What saved Vienna from the Ottoman Turks in 1683
In the early modern period in Europe, Ottoman Turkey was arguably the greatest military and political power. The Ottoman Sultan ruled an Empire from Persia to Central Europe. It is widely accepted that if the Muslim Empire had been successful at the Battle or Siege of Vienna in 1683, it could have dominated Europe and changed not only European history but also world history.
The defeat of the Turkish army outside the gates of Vienna is widely seen as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's long decline and played a significant part in the rise of Europe. This article discusses the prelude to the siege and describes the actual events of 1683. It focuses on the main reasons why the great Ottoman Empire failed to seize Vienna.
In the seventeenth century, the Ottomans ruled a vast empire that encompassed the Balkans, modern-day Turkey, and much of the Middle East. They had captured Byzantium in 1453 and ended the Byzantine Empire. Successive Sultans had launched repeated attacks or jihads on Europe's Christian kingdoms for many centuries. By the 1680s, the main defense against the Ottomans was the Hapsburg Empire. This was a large empire that was centered on the German-speaking lands of modern Austria and its capital was Vienna. The Hapsburg Empire and the Ottomans had long contested central Europe's control and for the control of Hungary.
In 1529 the Ottomans had laid siege to Vienna but had been beaten back. This has also led to the partition of Hungary between the Turks and the Hapsburgs. However, the Catholic Hapsburgs distrusted and occasionally persecuted many of their Hungarian subjects who were Protestants. The Catholic forces moved into an area of Hungary that had been a de facto buffer zone between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans.
This move into Hungary gave the Ottomans the excuse that they had long wanted to drive their armies into the heart of Europe. Since Suleiman's death, the Magnificent the Ottomans had been in decline, but a series of energetic Viziers had reversed this. They had reformed the army and had built up the infrastructure of the Empire. The Hapsburg intervention into Hungary was the perfect opportunity for the Turks to capture Vienna. They wanted the city to control vital land trade routes and potentially fatefully weaken the Hapsburgs.
The Battle and siege
Some 150,000 Turkish troops entered Austrian territory, and they were allied with the Hungarians. Some 40,000 Crimean Tartars also joined the army of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Viziers had long planned for this invasion, and they had laid meticulous plans. However, the winter meant that the actual invasion was delayed, giving the Austrians some time to prepare.
The main Ottoman army arrived outside the gates of Vienna on 14 July. On the same day, commander Kara Mustafa demanded the surrender of the city. The Viennese and the garrison vowed to fight on as earlier the Turks had massacred the inhabitants of a town that had surrendered on terms. The Ottomans cut off the city from the rest of the Hapsburg lands. The city's defenders had cleared the area around the surrounding city walls. This created a free-fire zone for the Imperial troops.
In response, the Ottomans established a network of trenches. The Turks had excellent artillery, and they employed almost 150 pieces of cannon, and they also dug tunnels under the Hapsburg walls to place mines under the fortifications. The city walls were in a state of disrepair, but the garrison and the citizens improvised and strengthened the fortifications. By September 1683, a small relief force of the Imperial army had arrived. The Hapsburg Emperor had previously fled the city. Despite this, the Viennese garrison was under great stress, and the commander became so concerned that Graf Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg ordered any soldier malingering or asleep on duty to be ‘summarily shot.’
It seemed that the Austrian garrison was on the verge of defeat and the Ottomans on the threshold of a great victory. However, the Austrians had been very active on the diplomatic front, and they had received the backing of the Pope, who also supplied much-needed funds. Louis XIV of France refused to help the Austrians, who he viewed as his arch-enemy. The Poles under their King John III Sobieski conditionally agreed to participate in Vienna's relief and joined the Holy League, the name given to the anti-Ottoman alliance.
That August in 1683, a small Hapsburg army, with their allies the Bavarians and Saxons under the Duke of Lorraine, defeated the Hungarian allies of the Ottoman's northwest of Vienna. This encouraged the Poles to enter a formal alliance with Leopold I. The Polish monarchy had a powerful army, and Poland's Hussars, or cavalry, were famed throughout Europe. By September 1683, the Ottoman forces had seized a portion of the city walls, and it seemed that Vienna was about to fall. The Pope provided generous subsidies to the Poles, and the Polish king advanced with a great army leaving his realm virtually defenseless.
They approached the city by the 11th of September 1683 and sought to link up with the Imperial army. Mustafa ordered the Ottomans to attack the Duke of Lorraine’s army, but they were beaten back, and the Imperial army launched a counterattack. On the right flank, the Polish hussars advanced rapidly, and they easily swept the Crimean Tartars from the field. The Ottoman Vizier ordered a direct attack on the city by his elite troops, the Saphis and the Janissaries, but the stubborn defenders stalled their attack.
