at length. The negotiations were organized according to a strict regimen, yes, but there were facilitators and moderators who attempted to reconcile the interests of the involved parties,” says Espenhorst. “Pamphlets were published on the proceedings, but neither party ever slandered or insulted the other because they knew 'We are a Christian community in Europe and we need to always keep open the option of forging peace with one another'.”

Neither party ever slandered or insulted the other.  Photo: nui7711 © 123RFThe joint project was promoted through the program “Übersetzungsfunktion der Geisteswissenschaften” (lit. The translation function of the humanities) from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. After three years the program was completed in 2012 and the results are being published in a volume called Frieden durch Sprache? Studien zum kommunikativen Umgang mit Konflikten und Konfliktlösungen (lit. Peace through language? Studies on the communications-based handling of conflicts and conflict resolutions). Any time now the joint results will be published as Frieden übersetzen in der Vormoderne (lit. Translating peace in the early modern era) and more publications will be released soon. Espenshorst is convinced that the project has provided inspiration for further research to be made into the communications involved in historical peace processes. The scientists are coming back from Baden, Switzerland, where they organized a four-day conference on the anniversary of the Treaty of Rastatt from 1714, at which diplomats from all over Europe gathered in Baden for the sole purpose of translating the landmark agreement from French into Latin.


Martin Espenhorst (publisher):
Frieden durch Sprache? Studien zum kommunikativen Umgang mit Konflikten und Konfliktlösungen. (lit. Peace through language? Studies on the communications-based handling of conflicts and conflict resolutions, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012)

Heinz Duchhardt und Martin Espenhorst (Hrsg):
Frieden übersetzen in der Vormoderne. Translationsleistungen in Diplomatie, Medien und Wissenschaft (lit. Translating peace in the early modern era. Translations of diplomacy and media in early modern peace processes, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012)

Hein Durchhardt:
Frieden im Europa der Vormoderne. Ausgewählte Aufsätze 1979–2011 (lit.Peace in Europe in the early modern era. Selected essays, Ferdinand Schoeningh, 2012)

Johannes Burkhardt:
Sprachen des Friedens und was sie verraten. Neue Fragen und Einsichten zu Karlowitz, Baden und „Neustadt“, in: Wege der Neuzeit, Festschrift für Heinz Schilling, hg. v. Stefan Ehrenpreis, Ute Lotz-Heumann, Olaf Mörke und Luise Schorn-Schütte (Historische Forschungen, Bd. 85, S. 503-519, Berlin, 2007)

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Deutsch für dich

Deutsch für dich – Kostenlos gemeinsam Deutsch lernen © Goethe-Institut
Learn German together, for free

Story of a Friendship – My Favourite Book

Out of more than 4.000 entries from 57 countries the jury has chosen three winners.


News from Germany’s culture and society

Dossier: CLIL

Content and Language Integrated Learning