Battle of Vienna. A political suicide of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?

If you imagine a Star Wars-style evil empire trying to dominate this huge land mass by sheer military force, you are going to have a hard time explaining that. And don’t forget. There were so many advantages of being a citizen of the Empire, in addition to the local benefits of peace, prosperity and economic aspects. Just think of the opportunities to travel to the capital or other provinces, to settle there and find work. So those were big advantages – according to Turkish historian Prof. Mesut Uyar.

TVP WEEKLY: Is the Battle of Vienna really a significant defeat in Turkey's history or just one of the many battles the empire has fought in its past?

Well, the Siege of Vienna is an important date, considered by some to be a turning point. However, the real damage was done by the Holy Alliance Wars afterwards which lasted until 1699. In Turkish historiography or historical narrative, we focus more on how the Ottoman army prepared for the siege of Vienna, how the army reached Vienna, how the siege began, how it developed, and so on and so forth. And we study the Battle of Kahlenberg as part of the defeat of the siege so not something separately.

Interestingly when the Polish and other Allied troops reached Vienna, the Ottoman commander Mustafa Pasha did not remove and send all his troops to oppose the Polish army. He sent just two thirds of the available troops. That was about 28,000 soldiers. They were sent not as a whole group but in pieces. Therefore, the famous Battle of Kahlenberg was basically not a standard set piece battle but actually a group of small clashes.

        SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE     Both the Ottomans and the Poles were unable to effectively control their units as the Polish units also entered the battle gradually. Like I said the Ottoman units participated in the battle whenever they reached the battle site. So it was a somewhat confusing series of clashes. In the end, the Ottomans were defeated because not only they did not concentrate all the available forces but also their allies including Crimean Tatars and the Hungarians fled.

  Kara Mustafa Pasha tried to withdraw the remaining troops besieging Vienna, and eventually a disorganized retreat began, leaving behind all the heavy equipment, tents, treasures, and so on. And this turned out to be a stroke of luck for the Ottomans, because the allied troops, including the Polish, instead of following their success and trying to crush the retreating Ottoman army, changed direction and started looting the camp site. This gave the Ottomans time to retreat again. So in our historiography we see Kahlenberg as part of the second Vienna siege, unlike your case.

  Why did Sobieski move to Vienna in 1683 to relieve the Habsburgs? It is generally believed that it was even a Catholic crusade, but this is not quite true?

  In the beginning it was not a crusade. Because when the Ottomans decided to undertake this expedition, they thought that they had once in a lifetime opportunity, because there was a serious Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs led by Emeric Thököly. So the Ottomans wanted to exploit this Hungarian problem against the Habsburgs and saw it as a window of opportunity. And they started the campaign in great secrecy. Most of the high ranking officers was not aware that they were heading to Vienna. They thought that the army would once again attack the famous fortress of Györ. But just before reaching the border, the commander-in-chief Mustafa Pasha declared that their real goal was the city of Vienna.

  The campaign was one of the biggest ever undertakings. Thousands of soldiers were transferred from Anatolia and even from Syria and Egypt. At the same time, thousands of local soldiers from the Balkans joined the army on the way, including Christians, of course, most of the Christian units engaged in logistics, transportation and auxiliary services and not directly involved in the battle, but there were also fighters, fighting Christian units. And Emeric Thököly with his Hungarian rebels also joined the army. So it was a multinational and also multi-religious army.

  After the defeat of Vienna and when the Ottomans suffered several smaller defeats after Vienna, the Habsburgs were able to find new allies: the Russians, the Venetians, the Poles and some others. And it became a kind of holy alliance against the Ottomans. And it changed its color from a dynastic imperial war to a kind of religious crusade against the Ottomans, to drive the Ottomans out of the northern parts of the Danube, to drive them out of Hungary, but also from the Danube river. That was another story. So in the beginning it was not a religious war.

If you read today's literature, you get the impression that the defeat of the Ottomans was inevitable.

