The Enemy at the Gate: Hapsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe
by Andrew Wheatcroft
Basic, 368 pages, $27.50
We usually associate the struggles for control of the southern European and Mediterranean worlds with the horrific encounters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—the final decades of the Spanish Reconquista, the fall of Constantinople, the Battle of Lepanto, and the failed attempt of Suleiman the Magnificent to capture Vienna in 1529.
That Ottoman catastrophe at Vienna, along with the Turkish defeat at Lepanto in 1571, are usually cited as indications of Ottoman decline, as the threat from the East receded from Western and Central Europe. But while clear stagnation had set in throughout the empire as early as the sixteenth century, Istanbul was hardly retrenching.
Indeed, the more Istanbul sensed internal weakness, the more it sought remedies in further foreign conquests that might refill dwindling imperial coffers. We sometimes forget that the Ottomans captured European-controlled Chania on Crete at the late date of 1669, while Venetian Crete itself was lost in 1718. And the second attempt to capture Hapsburg Vienna—which came within days of succeeding—was in the summer of 1683.
In retrospect, it is difficult to see why Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa believed he could take Vienna, when the earlier attempt by the far more able Suleiman in 1529—a time when the Ottomans were far stronger—not only failed but failed miserably, leading to near annihilation of the Turkish expeditionary forces. Certain facts had not changed in a century and a half: The road to Vienna was long; the Hungarian summers along the Danube were characterized by frequent rains that made cavalry operations nearly impossible; Vienna was well fortified; and the Hapsburgs could prove to be fanatical defenders once Islamic armies neared the heart of Christendom.
In The Enemy at the Gate, however—an excellent new account of the campaign—Andrew Wheatcroft de-onstrates that logical considerations led Kara Mustafa to believe that he might be successful where Suleiman had failed. Ottoman artillery was both plentiful and lethal against stone fortifications. Turkish siegecraft—especially its legendary sappers—was among the most formidable in the world. Tartar cavalrymen were fearsome allies.
And the Sultan Mehmed IV believed that it had fallen to his lot to clean out the holdout Christian strongholds throughout the Mediterranean and southern Europe as part of renewed and systematic military aggression. An Islamic Vienna would ensure that all the major Turkish acquisitions along the lower Danube—Budapest and Belgrade especially—were finally secure and would remain permanently established Muslim cities.
Lest we think that the war in the East pitted sophisticated Europeans against Eastern hordes, Wheatcroft goes to great lengths—even if his own data and examples sometimes refute his own conclusions—to suggest that the Ottomans’ siege trains, camp organization and hygiene, deference to allies, gunpowder munitions, diplomacy, and adherence to some sort of code of civilized war were at least equal, if not superior, to those of their Hapsburg counterparts.
Nonetheless, Wheatcroft argues, Sultan Mehmed IV and his Hapsburg counterpart Emperor Leopold I were more alike than different, uninterested in dissident views of subordinates, and often out of touch with the realities of governance across their vast empires. As it happens, Wheatcroft also demonstrates a far superior statecraft on the part of Leopold, who wisely made an alliance with John III Sobieski of Poland and appointed Charles, duke of Lorraine, as his supreme field commander.
Both were far more capable generals than Kara Mustafa. More important, unlike their less talented and more autocratic Ottoman counterpart, both work
ed well with an array of disparate but skillful subordinates—Hermann, Marquis of Baden, Georg Rimpler, Count Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg, and the military genius Prince Eugene of Savoy—to forge a strategy of resistance.
Wheatcroft offers a riveting account of the slow, methodical Ottoman approach to Vienna that began on June 28, 1683, juxtaposed to the Christian preparations upriver on the Danube, especially Leopold’s strategic decision to evacuate Vienna on July 7, which inadvertently caused a panic that resulted in 60,000 residents leaving the city just as defensive measures were in full swing to improve the antiquated and, in many cases, nearly indefensible Viennese ramparts.
Given Ottoman military science, as Wheatcroft judiciously explains it, and the less than adequate resources of the Holy Roman Empire, the final verdict was not at all foreordained—especially in view of the disdain held by supposedly more enlightened Western Europeans for the more backward Eastern Hapsburgs, which resulted in an absence of substantial aid from the West.
