Middle East violence is a reminder of the Thirty Years War

Mark Twain’s reputed quip that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” reminds us that historical analogies can sometimes provide a useful perspective on current events and even inform the future. The sectarian violence and bloodletting raging all over the Middle East have given rise to several historical comparisons, not least the hellish Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Europe in the first half of the 17th century.

With apologies to Dickens, it was the worst of times in Europe. This conflict among the Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Huguenots, involving multiple great powers, became a bloody, protracted struggle over the continent’s political and religious order.

Across the modern Middle East, Western foreign policy blunders have largely, though not entirely, contributed to a growing sense of instability. Many argue that the turmoil currently engulfing the region was born out of the catastrophic American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its failure to reconstitute an Iraqi state.6

The turmoil is fueled by the hatred between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam that has existed for centuries. Toppling Saddam Hussein unleashed the Shia in Iraq and strengthened Iran’s bid to be the region’s most important actor.

Just as with the Thirty Years’ War, the religious conflict is overlaid by a great rivalry between Iran, leading a Shiite coalition, and Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni central. Add to that the presence of the United States and Russia, which are fighting proxy wars in the region, and you have a precarious and highly flammable mix.

In 16th and 17th century Europe, the Protestant Reformation opened a Pandora’s Box of international and civil conflict culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, the greatest of the so-called wars of religion. Although the struggles that led to it erupted many years earlier, the war is conventionally held to start in 1618. It lasted through 1648, a seemingly endless and devastating conflict in which millions of

Europeans were killed, a scale unimaginable during the medieval era. It is estimated that more than 25 to 40 percent of the German population perished during the war.

The roots of both the Middle Eastern and European conflicts stretched back centuries and centered on unresolved questions of religious freedom and power politics. Not unlike the geopolitical and religious contest of will between Sunni and Shia, the Thirty Years’ war began as a conflict between Protestant nobles in Germany fighting to preserve their autonomy and faith against the Catholic Hapsburg Dynasty (the Holy Roman Empire).

On the political side, the Hapsburg Dynasty wanted to preserve its European hegemony. This triggered a conflict among a conga line of great powers such as France, Denmark and Sweden that was not unlike the modern power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, referred to by contemporaries as the Peace of Exhaustion. It established a new political order that irrevocably changed the map of Europe. The Netherlands gained independence from Spain, Sweden gained control of the Baltic, the German Protestant nobles were able to determine the religion of their lands, France was acknowledged as the preeminent Western power ,  the Holy Roman Empire continued as an empty shell until it was dissolved 150  years later and the principle of state sovereignty emerged, creating the basis for the modern system of nation states.                  ¬∑                                              ¬∑

In the long run, mitigating the Middle East’s sectarian and geopolitical conflicts may partially center on implementing the Westphalian nation state concept. Some semblance of stability in the Middle East may be restored with the reestablishment of a state-based order. For starters, that may mean a three-state arrangement, redrawing the existing national boundaries to accommodate separate states for the Sunnis, the Shias, and Kurds.

But history teaches us that the West must best be prepared to wait a very long time for the latest conflict in the Middle East to subside and for anything that approaches a solution to take hold.

originally published: January 19, 2016

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