In reality, however, this was not the case. Militarily the Ottomans were superior, the problem was the leadership and excessive confidence. The commander-in-chief, Mustafa Pasha, was very confident of himself.

  He was very sure of victory. He did not pay attention to the signs of the Poles and others who were gathering troops around Vienna. He acted very slowly and did not pay attention to some security measures. For example, he did not establish lines of contravallation around the siege to protect the troops. Similarly cavalry focused on raids instead of screening the sieging force against sudden enemy attacks. The Ottoman paid dearly for this over confidence in the end.

Don’t forget when the Poles and others appeared the Ottomans were already penetrated into Vienna city walls and preparing for a final assault to capture the city. So against all mistakes and delays they were within the reach of the victory.

  The other greatest weakness of the Ottomans was diplomatic and foreign relations?

The major shortcoming of the Ottoman plan to capture Vienna was not the military but neglecting foreign relations and ignorance about the current diplomatic balances in Europe. The Ottomans did not believe that the Poles would join the Habsburgs because they thought that just like themselves the Poles a had the same; the Habsburgs and the Russians.

  In reality, the Ottomans did fight the Poles in the 1670s, but they thought that it was an old affair happened ten years ago. The strategical balance in East Europe changed with the rise of Russia. The Russians were creating big problems for the Ottomans for the Poles. So they did not expect that the Poles would help the Habsburgs to save them from certain defeat. So this was a big surprise for the Ottomans.

   And that was the mistake of the Ottoman diplomacy, which was not aware of the current foreign policy balance in Europe.

  From today’s point of view, did our king make a strategic political mistake?

  Well, I think it was more than a mistake. It was a kind of suicide. I mean, and to tell you the truth, I know better ways to commit suicide (laugh). The Poles came to the aid of the Habsburgs because of their wrong calculations and, unfortunately, they paid for their mistake in later decades. Well, I think the best title would be "Self-Inflicted Injury" or "Polish Suicide." But they did it. The military help of Sobieski, was instrumental in changing the balance in front of Vienna walls.

  Without the Polish units, the Habsburgs would not have been able to drive out the Ottomans. And it should not be forgotten that the Ottomans had already entered Vienna, captured some parts of the defenses and invaded southern territories of the Habsburgs and burning rest of it. Emperor Leopold had already fled Vienna and morale and motivation were collapsing. So, militarily, Polish help was crucial to the victory of the Habsburgs and the others. It was a tactical victory in 1683 and became a strategic one after 16 years of wars in 1699.

  It was not always the case that the Ottomans were defeated. From time to time, the Ottomans managed to repel the attackers, won some military victories and defended their territory for an extended period. I mean, as an example Budapest was besieged twice. The first time, in 1683 the Ottomans were able to hold out for more than hundred days and beat back the besieging army, then they came again and were able to take Budapest after 70 days of siege in 1686. So it was not a simple story of series of the Ottomans defeats again and again after Vienna.

  At the beginning the Poles were very important for the war effort. But that was not the case after 1683. Many other actors entered the war, including the Venetians. So in addition to land battles, there were naval battles for Greece and so on.

  Thus, the Poles lost their dominant role in the war. They became one of the allies in the fight against the Ottomans. But in 1683 they were the dominant factor. The Poles were the dominating factor for the victory over the Ottomans in that particular year. But this was not the case after that.

  Why would a victory over the Ottomans be harmful to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania?

The answer is simple. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth helped to push the Ottomans out of the military balance in Eastern Europe. Imagine Poland now facing the Habsburgs in the west and the Russians in the east. I do not think Sobieski or other Polish leaders really thought of that. They paid no attention to the cost of absence of the Ottoman military in the Eastern European balances. I mean, think about it. If the Ottomans still had the offensive power after 1699, would the Habsburgs and the Russians operate as freely in Eastern Europe as they did? Of course, they would not. The Ottomans would intervene immediately.
The Monument of Jan III Sobieski, located on Agrykola Street in Warsaw Fot. PAP/Szymon Pulcyn
And today, because of our nationalist upbringing, education and our nationalist understanding, we have difficulty understanding past centuries when there was no nationalist identity, no political nationalism, and when loyalties functioned according to the dynastic family that ruled the country. And so we were surprised to see different groups appearing under the same banner at one point in time, but fighting each other under different banners in another. In my opinion, the Polish leadership made a terrible mistake, because in 1683 the Ottomans did not pose a serious threat to the Poles, as the Habsburgs and the Russians were. So the Ottomans naively believed that we have the same enemies, namely the Habsburgs and the Russians. The Poles had the same enemies, so they would never help the Habsburgs. 

We are talking about the politics of empire, but what kind of empire were the Ottomans?

  It was a Mediterranean empire. If you want to understand the Ottomans, compare them with the Romans. How the Romans were able to conquer the entire Mediterranean and most of Europe, including significant parts of the Middle East and North Africa? Because the Romans were able to exploit not only the material potential of the conquered lands, but also the people.

  So the Turks were not a British Empire-style colonial empire with a ruling elite that belonged to the same Turkish nationality and completely apart from the subject nations. That was not the case. The Ottoman Empire was a kind of Mediterranean empire that used the potential of the people and tried to leave as little foot print as possible in the provinces. In the central provinces, the control of the empire was very strong, the administration was very centralized. But if you go from the capital to the provinces, especially the further you go, you will find that the foot print of the Ottomans is getting smaller and smaller.

  The Ottomans were able to mobilize people, but they tried not to create a big burden. They did not enforce their own legal system and rules. Rather, they tried to transform local legal traditions into imperial law. So how were the Ottomans able to conquer so many countries? Because it was a kind of agreement with the locals that kept the local nobility in power, trying not to change the traditional orders, but at the same time offering advantages that were not possible without the empire.

You mean it was some kind of Pax Ottomanica?

  Yes, it was! When the Ottomans came, they recreated Pax Romana. Pax Ottomanica offered peace, prosperity and protection. I am not try to sugar coat the Ottoman system. Of course the Ottomans conquered other people’s lands and faced resistance at the beginning. Rebellions were frequent but the overall level of violence was low except some frontier provinces and the Ottoman authority provided lots of benefits if you were willing to work within the system.

The dynasty and its governors were foreigners but they did govern the provinces with the help and cooperation of local nobals and other leaders. Imperial system provided opportunities to locals that was not available before. Without the active help of majority of the locals the Ottomans would not able to govern a huge empire for such a long period.

  How else to explain the sudden appearance of local leaders in the last phase of the Ottomans in Serbia, in Greece, everywhere becoming the nationalistic leadership. That’s because the Ottoman system protected the local nobals and enpowered them. Thanks to this the Ottomans were able to establish effective control in most Balkan provinces, but not in Hungary because they had difficulty finding local collaborators. The local leadership simply did not want to cooperate with the Ottomans. When Emeric Thököly rebelled against the Habsburgs, the Ottomans saw this as a kind of great opportunity. So finally we had local leaders who were happy to work with us and for us. This was the key to the success of the Ottomans.

  Otherwise, if you imagine a Star Wars-style evil empire trying to dominate this huge land mass by sheer military force, you are going to have a hard time explaining that. And don’t forget. There were so many advantages of being a citizen of the Empire, in addition to the local benefits of peace, prosperity and economic aspects. Just think of the opportunities to travel to the capital or other provinces, to settle there and find work. So those were big advantages. I mean, there is a very famous example. The pope in Rome in the 17th century sent a cardinal to the holy lands to solve a problem in Jerusalem. The cardinal was a Croat. He traveled to Jerusalem and met with the Ottoman governor. He had some difficulty with the interpreters and was unable to communicate effectively with the governor. He started cursing in Croatian what kind of place this was, what kind of situation he was in.

