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1683: The Siege of Vienna

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The defeat of the Ottoman Army outside the gates of Vienna 300 years ago is usually regarded as the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. But Walter Leitsch ask whether it was such a turning point in the history of Europe?

Jan SobieskiThree hundred years ago, in the summer of 1683, the main army of the Ottoman Empire, a large and well-equipped force, besieged Vienna. The town was nearing the end of its ability to resist: but just as the capture of Vienna was becoming only a matter of time – not more than a week away, at most – an army came to its rescue. On September 12th, in an open battle before Vienna, the Ottoman army was defeated, and the city escaped pillage and destruction. There is probably no book on the general history of Europe that does not record these events.

The Chief Commander of the army that rescued Vienna was the Polish King, Jan Sobieski. He brought with him about 23,000 soldiers, without whom the combined forces of the Emperor and the Imperial princes were not have ventured an open battle. It was only the combination of all three that made victory possible.

This year Poles and Austrians have been infected with anniversary fever. All the major archives, libraries – above all the museums – of the two countries have special exhibitions drawn from their collections. Several learned institutions are organising lecture series, and some ceremonial meetings are planned for mid-September. Even the Pope's visit to Vienna in September has been timed to coincide with the commemoration of the battle relieving Vienna. Austrian and Polish publishing houses are offering new books on the event and the personalities involved. Historians of all kinds are uniting in meetings to say more or less new and useful things about Vienna in 1683 and the defeat of the Turks. Meetings of historians have been or are to be organised in Lublin, Warsaw, Cracow, Saint Cyr, Rome, Istanbul and Ankara, three are to be in Vienna itself and the list is still growing.

Does this celebratory feverishness make sense? Are we not overdoing it? Is it wise to spend so much on these celebrations while our libraries are having to stop buying many journals because of the lack of funds? The question is asked by somebody who likes to read books; the disposition of the funds is in the hands of people who have other interests.

Was the battle at the gates of Vienna really important enough to justify all the fuss being made about it this year? After all, it was not the first battle won by a Christian army over Ottoman forces. However, it marks a turning point: not only was further Ottoman advance on Christian territories stopped, but in the following war that lasted up to 1698 almost all of Hungary was reconquered by the army of Emperor Leopold I. From 1683 the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world. In the two hundred and thirty years that followed the Ottoman Turks lost all the Christian lands they had conquered in the previous three-and-a-half-centuries. The outcome for the Christian world was enormously valuable: no longer were the Christians terrified by real or imagined attacks by the huge and efficient war machinery of the Ottoman Empire, and the expenditure on the Christian defence organisation to stop further Ottoman advance was reduced considerably.

The event was duly commemorated on the two hundredth anniversary and the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary. It was also a veritable sensation in 1683. A great number of pamphlets and books – some of them in many volumes – were written in 1683 and in the following years. Were these contemporary writers aware of the significance of the event, or was it a propaganda campaign organised by the politicians in Vienna and Warsaw? The German Habsburgs and the Poles had both suffered a number of defeats since the 1640s. Their military reputation was not good and a remarkable victory would improve their prestige. It is for this reason that people around the Emperor and the King of Poland did a great deal to ensure that this victory was celebrated as m event of historical importance. And this without yet knowing the important consequences this battle had for the future. Perhaps propagandists are not always wrong.

The battle of Vienna was a turning point in one further respect: the success was due to the co-operation between the troops of the Emperor, some Imperial princes and the Poles. In previous wars against the Ottoman Empire the German princes had frequently sent auxi1iary troops; even Italian princes and the Pope had occasionally sent troops and funds. However the co-operation between the two non-maritime neighbours of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, the Emperor and Poland, was something new. Since the Ottoman Empire had become a menace to the Christian lands in East-Central Europe both countries had repeatedly tried to ensure they received help from the other in case of danger. All their efforts to build up a common defence against the Ottoman Empire remained unsuccessful. This inability of two states under the same threat to unite was due first of all to the military superiority of the Ottoman Empire. Even the combined forces of the German Habsburgs and the Poles were not necessarily superior to the Ottoman forces. This made any such campaign a risky affair.

