The year was 1683 and the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Kara Mustafa Pasha, led one of the most organized war machines on earth. He was leading them westward-- toward Vienna. We know now that his campaign would end in defeat. The Pasha himself held ultimately responsible, he would be made to suffer the punishment of death by strangulation; his head then delivered to the Sultan back in Constantinople in a velvet bag.
Make sure you tie the knott right, he is supposed to have said to his executioners as they prepared to tie the silken cord around his neck.
But imagine how optimistic he must have been just months earlier as he led the powerful Ottoman toward the city walls of Vienna.
Pure formality, the Ottoman army had first sent an official demand for surrender of the city. Both sides, however, were well aware that they would have to fight to the finish: take the city versus defend the city. Treaties, entreaties and traitors opening the gates from the inside not being likely options.
And so after receiving rejection to their official demand, the Ottoman army set to work digging tunnels under the city walls. Using little pick axes, they dug sitting down, creating tunnels in which they would use explosives to try and collapse the walls. The siege was vicious and food had been cut off, but the fortifications built by the Viennese a week before the arrival of the Ottoman army significantly slowed their adversaries down. Then, with the arrival of the Christian Polish relief army, the battle turned against the Pasha.
And, speaking of the famed Polish soldiers, perhaps the Battle of Vienna is most famous for their final calvary charge. The famed winged hussars-- led by the great King of Poland himself. After their triumph, he was said to have paraphrased Julius Caesar's famous quote:
"Venimus, Vidimus, Deus vincit" - "We came, We saw, God won."
"Venimus, Vidimus, Deus vincit" - "We came, We saw, God won."
I am listening to a really interesting In Our Time program about the Battle of Vienna. Even more than the famous naval battle at Lepanto, we know that the Battle of Vienna was at the time seen as a great clash of civilizations. Like the Battle of Talas or the Battle of Thermopylae, the Battle of Vienna was the stuff that would later be said to have profoundly changed the course of history. Indeed, even at the time, it was seen as a Clash of Civilizations: with Christians praying for a Christian victory in churches as far away as Britain and Catalonia.
The In Our Time homepage has this blurb on the battle:
The ensuing siege has been held responsible for many things, from the invention of the croissant to the creation of Viennese coffee. But most importantly, it has come to be seen as a clash of civilisations, one that helped to define a series of boundaries, between Europe and Asia, Christian and Muslim, Hapsburg and Ottoman, that influence the view between Vienna and Istanbul to this day. But to see the siege as a defining moment in east/west relations may be to read back into history an idea that was not true at the time.
This talk of boundaries is very interesting, I think, because it was more like a "series of boundaries" or "fault lines. Famous battles are almost always later said to have created boundaries between civilizations (as opposted to those less significantly interpreted battles fought between neighbors) And, this is certainly how the Battle of Talas, the Battle of Vienna and the Battle of Thermoplae are traditionally understood. The guests on the In Our Time show spoke about something they called "deep history," maybe a better term is simply "historical memory"? But, they discuss the way the battle continues to be significant in our historical memory even today; so that for example the issue of Turkey's inclusion in the EU would have a different emotive impact in Vienna then say in Britain.
Like many of the Readers of these Pages, I love history. And, I have mentioned before that I went through a period-- about 4 years in fact-- where I read almost exclusively song dynasty history. Reading in both Japanese and English, the books were all written in the style of intellectual history and hence were created in great part to "illuminate" the past (that is, they illuminated both the Song times but also the Tang times and the present times; see article on Al Andalus linked below, for example on revisionism in intellectual history).
I suppose, too, that this type of resionary or illuminary history-writing is in many ways the polar opposite of Kapuscinski's portrayal of Herodotus' project of "real time seeing" or "looking." As he says,
But not just to look but to try and write down what he saw in order not to forget it. Not necessarily that any truth can be illuminated but only this aim of leaving behind a trace of what happened. It is, I think, a human impulse-- this desire to remember. This was, after all, why Herodotus tells us that he wrote down his own travels-- in unending run-on sentences that overflowed onto countless papyrus scrolls.
But not just to look but to try and write down what he saw in order not to forget it. Not necessarily that any truth can be illuminated but only this aim of leaving behind a trace of what happened. It is, I think, a human impulse-- this desire to remember. This was, after all, why Herodotus tells us that he wrote down his own travels-- in unending run-on sentences that overflowed onto countless papyrus scrolls.Kapuscinski called this the fight against "temporal provincialism."
I think it takes a certain kind of person to practice this type of history. (Does anyone really practice oral history anymore? Even the journalists nowadays seem to be in the narrative-making business) I find myself thinking a lot about the art of doing looking and tale-telling (l'histoire) -- about this idea of standing in the world and writing history as it actually is taking place; at that precise moment where present tense becomes past tense. Somehow I think it is bound up in the notion of the ethics of care. And, I wonder if doing oral history is not one of the most significant and humane approaches to history. Especially when it is practiced in order to tell the stories of those otherwise who would not have a voice: history as telling tales: l'histoire (as story and history)
Another really good In Our Time program called "A History of History" started off its show with these words:
In the 6th century AD, the bishop of Tours began his history of the world with a simple observation that “A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad”
That about sums it up I guess...
All the art work comes from Biblioddysey's fabulous post Feuerwerksbuch. The artillary is at least a hundred years "behind-the-times" but I was unable to find anything more contemporary to the Battle (sorry!)
RECOMMENDED: This from William Dalrymple on the dangers of cultural provincialism and US politics: Home Truths on Abroad
On the significance of "kara" or "black" : 1,000 Kilometers North of Saigon
Picture Memories by Don Hong Oai below: