Sectarian Conflicts: Looking Back from Syria to Europe’s Age of Religious War

February 5, 2014

In a recent interview, Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme commander, expressed concerns that escalating Sunni-Shia conflicts in Syria and Iraq had the potential to spill over into a “truly regional war.” He drew parallels between these conflicts and the religious wars that convulsed 16th and 17th-century Europe: “If we look back on the wars of the reformation in Europe, which pit Catholic versus Protestant, we can see how this kind of inter-religious conflict can consume an entire region.”

As the author of a book entitled Early Modern Europe: the Age of Religious War, 1559-1715, this is a period of European history I am familiar with. As a rule, however, we academic historians, especially those of us who study earlier periods, tend to shy away from drawing parallels between our own periods of research and the present. For one thing, it is difficult enough to make exact comparisons between events closely linked in space and time, let alone when there are vast gulfs in time, geography, and cultural contexts. For another, the data of history are so vast and varied that one can find a “lesson” that teaches just about anything one wants. Historians therefore are very cautious regarding these sorts of exercises, especially when tempted to apply “lessons” to areas of the world they do not know well – in my case, the Middle East.

Upon reflection, however, it does seem to me that religious conflicts in early modern Europe bear some similarity to the sectarian conflict now rending parts of the Middle East, and that the European experience in the 16th and 17th centuries may contain, if not “lessons” for today, then perhaps some cautions and insights for political, religious, and military decision-makers.  Above all, what the European experience tells us is that these conflicts are complex and open systems, and that, like climate, tinkering with one facet of the conflict will more than likely have unforeseeable and cascading effects on other aspects. This tinkering may make things better, but is just as likely to make things worse. There is no “silver bullet” than can miraculously cause combatants to put down their arms and tolerate the existence and beliefs of the other side.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s mantra when running for president in 1992, “it’s the religion, stupid!” That is, the causes of European religious wars really were religious differences. Several generations ago, most historians were of the opinion that in early modern Europe, religion was a cloak, a pretext, for the combatants’ “real” motives, whether those motives were geopolitical interests in land and resources, the desire of nobles to revolt against centralizing monarchies, or class warfare.

Over the last 30 years or so, however, the pendulum has swung back and religion is now taken very seriously indeed as the major factor in these conflicts. Other motives were, of course, present, but it is simply impossible to explain the length, persistence, and bitterness of these conflicts without considering religious difference as the single most important factor. Religion assumed a special importance in early modern Europe in that kings and governments explicitly based their claim to rule on divine right. It was generally assumed by almost everyone that there was one true religion and that religious diversity must necessarily lead to civil discord. Of course, if everybody believes this, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This also means that our present-day distinction between religion and politics was simply not present in early modern Europe, and that, in a very real parallel to today’s Middle East, religious issues were by default also political issues, and vice versa.

Moreover, as in the Middle East today, no matter what the origins of the conflict, the combatants in early modern European conflicts were almost never left to settle their differences among themselves. Outsiders almost inevitably became involved, whether through religious solidarity or political or strategic difference. The briefest glance at European religious wars makes this evident.  In the early 1560s the large and prosperous Kingdom of France descended into a series of vicious religious wars that would last until at least 1598. Although political and social factors were important drivers, the length and bitterness of the conflict, to say nothing of its ultimate resolution, were almost entirely due to the existence of a powerful Calvinist minority opposed by a zealously Catholic faction that would settle for nothing less than restoring religious uniformity to France.

In another part of Europe, religious differences between a Calvinist minority and a Catholic majority also came to play a very important role in the Dutch revolt against King Philip II of Spain. Although it may seem odd to us today, national differences—that is, the Dutch being ruled by a Spaniard—played very little role in the origins of the revolt, although a kind of nationalism did emerge during its course. In large part, it was Philip’s intransigence on religion, and the extreme methods he employed in his attempt to maintain Catholic uniformity in his Dutch possessions, that drove his subjects (even many Catholics) to oppose his policies. Had Philip been willing to show even the slightest flexibility on religion, the Dutch might never have revolted at all.

