Sunday, October 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (C.V. Wedgwood, on Changing Reasons for ‘The Judgment of the Sword’)

“After the expenditure of so much human life to so little purpose, men might have grasped the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgement of the sword. Instead, they rejected religion as an object to fight for and found others.”― English historian C.V. Wedgwood (1910-1997), The Thirty Years War (1938)

With the signing of the second of two treaties, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, 375 years ago this month.

I suspect that the two proper nouns in the last sentence will bring a barely visible light to the eyes of many of my readers. They’ll be lucky to hear the dimmest echo of a high school or college world history class, or, if they’re real theater aficionados, they might remember it as the period in which Bertolt Brecht’s fierce antiwar play, Mother Courage and Her Children, is set.

Yet all of this deserves to be better recalled. The lengthy war that came to an end with the strokes of several pens and millions of sighs released resulted in the greatest loss of civilian lives in Europe until the Irish Potato Famine two centuries later.

I bring this up now because of the latest crisis engulfing the Middle East: Hamas’ coordinated terror attacks earlier this month from the Gaza Strip onto adjoining areas of Israel, followed by retaliation by Israel. In the three weeks since the fighting began, 1,400 Israelis and 7,000 Palestinians have already perished—and those totals are sure to climb as Israel prepares a full-scale war.

A couple of weeks ago, after intense exposure on the evening news to the anguish all too present in the region now, a relative of mine, though a regular churchgoer, said he couldn’t believe how much violence has been committed in the name of religion. His stunned disbelief was understandable, but also, in a larger sense, misplaced.

The Peace of Westphalia dealt with the religious elements in the war by instituting the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state). But as C.V. Wedgwood noted above, rulers soon would alight on other motives for whipping up hatred.

The Hamas-Israel War has pitted Moslems against Jews in the Mideast, but the conflict goes beyond mere sectarian issues, with lack of a Palestinian homeland, class resentment, and superpower politics also involved. 

In much the same way, the Thirty Years War ostensibly arose from conflicts between Catholics and Protestants hub in Europe, but issues of national sovereignty and balance-of-power issues eventually complicated matters considerably. (Well along in the conflict, Catholic France supported the Protestant principals in an attempt to damage the Holy Roman Empire.)

At this vast remove, we’ll never know for certain exactly how many lives were lost in this protracted conflict, but historians estimate that somewhere in the neighborhood of eight million perished.

Human beings have accumulated a wealth of knowledge in the four hundred years since the Thirty Years War broke out, but have yet to ameliorate on a broad scale the tensions of suffering people and the exploitative instincts of their leaders. So it’s all too possible that the body count of the Thirty Years War can be exceeded in our time.

(The image accompanying this post, The Ratification of the Treaty of Munster, was painted in 1648 by Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch.)

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