If King Jan III Sobieski of Poland had not arrived in Vienna on 12th September 1683, the dynamics of global power would have been entirely different
As A J P Taylor used to tell his students, “History is what those with power want you to believe has happened, not necessarily what actually happened”.
This is certainly true when the development of Europe and its relations with its eastern neighbours is viewed from the vantage point of the 21st century. Much of what we think we know is actually a blend of propaganda, selective remembrance and downright lies. The true record is a distortion, but we are unaware of this fact and its implications for us all today. Put simply, the attitude of most Europeans to Islam is influenced by a ‘folk-memory’ that has lain in our unconscious like an incubus for at least five centuries. The myth of the bearded and turbaned warrior wielding his scimitar and kidnapping virgin maids for his harem, has now been replaced by the fiction that beyond the shores of Europe the world is entirely peopled by bearded and turbaned warriors armed with explosives and AK47s, who wish us nothing but pain and suffering.
We deal with the world in terms of our understanding of it, but is this view in any sense inevitable? There is a convincing case to be made that the world would have been a completely different place, if just one or two events had taken a different turn. So, come with me back to the 17th century and indulge in a ‘mind game’ – an exercise in counterfactual history.
In 1683 all of the Balkans, together with large parts of Hungary and the Ukraine, formed the western edge of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet IV. These remote regions of eastern Europe were Muslim lands with a mosque in most communities and a legal system based upon Islamic Law. Contrary to common belief, the Ottomans allowed many religious freedoms; Jews, Christians and Copts were allowed to appoint their own priests, build their own places of worship and conduct themselves as they wished, so long as they did not challenge the caliphate. Indeed the Ottoman authorities went to great lengths to protect the Christian and Jewish ‘holy places’ in Jerusalem and Palestine, and regularly arbitrated in disputes.
For tactical and economic reasons, the Ottomans had long wanted to take Vienna and the Austrian lands from the Habsburg Monarchy. In the 1560s, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had referred to the city as the ‘Red Apple’ of Europe and, in 1682, Sultan Mehmet IV declared war on the House of Habsburg. His Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha, marched north through the Balkans from Constantinople with an army of 300,000 and on 14th July 1683 the Ottomans surrounded Vienna and laid siege to what was then the third largest city in Europe. There was a military stalemate until 12th September 1683 when King Jan III Sobieski of Poland arrived with a relief army of 84,000 and engaged Kara Mustafa Pasha in a decisive battle. The siege was lifted, the Ottomans withdrew, and Europe was ‘saved’ for Christendom.
But what might have happened if the Poles had failed to arrive in time? Let us imagine the historical counter-factual.
It is 13th September 1683 and the Ottomans have beaten off a half-hearted attempt by the advance guard of a small Polish army to raise the siege. Vienna has fallen and Kara Mustafa Pasha’s forces have occupied the city. Despatch-riders have set off for Constantinople to announce the victory and to call upon the Sultan to send reinforcements to garrison his new prize. By 1686 Vienna would have started to look like other European cities under Ottoman rule such as Belgrade, with minarets starting to appear and traders from Anatolia and the east establishing new businesses and trading enterprises. Vienna’s strategic position on the Danube would have meant that any aspirations that Hungary might have had to control the main river artery of Europe would have disappeared. By 1700, all of Hungary, most of Austria, the Ukraine and much of Poland and Saxony would have been part of the Ottoman Empire or client states owing allegiance to the Sultan. The reason for this explosion of influence is easy to see. At a time when travel by road was virtually impossible and sea travel dangerous and uncertain, by controlling the Danube as far as Germany, the most important commercial route to the east would have been in Ottoman hands. From that would have flowed great riches and even greater influence. The whole of eastern Europe, from Muscovy to the Rhine would have been in the Sultan’s sphere of control.
Thus by mid-18th century, on either side of a line that might have been drawn between Denmark and Italy, Europe would have been divided between a newly-empowered and immensely-rich Muslim Ottoman Empire to the east and a much diminished western Europe. Driven from Austria, the Habsburg monarchy would have clung on to their outpost in Spain, but there would have been no Austria-Hungary. No threat from the Austrian Habsburgs would have freed the Bourbons from the threat and expense of war, thereby avoiding a revolution in France in 1789. No French Revolution would have meant no Napoleon, who would have remained a junior officer in the artillery, bored and distracted on his native Corsica. No Napoleon would have meant that England could have remained at peace from the 1780s to 1815 and almost certainly able to retain the American colonies. The United States of America would not have developed along the lines that we know it now.
Without the pressure of rivalry with Austria and France, Prussia would never have forced through the unification of Germany in 1871, which would have remained a collection of insignificant hereditary kingdoms. The Tsar of Russia, confronted by a strong and prosperous Ottoman Empire on the western and southern borders would have had to meet the needs of the vast population and deal with social inequality. There would have been no Russian revolution; no great-power rivalry, so no First World War and no Treaty of Versailles. Hitler would have remained a failed architecture student in his home town of Linz, deep in Ottoman Austria, so there would have been no Second World War. There would have been no Holocaust, no State of Israel, and Palestine would have remained little more than a dusty sanjaq in an out of the way part of the Sultan’s vast empire.
It is November 2013. Islam is the religion of more than half of Europe, not by compulsion or force of arms, but simple acceptance. There is a caliphate that stretches from Basra to Berlin with imposing centuries-old mosques in Vienna, Linz, Budapest and Warsaw. Alongside them are soaring Catholic cathedrals and synagogues of surpassing beauty. Religion is part of the life blood of this different Europe, but as something that sustains not divides.
Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_miniature
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