This Day in History -- The Gates of Vienna

On September 12, 1683, combined forces of the “Holy Roman Empire” and the Kingdom of Poland defeated the Turkish Muslim forces that were besieging Vienna. 

Ever since the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, they had had their eyes on the prize of Vienna, the next great European capital within reach of the Janissaries.  The first Siege of Vienna was in 1529, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, after capturing what is now Budapest, Hungary, made a half-hearted attempt on Vienna.  The siege was called off after only a couple of weeks, because heavy autumn rains made a siege, with its concomitant trench-digging and sapper-tunneling, impractical. 

In 1683, the Muslims had planned better, and brought more canons and men.  In contrast to Suleiman, who was often in the field, Sultan Mehmed IV was a stay-near-the-harem Sultan and left the command of his forces to the Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha.  The Vizier had mobilized an enormous army, and on July 14, 1683 surrounded Vienna with 170,000 troops. 

By September 8, Turkish sappers had captured part of the outer ravelin, and had repeatedly detonated mines under sections of the walls, creating a couple of 30-foot gaps.  The Viennese were slowly running out of food and gunpowder.  It was only a matter of time before the Austrian defenses would be overwhelmed, and the Turks would enter the city and commence their cruel brand of murder, rape, plunder and enslavement. 

But Pope Alexander VIII had been working on an alliance between the forces of the “Holy Roman Empire,” principally the Austrian forces under Charles of Lorraine, and King John III Sobieski, of Poland, seeking to build a “Holy League" analogous to the combined naval forces that destroyed a large Turkish fleet at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Pope had managed to cobble together a relief force that included 18,000 of Sobieski’s cavalry, by promising him a large cash subsidy, plus anything Sobieski could plunder from the Turks.  The Pope’s representative was a Capuchin monk named Marco D’Aviano, who drew the unenviable task of coordinating the various Christian forces. 

The Christian armies began to converge on Vienna.  On September 6, the Poles crossed the Danube 19 miles northwest of Vienna at Tulln, to unite with Charles’s troops and additional forces from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia. Sobieski’s troops camped in the Kahlenburg Heights north of Vienna. 

The battle began at 4:00 a.m. on September 12, with the Turks attacking first in an effort to disrupt the deployment of the Holy League’s troops.  Foolishly, Kara Mustafa was trying to force his way into Vienna with one part of his army and fend off the Holy League with the other part.  The battle continued for fifteen hours, with the Christian troops continually advancing, but Muslim resistance still unbroken.  At 6:00 p.m., Sobieski’s heavy cavalry, 18,000 strong, plowed into the Turkish positions in one of the largest cavalry assaults in history.  Sobieski personally led the charge at the head of 3,000 Polish lancers.   

The Polish cavalry broke the Turkish resistance; by nightfall, the battle was over and the Turks were in flight.  It was a catastrophe for the Turks, who lost some 35,000 men killed during the siege and the final battle.  Sobieski, more modest and pious than Julius Caesar, reportedly said, “I came, I saw, God conquered.”  Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa retreated as far as Begrade where, on the sultan’s orders, he was strangled with a silken cord. 

The Battle at the Gates of Vienna started 15 years of warfare that were disastrous for the Turks who lost much of their territory in Southeastern Europe.  In retrospect, it can be viewed as the high water mark of Turkish Muslim expansion, and the beginning of a long, slow two-century decline culminating in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and its replacement by a secularist Turkish Republic. 

Some experts on Islam, such as Serge Trifkovic and Robert Spencer, believe that Osama bin Laden carefully chose September 11 as the date for his terror attack on America because of its historical significance.  September 11 is the day before the catastrophic battle that began the long Islamic decline.  Symbolically, on September 11 Islam was still on the rise, still expanding.  Osama bin Laden wanted to return the world to a September 11 posture, a world where Islam is still advancing, still defeating the infidel.  He succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. 

On a lighter note, two culinary legends grew out of the battle at the Gates of Vienna.  When flour was available in the city again, Vienna’s bakers created a pastry in the shape of the crescent moon on the Turkish flag, christening it a kipfel.  The Austrian princess Marie Antoinette introduced the crescent pastry to France when she married Louis XVI, where it acquired the name by which we know it:  croissant.  And a croissant goes very nicely with the other food item invented after the battle.  When the Turks abandoned the field, they left a vast store of coffee.  The Christians found the Turkish drink too bitter, and sweetened it with milk and honey, at the suggestion of Marco d’Aviano (according to the legend).  They called it Cappuccino, in honor of Marco’s holy order, the Capuchins.  Cappuccino has become so popular that Marco was beatified in 2003 in recognition of his having invented it.  True story.  Google it.