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The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft

Posted by RB Kollannur on August 27, 2012


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 26/08/2012

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 2009; Pages – 339; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 887

The year was 1683. Europe was in the middle of a political and religious upheaval. The Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 between the Catholics and Protestants had redrawn many political boundaries. The notably Protestant Netherlands had finally gained their independence from the Catholic Spain. Spain also lost another key territory – Portugal (and by extension Brazil), which it had inherited in 1580. It was a defeat for the Catholics with Pope Innocent X openly stating his discord with the outcome.

The Thirty Years War was also a battle for supremacy of the two powerful Catholic families of that era – the Bourbons, who ruled France, who sided with the Protestants and the Habsburgs, who ruled most of Western Europe except for Scandinavia, British Isles, the Papal States and of course, France.

While the Europeans struggled to get their house in order, another nation was gradually developing the means to knock them out. The Turkish Ottoman Empire had consolidated their European possessions over the past century and was slowly gaining resources to siege their western rivals while they killed each other. They had come a long way in Europe after another battle of Adrianople in 1365 when they gained their first significant foothold in Europe in 1365. Over the next two centuries, they conquered Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. But it was in Vienna, Austria, that their onward progress in Europe was brought to a halt, in 1529.

Unlike these days, Vienna was one of the most prominent cities in the world in the seventeenth century. As the historic base of the powerful Habsburg family, it was in effect the premier city of the Holy Roman Empire, which covered Germany, Austria and Slovenia. Situated on the banks of Danube, it had significant strategic value for the Turkish nation. Control over Vienna would give them a better hold in the trade between Europe and Asia. It also had a huge symbolic importance.

The Turks looked upon the ancient Roman Empire with esteem and had set their eyes on its conquest. In fact, the early nation of Turks in what is now Turkey was named the Sultanate of Rum because of its association with Rome, rather than of rum. When the Turks finally conquered Constantinople, the last city of the Roman Empire, they had claimed suzerainty of the other chief Roman “capital”, Vienna, which had become the newly formed Holy Roman Empire. The repulsion of their first siege of Vienna in 1529 made the Ottomans more motivated for another siege. But due to internal politics it took them much longer to raise the necessary resources.

Andrew Wheatcroft describes the second Siege of Vienna of 1683 in excellent detail. Supported by diagrams of the fortress protecting Vienna and other maps and illustrations, Wheatcroft portrays the battle with the precision of an astute observer and the taste of an artist. He overviews the military force available with both the armies in a knowledgeable manner identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each style of soldier. The most noted were the winged hussars, the Polish heavy cavalry who would later uproot the Ottoman forces.

For most of the siege, the wall guardians of Vienna had to deal with the massive artillery of the Turkish army from sapping their defences. The Turks had drained the region between Istanbul to Vienna to support their expedition and heavily outnumbered the city dwellers. For Vienna, it was defend till help arrives or die.
Wheatcroft also gives sufficient detail to give the context of the war. Fearing a rise of Islam, Pope Innocent XI would raise and fund a Holy League to combat the Ottomans. The funds raised by the Pope went a long way in driving back the Ottomans in Europe. The most noted absentee of the Holy League would be the Catholic France. By 1699, Habsburgs had taken Hungary from the Ottomans and the Poles had made significant progress in Ukraine keeping the Ottoman allies in Crimea at bay.

The significance of the siege can be seen from its effect on its participants. From 1683, the Ottomans would begin a slow decline culminating in their fall after World War I. They gradually lost regions and in another two centuries they had very little influence outside Turkey. For the Habsburgs who had largely relied on marital relations and diplomacy to win their large empire, it would be a start of a set of military successes. Following their success in Hungary, they would look to west in Spain after the extinction of the elder line of Habsburgs that ruled Spain. In a fiercely fought War of Spanish Succession, they would defeat France and become the most powerful rulers in mainland Europe.

The Enemy of the Gate is a book of military history. It enables the reader experience the battles of times long gone by.

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One Response to “The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft”

  1. […] on 10/08/2012 23) A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke – Published on 18/08/2012 24) The Enemy at the Gate: Hasburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft – Published on […]

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