“Studying the 30 Years War Gives Me Hope about Our Religious Wars” | History News Network

Like the historian Wayne Te Brake I think the wars of religion that occurred in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can teach us something about the current conflicts in the Middle East. However, I have to disagree with his optimism concerning the current cease-fire in Syria.
Brake points to the well-known settlements to the European conflicts: “the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), the Edict of Nantes (1598), and the Peace of Westphalia (1648).”  While admitting that these were the result of a “grudging consent” rather than “the acceptance of explicit blueprints for a pluralistic future,” he sees in them hope for peace in the Middle East. This may be true in the long run, but the analogy between the current situation in Syria and the above peace settlements fails to take into account some important differences.
First, I think its’ important to note that the first two of the above peace settlements did not last. The breakdown of the Peace of Augsburg resulted in the Thirty Years War and the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV, unleashing a new rounds of violence. It was only after the idea of toleration was accepted as something desirable that we began to see permanent peaceful relations between the various religions in Europe. This is why Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration was so important. Locke was not the first, or the only person, to advocate in favor of toleration, but his influence in changing people’s attitudes about religious diversity that made him such an important figure in the West.
In the conflict zones of the Middle East today there are few, especially those in power, who are willing to accept even a grudging toleration. Without this there can be no lasting peace. The peace in Europe was enforced by powerful states, who despite not accepting toleration as a good were willing to enforce policies of toleration because it was in their interest to do so. The wars had taken such a toll in lives and treasure that a politique policy became necessary. This willingness, or even the ability, to follow a similar policy in Syria, the Islamic State, or Iraq is missing. And even if they get to the point of accepting a grudging toleration in the name of stability, it will not be permanent until there is a change in world view.

Read the entire article here: History News Network | Studying the 30 Years War Gives Me Hope about Our Religious Wars

The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War

The Revenge of History: “The Theater of Violence” – The New York Times

We all say we want peace, but at the same time we unwittingly engage in behaviors that perpetuate violence. As philosopher Simon Critchley notes, “we are all players on history’s bloody stage.” Human nature is in large part to blame. However, biology is not destiny. The purpose of civilization is to tame our wilder side. Yet, we still have not been able to end the violence.

Critchley offers an important insight into this intractable problem: “We live in a world framed by violence, where justice seems to be endlessly divided between claim and counterclaim, right and left, freedom fighter and terrorist, believer and nonbeliever, and so on. Each side appears to believe unswervingly in the rightness of its position and the wrongness, or indeed ‘evil,’ of the opposition. Such belief legitimates violence and unleashes counterviolence in return. We seem to be trapped in deep historical cycles of violence where justice is usually simply understood as vengeance or revenge.”

This is not a new insight, but it one that is difficult to sell. If we were reflective enough, we would see this trap we’ve set for ourselves. This insight also requires a broad and deep knowledge of history.  It is much easier to offer simple solutions that satisfy our egos and our intuitions. The good vs. evil narrative is simple and it lets us off the hook for any wrongdoing. Savvy politicians know this and use it to their benefit.

Is there any hope then? Critchley offers art, and music in particular, as a solution. But I don’t think this is enough. It will take a much broader effort to convince enough people that we are in fact part of the problem. We also need leaders willing to take up the cause and inspire a new generation to see the world and our place in it differently.

Source: The Theater of Violence – The New York Times

History News Network | Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

Rick Shinkman has an interesting proposal to deal with our natural lack of empathy for those we consider outsiders:

“When people are reduced to numbers—as the civilian victims of bombing during the Korean War were—we don’t feel their pain. We don’t automatically put ourselves in their shoes, which is by definition what you do when you are feeling empathic. We have the bomber pilot’s problem. We don’t feel anything for the victims. But historians can help. Storytelling is in our toolkit.  All we have to do is use it.”
Historians have already been doing this in many cases by writing about the experiences of other peoples, but what I think Shinkman is wanting us to do it in a more immediate way in response to current events where empathy is in short supply (like the Syrian refugees for example). Here again I think that this is being done, and in many cases very well, by reporters, humanitarian aid workers, and even comedians (see John Oliver’s show on refugees. It’s wonderful!). The problem is that those who lack empathy either ignore or dismiss information that humanizes the relevant group.
I think it would be more helpful, albeit it’s a long-term strategy, to educate the general population about their “stone-age brains.” In addition, we have to convince them with all the evidence that we have that their gut instinct is misleading them. I admit it won’t be easy, but I think it would be more effective in the long run.

Source: History News Network | Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

Christian Appy: “Our ‘Merciful’ Ending to the ‘Good War'” |History News Network

Seventy years ago today, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Just three days earlier Hiroshima had suffered the same fate. The debate over the necessity of dropping these bombs on continues to be highly contentious and divisive. Despite the fact that there has been a growing body of evidence that challenges the standard narrative (see below) of these events, this comforting narrative shows no sign of abating in public memory. Since I’ve already addressed this topic in a previous post, I’d like to address a related, but very important issue brought up by Christian Appy.

