Protestant-Catholic Conflict and Nationalism in German and Irish Historical Narratives

Shane Nagle

In much of Europe from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, religion - more to the point here, Christianity - and nationalism were fundamentally joined. During this time Germany and Ireland, very different places but in both of which political debate was dominated by nationalism, were no different in this respect. In Germany and Ireland the antagonisms between Protestants and Catholics that long pre-dated nationalism were bestowed a whole new significance by its arrival. The development of nationalism in each context was entwined with the 'confessional' conflict in each country between the principal Christian communities. In Germany and Ireland confessional allegiance became fundamental to the identification of national self and national other, and central to this was the representation of Protestant-Catholic conflict in the national(ist) historical narratives of each country.1 In the words of Leopold van Ranke - words that could apply to Germany and Ireland equally - ecclesiastical and political histories were 'indissolubly connected, fused into one indivisible whole'.2

Through historical narratives and arguments drawn from them, from the representation of pivotal events in the national past in which Protestant-Catholic conflict had been central, Protestant-Catholic antagonism became linked with definitions of the nation in the present. These pivotal historical events were, in the Irish context, the Reformation in Ireland and the ethno-religious wars of the seventeenth century (the rebellion of 1641 and the ensuing Confederate Wars), and in the German context the Reformation and ensuing religious conflicts of the sixteenth century preceding the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, but most of all the seventeenth-century Thirty Years War (1618-48) and its legacies.3

The Reformation, for all intents and purposes, failed in Ireland as a popular movement. The arrival of a large Protestant population in Ireland was the result of 'colonization' rather than native mass conversion. In Germany, however, Protestantism did succeed swiftly as a popular movement, notwithstanding a certain amount of regional Catholic recovery in subsequent decades. The Irish 1641 rebellion began as an attempt by Catholic lords to seize control of the English government in Ireland in protest against various English anti-Catholic policies, including the Plantation of Ulster. The Confederate Wars sprang directly from the rebellion. They were an ethno-religious conflict over church and state, control of government and land ownership waged between the forces of royalism in Ireland, the rebel Catholic confederates (sometimes allied with the royalists), and the parliamentarians, to whom both these groups were opposed, and their Irish allies. Like the Thirty Years War, the Confederate Wars also had an international dimension, as the confederates conducted their own diplomatic efforts in Europe and in 1645 received a papal nuncio from Pope Innocent X, Cardinal Rinuccini. The confederate leadership was composed of both native Gaelic Irish notables and leaders of the 'Old English' community in Ireland, the descendants of medieval colonists and settlers, most of whom, like the Gaelic Irish, remained Catholics. In 1642 they associated themselves in a 'national' body, the Catholic Confederation, while professing allegiance to the king, Charles I. They were decisively defeated by Cromwell's army by 1653.

In Germany, the spread of Protestant doctrine as a result of the Reformation, and its implications for the power relations between the Holy Roman Emperor and the territorial princes had led to the brief Schmalkaldic War (1546-7), and to generalized Protestant-Catholic conflict. The Peace of Augsburg of 1555, while establishing in law the division of the empire into Protestant and Catholic territories - or rather, territories ruled by Protestant rulers and by Catholic rulers, the principle of cuius religio, eius religio - failed to resolve the conflict. The Thirty Years War was initially a German conflict of Protestants and Catholics internal to the Holy Roman Empire, between supporters and opponents of the imperial authority; it became a general European conflict involving a number of Germany's neighbours. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended the war confirmed the confessional divide in the German lands, the weakening of imperial authority, and laid the foundations for the essential independence of the territorial princes. In both countries, the events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were by any measure foundational for their modern histories, as modern historians continue to recognize.

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