On September 11, 1683, the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth led by John Sobieski defeated the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Vienna, shaking Ottoman hegemony in Central Europe and setting the stage for the reconquest of Hungary and the Balkans.
By the start of the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks, once just one of many Turkic tribes wandering the Anatolian steppe, had expanded steadily westward, mostly at the expense of the decaying Byzantine Empire. They eventually established a foothold in the Balkans, even moving their capital to Adrianople, which they renamed Edirne.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire
As the Turks expanded into Southern and Central Europe, the conquest of Constantinople became a crucial objective. Sultan Murad II began his reign by laying siege to the Byzantine capital in 1422, forcing the Emperor John VIII to cede away all the territory outside the city walls, before launching a series of campaigns to reassert the Ottomans’ control over the Balkans.
Fearing the rise of an expanding and powerful Islamic empire on the doorstep of Europe, Pope Eugene IV called for a new crusade. But the crusading Catholic armies of Hungary and Poland, led by King Władysław III of Poland, were repelled in 1444 at the Battle of Varna, widely regarded as the last major effort by the Christian powers to expel the Turks from Europe.
After the Battle of Varna, the Ottomans extended their control over the Greek rulers in the Peloponnese and, with now no threat from the west, the son of Murad II, Mehmed the Conqueror, proceeded to conquer Constantinople, which fell in 1453.
Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Empire continued to prosper under the rule of a line of committed and effective Sultans. And by 1520, after Selim I had dramatically expanded the Empire’s eastern and southern frontiers by defeating the Shah of Safavid Iran, his son, Suleiman the Magnificent, began a series of new military conquests directed towards Hungary.
The Ottoman-Hungarian wars
Since the end of the 15th century, the Kingdom of Hungary had begun to experience severe financial difficulties as magnates dismantled the national administration systems and bureaucracy throughout the country. The medieval kingdom‘s defenses sagged as border-guards and castle garrisons went unpaid and fortresses fell into disrepair.
In 1521, the Ottomans advanced up the Danube River, taking Nándorfehérvár (present-day Belgrade) and Szabács, leaving most of Hungary indefensible and open to further Turkish conquests. So when Suleiman the Magnificent launched an invasion in 1526, the Ottomans met no resistance from the Hungarians and advanced almost unopposed towards Buda.
Twenty-year-old Hungarian King Louis II eventually assembled an army, mostly reliant on old fashioned heavily armoured knights. He led his forces at the Battle of Mohács against the Ottoman army, more modern and built around artillery and its elite musket-armed Janissaries, where nearly the entire Hungarian Royal army was destroyed.
Seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in their country’s history, Suleiman the Magnificent’s victory at the Battle of Mohács and the subsequent Turkish conquest of Buda in 1541 spelled the end of Hungary as a unified independent kingdom and led to the partition of the country between the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Principality of Transylvania.
The Polish-Ottoman wars
During this so-called “age of trisection”, constant warfare between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs turned Hungary into a perpetual battlefield which devastated much of the land. And it wasn’t until the the 17th century that the balance of power in Central Europe began to shift from the Ottomans toward the Habsburgs and their allies, and particularly, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Despite peace being signed in 1621, the borderland area between the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had remained in a state of semi-permanent warfare throughout the 17th century. But by 1670, full-fledged war had resumed after the Commonwealth had tried to take back the Cossack Hetmanate it had lost to the Ottomans.
Despite the newly-elected King John III Sobieski dealing several defeats to the forces of Sultan Mehmed IV, the Commonwealth was forced to cede large swaths of Ukraine to the Sultan when peace was signed in 1676. The treaty began a period of peace during which John Sobieski reformed the Polish army completely, notably increasing the number of cannons and introducing new artillery tactics.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, bolstered by its successes, turned once again its sight to Vienna. Mehmed IV undertook extensive logistical preparations, including the repair and establishment of roads and bridges leading into the Habsburg territory and its capital, as well as the forwarding of ammunition, cannon, and other resources from all over the Empire into Hungary and the Balkans.
The Battle of Vienna
By 1682, clashes along the border seperating the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires intensified, and the incursions of Habsburg forces into Ottoman Hungary provided the crucial argument for the Sultan to allow the movement of the Ottoman army. But the long wait between mobilization and the invasion provided ample time for Vienna to prepare its defense and for the Emperor to form an alliance with Pope Innocent XI and John Sobieski.
In April 1683, the Ottoman army finally launched its full-scale offensive into Habsburg territory, reaching Belgrade by early May, and finally laying siege to Vienna on July 17. Meanwhile, John Sobieski began preparing a relief expedition and, despite the multinational composition of the Christian army, an effective leadership structure was established, centered around the Polish King.
Acting quickly to save the city and prevent another long siege, the confederated troops crossed into imperial territory in September before taking position on the Kahlenberg hill above Vienna. After a whole day of heavy fighting under the walls of the city, John Sobieski led one of the largest cavalry charges in history at the head of 3,000 “Winged Hussars” to deal the final deadly blow and save the Habsburg capital.
Marking the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire, the Battle of Vienna shook the Ottoman hegemony in Central Europe and set the stage for the reconquest of Hungary, Transylvania and the Balkans. But while the Pope hailed Sobieski as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”, the war with the Ottomans was not over yet.
The Holy League and the Treaty of Karlowitz
Joined by the Republic of Venice and the Russian Empire, a new “Holy League” was initiated by Pope Innocent XI and John Sobieski to recover previously ceded land and prevent further Ottoman expansion into Europe in what has been called a “14th crusade”. While the second Battle of Mohács in 1687 allowed the Habsburg forces to conquer large areas, including most of present-day Transylvania, the decisive Battle of Zenta, a decade later, sealed the Ottomans’ fate in Europe.
The scale of the defeat forced the Ottoman Empire into signing the Treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699, which confirmed the then-current territorial holdings of each power. Notably, the Habsburg Monarchy was able to reclaim all of Hungary, except the corner between the Maros and Tisza rivers, effectively ending the trisection of the kingdom.
Venice also reclaimed the Peloponnese peninsula and regions in Dalmatia, while Poland regained Podolia as well as part of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River, which the Turks had conquered in 1672. The Treaty of Karlowitz marked the end of Ottoman control in Central Europe, with their first major territorial losses after centuries of expansion, and established the Habsburg Monarchy as the dominant power in the region.
The divisive legacy of the Battle of Vienna
In recent years, John Sobieski and the Battle of Vienna have become somewhat of a divisive topic in Europe. Having led the united Christian armies of Europe against the invading Ottoman Empire, the Polish king is indeed regularly depicted by Christian and right-wing nationalists as having saved Christendom from Islam.
As a result, the Battle of Vienna has increasingly become a central part of the European far-right ideology who see the battle as a turning point at a time when “Islam seemed poised to overrun Christian Europe”. The Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 69 people at a Labour Party annual summer camp in 2011, even payed hommage to the Battle of Vienna in his manifesto, 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence.
But many historians have argued that the battle was far from a mere fight between Islam and Christianity. According to Dag Herbjørnsrud, “if we examine the battle closely, we can understand it rather differently, as a battle based on inter-ethnic cooperation”.
He argues that as the king of the multilingual and multi-religious Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, John Sobieski might not have won the battle were it not for the help of his country’s Sunni Muslim Tatars whose “light cavalry became a vital factor in almost every battle in Polish-Lithuanian history”.
In fact, some have claimed that “there is no ruler so revered among the Muslim Tatars as John III Sobieski, who arguably ensured the construction of several mosques in the region and secured the only example of a lasting Muslim community in a non-Islamic European country.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.