15 May 1648

The Treaty of Westphalia is signed.

The Peace of Westphalia refers to the pair of treaties signed in October and May 1648 which ended both the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War. The treaties were signed on October 24 and May 15, 1648 and involved the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, the other German princes, Spain, France, Sweden and representatives from the Dutch republic. The Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed in 1659, ending the war between France and Spain, is also often considered part of the treaty.

The peace as a whole is often used by historians to mark the beginning of the modern era. Each ruler would have the right to determine their state’s religion—thus, in law, Protestantism and Catholicism were equal. The texts of the two treaties are largely identical and deal with the internal affairs of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Peace of Westphalia continues to be of importance today, with many academics asserting that the international system that exists today began at Westphalia. Both the basis and the result of this view have been attacked by revisionist academics and politicians alike, with revisionists questioning the significance of the Peace, and commentators and politicians attacking the “Westphalian System” of sovereign nation-states. The concept of each nation-state, regardless of size, as of equal legal value informed the founding of the United Nations, where all member states have one vote in the General Assembly. In the second half of the twentieth century, the democratic nation state as the pinnacle of political evolution saw membership of the UN rise from 50 when it was founded to 192 at the start of the twenty-first century. However, many new nations were artificial creations from the colonial division of the world, reflecting the economic interests of the colonizers rather than local cultural, ethnic, religious or other significant boundaries which serve as the foundation of cohesive societies.

Peace negotiations between France and the Habsburgs began in Cologne in 1641. These negotiations were initially blocked by Cardinal Richelieu of France, who insisted on the inclusion of all his allies, whether fully sovereign countries or states within the Holy Roman Empire. In Hamburg and Lübeck, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire negotiated the Treaty of Hamburg with the intervention of Richelieu. The Holy Roman Empire and Sweden declared the preparations of Cologne and the Treaty of Hamburg to be preliminaries of an overall peace agreement.

Dutch envoy Adriaan Pauw enters Münster around 1646 for the peace negotiations
The main peace negotiations took place in Westphalia, in the neighboring cities of Münster and Osnabrück. Both cities were maintained as neutral and demilitarized zones for the negotiations.

In Münster, negotiations took place between the Holy Roman Empire and France, as well as between the Dutch Republic and Spain. Münster had been, since its re-Catholicisation in 1535, a strictly mono-denominational community. It housed the Chapter of the Prince-Bishopric of Münster. Only Roman Catholic worship was permitted, while Calvinism and Lutheranism were prohibited.

Sweden preferred to negotiate with the Holy Roman Empire in Osnabrück, controlled by the Protestant forces. Osnabrück was a bidenominational Lutheran and Catholic city, with two Lutheran churches and two Catholic churches. The city council was exclusively Lutheran, and the burghers mostly so, but the city also housed the Catholic Chapter of the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück and had many other Catholic inhabitants. Osnabrück had been subjugated by troops of the Catholic League from 1628 to 1633 and then taken by Lutheran Sweden.

15 May 1929

A fire at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio kills 123 people.

The Cleveland Clinic fire was a major structure fire at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on May 15, 1929. It started in the basement of the hospital and it was caused by nitrocellulose x-ray film that ignited when an exposed light bulb was too close to the film. The fire generated poisonous gas and two separate explosions. The fire claimed 123 lives, including that of one of the clinic’s founders, Dr. John Phillips. Policeman Ernest Staab was killed by the gas while rescuing 21 victims.

The Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit Ohio corporation, founded in 1921 by four physicians. Late in the morning of May 15, 1929, an exposed light bulb too close to some nitrocellulose x-ray film ignited the film. The burning nitrocellulose film quickly produced a significant amount of poisonous gas, causing victims to suffocate, the faces of the victims turning yellowish brown within minutes. Further complicating fire-fighting, nitrocellulose continues to burn even while immersed in water, and fighting the film-fueled fire simply caused more poisonous smoke to accumulate, raising the death toll.

A first explosion came at a few seconds past 11:30 am; a clock on the third floor balcony stopped at that time. After the hollow center of the building was filled with poisonous gas, a second explosion shattered the skylight and sent the vapors into every corner of the clinic. Many of the building occupants succumbed to the poisons.

Despite the heavy loss of life, firemen estimated the property damage at only $50,000.

According to investigators, the clinic was not at fault for the fire. Nonetheless, the disaster was responsible for influencing significant changes to fire-fighting techniques. The city of Cleveland issued gas masks to its fire departments and proposed a city ambulance service. Nationally, the disaster prompted medical facilities to establish standards for the storage of nitrocellulose film and other hazardous materials.

Some historians have argued that the Cleveland Clinic fire was also a catalyst for the development of non-flammable, non-toxic chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants. Nevertheless, most of the deaths were from breathing highly toxic carbon monoxide and nitric oxide rather than methyl chloride itself, and even at the time of the disaster chemical companies were aware of the hazards of existing refrigerants.

15 May 1958

The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 3.

On May 15, 1958, the USSR launched its Third Artificial Satellite. While two previous Soviet orbiters were propelled into space by mostly political considerations, Sputnik-3, as it became known in the West, was designed to be a true scientific laboratory. According to original plans, it was supposed to be the first Soviet satellite, but, as it transpired decades later, it became the fourth, after its sibling crashed in a botched launch less than three weeks earlier.

A 8A91 rocket No. B1-1 with the second copy of Object D lifted off on the morning of May 15, 1958. This time, the ride to orbit went without a hitch. (473) A total of four objects were detected by Western radars after the launch: the satellite itself, the core stage of the R-7 rocket and two halves of a payload fairing, while the front tip of the fairing was probably too small to be registered.

On May 29, a press-release dedicated to the mission revealed general dimensions of the satellite and boasted that the third Soviet spacecraft was 2.5 times heavier than the second satellite and 16 times heavier than the first. (199)

As it transpired decades later, most systems onboard the third satellite functioned for more than two weeks, even though its data recorder failed earlier. The onboard system for orbit tracking was misbehaving in the first days of the mission.