The outside view Westphalia in Syria

Four centuries after the Thirty Years’ War, and 370 years after the Westphalian Peace, does German history offer lessons for the Middle East?
The similarities between the Middle East conflict and the Thirty Years‘ War are striking. Quelle: dpa
Iranian rockets in the Golan Heights

The similarities between the Middle East conflict and the Thirty Years‘ War are striking.

(Foto: dpa)

German policymakers are again studying the Thirty Years’ War, which started 400 years ago and killed one in three Germans. That is because it eerily resembles the conflicts in today’s Middle East. Might it offer lessons?

The Peace of Westphalia which ended the war „cannot give us a blueprint for peace in the Middle East,“ Frank-Walter Steinmeier said when he was foreign minister, „but maybe, if we look closely, tools, methods and ideas for one.“

The similarities, especially with Syria, are striking. Both wars flared up in „failed states“. Unlike the French, Spanish or English monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire by the 17th century had failed to centralize. Voltaire would later quip that it was „in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.“ Similarly, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq today lack strong central government.

Second, the Middle East, like Germany then, sits atop religious fault lines. In Germany they ran between Catholics and Protestants, in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shias.

Third, external powers keep being drawn into the killing fields for their own interests, muddling the religious alignments. Back then it was (Catholic) Austria, Spain, and France, and (Protestant) Denmark and Sweden. Today it is (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, (Shia) Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia and America.

Fourth, the war is being waged not only by states but also by private militias. Back then this involved war entrepreneurs who commandeered armies. Today it in‧cludes Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces and terrorist organisations. This presence of profiteers for whom war is a business model makes a truce elusive.

And yet, in Westphalia, Europe made peace. How? Elisabeth von Hammerstein at the Körber-Stiftung distils five aspects that apply today. The first prerequisite for peace is that a sizable group of participants accepts that the war is unwinnable because each power can deny victory to the others.

The second is that this group, in entering negotiations, stipulates that the issue of religion be neutralized: All parties shelve their claim to theological „truth“ by separating faith from politics.

The third requirement is that the negotiators agree to an amnesty for all atrocities that have already taken place – Westphalia showed that you cannot have peace and justice at the same time.

Fourth, new regional institutions are needed to resolve disputes through arbitration rather than violence. In the Holy Roman Empire, this took the form of confederal structures not unlike those in today’s EU. In the Middle East, such forums will need to be created from scratch.

And fifth, the aforementioned external powers must be guarantors of the peace, policing all signatories and each other. All this seems unimaginable today. As it did before 1648.


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