Religion and Brutality in Eastern Europe

The Enemy At The Gate, by Andrew Wheatcroft

Occasionally I go exploring book-wise. I used to do the same with records back in my rock ‘n’ roll days, and most of the time I found pearls among the commercial swine. So it is with books, I find – some pearls, a few zircons, an occasional lump of coal, a rare bucket of mud. Whitcroft’s book, a recent subject of such mental wanderlust, seems to fit in the zircon-plus arena.
I was drawn to this book because of my rather persistent interest in the history of Eastern Europe, a history and geographic locale I knew very little about prior to my recent MLA days at UNC-Asheville. I knew, for instance, that a prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire died at the hands of a Serb, precipitating WWI . But why an Austro-Hungarian Empire in the first place? And why kill the heir apparent? Wheatcroft treats both questions, but in the manner of a historian—by digging deeply into the area’s history.
Essentially, The Enemy At The Gate treats the eons-old conflict between Islam and Christianity by focusing on an Islamic invasion of western Europe in the late 1600s. Here, in a nutshell, is how the story goes:
The unobtainable pearl of Eastern Europe had been, for the Ottoman Empire, the conquest of Vienna. Following the Crusades, the Turks and Ottomans had tried several times for this prize, but came away empty-handed. But this time, the Ottoman sultan handed his armies over to one Kara Mustafa. Many of history’s warlords have been successful because of their impulsiveness, and Mustafa was of this humor. He had little regard for previous Ottoman failures, and soon his bands swept through Hungary with little resistance to lay a nearly successful siege to Vienna. So nearly successful, in fact, that had not Polish armies come to Vienna’s rescue when they did, Vienna would have fallen—and with it western Europe.
All history is laden with irony. In this case, the Ottoman siege had so weakened Mustafa’s armies that the Poles chased them east with ease, re-took Buda and Pest, and very nearly sent the Turks scampering across the Carpathians with their tails between their legs.
Wheatcroft’s prose is often rather dry, stuck between academic writing and the best non-fiction, making the book a somewhat dry read. But he’s clearly mastered his subject. His depictions of the Turkish janissaries, of the Ottoman sappers, the tactics of their fleet-footed cavalries, is occasionally spell-binding. Less so are his depictions of the plodding Western Europeans, their tactics and leadership. But what comes through to this reader is the brutality of this war. It reminds me all too much of WWII’s German Wehrmacht and its brutal fights over the same real estate with equally brutal Soviet masses.
But what compelled Wheatcroft to write this book, other than his passion for the subject? Two things come clearly to the fore: First, in pointing out the manner in which both sides were compelled to such brutality by religious zeal, he places his story’s import into today’s “war on terror,” which has been given an ample dose of religiosity of its own. This so-called contemporary war was aggravated now, as then, by a Pope.

Second, and in a late aside, Whitcroft assays the Austrian ability to “manage” history to its own purposes. This led to the alienation of minor nationalities, such as that of Serbia, and the alignment of nations that led to the First World War.
Wheatcroft’s book, despite an often arid writing style, should be read by all armchair historians, as well as by those now wringing their hands over today’s Middle East-Eurasian turmoil.
My rating: 4 stars of 5.

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