The Scary History of European Wars Keeping Merkel Awake at Night

(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel is worrying about the 17th century.

As the 64-year-old chancellor confronts a U.S. president determined to upend the rules that have governed global relations since World War II, she senses a turning point in history and sees parallels with previous moments when global stability unraveled.

"The times when we could unconditionally rely on others are over," she told lawmakers in Strasbourg Tuesday. "That means nothing less than we Europeans taking our destiny more strongly into our own hands if we want to survive as a community."

The Scary History of European Wars Keeping Merkel Awake at Night

Since a frustrating visit to Donald Trump’s White House in April, Merkel has been thinking in particular about the Thirty Years’ War which devastated broad swathes of Europe beginning in 1618, exactly 400 years ago.

That conflict followed seven decades of relative peace between Catholics and Protestants -- about the same amount of time that has elapsed now since the last major war in Europe -- and came about because the kings and princes tossed aside the structures that had safeguarded peace.

Trump’s Tariffs

War broke out after Catholic officials from the Habsburg court were thrown from a window in Prague and eventually spread throughout the continent, killing two thirds of the people in the regions where the fighting was most intense.

“In one fell swoop, the whole order was in the waste basket,” Merkel said at a religious conference shortly after her return from Washington. “The lesson is that in these times, we should weigh our moves carefully, act in a level-headed way, be clear in our language.”

Trump is also attacking the institutions that have governed the international order for more than a generation, railing against the United Nations, stoking a trade war with China and undermining accords to constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program and limit climate change. Despite Merkel’s lobbying in April, he announced tariffs on European steel and aluminum, threatening to impose more.

Human Rights

Merkel’s public comments have been peppered by historical references as she seeks to make sense of the changing landscape -- and to alert people to the dangers.

At a peace forum in Paris on Sunday to mark the end of World War I, she reviewed the structures that have underpinned the long European peace and worried about the world’s capacity to sustain them. She pointed to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the cornerstone of that regime.

The Scary History of European Wars Keeping Merkel Awake at Night

“I ask myself often: imagine if we, the international community today, had to establish such a declaration on human rights. Would we manage that?” Merkel told a crowd. “I fear not.”

Trump had flown in the before complaining that Macron’s proposal for a European army were “very insulting.” Three days later, the president’s own take on European history added further evidence to support Merkel’s concerns.

Merkel herself has embodied Germany’s most recent history, growing up in the communist East and witnessing first hand the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In a speech in the German capital late Tuesday, she struck a somber tone as she looked back to the “happiness of the 90s,” when the end of the Cold War seemed to signal a permanent shift toward democracy and cooperation around the world.

“But this has gone away,” the chancellor said. "The trust has been lost."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.