  And the governor scolded him immediately for cursing in front of him. Because he was also originally a Croat. So they immediately started talking in Croatian. You can not come across similar stories in a highly nationalistic international system anymore.

  But after the end of the empires, many borders were crossed, the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and everything changed drastically. The main problem, we have to solve, at the moment is to try to get rid of this nationalistic historiography. I mean, nationalistic historiography was important in the foundation of Poland, in the foundation of the Turkish Republic, in the foundation of Greece or Bulgaria. But those times are long gone. I think we have to free ourselves from the straitjacket of nationalist historiography and try to understand this period from the point of view of these people, from the point of view of the empire, to free ourselves from nationalist perspectives and try to understand history in a new way.

  The main power of the empire was the army. What was it like in the Turkish Empire and how big was it?

  The Ottoman army consisted of two main groups, the conventional army and the provincial army. We are talking about about 50 to 60,000 professional soldiers plus provincial troops. If you put them all together, you get more than 300,000. However, it was impossible to gather them all because these provisional troops were also responsible for security in their provinces. So some of them had to be left behind, and do not forget that we are talking about a time without railroads, highways and airplanes.

  That means that you could gather thousands of soldiers, but you also had to feed them. I mean, soldiers consume one kilo of food per day, a horse consumes three kilos of food per day maybe five kilos of food per day, and then if you add the oxen, the camels, and so on. It's a logistical nightmare. So when the Ottomans gather around 100,000 fighters in front of Vienna, you have to imagine thousands of people trying to support this army, feed them, transport them, and take care of all the needs of this huge army. So the Ottomans could have potentially raised 350,000 soldiers, but that was impossible to bring them to battlefield. And in the late 17th century, in the largest expedition, the Vienna Expedition, they managed to gather about 100,000 fighters.

  If you add the auxiliary and logistical troops, we are talking about 200,000 soldiers, but they were not all fighting at the front, only of them were combatants.

  The Turkish army created models which the others tried to imitate. Even our hussars copied the training from them...

  As you know, the Ottomans were famous as cavalrymen. They were especially famous for their light cavalry. But the Ottomans did not create European style heavy cavalry like tanks. Having horsemen and huge horses covered with armour that looked like a big steel fortress. The Ottomans had light cavalry, and the tactics and techniques of Ottoman light cavalry were adopted by many nations.

  So they did influence Europe by introducing new tactics, techniques, and weapons including superior military formations like the light cavalry. But they also adopted and imitated many things from the Europeans, especially heavy infantry, firearms, production ofcannons, and so on. The transmission of military knowhow was very complex and there were so many free agents moving between borders that we generally labelled them as mercenaries, but there were also engineers, scientists, and scholars who moved from one country to another to make more money or live a better life. We have very little information about this.

  And unfortunately, when Europeans came to the Ottoman empire, they usually had to change their religion or at least their names. We loose track of their original identity in the documents. Especially in the 17th and 18th centuries and at the beginning of the 19th century, many Europeans came to Turkey. We only know the very famous names, some aristocrats, barons, dukes etc. But there were also many small people, simple technicians, simple officers who did not have any nobal title but brought a lot of information from their country to the Ottoman country or from the Ottomans to Europe.

  But the question of who took what from whom is a big problem. I mean, because the Ottoman military system faced the Balkan nations first and than the Hungarians. The Hungarians were also especially important because they were a cavalry nation, a horse nation. So the Ottoman system immediately penetrated the Hungarians. So we do not know exactly where and whom the Poles actually got light cavalry system. They might get them directly from the Ottomans who were fighting them, or from other nations like the Hungarians, the Tatars, or others, because you have to remember that the Poles were mainly facing Crimean Tatars who were fighting under the Ottoman banners.

  When did the downfall of the Ottomans begin, and what was the reason for it?