There was a second reason why everyone dreaded a land war with the Ottoman Empire: one of the military tactics of the Ottomans was to use special troops to devastate enemy territory. That is why any military conflict – even a successful one – with the Ottoman Empire caused tremendous economic damage. Up to the end of the seventeenth century such a war inevitably brought great devastation, without any hope of real gains. The neighbouring countries therefore did their best to avoid conflicts with them.

Invariably, wars started with attacks by the Turks, and those who were not attacked were happy to be spared the misery. Distrust between possible allies was consequently very great: since everyone was trying to avoid a conflict with the Ottoman Turks or to terminate such a conflict as soon as possible, a separate peace was highly coveted in any allied action. Everyone was convinced that their partners were secretly preparing a separate peace. The battle outside Vienna brought about a fundamental change: the destruction of the Ottoman main army made possible the creation of a great league in 1684. From then on the co-operation of Christian states against the Ottoman Empire worked relatively well.

But it was the co-operation between the Imperial and the Polish troops that achieved the great initial success. Why did King Jan Sobieski not follow what had been considered political wisdom by his predecessors? Why did he take the great risks that such an alliance against the Ottoman Empire involved? He had a number of motives: there was, first of all, the military security of Poland. There were also considerations as to the military prestige of Poland in general; and finally he had to think about the future of his family. To understand the situation it is necessary to look first at the policy of Emperor Leopold I and his attitude to Hungarian and Ottoman problems at the beginning of the Ottoman campaign.

Up to 1683 the relations between the Emperors and the Sultans were not always bad. In the sixteenth century there had been several wars; the seventeenth century up to 1683 was a period of peace. After the treaty of 1606 there was no major military involvement for fiftyseven years. The short war of the years 1663 and 1664 was in the nature of an accident, since neither the Emperor nor the Sultan wanted it. That is why the armistice was signed immediately after the only real battle of this war and it was concluded for a long period, for twenty years.

Since France had entered the Thirty Years War, the pressure on Germany had increased. The Habsburgs, as Emperors, were responsible for the defence of imperial territory and – as became ever more evident – they were not really equal to the task. They concentrated all their forces as a defence along the Rhine and became more interested than ever in peace along the other, extensive borders of their possessions. Thus since the Thirty Years War, the reconquest of the Hungarian territory from the Ottoman Empire had disappeared completely from the political plans at the imperial court. When in 1664 Emperor Leopold won the only important battle and hastily concluded peace with the Ottoman Empire, he even ceded some Hungarian territory to the Sultan. This was too much for the Hungarians – they were already unhappy about Leopold and his predecessors forgetting their main task as kings of Hungary, and could not understand Leopold ceding yet more Hungarian territory when victorious.

In 1672 the Hungarian nobility finally turned away from Leopold and started an insurrection, and soon found French support. Leopold was occupied defending the Rhineland against French advance and so did not devote much attention to the events in Hungary. The rebellion dragged on. As a rule there was some indecisive fighting in the summer and some equally indecisive negotiations in the winter. Year by year Leopold was losing ever more ground in Hungary, but as he did not want to be bothered in the East he convinced himself that the Hungarian rebellion was unimportant. When in 1682 he started negotiations to prolong the armistice with the Ottoman Empire he was again ready to cede more Hungarian territory.

This somewhat lenient attitude towards the East had serious repercussions on the policy of the Sultan and his supreme vizier, Kara Mustafa. They saw that Leopold was unable to suppress the rebellion of a handful of Hungarian nobles and that he was offering a high price for prolonging the armistice. He was evidently very weak, and the temptation to attack him became irresistible. In view of Leopold's aversion towards any involvement in Hungary, the Sultan, following a successful campaign, could have forced him to make greater concessions than those offered during the armistice negotiations.

The Sultan and his advisors based their decisions on normal political wisdom: one should attack an enemy as long as he is weak. Their experience led them to believe that Leopold would not receive substantial help from outside and would definitely not be supported by the Poles, so they were risking next to nothing. They knew from the previous war that they would be able to get an advantageous armistice even if they lost the key battle. A campaign against the Emperor must have been in their eyes a relatively easy affair with success guaranteed. Nobody could foresee that after 150 years of futile attempts the Poles and Germans might co-operate. The only serious mistake the Sultan and Kara Mustafa made was that they did not restrict the campaign to Hungary but marched on to besiege Vienna. Certainly, the conquest of Vienna would have given them great prestige. But it was far too risky in view of the organisational difficulties connected with besieging a city as distant and as well fortified as Vienna. Further, they strengthened the solidarity of the Christian world by attacking one of its major centres. Still the political calculation was not entirely wrong: the siege was quite successful and they had high hopes of conquering Vienna. The combined forces of the Emperor and the Imperial princes were not strong enough to risk a relief battle: it was only after the Polish troops reinforced the Christian army that such a battle could be risked.

