New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

The Enemy at the Gate

Godfrey Wheatcroft
Bodley Head, 339pp

Enemy at the GateWe often hear about 'the Islamic threat' these days, usually in relation to al-Qa'eda or allegations about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Here is a book about Westerners' fear of Islamic jihad. In this case, the West faced not guerrillas whose goal was to force the West out of the Muslim heartlands, but rather an organised state aiming at global conquest - the Ottoman Empire, the frontline state against which was the Habsburg Empire of west and central Europe.

The Enemy at the Gate is an excellent, lucid volume that leads us through the alternately cold and hot, and indeed tepid, war between these empires. One interesting point is that the struggle was not solely religious or about domination, but also a matter of title. The Ottoman ruler claimed to be Sultan-i-Rum, 'ruler of the Romans', reflecting his assumption of the prerogatives of the Byzantine Empire, whereas the Habsburg monarch had the title 'Holy Roman Emperor'. This rivalry about who was truly the Roman Emperor 'gave an added potency (or virulence) to the contest.'

This is not parallelled in today's 'Islamic threat'. There are two dimensions to military jihad, 'defensive' and 'offensive'. The former aims at driving away infidel invaders and occupiers, the latter at conquest. All modern jihads are defined in terms of Islamic jurisprudence as being 'defensive' - for example, Bin Laden talks about his 'driving-away jihad'. There is little difference about such a campaign from a secular-nationalist independence struggle such as that of the Algerians, save the methodology ('martyrdom operations') and the number of people killed. Whatever Neo-Cons claim, we are not facing a threat from an expansionist state, since there is no modern Sunni Caliphate equivalent to the Ottoman Empire.

Another point of comparison is the nature of the forces in action. We often hear about the under-equipping of British forces in Afghanistan, but the Ottoman forces faced no such problems. Wheatcroft demonstrates that great care was taken to ensure that the average Ottoman soldier was properly armed, fed and housed. It must have been an awesome, if terrifying, sight to view the vast numbers of sheep driven ahead of the forces, the wagons loaded with food, the camels with the muskets and quivers, the vast tents, the properly constructed latrines.

The Habsburgs had more limited resources. This is important: the Ottomans were the superpower of their day, which makes the Habsburg resistance and ultimate triumph all the more impressive. Moreover, the Holy Roman Empire was a very loose body by this time, essentially a confederation of quasi-independent states, which prevented the Emperor from asserting executive direction, especially after the Reformation, whereas the Sultan was an absolute ruler whose system had a clear autocratic structure. Happily, in 1683 there was enough unity in the West to enable the Habsburgs to withstand the Ottomans. One prince who participated in the defence of Vienna was George of Hanover, later to become King of Britain.

Ottoman Sultans usually had an ambition to match or outdo their successors in battle. The bar had been set high by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and the next goals were Rome and Vienna. Vienna had been unsuccessfully besieged in 1529, but the Ottomans were determined to try again. Here is a valid parallel with al-Qa'eda - after their initial failure to topple the World Trade Center in 1993, they succeeded in 2001. Islam places great emphasis on sabr - steadfastness. This should awaken us to the possibility that where attacks have failed before, the group will try again - often many years later. So it was with the Ottomans - 'a lost battle became a commitment for future generations to right the affront'.

Ironically, the 1683 siege of Vienna occurred under Mehmed IV, who if not peace-loving, was disinclined to engage in war first-hand, and it is fortunate for Europe that the real power behind the assault was the vainglorious Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa. He lacked military leadership qualities, including the ability to inspire his men. Still, he had the Ottoman war machine at his disposal, notably the Empire's equivalent to the Gurkhas, the Crimean Tatars, famed horsemen and archers, who spread terror wherever they arrived. However, they were subject to the constraints of terrain - 'in mountains or wooded country where Tartars could be pinned down their advantages evaporated'. This was to prove their undoing at Vienna.

Another factor in the Habsburgs' favour was that their generals were battle-hardened and experienced after the Thirty Years War. 'By 1682, western siege-craft, like western infantry tactics, was surpassing the Turkish methods'. The Ottomans gathered a massive force, destroying villages, pillaging, raping and enslaving as they advanced. However, initial successes made them over-confident, and Kara Mustafa made the fatal error of underestimating his foe, failing to guard the siege HQ outside the city properly. The siege was a bloody affair, and both sides were guilty of atrocities, although it must be said that the Viennese were either civilians or those defending their city, whereas the Ottomans were combatants.

Wheatcroft gives a detailed description of the siege, which makes for exciting, if gruesome reading. The climax came on 12 September when the Polish King Jan Sobieski led his cavalry through the mountains against the Turks, 'screaming the words of the day "Jesus, Maria" against the Ottoman cries of "Allah, Allah"'. After the victory, Sobieski famously uttered the phrase adapted from Julius Caesar: 'We came, we saw, God conquered'. Kara Mustafa paid for his arrogance and failure by being executed upon his return to Ottoman territory.

The Vienna battle changed the nature of the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict. From here on, the Turks were largely on the defensive, and began to be pushed back, with Hungary being liberated soon after. Had the Europeans presented a constant, united force, fighting with skill, they might at this point have pushed the Ottomans out of Europe altogether. It was not to be, and when the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate, it was in 1821 as a result of a Greek national uprising, supported first by pan-European volunteers and eventually the decisive intervention of Britain, France and Russia. So it is in more ways than one that the siege of Vienna and its aftermath presents one of the great 'might-have-beens' of history. Nevertheless, for the sake of our liberty, we can all give thanks that in 1683 'God conquered', in Sobeiski's very un-PC phrase.

Anthony McRoy