  The first structural reason was over-expansion. The empires were getting bigger and bigger, and their traditional system of government were no longer able to control them. The second reason was that the Ottomans were never able to raise more than one army. They had only one army to fight in Europe and also in Persia. The same army had to be used against internal rebellions, collecting taxes etc. Third, with the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, drastic demographic changes occurred. Thousands of Muslims from the northern part of the Danube began to move to the south. This changed the demographic structure of the Balkans and led to a kind of identity crisis.

Previously, Christians and Muslims could live together without major problems. But with the sudden influx of Muslims from the north, settling south and trying to protect what was left of the empires everything changed including the mentality. And you have to remember that from the 18th century on, the first nationalist movements appeared in the Balkan regions. I mean, there were always revolts in the Ottoman Empire, but from the 18th century onward, the character of the rebellions changed starting from the Balkans.

The reasons for the rebellions changed: they became more nationalistic?

  The rebellions had more to do with ethnic identity issues. And this led to further fractures in a multinational empire. Because in a multinational empire, you cannot have a nationalistic form of government centered on a single nation and religion. If you start doing that, it means the end of the empire. So, the Ottoman Empire tried to find solutions. Sometimes their solutions turn out to be even more harmful than the problems themselves. And as you know, the Greek revolt in the 1820s and the independence of Greece changed everything in the Balkans. It set off a kind of chain reaction, like dominoes falling one by one. But, of course, this was not happen in a short period of time. We are talking about centuries here.

  So it was a slow process. With the luxury of hindsight we now say: „You see, that was the date. That was the turning point. That battle was the turning point. That peace agreement was the turning point.” But we do this from hindsight. After 400 years, we are able to see the great ruptures that did not exist during that time. But against all expectations the Ottomans live on. This means that the empire was still very strong.

  I mean, most European historians say that the Ottomans used international balance of power to survive. Playing one great power against another.Yes, that mighty be, but at the same time the Ottoman system continued to function and found solutions and local allies ever increasing problems and they survived. I mean, the Ottomans were still in the Balkans after 1699. And they stayed in the Balkans for another 350 years. That's a very long period of time. You can not explain it by simple diplomatic hocus-pocus.

  And of course that was not only through the use of pure military forces. It was also an administrative success. How did they manage to consolidate those regions? And it was also an economic success, because you have to feed the people.

  Finally, the two great rivals from the 17th century were marginalized in the next decades. But even after the partitions of Poland, Istanbul had great respect and recognized our country as independent…

  After the 1670s Poland was not an enemy of the Ottomans. For the Ottomans the Habsburgs and the Russians were the real enemies in Europe. And if you look closely, the two countries had some similarities. I mean, while the Ottomans were losing their lands in Europe, that was also the period when Poland started to have big problems with the Russians and the Habsburgs. And do not forget that Poland was a Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth at that time.

  So it was a confederation of different ethnic groups working together. So something similar to the Ottomans. And Poland at that time was a huge country, divided three times, and the Ottomans after 1670 always saw Poland as a natural ally, facing the same enemies. So that was a big surprise for the Ottomans when they saw that the Poles came and saved the Habsburgs from Vienna in 1683. That was a big surprise for the Ottomans.

  And the Ottomans still believed that the Eastern European nations would be the solution to the Ottoman problems against the Russians and the Austrians. Thus, not only the Poles but also the Hungarians were very sympathetic to the Ottomans. And during the uprisings of 1848, the Ottomans immediately opened their gates to the refugees coming from Hungary and Poland. Among them were some Polish aristocrats but more of them were common people. We historians have identified the famous generals and the aristocrats, but we do not know the identity of the ordinary people.

  I mean, thousands of people fled to the Ottoman realms and most of them became part of the Ottoman nation. They changed us and brought many benefits to the Ottoman society by bringing in new ideas, new professions and so on. If you look at the Ottoman documents, they are usually referred to as Hungarians. But we know that there were other within these Hungarian groups including Poles.