Not unlike today’s Middle Eastern conflicts, these two conflicts inevitably bled together. This was due to geographic proximity, the wealth of the Low Countries, the strategic importance of the Channel coast and common religious feeling. French Protestants were generally in favor of helping the Dutch rebels, while many French Catholics believed that Catholic rulers ought to make common cause against the heretics. Other French Catholics, however, thought that whatever harmed Spain was good for France, and had no desire to assist Philip in repressing his rebellious subjects.  On several occasions, Dutch Protestants came to the aid of their French brethren and vice versa. More importantly, Philip’s efforts to reconquer his rebellious subjects were harmed by his diverting resources to other conflicts. On several occasions in the late 1580s and 1590s, Philip ordered his commander in the Low Countries, the Duke of Parma (the leading general of the age) to invade France in order to support the ultra-Catholic forces there.

England under Elizabeth I also had a direct interest in what happened in France and the Low Countries. For centuries, England and the Spanish Kingdom of Castile had been traditional allies against France. With their common enemy now reduced to impotence, the England of Elizabeth I and the Spain of Philip II saw their relations deteriorate (a process intensified by religious differences) to the point where in 1588 Spain would attempt to invade England and replace the English Queen on the throne. Among other irritants, Philip objected to England’s assistance to the Dutch rebels.

Of all the religious wars in early modern Europe, it is perhaps the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) in Germany that bears the most resemblance to the Sunni-Shia conflicts in the modern Middle East. In both cases, we see political instability with shifting boundaries and allegiances, bitter religious division, and the core strategic interests of outside powers all come to bear on the course of the conflict.  Although technically a part of the Holy Roman Empire, real political authority in Germany was extremely fragmented, with actual power exercised by a galaxy of territorial princes, Imperial cities, and noblemen. While it was united by a common ethnicity and language (with several notable exceptions such as Czech Bohemia), Germany suffered nonetheless from religious division and fragmentation. Moreover, religious divisions assumed a military dimension with the formation of the rival military alliances of the Catholic League and the Protestant Union. At the same time, Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37), was attempting to achieve the centuries-long dream for his Habsburg dynasty to restore Imperial power in a religiously united and Catholic Germany. Ferdinand was at the same time King of Bohemia, a region that was largely Czech in nationality and Protestant in religion, and it was there that he first attempted to implement his blueprint for all of the Empire. In the process, in 1618, he provoked the Bohemian nobles into an armed revolt; they eventually deposed him as ruler, replacing Ferdinand with the Empire’s leading Calvinist prince. By 1621, however, Ferdinand had routed the Bohemian rebels, forcibly restored Catholicism in Bohemia, and cemented his control over his unruly kingdom.

There is no inherent reason for the conflict to have to continued or expanded outside of the Empire. German Protestant princes, it is true, feared for their future, but were not strong enough on their own to mount a challenge to Ferdinand. They sought aid from foreign Protestant rulers, but it is unlikely that such aid would have been forthcoming on religious grounds alone. In 1626, King Christian IV, the Lutheran king of Denmark, came to the aid of the German Protestants. However, this maneuver was not due only to religious solidarity, for he was not only King of Denmark, but also a prince of the Empire by virtue of possessing several territories in northern Germany. In addition, potential hostile control of the Baltic coast of Germany threatened his revenues, which came overwhelmingly from tolls on Baltic commerce.  As such, Christian had a markedly non-religious incentive to become involved in a primarily religious conflict, a parallel which applies to the complex alliances in the Sunni-Shia conflicts of today.

Indeed, on top of German issues, virtually every other European ruler had an interest in what happened in the Empire. The kings of France had feared and fought the power of the Habsburg dynasty for over a century, through their ongoing rivalry with Spain. A Habsburg ruled not only Spain itself, but also what remained of Spanish possessions in the Low Countries and large parts of Italy. The Holy Roman Emperors themselves were also members of the Habsburg dynasty and were bound to their Spanish cousins by long-standing treaties, familial connections, and religious interests. Enhanced Imperial (read: Habsburg) control of Germany threatened to put France in the jaws of a Habsburg nutcracker.

Similarly, the newly independent but still very precarious northern provinces of the Netherlands (the United Provinces or Dutch Republic) feared that Habsburg control of Germany would aid in the transport of Spanish men, money, and materiel to the Spanish Netherlands by way of the “Spanish Road,” a series of routes from northern Italy through Switzerland, the Alps and western Germany.

