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Sunday, January 29, 2012

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Andrew Wheatcroft's, 'The Enemy at the Gate'

Hapsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe.

by Ferdinand III


 Highly recommended.

For the hobbyist historian interested in just how close the Ottoman-Moslem empire came to conquering Europe I would suggest you read this book, after first reading the excellent 'Defenders of the Faith' by James Reston, [reviewed here]. Reston covers the period of Ottoman advance from 1520 to 1560, with an especial focus on the failed Moslem siege at Vienna in 1529 – a very close run thing to quote Wellington. Wheatcroft picks up the storyline from the early 17th century down to the second siege at Vienna in 1683, and then beyond to the improbable Hapsburg successes which ousted the Turk from most of its European possessions by the mid-18th century. Both books are excellent, accurate, well-sourced and full of new and surprising information that the lay historian might not be aware of.

The only quibble with Wheatcroft's magnificent volume is the lack of maps and supporting imagery as he details the siege of Vienna in 1683. The topography and geography of Vienna and its surrounding rural area is as important to the tale as the actual battle in front of the city's walls. It is hard for the reader to follow the maze of details without referencing some maps and visuals, which are provided but rather oddly near the end of the book when the story has shifted to the late 17th and early 18th century reconquest by the Hapsburg's, of Hungary.

If Vienna had fallen in either 1529 or in 1683, the Turks would doubtless have sent large armies of Anatolian Moslems, Christian slaves and Tartar horsemen [Moslems from the Crimea and the southern steppes of Russia]; both north towards Warsaw and west towards Bavaria. It is doubtful that they could have defeated a unified Christian army, or a Protestant-Catholic alliance based around the powerful Hussars of Poland; and the well-trained professional soldiers of a temporarily focused Germany, in which the Catholic-Protestant-Lutheran struggle would be put aside to deal with the Turk. But who knows. The psychological damage done by a Moslem victory at Vienna might have made the Turk seem invincible, and often times in war, the battle can be won or lost even before it begins.

For as Wheatcroft relates in the first part of his book, nothing terrorized European imaginations quite like the image of the ferocious, raping, stabbing, screaming, dark-skinned Turkish Moslem warrior or Gazi of Allah. The Turk and his more savage associate the Tartar were emblematic of Oriental ruthlessness and barbarous cruelty – at least for Europeans. The Turks enslaved or killed some 3 million Hungarians from 1521 to 1683 in a series of wars, raids, and Jihadic plunders out of a total population of 5 million. Similar fates were meted out to Slavs, Poles and Balkan populations – at least to those who resisted the cult of Allah. The Turk of 1683 was certain that the Allah idol would grant them dominion over Europe; just as many Moslems today are equally certain that Islam will dominate the globe. Not much has changed in 329 years.

Tartar raiders fought only for profit and sought out weak victims such as an undefended village or an outlying abbey....Their tactic...was simple. They watched a settlement over several days, observing when the villagers left to work in the fields and when they returned....Tartar stemmed from the Latin 'Tartarus', the bowels-of-the-earth goddess Gaia, and by extension the deepest pit of hell. Implacable in their savagery, recklessly disregarding any danger, tireless and bold, the peasants of the west named them the devil's horsemen.” [p. 49]

After Constantinople was taken in 1453, the push into Europe proper, using the subjugaged Balkans as a base began in earnest. This epoch of Moslem Jihad would not stop until the 19th century. Vienna was the logical successor as a target for Jihad, as Belgrade, Pest and Buda, Gyor and even Venice, had been before. For example:

Every year from 1469 until the Sultan's death in 1481 mounted raiders would cross the rivers as soon as the snow had melted....In the word's of Mehmed's biographer Franz Babinger: 'Everywhere churches, monasteries, and settlements went up in flames; men and cattle were carried off by the thousands; no one was sure of his life.' In the same year, thousands of mounted raiders burned the villages around Venice...Countless bags of full of heads, noses and ears were sent to sultan to demonstrate success.” [p. 57]

and

A sultan's hereditary duty and rule extended not only to the faithful, but to all humanity; he should bring all people under Ottoman rule and under the authority of Islam.” [p. 85]

Wheatcroft rejects the 'decline' theory that by 1683, the Ottomans were weak and in a pattern of inevitable declination against the West. The Balkans, large parts of Poland and the Ukraine, and huge tracts of Hungary had all been conquered by the Moslem Ottomans in the 16th and 17th century. The Hapsburg capital at Vienna seemed to be within easy reach and its capture would signify a monumental psychological and geographical shift in power, from Europe's most important empire, to that of the Moslem Turk. The Ottoman Sultan was a dictator and autocrats can mobilize large resources, and war machines much faster than the independent, cynical, squabbling, careful, and self-interested states and empires both large and petty of Europe.

