Saturday, January 15, 2011

The thirty year read

Whence Europe? ... Some notes on the thirty year war.

With some trepidation, I started on a history of the thirty year's war. And true to its reputation, it was dreadful- not just the war, which was that and more, but the book as well. A classic example of "one damn fact after another", the author trying to cram several volumes of outstanding scholarship into one phenomenally condensed doorstop of 850 pages. Plus, in a book that deserves a new map every couple paragraphs, the major map of central Europe was accidentally left out, leaving only a sprinkling of cursory battle maps.

But enough complaining. There were many interesting themes in play. What caused the war? Could Europe ever go back to such a condition? Why do countries meddle in each other's affairs? What changed about Europe's political order afterwards? Does democracy fundamentally change the equation?

My capsule history of the conflict would be that after the advent of Protestantism in the early 1500's, it spread like wildfire in northern Europe for two reasons- for its intrinsic theological rationale that the bible should be the touchstone of belief and that salvation needn't be intermediated by an official church that was so obviously flawed- even corrupt- in many dimensions. And secondly, for the opportunity nobles had to escape the Catholic hierarchy and taxation by setting up a local alternative church structure. This second reason was most obvious in the case of England's Henry VIII, but operated throughout northern Europe. The Catholic world used all the levers at its disposal to reverse this trend in the later 1500's, fighting the "Wars of religion" in France against the Huguenots, and using its control of the upper hierarchies of the Holy Roman Empire to force re-Catholicization in a quiet, but persistent way over several decades.
"The duke [of Bavaria] felt that Catholics had given too much ground already since 1555 and that it was high time for them to take a firm stand to prevent the Empire from sliding into chaos. The stance was influenced by a book, Autonomia, published in Munich in 1586 by Andreas Erstenberger, a secretary at the Reichshofrat, who criticized the toleration extended by the Catholic politique faction in France in an attempt to pacify the Huguenots. For Erstenberger, there could be no 'autonomy', since freedom of conscience was simply a license to serve the devil." p.220 
Protestants througout Central Europe became fed up with this treatment, which impinged on their political and religious rights/power/autonomy. Eventually, with the empire in a weak state as well, they saw war as the way to independence, starting with a revolt in Bohemia (which had its own rich pre-Lutheran history of Protestantism in the Hussites). Both sides were evenly matched, and the war dragged on, galloping and ravaging over most parts of the Austrian and German countryside for the notorious thirty years (1618 to 1648). A decade in, the Protestant side was very weak and also divided (the Lutherans and Calvinists couldn't stand each other), and outside powers started to participate- first Denmark, followed by Sweden on the Protestant side, and Spain (fellow Hapsburgs) on the Catholic side. In the last decade or so, France, despite being Catholic, entered the fray allied with Sweden on the side of the Protestants, due principally to its strategic competition against Spain and the Hapsburgs.
"Tschernembl was prepared to abolish serfdom in return for peasant support by 1620, but his [Austrian noble] colleagues rejected this, preferring an alliance with the sultan [!] instead." p. 310
Eventually, with resources thinning, and the armies shrinking, both sides realized that their territory was being slowly carved up by foreign powers (all the while, Sweden claimed to be promoting "German independence"!), and came to their senses, taking eight years to negotiate the Peace of Westphalia, 1648. This treaty (including the likewise long-awaited Spanish-Dutch peace) was highly structured, and did a good job of demobilizing the antagonists, settling territorial claims, and most importantly, resetting the religious parameters/norms of the Empire. Local nobles could still set the public religious character of their territories, (public processions, bell ringing, etc.), but some toleration was extended to private worship, with recognized groups (Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics) allowed to practice everywhere, and others (Jews, Protestant splinter sects), still allowed to be ostracized if the ruler wished, but only after due notice, and with some degree of consideration. Protestants were also made equal before the law which before had favored Catholics systematically, advancing secularism.
"The disputes after 1648 no longer concerned fundamental truth, but the relative weights of Protestant and Catholic territories in imperial institutions. This political aspect had been present before 1618, but was overlaid by a theological militancy lacking after 1648. Theologians no longer influenced policy" p.769
"Only the pope rejected the entire settlement [of Westphalia] in his decree Zelo domus Dei, which he issued in August 1650 but backdated to 26 November 1648 to reaffirm his envoy Chigi's earlier verbal protests." p.754
"Pope Urban VIII excommunicated Florentine public health officials after they banned religious assemblies and processions to help combat infection [of the plague]." p.811
"Together with Thumshirn, his Altenburg colleague, Lampadius proposed extending German liberty to ordinary peoiple by granting full freedom of conscience. This was further than most Protestants were prepared to go, especially when they realized it would be difficult to deny Catholic minorities similar rights. Calvinist millenarianism had encouraged many to go to war. Though diehards were still predicting the imminent end of the Habsburg monarchy ten years after the war, most had long stopped believing such nonsense. War had become part of everyday life and had lost its impact as a sudden scourge of God." p. 722
It is clear that the participants (most of them, at least) had learned an important lesson in religious affairs. While still far from the religious freedom and disestablishment that flowered a hundred years later in America, religious control was dialed back an important notch, reducing the incidence of "thought crime", legal liabilitites, and other intrusions into this most personal sphere of identification, imagination, and creativity. In the next generation or two, J.S. Bach would move freely between Lutheran and Calvinist sponsors to create his extraordinary opus of religious and secular music.