Most immediately, however, it was the Lutheran King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus (r. 1611-32) who felt the Imperial threat. Sweden was the superpower of northern Europe, possessing an empire around the shores of the Baltic. In 1630, the large and powerful Swedish army landed in northern Germany and quickly won a series of important battles against Catholic Imperial forces. In a sign of the evolving nature of the war, in 1631, Lutheran Sweden signed a treaty of alliance with Catholic France (governed by King Louis XIII and his chief minister Cardinal Richelieu) against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. And in a secret clause of the treaty, France agreed to subsidize the Swedish war effort.  However, the Swedes lost their king in the Battle of Lützen in 1632, and in 1634, the hitherto invincible Swedish army suffered a crushing loss at the Battle of Nördlingen. Having already lost their king, the Swedes threatened to withdraw from Germany. Faced with this prospect, France now had to openly enter the war in Germany, at the same time that it was fighting a separate war against Spain. In this way, the Thirty Years’ War dragged on for another thirteen long and destructive years, by now having lost almost all of its religious motivation.

It is worth noting that left to themselves, Germans likely would likely have settled their religious issues by the mid-1630s along the lines laid out in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This agreement, the result of an earlier bout of religious warfare, provided for a kind of religious toleration under a set of guidelines: the religion of the ruler determined the religion of the territory and its inhabitants, but with the addition of Calvinism as a permitted creed. (This is in fact what happened, but not until 1648.) The war was kept going by outsiders—the French, the Swedes, the Dutch, the Spanish—for their own purposes which, although they might have been cloaked in religion, were really strategic and geopolitical.

It is also worth noting that in the past twenty years or so, historians have begun to look beneath the surface of a general picture of religious violence and intolerance in early modern Europe.  A new appreciation has emerged of the ways in which people of competing churches and faiths could get along with each other on a day-to-day basis. In other words, religious violence, whether “state-sponsored” or grassroots, is not the whole picture. This was not, however, the result of a commitment to religious liberty as we understand it today in the Western world, but rather a sometimes grudging acceptance of the other, because the conceivable alternatives—persecution and violence—were too disruptive to contemplate, a lesson that Europeans were beginning to learn on a large scale by the middle of the 17th century.

I spoke earlier about the difficulties of drawing “lessons” from history. The experience of religious war in early modern Europe does, however, contain some useful insights for thinking about current conflicts in the Middle East. One of these, unfortunately, is that it is very difficult to stop these conflicts from spreading, especially when outsiders see strategic dangers or opportunities in these conflicts. France, Spain, and Sweden all saw such dangers and/or opportunities in the Thirty Years’ War and acted accordingly. And when one became involved, they felt they all had to be involved, lest an enemy gain an advantage.

Another may be that as in early modern Europe, in the modern Middle East, the distinction between religion and politics is indistinct, if not meaningless. Although religious differences may be essential to the origins and duration the conflict, as outsiders become involved, their interests tend to dominate the conflict and to prolong it for their own purposes. In this way, despite the religious origins and nature of the conflicts, it seems almost inevitable that the strategic and geopolitical tail will wag the religious dog.

A further insight we can draw from the experience of early modern Europe is that, whatever the interests of outsiders, these conflicts will not end until the religious issues are resolved in one way or another  As long as a sufficient number of people are willing to fight over religious differences (a number impossible to determine, however), it is difficult to impossible, even with the best will in the world, to stop them from doing so. In early modern Europe, at any rate, the religious wars ceased only when enough people were so repulsed by the violence that the conflicts ran out of the fuel to keep going. However much they believed religious unity desirable, and however much they believed the other side to be damnable heretics, the conflicts ended once a critical mass of people  was no longer willing to go to extreme and violent lengths to attain it. It is surely noteworthy that many religious leaders condemned the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Pope Innocent XI condemned the peace as “null, void, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” Nobody cared, and his fulminations fell on deaf ears.


Mark Konnert is a professor of history at the University of Calgary and the author of Early Modern Europe: the Age of Religious War, 1559-1715, Civic Agendas and Religious Passion: Châlons-sur-Marne during the French Wars of Religion and Local Politics in the French Wars of Religion: The Towns of Champagne, the Duc de Guise, and the Catholic League, 1560-95.


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