If you like history — or if you realize the importance of it to our lives today — you may enjoy this week’s offering
I want to talk about a battle that happened 339 years ago in east-central Europe. A battle that, if it had gone the other way, I believe, today’s world would be very different indeed. Imagine a Europe mostly or totally controlled by Islam, probably a very strict Islam like that in Saudi Arabi, which oppresses women, forbids simple pleasures like alcohol and allows no other religion except that of Islam.
I won’t speculate on what the Western Hemisphere of North and South America would be like today but it would be totally different. English, French and Spanish colonization of the New World would have probably petered out in the early 1700s and a militant Islam may well have conquered the Americas.
Historians in general are of two minds about what drives history. Some say it’s the Great Man (or woman) Theory, in which powerful and charismatic individuals are able to impose their wills on society, or by taking action during a specific instance, change outcomes. This can be for either good or evil. Consider if Adolph Hitler had never lived. Or George Washington, for that matter, without whom the American Revolution would most probably have been lost.
An opposing theory is sometimes called the Human Nature Theory and it says that society itself controls human events. That some things and movements are inevitable and that great people actually have minimal control of events.
I tend to support the Great Man Theory. It’s pretty plain that individuals all through history have had a major impact on events, from politics and war to the arts and culture.
So, finally getting to the battle I want to discuss, I think it’s obvious that one great military leader, whom most people outside of Poland and perhaps Austria have never heard of, saved Europe from a very different fate. He was King Jan III Sobieski of Poland. (This column is an expansion of a post I made on my Facebook page earlier this week. I was inspired to do so by reading a book on battles that changed history.)
What happened was, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, one of the most powerful Muslim political entities ever, wanted to extend its power further into Europe. It already controlled much of the Balkan area — including what later became the nations of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Montenegro.
Then, Hungary, which had issues with the Austrians, called in the Turks to assist them and the Islamic power was only too happy to oblige. It had besieged Vienna once before in the 1500s in an attempt to expand its territory and it was eager to try again. So in 1683 the Ottomans sent more than 100,000 troops into Austria and they began a new siege of that city. To make a long battle story short, the Austrians were on the verge of surrender when an Allied relief army, under the command of Sobieski arrived. The Europeans set up in the hills surrounding Vienna but the Turks decided to attack first, before the Westerners could get properly prepare for battle.
But the Ottoman attack was repulsed, then the Western infantry counterattacked and took several important strongpoints. Then — and here comes the good part — Sobieski personally led the greatest and largest cavalry charge in the world, completely routing the Muslims and relieving Vienna from its peril. About 18,000 cavalrymen took part in that charge. There’s never been a bigger one, before or since. if you’ve ever been to a horse race, you know that 10 or 15 horses can shake the ground and make a loud noise as they come down the track. Imagine what 18,000 horses charging together would be like.
So, bottom line, I have no doubt that the Turks would not have stopped in Vienna and that they would have continued to push on into Western Europe. Throughout most of its history, Islam has been an expansionist power.
But the tactics and personal bravery of Sobieski made the difference. It was a turning point in history because this was the last major attempt of an Islamic power to take over Europe. Now, it’s true that the Ottoman Empire did decline in the 1700s and 1800s, to the point that it was known as the “Sick Man of Europe.” But I think it’s likely that if it had conquered Europe in the late 1600s, that would have rejuvenated the empire and would have ended up being a lasting power.
There is one more thing I want to mention about King Jan, our hero. Even though he was king of Poland, guess where he was born? Well, Ukraine, of course!