In the end, the Christians were vastly outnumbered and had finite supplies. They had to divert precious stores to maintain thousands of Viennese civilians behind the walls. Meanwhile, the Ottoman armies filled the Christian populations with a deep-seated terror that provided the Turks with a psychological force multiplier every bit as important as the efficacy of the feared Janissaries.
By late August, Kara Mustafa had severely degraded the Hapsburg defenses, cut off the city entirely from resupply, killed thousands of defenders, and readied his army for the final assault before the late summer weather turned bad and his own supplies and army’s morale were exhausted. The weeks-long war among the rubble of the outer defenses is often compared to Stalingrad—hence Wheatcroft’s title—and it is an accurate simile, given the barbarity of the fighting and confusion as to who was actually winning and who losing.
But, on August 31, just as the beleaguered garrison seemed about to be overwhelmed the king of Poland, John III Sobieski, appeared on the high ground outside the walls with 15,000 cavalry, among them 3000 hussars (the famed lance-bearing “winged horsemen” of Poland), perhaps the most feared heavy cavalry force in Europe.
On September 12, after meeting up with other relief forces, the Poles did what now seems the nearly impossible: They descended the treacherous slopes into the heart of the Turkish encampments—despite muddy, rough ground and superior Turkish artillery.
With the arrival of Charles of Lorraine and Prince Eugene, the outcome of the siege now hinged on a huge battle outside the walls between the Turkish besiegers and mounted Western relief columns. The defenders aimed not just to relieve Vienna but to destroy the Ottoman forces entirely and leave them helpless, far from Islamic territory. Twelve hours later, the Turks were in full retreat, the city was saved, and the only question was how many of the once grand Ottoman army might make it to safety down the Danube.
At this point, Wheatcroft largely concludes his masterful account of the siege and battle. Curiously, however, The Enemy at the Gate continues for another ninety pages, appending several chapters on subsequent Ottoman–Hapsburg relations and the author’s own analyses. After his descriptions of the Christian resurgence that led to the retaking of Buda, and eventually Belgrade in 1717, the thrust of Wheatcroft’s arguments is that the centuries-long conflict should not be looked on simplistically as a holy war—particularly given the later successful commercial relations between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs. Wheatcroft’s coda in our politically correct age comes off as something of an attempt to suggest that the abject savagery at the core of his book need not mean that there were lasting religious hatreds or justified animosities in subsequent years, much less now in the present.
In a chapter called “Myth Displacing History,” Wheatcroft argues that eventually the two tottering empires, Hapsburg and Ottoman, learned from centuries of interaction that they had much in common, and by 1914 ended up on the same side in a murderous war against Western Europeans and Russians. Muslim soldiers of the Austrian-Hungarian armies, Wheatcroft also reminds us, were among the empire’s most decorated in the First World War. He ends by suggesting that what had once been a murderous rivalry, between 1500 and 1700, finally ended up in a mutually profitable relation and eventual alliance—so that those who, in our own terrorized age, evoke the gates of Vienna are not merely chauvinistic and prejudiced but ahistorical as well: “I have tried to present dispassionately what happened centuries ago. There was, in that time, unimaginable cruelty, savagery, and implacable hatred among all the combatants. Yet in the nineteenth century the bitter attitudes that suffused those struggles diminished, and a new kind of relationship developed, which I have also described. The old feelings and attitudes were (and are) still present, but they were (and are) definitely in abeyance.”
Perhaps. Yet from a close reading of Wheatcroft’s first 200 pages, one receives the impression that the Ottomans—in religious belief, practice toward conquered nations, and treatment of their own people—were not quite the equivalents of the Hapsburg Austrians and Hungarians whom they wished to conquer.
By 1914 many Europeans may have indeed found the Turks convenient and familiar allies, but, for the vast expanse of Hapsburg history in the East, millions lived in deadly fear of what Ottoman armies intended for and could do to them—and quite understandably canonized saviors like Prince Eugene and John Sobieski.
Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, is the Martin and Illie Anderson fellow at the Hoover Institution.