Thirty Years' War Lessons of the Westphalian Peace for the Middle East

Four centuries after catastrophe in central Europe, German scholars and policymakers revisit the Thirty Years' War to find lessons for today’s Syria.
Quelle: DPA, Creative Commons/Rocroi, el último tercio by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau [M]
(Foto: DPA, Creative Commons/Rocroi, el último tercio by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau [M])

Exactly 400 years ago this year, Protestants in Prague tossed three Catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor out of a third-floor window. All three survived, either because they fell onto a dung heap (the Protestant version) or thanks to divine intervention (Catholic). No big deal, one would have thought.

Instead, this defenestration triggered a series of events that nobody could have foreseen, and that remains bewildering even today. The result: For thirty years, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation – by and large today’s Germany – was a battleground. About one in three of its people died, in some regions two in three.

But then – 370 years ago, after five years of tortuous negotiations – the princes and powers of Europe durably stopped the bloodshed, signing three of the most famous treaties in history. This so-called Westphalian Peace birthed the modern states system. And that could be of special relevance today to all those concerned about the Middle East.

That, at least, is the premise of many German politicians and scholars, who tend to be more familiar with the Thirty Years’ War than, say, their Anglo-Saxon colleagues. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, recently said that comparing today’s conflict in Syria to the Thirty Years’ War is “not inappropriate.” In his previous job as foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now Germany’s president, opined that “the Westphalian Peace cannot give us a blueprint for peace in the Middle East, but maybe, if we look closely, tools, methods and ideas for one.” Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education has devoted an entire issue of its prestigious journal to that search.

Failed states and sectarianism

What, then, makes the comparison so tempting? For a start, both conflagrations – the Thirty Years’ War and Syria’s civil war – flared up in “failed states,” to use modern jargon. Unlike the French, Spanish or English monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire had failed to centralize power. A century hence, Voltaire would quip that it was “in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Similarly, Syria, Yemen, but also Iraq and other states in the region have since the Arab Spring lacked coherent governments.

Second, the whole Middle East, like central Europe then, sits atop religious fault lines. In Germany, the Reformation had raised but not resolved precarious questions about the balance between Catholics and Protestants, both in the Empire and within each each principality. Similarly, the Middle East today is split between Sunni and Shia Islam. To the extent that some combatants believe they are fighting for absolute truth, compromise thus becomes more elusive, thinks Herfried Münkler, a politics professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.  

Third, now as then, this sectarian geography is a platform for the decidedly agnostic power politics of external players being drawn into the vacuum. Thus the Thirty Years’ War became a confrontation between regional superpowers such as Austria, Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. The Middle East today is a chess board for the struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, but also for Turkey, Israel, Russia, and the United States.

Quelle: AP, Mauritius Images [M]
(Foto: AP, Mauritius Images [M])

These layered interests muddle the religious divisions. At various points in the 17th century, Protestant Saxony was supporting the Catholic Emperor; Protestant Sweden was fighting equally Protestant Denmark; and so on. Today (Sunni) Turkey, (Orthodox) Russia and (Shia) Iran find themselves on the same (ie, Assad’s) side in Syria. As the Thirty Years” War had a Bohemian phase, a Danish phase, and a Swedish Phase, today’s conflict in the Middle East appears to have Palestinian, Lebanese, Yemeni, Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian phases, among others.

Fourth, both wars are being waged not only by states but also by private militias. Four centuries ago, this included war entrepreneurs who commandeered armies. Today it ranges from Kurdish and Syrian rebel groups to terrorist networks. This presence of profiteers for whom war is a business model makes, then as now, a truce elusive, argues Mr. Münkler.

And yet, the Thirty Years’ War eventually ended. So the Middle Eastern war can end too. What, then, are the “tools, methods, and ideas,” as Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it, that today’s policymakers could borrow from the Westphalian peace?

Five requirements for hope

Elisabeth von Hammerstein, an expert at the Körber-Stiftung, a think tank in Berlin, thinks that the first prerequisite is that a sizable group of participants understands that the war is unwinnable: no player can prevail, but each player can deny victory to the others. The second requirement is that this group of former combatants or outside princes, in entering negotiations, stipulates that the issue of religion must be neutralized: All parties shelve their claim to theological “truth” by separating faith from politics.

The third requirement, and lesson, is that the negotiators agree to a general amnesty to all the atrocities and injustices that have already taken place. This is hard to imagine in the Middle East today, but so it was in Germany by the 1640s. Westphalia showed that you cannot have peace and justice at the same time.

Fourth, new regional institutions are needed to address disputes through arbitration rather than violence. In the Holy Roman Empire, this took the form of confederal structures (not unlike those of today’s European Union). In the Middle East, these arbitration forums would need to be created from scratch.

And fifth, the aforementioned external powers must, as they did in 1648, credibly guarantee the peace treaty, in effect policing each other and the signatories in the region to abide by the terms. This means that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States must play similar roles to those of France, Spain, Austria, Denmark and Sweden then. All this seems unimaginable today. But so it seemed four centuries ago.

Andreas Kluth is editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global.

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