Thursday, 20 November 2008

Book Review: The Enemy at the Gate by Andrew Wheatcroft


In 2004, when Turkey’s admission to the European Union was being debated, Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch member of the European Union's executive committee objected on the grounds that Europe risked becoming "Islamized" and the Battle of Vienna would have been in vain.

The Battle of Vienna took place in 1682. At that time, the Ottoman Empire had crossed the zenith of its power and glory. Almost 600 years ago in 1071, at a place called Manzikert in Turkey, Turkish forces had defeated the Byzantine troops of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was the beginning of the end for the Eastern Roman Empire, which had outlived the Western Roman Empire by almost 6 centuries. The Ottomans considered themselves to be the heirs to the Roman Empire, though other western powers did not share that opinion. The Ottomans moved from one victory to another. Murad I and his Christian vassals defeated Lazar, the Prince of Serbia at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Serbia became a vassal state until 1521 when Belgrade was captured. At the Battle of Mohács in August 1526, Sultan Suleiman I (Suleiman the Magnificent) defeated King Louis II and occupied southern Hungary. Vienna blocked the Ottoman route into the heart of Europe. At the height of its glory in 1529, the Ottoman troops led by Suleiman the Magnificent tried to capture Vienna, but the siege failed.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s book The Enemy at the Gate chronicles the second attempt by the Ottomans to capture Vienna, this time in 1683. Wheatcroft is uniquely positioned to describe this conflict since he is an expert on both the Habsburgs, the then most powerful ruling power in Europe with control over Vienna, and the Ottomans. Wheatcroft’s previous works include books on both the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. In clear, lucid style using limpid prose, Wheatcroft builds up the battle settings, giving us an inside view of the players and politics involved. The Thirty Years War had got over just a few decades earlier and there was not much warmth between the Habsburgs and the Protestant powers. It was even said that Protestants living in Ottoman Europe were treated better than Protestants under the Habsburgs. Even Catholic France was not very supportive of the Habsburgs. The Ottomans too had a major enemy in the form of the Persian Empire with whom they were constantly fighting The main difference between the European wars fought by the Habsburgs and the Persian wars fought by the Ottomans was that the Habsburgs learned a lot from their experiences. Their armies had an organisation and chain of command which the Ottoman armies lacked. The art of generalship was well developed. The Ottomans relied on individual bravery and skills, while the European forces relied on teamwork, organisation and methodical preparation.

There were so many areas where the Ottomans were much superior to the Habsburg forces. Their supply chains were much better, with Ottoman soldiers on the battlefield put up in much more comfort than the average Habsburg soldier, though the Ottomans were so far away from home. The biggest advantage which the Ottomans had was that there was a central authority in command, usually the Grand Vizier, who acted in the Sultan’s name. In the case of the European forces, the soldiers were supplied by many nation states, some of whom were reluctant to do so and all of whom required payment or other rewards.

The Ottomans lost the battle for Vienna, one of the most intense battles ever fought. There were various reasons for this loss, the main one being the incompetence of the Turkish Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa. Do read the book to find out the various mistakes which the Ottomans committed. Both sides were charged with zeal, religious and nationalistic. Wheatcroft cites quite a few examples of bravery, but I don’t want to describe them here and spoil the fun. Wheatcroft’s descriptions of battles and troops are second to none. For example, when Wheatcroft describes the Polish hussars who arrived just in time to relieve the siege, he says:

The Polish hussars were heavy cavalry par excellence and they had no equivalent in 17th century Europe, In effect a holdover from the great age of medieval chivalry, man and horse together were a missile with their lance or wielding their long spear like triangular swords more than four foot long – they existed only for the charge. Facing the disciplined volley fire of western armies, they had largely become a liability, but against the Janissary infantry of the Ottomans or their loose flowing formations of sipahis, they could be as devastating as artillery fire.

Wheatcroft does not stop after the Battle of Vienna. He goes on to describe how the Europeans capitalised on their victory and went on to win more battles. Hungary was freed from Ottoman power, though the initial attempt to take Budapest was a failure. As the Ottomans became weaker and weaker, they began to be regarded as just another European power. The Habsburgs and the Ottomans discovered various mutual interests. After Napoleon was defeated by Czar Alexander I, the Russians became stronger and this led to the Austrians and the Ottomans growing closer. During the Crimean war, the Turks fought on the side of France and Britain against Russia. Finally, in the First World War which resulted in the destruction of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans were on the same side.

4 comments:

JI said...

Sounds like an interesting book, but personally I'm not too keen on reading books about war. If the Ottomons were victorious in Vienna then possibly Islam would have made major inroads into Europe. Constantinople, today known as Istanbul, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453. It was as the centre of wealth and culture for many years. The Haghia Sophia, which was once a church before it was converted to a mosque, is a reminder of Constantinople's glorious past. It represents the best of Byzantine architecture, although parts of the interior were burnt due a fire in 859. In recent times, the Turkish government has been criticised for not doing enough to maintain the state of the building.

For an account of the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Christianity, I recommend William Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain". It's a delightfully well written book by an accomplished historian and travel writer.

Winnowed said...

Thanks JI. Yes, I have read Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain. It's a great book.

Jake said...

Sounds like a great read. The arrival of Jan Sobieski and the Poles has parallels with that of Blucher and his Prussians at Waterloo...

Winnowed said...

Jake, thanks. I didn't know that.