Syria and the Peace of Westphalia

The treaties constituting the Peace of Westphalia were drawn up by pragmatists as way out of sectarian violence — might it have some clues for us?

By Robert ZaretskySeptember 20, 2013

Syria and the Peace of Westphalia

LITTLE MORE than two years ago, Western pundits were all '48ers — 1848ers, that is. The events on which we slapped the label “Arab Spring” seemed to be our century’s iteration of the “Springtime of the Peoples” that convulsed mid-19th-century Europe. In both instances, popular and youthful movements, inspired by the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and infuriated by chronic unemployment and economic struggle, surged through city streets and squares, sweeping away the ossified autocracies that, until then, seemed so solid and enduring.

As with any historical comparison, 1848 casts a bright light on certain aspects of the events in North Africa and the Middle East, but also leaves much in the shadows — most importantly, the issue of religion. The seismic events of 1848 were almost entirely secular, and their leaders rightly viewed the Catholic Church as a reactionary institution. But unlike 1848, the Arab Spring is, in fact, two springs: one secular, the other religious. Islam has played a pivotal, if not primordial role in these events as a vehicle of both revolution and resistance.

Given Islam’s role in the current upheavals, a different generation of '48ers might serve as a better historical comparison: 1648ers. Were Middle Europeans of that generation alive today, they would find a different geopolitical center, the Middle East, strangely familiar. Fraying empires and fissiparous regions, unending war and untold massacres, spiraling misery and deepening gloom, waves of displaced persons and instances of germ (though not chemical) warfare — all playing out against a backdrop of religious and dynastic struggle. North Africa and the Middle East, in a word, are the stage for a new kind of Thirty Years' War.

More intriguingly, the early war’s resolution might well offer a way out of the current one: call it a Peace of Westphalia 2.0.

Even today, the traumatic nature of that war, fought five centuries ago — one that eventually drew in nearly every major and minor European nation, chewing up and grinding down in its maw hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as soldiers — echoes in Mitteleuropa. Historicizing the Thirty Years' War was as problematic for subsequent generations of historians as Auschwitz has been for our own age.

For good reason. The war killed some five million men, women, and children — nearly 20 percent of the population. This statistic dwarfs the percentage of Europeans killed in either World War I or World War II — roughly six percent in both cases — not to mention the two percent of Americans who died during the Civil War. Rape and torture were standard practices, while starvation and disease ravaged entire cities. General Wallenstein was famed for his strategic savvy, but bubonic plague, more than brilliant ploys, often carried the day for his imperial armies.

The horror inspired by plague and typhus struck the imagination more deeply than did conventional warfare. Disease, moreover, was one of the great motors of the era’s massive refugee crisis — one that helped carry the deadly microbes across the continent and fuel xenophobia. Some 100,000 Lutherans from Lower Austria alone fled their homes during the war, while another 150,000 filled the roads leading from Bohemia and Moravia.

Magdeburg became the war’s poster child for the fate of those who didn’t flee approaching armies. Already stricken by the plague that Wallenstein’s army had brought in 1625, the Protestant city of 25,000 was besieged by Catholic forces in 1630. Upon the crumbling of its defenses, the city was torched, women and children were raped, and nearly all the remaining residents were massacred. The city long remained little more than a vast pile of rubble — a nightmare that central Europeans needed a century to awake from. (Oddly, we read one of the literary products of this awful era, Grimm's Fairy Tales, to put children to sleep.)

The most powerful factor driving the war and its train of dread and death was religion. Moreover, the confessional differences between Catholics and Protestants, who in turn were divided between Lutherans and Calvinists, threaded through geopolitical ambitions within and without the Empire. In 1555, an effort to enforce peace on a divided continent took place in the German city of Augsburg. The subsequent religious settlement, known as the Religious Peace, tried to square a theological circle. For a world that, until then, had known just one religion, one truth, and one set of laws, the delegates had to craft a legal document that would win the assent of two religions, each laying claim to absolute truth, each steeped in the blood of the other.

The powers settled on a breathtakingly pragmatic solution. Though the phrase itself would not be coined for a few more decades, the concept of cuius regio, eius religio — he who rules, decides the religion — lay at the heart of the political settlement. The aim was to fix, or freeze, the changing landscape of religious belief by acknowledging the existence of two Christian faiths, Catholicism and Lutheranism. Rulers had the right to impose their particular faith in their realms, but their subjects had the right to immigrate to a realm where the other faith was practiced. With artful fudging, the Peace remained silent on the matters of theological doctrine and religious truth, instead recognizing what both faiths had already created on the ground.