"One recent study of the European Union  presents it not as a single, centralized Westphalian super-state, but as a 'neo-medieval empire', with the process of integration remodelling the continent along lines not dissimilar to the Holy Roman Empire."
A fascinating line in the book likens the Holy Roman Empire to what is taking shape once again in the form of the European Union. Like the Empire, the EU is not directly democratic, but rather works through delegations sent by member countries, much as the various estate holders, electors, bishops, and princes of the Empire gathered in the Reichsrat. The EU may be less class-ridden, but no less autocratic, handing down rules and decisions that are resented all over the EU. The lines of governance are similarly hazy, with querulous citizens condeming the Brussels bureaucrats, and a blizzard of institutions defying understanding. It could be termed Byzantine!
"The EU operates through a hybrid system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmentally made decisions negotiated by the member states."
Could the new system break down as the Empire did? Hostility is certainly building in Euro countries as their economies melt down, accompanied by occasional riots. The deficit countries vainly try to cut their way to health and beg for rescue, while the donor countries (principally Germany) feel superior and resentful in return, never having dreamed that economic integration meant actually integrating - for better and for worse. At the same time, an unsettling new religious dynamic has taken hold, between a confident/reactionary Islam among segregated immigrants, an ossified Catholicism, and the mostly indifferent mass of average citizens, trending to apatheism or atheism. The Dutch have once again been at the vanguard, horrified at the return of religious violence.

So while the EU continues expanding outwards into the Russian sphere of influence, some rot has set in at the core. Indeed, Brussels itself is at the heart of a small secession battle between the Belgian Flemish and Walloons. Either the system can continue to muddle through, much as the Empire tried to, with ambiguous governance vacillating between local and EU management, possibly with some members exiting due to extreme economic distress (Ireland, Greece). Or it could centralize more effectively, establishing clearer lines of governance, integrated and trans-national fiscal managment that automatically funds less productive areas with money and migration from more productive areas. The former is analogous to the situation of the Empire prior to the thirty year's war, whereas the latter might resemble something more like the US, with a strong federal system. After the thiry year's war, the empire was stronger, with better governance and more federal character, but still succumbed to the nationalistic state concept a century and a half later.

This is more of a thought-experiment than a thorough analogy, but it is interesting how historical themes can recur on very large scales. Religion does not currently present itself as the primary focus of conflict and for that reason one can have some confidence that Europeans will keep emotions in check, even if unemployment remains high, poorer countries settle into uncomfortable dependence, and economic growth stagnates overall. Democracy also forms an important check, since we no longer have the free-lancing nobles who could contract alliances, raise armies, and start wars with little to no oversight.

One further angle of interest is how the war resembles the Afghan war we are currently engaged in. What@!? There are similarities. One is how surrounding powers use the conflict to further their own aims at the expense of the main antagonists. Another is the sheer length of this civil war, with occasional shocking descents into brutality that confound any religious interpretation. Another is its religious character- with each side claiming to have a truer interpretation of a common tradition, while all such propaganda claims are routinely subordinated to tribal affiliation, military exigency, and the various corruptions of warlordism.

The Thirty Year's War ended mostly with a restitution of the existing legal system, with a few noble warlords added to the imperial system, and several disposessed, but the overall structure more tweeked than revolutionized. One has to hope that the Afghan war has a more positive and fundamental outcome, though a simple de-emphasis of theocratic power would be highly significant in itself. In the derogatory words of a recent commentator, the US intervention has been "... designed to drag Muslim Arabs and Afghans through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in the space of a few years, at gunpoint." That certainly points to the difficulty, and we only can hope that time plus mutual understanding and the template that the painfully gained European/Western governance solutions provide can make some speedier headway.

Lastly, does all this connect with the recent Tucson shootings and our own polarization? I don't think so, for the basic reason that our political polarization is not real. The heated rhetoric and revolutionary fervor of our Tea Party friends and conservative shouters is all smoke and no fire. I see it as a huge cloud of obfuscating propaganda spread over the cultural battlefield so that the real interests at play- the rich and corporate powers that foot the bill- can maintain their current course of corrupting our government, taking handouts/bailouts, raising their income share, and beating down the power of workers and labor. However resonant their rhetoric with the large-amygdala and paranoid crowds, its purpose is not to take up actual arms, but to browbeat the government to keep its mitts off corporations, and the Democratic majority into a new sense of "normal", exemplified by their incantation that America "is a center-right nation". It isn't. It is a secular democracy with the mechanisms in place to resolve our many differences and injustices peacefully, as long as we also have the intellect to cut through the smoke and see what is really going on.

  • Meanwhile, Pakistan trends back towards medievalism and state theology.
  • And Pakistan's war against us continues...
  • The answer to Tucson? More guns!
  • Paranoid schizophrenia, for the doctor, and for the family.
  • Regulation is good for jobs. Regulation by the Fed would have saved millions.
  • The US and Cuba go back a long way.
  • Moving the needle in our political thought.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week, courtesy of Mr. Carey, as quoted by Victor Quirk
"The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

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