Not surprisingly these sympathetic relations still continue and Turkey still considers Poland as a natural friend because we not only have shared history but also similar problems.

  We have our famous and common enemy; Russia. And the war in Ukraine shows that Polish and Turkish fears about Russia are justified. So we still face the same problems towards the European Union, which they consider us as outsiders. We can extend the list of common things. In short we have everything we need to develop our relations more. But I think we are not able to properly use this potential effectively. Politicians are quick pay lip service but not efficient to realise their words. In addition to economic and diplomatic, relations we need to invest more to cultural relations and people-to-people relations.

  I did not want to talk about the current issues, but you mention our past and present danger neighbour? What is Turkey’s attitude towards Russia today?

  Russia, as it was, is a natural enemy of Turkey because of its size and strategic goals. But Turkey knows that it has to live with Russia. It has no option to move away from its current geographic location and relocate to another continent. So Russia is and will be our neighbor.

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Historically, we had a very turbulent relationship with Russia. There were of course periods of peace and cooperation. For example, during the foundation of the Turkish Republic, when we were fighting against the French, British, Greeks and Armenians, we received support from the Soviets, the Russians. But these periods were short. We still remember the Cold War and Russian aggression to its neighbours and even its own people. However Turkey, at the same time, depends on Russia economically. We import and export to Russia and don’t forget the importance of Russian tourist. Interestingly for the last twenty years more and more Russians are settling to Turkey and becoming Turkish citizens. In some coastal cities like Antalya there is a growing Russian diaspora. And with the current trend, this will continue.

Unlike most Turkish leaders have to pay attention for the consequences of a general failure and in fact collapse of Russia. What will happen afterwards? I mean, if something serious happens and Russia starts to break the Russian system, new nations emerge from it, what would happen? I mean, this is a big problem. Of course, we do not like the current Russia, but there is a kind of fear, if this Russia disintegrate and divide into pieces, there will be a huge series of upheavals, destroying all the balances, something similar to other falls of multinational empires in the past.

  What about nationalism in Turkey today?

Nationalism as a political ideology is strong in Turkey. And there are some interesting developments recently; the rise of nativist nationalism. Nativists are becoming an influential group feeding from conservatism but differing from them by their emphasis on fear of the West, Western Europe and America. They blame them for every bad things happening in Turkey and accuse them for interfering in Turkey's internal affairs.

And these nativist nationalists in Turkey see Russia as a kind of ally fighting against the Americans and against the Europeans. So they do not see the current wars in Ukraine as an unprovoked Russian aggression. They see this in a kind of conspiratorial perspective, that this is a war between the West and Russia.

There is a lot of confusion in Turkey right now, especially on social media. Although this nativist-nationalist group is just a minority, but it is a vocal minority that is particularly effective on social media. And also on the traditional media channels especially TV. In Turkish TV channels you can frequently seee retired ambassadors, generals and other high ranking former officials talking about the danger that America represents, the danger that Western Europe represents. And I think the Russians are actively promoting them, not only using their intelligence services and providing money but also via social media influencing them something similar to what they are doing in the US.

So interesting times. But that does not change the status of Russia. Russia is enemy number one for Turkey. There is no denying that. And in this respect, we have the same problem as Poland. We are sharing common history.

– Interview by Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Prof. Mesut Uyar – Professor at Antalya Bilim University 2018-Present School of Business and Social Sciences and The University of New South Wales. Former officer of the Turkish Army and the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia. Author of the books: “A Military History of the Ottomans, From Osman to Ataturk”, “From Mesopotamia Front to Burma: Diary of a War and Captivity”, “The Ottoman Army and the First World War“, as well as numerous academic articles.
Main photo: Turkish flag, captured by King John III Sobieski at Vienna and offered to Pope Innocent XI as a gift, wood engraving, 19th century Fot. Piotr Mecik / Forum
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