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Another black legend, down the chute

The Thirty Years War looms large in the contemporary secularist imagination. There, it’s simply taken for granted that religious fanaticism laid waste to Europe between 1618 and 1648, and that the carnage only stopped when the exhausted powers of the day agreed to the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the wars of religion by adopting the principle of cuius regio eius religio – the prince’s religion would determine the religion of the principality. More subtle secularists find in cuius regio eius religio one root of modern statecraft, from which religious ideas and religiously informed moral judgments are to be rigorously excluded.

That’s the way it was, and that’s the lesson to be learned, right? Well, no, actually.

Or so writes Peter Wilson in The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Belknap/Harvard). As Professor Wilson’s subtitle suggests, the Thirty Years War was indeed a horrible business. When it was finally over, the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs had lost 20 percent of its population—some 8 million people—which is truly dreadful, even by 20th century European standards of mass slaughter. True, Wilson writes, the Thirty Years War began as a religiously-inspired civil war within the Hapsburg lands. But it became an international affair and a historic disaster when Sweden’s Gustavus Adophus, waging war behind a facade of Lutheran piety, saw his geopolitical chances and took ‘em. (That Richelieu and the Catholic French sided with the Lutheran Swedes in order to cut their Catholic Hapsburg rivals down to size nicely illustrates Lord Birkenhead’s comment in “Chariots of Fire:” “The Frogs aren’t a terribly principled lot…”).

Wilson’s challenge to conventional secularist wisdom lies in his summary judgment: this grisly business had far less to do with theological arguments over justification by faith than it did with dynastic ambition, greed, political incompetence, and a ruthless lack of morals among early practitioners of that foreign policy “realism” on which certain parties in Washington, D.C., pride themselves today. In short, the Thirty Years War was about politics detached from ethics, not about religion detached from reason.

If that’s true—and Professor Wilson makes a strong case—adjustments ought to be made in the Standard Version of the modern history of church-and-state.

Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Stalin, master of a hyper-secularist regime in Soviet Russia, killed more people on a slow afternoon than the dread Inquisition consigned to death in a decade. Now Peter Wilson demonstrates that the Thirty Years War (proportionally, a slaughter three times greater than World War II) was primarily a matter of unbridled politics, not maniacal religion. These two readjustments in historical understanding demonstrate, across a span of three and a half centuries, that the modern nation-state has been more deadly than the Church by orders of magnitude. That, in turn, ought to be an arrow in the rhetorical quiver of those Europeans and Americans who continue to argue, against secularist bigotry, that religiously informed moral argument has a legitimate place in the public square of 21st century democracies.

Then there’s cuius regio eius religio, which the Standard Version typically posits as a step toward the institutional separation of church and state and the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Poles taught me years ago that precisely the opposite was the case: for Poles, whose lands did not experience the European wars of religion, regard the Westphalian imposition of religious faith by state edict as the world’s first systematic experiment in totalitarianism—the coercion of consciences by a public authority that claimed control over the innermost sanctuaries of the human spirit.

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Thus if we are looking for deeper and sturdier roots of religious freedom in Europe, we might look elsewhere: to the Polish theologian and canonist Pawel Wlodkowic, who argued at the 15th century Council of Constance against the forced conversion of pagans; or to the 17th century Polish king, Zygmunt August, who declined the invitation of his countrymen to resolve their religious squabbles by stating that he was not “the king of your consciences.”

In the light of Peter Wilson’s book, perhaps some intrepid soul will raise these points in the Christophobic European Parliament. The reaction would be instructive.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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