Friends have sensibly asked what drew me to take a two week boat trip from Budapest to Amsterdam? The honest answer is that I am not sure. But now that I am about halfway through, seeing the “innards” of Germany and Middle Europe—lush, green, and rich with history—an unexpected parallel begins to emerge.
Beware, most of the dates I cite may not be completely accurate, but they are close enough to help lay out a reasonable long term perspective of what happened in this part of the world in the past and what may be beginning to happen in the Middle East.
In about 1800—as the United States was just becoming a unified nation—Germany was still 100-odd kingdoms based on farming and ore-rich communities. Their wealth came from the earth: they were rich in grain, hops, coal etc., which could feed and warm more than just their own populations. The BIG GUY in each duchy built an impregnable hilltop redoubt and things were fairly stable, with occasional violent squabbles.
By around 1870 –after our Civil War brought accurate artillery to the attention of the world—the many German duchies came together, realizing that they were vulnerable separately (those fortified castles were ripe targets for artillery) and Germany (as we know it) took shape.
Then, the newly assembled Germany promptly beat France thoroughly in the Franco-Prussian war, which was followed—as we all know too well—by the World Wars.
We can see now that a multilingual, multicultural, yet relatively small area of global real estate rich with natural bounty–water, fertile soil and minerals—adapted to changing realities and overcame many of their historical fears and ambitions.
OK—so what does all this tell us now about today’s Middle East?
First, that water and fertile soil were obviously never at issue in the Middle East. Instead oil is the Middle Eastern equivalent of the rich earth of Middle Europe.
Second, that differing religions and languages in the Middle East are not really the primary issues, despite common wisdom. But oil confers money and power on a Middle Eastern nation as the water and fertile earth did in Middle Europe. The importance of oil since about 1900 has been the main source of all the conflicts of ambition and greed that still dominate the region today.
The realities of the changing world slowly and intermittently settled over Middle Europe during the last 100 years, which eventually brought about today’s more-or-less comfortable and relaxed conditions. At the same time the relatively less developed region of the Middle East was embarking on its own long period of disputes, fighting, and anger.
So—what can the crystal ball of Middle Europe tell us about the future of the Middle East?
As oil continues to slowly lose some of its power and value to alternative energy sources and as the owners and users of oil tire of their long disputes that never seem to get resolved, both sides will eventually have to come to accept the reality that they have more in common than they ever would have believed.
In all likelihood, when my great grandchildren take a trip through the Middle East in 2066, they will ask, as I have this past week: “What was all that fuss really about?”
The basic answer has never and will never change:
Slowly changing contours of basic power and wealth alter human behavior in fundamental ways.
We humans are powerless in the face of the laws of gravity and the basic conditions of life!