Why did Sobieski come and rescue Vienna from pillage and destruction? Why did he disregard the political principles of his ancestors? Up to the 1670s the Polish nobility had prevented any participation by Poland in Christian actions against the Ottoman Empire. Their main argument was that Poland had not lost any territory to the Ottoman Empire and consequently had no reason to participate in a Christian league. The situation changed when Poland lost Podolia to the Ottoman Empire in the 1670s. Now there was a lobby of Polish nobles in the Diet who had lost their estates. Polish pride was hurt by being defeated by the Ottomans after previous defeats by the Swedes and Muscovites. Jan Sobieski had been elected King with the help of the King of France. At the beginning of his reign he had cooperated with France and supported the rebellious Hungarians against Ernperor Leopold. But co-operation with France did not give any of the expected advantages, and could not help to gain back territory lost to the Ottomans. French and Polish help was insufficient to enable the Hungarian nobility to defeat Leopold decisively. They had to look for stronger support – and this could only be given by the Turks. The more the Hungarians openly co-operated with the Ottoman Empire, the more critical the situation became for Poland. That is one of the reasons why Sobieski stopped helping the rebels and joined with Emperor Leopold. A Hungarian king Thokoly who was a vassal of the Sultan was most surely an uncomfortable neighbour for Poland.

Sobieski was more active in foreign policy than his predecessors, though a8 his attempts to strengthen Poland's position in international affairs were unsuccessful. One of the reasons for this was that Poland had almost no standing at all as a military power: its political weight in Europe was very srnall. Louis XIV did not hide his low opinion, and treated Sobieski as a very junior partner. Poland's prestige could be restored only by a remarkable military victory. When rushing to Vienna, Sobieski most surely had this strengthening of Polish political and military prestige in mind. Though the campaign was risky, a success could be of great value for Polish palitics. As the highest in rank Sobieski was given the supreme command of the troops in front of Vienna. This was a wise decision: he was the most experienced at fighting the Turks of the military leaders of his time.

Sobieski's third motive was dynastic. By gaining for himself great prestige in Poland he could secure the succession of one of his sons on the throne of Poland. Prospects were also to be improved by persuading the Emperor to give one of his daughters in marriage to Sobieski's son Jakob. These three motives together made Sobieski take the risk and disregard his predecessors' policy.

The Sultan and his supreme vizier, by attacking Vienna, contributed more to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire than any other Ottoman politician had ever done by one single action. Not only were the dreams and wishes of the Sultan and his suprerne vizier left unfulfilled, but so also were those of Sobieski. Even in co-operation with the army of the Emperor, he was still unable to reconquer the lost territory. Although he gained a great personal reputation in Europe as a military leader, this was not much help in Polish politics, since the one victory was followed by a number of rather disastrous failures. The failures were due partly to the efforts of the Polish aristocracy to undermine the position of Sobieski, in their eyes he had gained too much prestige at Vienna.

Leopold entered history as the King of Hungary who regained most of the territory lost in the previous century to the Ottoman Empire. The man who in the beginning did not want anything but peace was the only one to gain.

Walter Leitsch is Professor of East European History and Director of the Institute of East and Southeast European Research at the University of Vienna.

Further reading: 
  • John Stoye, The Siege of Vienna (Collins, 1964)
  • John P. Spielman, Leopold I of Austria (Rutgers University Press, 1977)
  • Norman Davies, God's Playground: a History of Poland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981)
  • Stanford Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey , vol. I, 'Empire of the Gazis: the Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808' (Cambridge University Press, 1976)
  • Thomas M. Barker, Double Eagle and Crescent. Vienna's Second Turkish Siege and its Historical Setting (State University of New York Press, 1967)
Historical dictionary: Vienna, Siege of (1683)


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