The Ottomans had hoped to take the city before John Sobieski arrived, but the Poles had arrived quicker than expected. Suddenly the Turks found themselves outflanked and bogged down in fighting in Vienna. The Polish cavalry and the Imperial cavalry launched a massive cavalry charge against the Ottoman's flanks near Kahlenberg Mountain outside Vienna. The Holy League horsemen shattered the Ottoman army, and the Vizier ordered the retreat of the Turkish army. The Polish king in the aftermath said, ‘I came, and God conquered.’ The Turks lost some 30,000 men, and the Hapsburgs and their allies lost only several thousand. Divisions soon emerged among the allies, and this prevents the Christian armies from invading Ottoman Territory. The defeat of the Sultan’s army caused a political crisis and severely weakened the Ottoman Empire, so much so that it was no longer a threat to Europe.
The Austrians were fortunate in that they could secure allies. Without these, they would have almost certainly have been defeated. By September 1683, the garrison was about to capitulate. The arrival of the Imperial Army under the Duke of Lorraine was timely. This army was mainly composed of German troops. Without the support of Saxony and Bavaria, the Imperial army would not have defeated the Hungarians. This was of crucial importance as this victory was of great strategic importance, and it also persuades the Poles to commit to the war against the Turks fully.
The Poles were critical to the victory of the Christian forces outside Vienna. They had a large army, and their cavalry was superb. John Sobieski's cavalry was among the finest in Europe. They defeated the Crimean Tartars, who were feared fighters, which meant that the Turks were outflanked. This and the massive cavalry charge, one of the greatest in history, smashed the Ottomans. The Turks were defeated because the Hapsburgs could secure help from German princes and the powerful Polish monarchy.
One of the key reasons why the Ottomans were defeated before the walls of Vienna was the Pope's intervention. He used his extensive resources to help the Hapsburgs to find allies. The Pope used his status as a spiritual leader to persuade Catholic German princes to join what he called the Holy League. Without the intervention of the Papacy, these princes would not have helped the Austrians whom they distrusted. Instead, they reinforced the Imperial Army near Vienna. They provided some excellent troops who were disciplined and well-trained.
The Papacy could use its extensive funds to pay the Polish army. At one time, the Pope's money helped to persuade many Imperial soldiers to remain and fight. During the early modern period, unpaid soldiers often mutinied. The support of the Papacy for the Holy Alliance was significant. It is also highly likely that the Pope's backing prevented Louis XIV and France from taking advantage of the Turkish onslaught and invading Germany, which would have benefitted only the Ottomans.
Strategy and tactics
The Sultan’s army was huge and well-armed and had learned much from the European armies during the ‘military revolution.’  However, the Ottoman's strategy was poor. It was too slow, they did not mobilize quickly enough, and they waited until they had assembled a huge force. The Turkish advance's glacial pace allowed the Viennese to bolster their defense and allowed the commander to build up the city’s garrison. The Ottoman attack's slow pace allowed the Viennese crucial time to prepare and to withstand the initial assault.
One Turkish tactic that failed was the use of terror to intimidate the defenders. The massacre of civilians by the Ottomans only made the Viennese more determined to fight to the death, as they knew that they would not be shown any mercy. The commander of the Muslim army, Vizier Kara Mustafa, made several tactical errors. He failed to provide a sufficient force to guard his flanks, and he relied too much on the Crimean Tartars who were ill-disciplined and wild.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Vizier was that he was too confident and that he expected the city to fall and had not prepared for the possibility of a Christian alliance. Perhaps the greatest mistake he made was to take Vienna while fighting the Imperial Army and the Poles. On the other hand Charles V, the Duke of Lorraine developed a strategy that sought to squeeze the Ottomans between Vienna, the Imperial army, and the Poles, which proved to be very effective.
One of the main reasons why the Ottomans failed to seize Vienna was poor leadership. The Vizier was an arrogant man and known for his cruelty. He did not inspire any loyalty in his army.
Furthermore, he hated Christians, which was even though many of his allies and some of his army were members of that faith. He did not inspire any loyalty, and he tried to terrify everyone to ensure that he was obeyed. Kara Mustafa was hated by many and was hated by nearly everyone.
Despite its size, the Turkish army was demoralized, and this partly explains why they fled before the Polish and Imperial cavalry. This was not typical of the Ottoman army who was renowned for their fanatical bravery. In contrast, Charles V of Lorraine was an able leader and could lead a disparate group of German troops in battle. On several occasions, he was able to rally them when they seemed about to retreat before a Turkish attack. The Polish king was an able leader, renowned for his bravery, and he did much to inspire his hussars during the crucial cavalry charges that broke the Ottoman army before the gates of Vienna.
The Battle of Vienna was one of the most important battles in Early Modern European history. It was a turning point in the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire, and after 1683 it was no longer a threat to Christian Europe and went into a steep decline in the eighteenth century. The battle saved Vienna and the Hapsburg Empire, becoming one of the leading powers in continental Europe. If Vienna had fallen in 1683, the great Viennese cultural flourishing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would not have happened, and there may have been no Mozart.
The Ottomans' defeat was that the army was poorly led, and its strategies and tactics were poor and ill-conceived. The Hapsburgs could win the support of the Pope, the Catholic German princes, and crucially the Polish monarchy. This and the Viennese defenders and garrison's determination all ensured that the Ottomans suffered their greatest defeat and saved Europe.
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- Palmer, p. 324