Objectively, the political and military position of the two adversaries was unusually favorable to the Ottoman cause in 1682-3. Although in theory Christendom was uniting to resist Turkish barbarism, gaping political fissures had opened within the Christian camp.” [p. 106]

The French were at war with the Hapsburg's and openly allied with the Turk. A legacy of self-deceit and nescience that few today remember. The northern states were aware of but rather indifferent to the Moslem threat. Even Russia and Poland were hesitant in allying with the Hapsburg's to throw back the Moslem Jihad.

The Ottomans were extremely well organized, methodical, and sure of themselves. In most matters of literacy, technology and military organization they were behind the West in the 17th century, but the sheer scale of the Moslem Caliphate allowed it to tap unlimited resources:

For the campaign of 1683, the imperial tent makers supplied more than 15,000 tents large and small, and every other provision was on the same scale....No possible need for army at war was neglected....wagons loaded with rice and flour. On the move, the army had its own flock of sheep....with the butchers ready to slaughter the livestock and prepare meat at each night's halt...even field latrines were dug to a prescribed pattern...” [p. 16]

and

But the Ottomans had a secret weapon. Beside the guns in the camp lay the engineers' encampment, full of huge cranes, pontoons, coils of rope, baulks of timber for bridging the network of rivers....Western fortifications were superior, but few armies in the west could equal the skill and resourcefulness of the Ottoman engineers.” [p. 17]

The Turks were the masters of siege warfare. They would sap under walls, use gun power intelligently to batter down palisades and fortifications, and send unlimited numbers of men against any and all bulwarks of defence to slowly wear down the defenders. Vienna in 1683 seemed an easy enough target for the Turks to take. It was weak and defended by a small force:

...it became clear that Vienna was woefully unprepared for a siege. The city, in military terms, was a thirteenth-century walled town, to which, through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, more effective and modern fortifications had been added piecemeal to older defenses.” [p. 121]

The difference in the battle was that the Hapsburg's had 10.000 men inside the city, ably managed, with an excellent general Starhemberg at their lead. The Turk's were commanded by the 2nd man of the empire, the Grand Vizier, the ruthless, muscled, tall and arrogant Mustafa. The Ottoman system did not allow for much in the way of communications, flexibility or adaptability. It was a dull brutish mass of human slaves impelled forward by the will of the Grand Vizier. Even though he had 80.000 men, and depots full of equipment and supplies, this gaping defect of centralized despotic and arbitrary authority would prove the Turks undoing.

But as Wheatcroft details, the Moslems came very close to conquering Vienna. They encircled the city quite quickly in the early summer of 1683. Turkish gunners and sappers began the slow demolition of the walls which in one particular point were extremely vulnerable. As the siege developed all became carnage and terror:

Nothing until the battle for Stalingrad in 1942 equalled the relentless struggle in the ditch before Vienna. In both battles men fought over mountains of debris, shattered buildings and a landscape of utter destruction.” [p. 150]

By September 1683, plague, disease and fetid conditions began to take their toll on both the besieged and the besiegers. By September 10th only 40% of the original 10.000 man garrison remained alive. Vienna would have fallen but for the relief force of some 20.000 Polish Hussars, and 20.000 German Protestant and Catholic infantry and horse. Remarkably it was papal money which financed this expedition. Without the munificence of Rome it is highly unlikely that the relieving army would have been organized and sent out to save Vienna. Every man was paid, and paid well by the pope to ride or march to the rescue of Christendom.

The Turkish commander Mustafa was not an able leader. He left his camp undefended by palisades, ditches or even crude stakes circumvallating his encampment. No scouts were appointed and sent out to monitor the movements of a relief army which was highly likely to be sent out given Vienna's importance to the Hapsburg's. When 20.000 Germans appeared improbably through rough terrain and insidious geography above the Turkish camp in mid-September, the Turks were caught by surprise. The Polish Hussars, the best cavalry in Europe, enveloped the Moslems from the rear. The Turks who had casually disregarded the spirit of their enemies and their superiority in many aspects of waging war, were trapped. Within 14 hours on September 12th, the relief force attacked the Turks from front and rear, devastating and wiping out most of the Moslem host. Mustafa and his remnants fled back into Turkish Hungary. He was later killed by the command of the Sultan for this and subsequent defeats to the Hapsburg's. Of the original 80.000 man army which had camped in front of Vienna in the summer of 1683, sure of victory, maybe 10.000 escaped alive.

The victory at Vienna in 1683 was financed by the papacy, and it inaugurated over 100 years of crusading reconquest in central and Eastern Europe. It marked a high point of papal influence. Vienna was of course a decisive turning point in history. But the Moslem power of recuperation within the structure of the Ottoman Caliphate was as Wheatcroft makes clear, impressive. The Turk was not necessarily in terminal decline. If the Moslems had taken Vienna in either 1529, or in 1683, the history of the world might have been very different – and far worse.


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