The Religious Peace soon failed, succeeded by the Thirty Years' War. Yet it laid the foundation for the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, an event that mostly stanched the religious bloodletting. The treaty, which oversaw the creation of sovereign states free of external interference and defined by borders reflecting a single cultural and religious character, trumpeted the beginning of the modern international order.

When it came to religious toleration, however, this was a modern international order not yet ready for prime time. Westphalia affirmed the equality of the three major divisions within Christendom, but at the same time, each of the three, when the majority in a particular country, was more equal than the others. It was the juridical equivalent of the mystery of the Trinity. Ultimately, as the historian Peter Wilson notes, Westphalia did not secularize politics, but instead “discredited the use of force to obtain confessional or political objectives.”

Fast forward half a millennium and shift our view eastward: everything has changed, yet eerily remains the same. The scourge of sectarian strife reigns over much of the Eastern Mediterranean; entire cities have been leveled and others besieged; great waves of refugees surge across largely arbitrary borders into neighboring (and increasingly unhappy) countries; atrocity stories, recorded on video and broadcast over Youtube — rather than illustrated in ink and disseminated by pamphlets — cascade across our screens. Only when we are confronted by a previously unimaginable riff on man’s inhumanity be it the rape and burning of children in Magdeburg or the gassing of children in Ghouta, are we shaken from our numbed awareness of events.

There are, of course, deep structural differences between the nature of the sectarian violence that fractured Christendom and that which fissures Islam. But there is one critical similarity: both in Middle Europe and the Middle East, religious differences piggybacked on geopolitical designs. At times, the latter trumped the former: Catholic France and Protestant Sweden became unlikely allies to parry the ambitions of the Catholic Habsburgs. While no Richelieu, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to openly support his fellow Shia in Syria, while also attempting to create bridges to Iraqi Sunnis, nevertheless reflects the Red Eminence’s sense of realpolitik. Wilson’s claim that the Thirty Years' War was religious only to the extent “that faith guided all early modern public policy and private behavior” can, with caution, be applied to today’s Middle East.

With the murderous unraveling of Syria and Iraq, and the growing fragility of Lebanon, an increasing number of commentators are busily paying their last respects to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, with which the French and British sliced and diced the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Rather than creating viable states, the agreement instead spawned entities bereft of culturally or religiously coherent populations. David Lloyd George’s opinion of Sykes-Picot remains tragically relevant: “[a] fatuous arrangement judged from any and every point of view.”

History, of course, allows no mulligans: the past cannot be redone or undone. The diplomats gathered in Westphalia understood this fact. They were not idealists, much less torchbearers of modern tolerance. Instead, they were what the French called les politiques: pragmatic men who reworked the basis of the Augsburg Peace with their eyes fastened not on past grievances, but on present necessities. 

Five centuries later, another unspeakably savage intra-confessional war is devastating an entire region and murdering tens of thousands of innocents. The least bad option may well be a settlement in the spirit of Westphalia. Its goal would be to revise the map of Syria as it now stands, shattered into confessional and ethnic shards. Under the aegis of an existing supranational agency — the UN, NATO, or the Arab League — or an ad hoc group led by the United States and Russia, Westphalia 2.0 would make it possible for Syrians who felt it necessary to move to those areas where their co-religionists were in the majority. Should they decide to remain as a religious minority, they would be granted limited rights and protection to practice their faith.

1648 has its limits as a guide, however. On the issue of war crimes, Westphalia offers no guidance. How could it, when many of the leaders and generals responsible for the great massacres had died by 1648? Besides, the very notion of individual human rights was not yet born — a notion, moreover, that would have run counter to the newly enshrined principle of national sovereignty.

Yet one takes what one can from the past. In the final line to her classic account of the Thirty Years' War, C. V. Wedgwood wrote: “Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.” Wedgwood published her book in 1938; with Europe still dazed from World War I and lurching toward World War II, we understand her nearly Olympian disdain for the stated reasons why nations go to war. And yet, Westphalia was meaningful in a narrow, but deep sense: it brought the confused and devious events to an end. It did so by reaffirming and readjusting the principles of the Augsburg Religious Peace. This was, no doubt, meaning enough for the denizens of Mitteleuropa — as it would be, as well, for the men, women, and children of the Middle East.


Robert Zaretsky is the history editor for the LARB.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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