He challenges to consider these questions:

“Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man,’ those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the ‘black rain’ that spread radiation and killed even more people — slowly and painfully — leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?”

Appy concedes, and I agree, that any kind of apology is unlikely in the foreseeable future given current politics. But the issue is too important not to discuss.

Even if there was some agreement on the morality of the bombings, there is another hurdle to overcome before we can ever get to an apology. There is a widespread belief that apologies are for the weak. This is unfortunate. In reality, apologies show a strength of character that is hard to find among leaders today. An exception is Pope Francis, who has improved the standing of the Catholic Church by apologizing for the “past sins” of the church. (e.g. Bolivia)

In 1995, the Japanese Prime Minister apologized for their war crimes, as he should have. But the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has done much to undermine the good will that was achieved by these apologies, to the detriment of Japan’s relationships with South Korea and China.

Apologies go a long way towards healing relationships between victim(s) and the wrongdoer. It is not only the right thing to do; it goes a long way towards creating amicable relationships. Therefore, it would be in our interest to apologize. An apology would also go a long way in improving our image in the world.

Read Appy’s informative and thoughtful essay on this topic here: History News Network | Our ‘Merciful’ Ending to the ‘Good War’.

Standard narrative: The U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war quickly and save American lives. Part of this narrative is the claim that the Japanese were warned and that the cities were military targets.

Nagasaki bomb

“Why It’s Time to Remember Waterloo for a Different Reason” | History News Network

Christine Haynes suggests that we remember the Battle of Waterloo for the peace building process that followed it. “This battle deserves to be celebrated not as the end of the first “total war,” but as the beginning of a “total peace,” which following two more world-wide conflicts, came to fruition after 1945 but is facing new challenges today.” Read his argument here:

History News Network | Why It’s Time to Remember Waterloo for a Different Reason.


“Battle of Waterloo” by William Holmes Sullivan

“Gaza: Killing Gets Easier by David Shulman” | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books

David Shulman comments on a report released by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli ex-soldiers. The report is the culmination of an investigation of the Israeli campaign in Gaza last summer. Shulman explains that “the findings of the report—including the results of the fighting and the orders that brought them about—are nothing very new. What is more striking is how they suggest the impressive persistence and, indeed, continual intensification of practices that have occurred over the last three or four decades. Significant change lies only in the fact that the acts in question now reflect deliberate and explicit policy of a systemic nature coming down from the top. The Israel army once claimed to hold, nominally at least, to moral considerations of an entirely different order than those officially adopted last summer. Now, even that pretense seems to be gone.” Read more on this report and Shulman’s insightful commentary:

 Gaza: Killing Gets Easier by David Shulman | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books.

palistinian isreali conflict

“‘Defending the Faith’ in the Middle East” – NYTimes.com

In a New York Times article David Motadel examines the role of religious protectorates past and present to help shed light on current events in the Middle East.  Several powers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries declared themselves protectorates of coreligionists in other states. For example, Russia declared itself the protector of Orthodox Christians within Ottoman territories and then used this as leverage to intervene in Ottoman affairs. As Motadel points out this type of “politics of religion…subverted states, fueled divisions within them — and often ended in violence.”

Currently in the Middle East it is Iran and Saudi Arabia who are engaging in the politics of religion. Motadel argues that “Iran’s attempts to become the global defender of Shiite Muslims and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to lead the Sunnis have become central in their battle for mastery of the Middle East, transforming the region’s international system from an order of states to an order of faiths.” And just as in the past this political maneuvering is destabilizing the region and fueling the violence. Obviously the causes of instability in the region are many, but I think Motadel has indicated an important contributor to the current unrest.  Read the entire article here:

‘Defending the Faith’ in the Middle East – NYTimes.com.

"An anonymous painting of Turkish Emperor Mahmud II leading his troops. Credit Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images "

“An anonymous painting of Turkish Emperor Mahmud II leading his troops. Credit Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images “

The Revenge of History: Dealing with Historical Memory

In today’s The New York Times Roger Cohen wrote a thoughtful piece on memory and forgetting (“The Presence of the Past”). Given the role that the manipulation of historical memory has played in past and present violence this article brings up a topic that deserves more attention, especially as nationalism is on the rise. Despite the importance of this topic, it is rarely publicly discussed. Part of the problem is the complexity of the subject, not to mention that it calls into question the cherished identities of many. But if we’re going to stave off the violence that is the product of certain kinds of historical memory we must discuss it.

History is a double-edged sword, as Cohen points out: “History illuminates. It can also blind.” History is illuminating when it is confronted honestly and in all its complexity. It is blinding when it is used to serve ideological or political ends.  This is where historical memory comes in. “History” is often abused in the service of ideology or political power.

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