Misery and trouble in the world does not just happen. Daily life remains human work. Conflicts, violent confrontations, world wars are also human work.
How many wars have not started because considerations of prestige prevailed over reasonable thinking and rationality? A well-known example of this is the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).
Thirty years of religious violence
The Thirty Years’ War was the longest, bloodiest and most devastating ever fought on German soil, and it maintained that reputation until the end of the twentieth century. Fear of death was accompanied by fear of life, which had become tainted by the constant misery of war, malnutrition and disease.
During that time period it was also extremely cold. Rivers and even ports on the Mediterranean were frozen until spring, allowing entire armies to move across the Danube during the Thirty Years’ War. Speaking of climate change! The harsh winters were unimpressed by the murderous religious drive, however. In this three-decade war between Catholics and Protestants, a third of Europe’s population would perish.
Peace was not achieved by a victory of one of the warring factions, but by exhaustion. It is not only the physical exhaustion of the extremely brutal war, but also the mental exhaustion of the spiritual worldview. The nation states will take over sovereignty themselves in 1648 (and no longer the churches or religion). The sovereign unit or nation / state is then the highest authority. Human rationality became more important.
The Peace of Münster (Westphalia) was concluded in 1648. End of the war and the nation states took control of their own hands based on sovereignty and rational or reasonable thinking.
The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) would later speak of the “disenchantment of the world”. That says that the moral basis of society rests more on rational arguments than on belief, more on an ethics of human rights and procedural agreements of democracy than on the ethics of the Bible, because the latter failed not only in the Thirty Years’ War but in so many other circumstances as well.
After the war the plague
In the wake of the war came the plague, one epidemic after another. People were so weakened by hunger and hardship that they became easy prey for the germs carried by the armies. The plague claimed more lives than the Thirty Years’ War itself. The painter Rembrandt van Rijn painted the mournful reality of death at the end of the plague epidemic in 1668.
The Spanish flu also broke out after a war (WW1). WW1 became the first truly industrial modern war. The infamous Spanish flu pandemic originated in Europe (1918/19), mostly in army units that had to spend the last months of the world conflict in particularly uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions. The number of fatalities was enormous and in many warring countries comparable to the number of people who died from the violence of war itself. Poverty and pandemics are just as deadly as war.
Some historians speak of a “second Thirty Years’ War” and that is the period from 1914 to 1945 of last century. From one world war to another. Millions of people died, cities and entire economies were in ruin, and countless lives were destroyed.
Pandemics, like wars, famines and natural disasters, have repeatedly affected human history throughout the ages. Due to increased globalisation and massive international air traffic, a global pandemic is one of the biggest security risks. Hunger and epidemics can only be tackled properly on a global scale. These are challenges that require an internationally coordinated approach.
One major trauma
A century ago, hundreds of thousands of young men went to war voluntarily or compulsorily, even though they knew they were risking their lives and their health without obtaining any economic benefit. At the time, people identified themselves in a strong social transcendence, in God and emperor and fatherland and decency and self-sacrifice.
How many people would still act like that today? How many people would seriously consider the prospect of being killed in the field of honour for even one moment? In addition, what does a society lose and what gains if its members are hardly willing to die and kill for an ideal?
To take the matters into one’s own hands
Countless people were victims of war, epidemics or famine in the last century. One big and collective trauma. Western societies responded to the murders of two world wars by attaching additional value to renewed cooperation, redistribution, peace and international solidarity.
Common stories and political projects arose based on common interests. Two examples of this are the United Nations and the European Union. Both would guarantee the functioning of the rule of law, international peace and security, human rights, development and sustainable ecological coexistence.
Brussels/Antwerp, September 2020
Fr Paul Lansu, Board Member of Pax Christi International and Pax Christi Flanders
Photo by Adam Axton via Flickr