The Magazine

Arms and the Men

There are many reasons why the Turks didn't take Vienna.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By ANN MARLOWE
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The Enemy at the Gate

Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe

by Andrew Wheatcroft

Basic, 384 pp., $27.50

The heart may sink a bit reading the Introduction to The Enemy at the Gate: "This book is first of all about Europe's fear of the Turks and then, by the end, about fear itself."

This book "is not a straightforward history" (italics Andrew Wheatcroft's) but it soon becomes evident that the trendy posturing is skin-deep. Wheatcroft has, thankfully, not lived up to his promise to write about "fear itself." His fourth book is primarily a military history of the clashes between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires in the 17th century, the fruit of more than 20 years researching the field. If anything, it is old-fashioned in its emphasis on day-to-day battlefield action, with little about the economic life of the two empires or behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

Some of the most suggestive material here is on military organization, equipment, and tactics. Wheatcroft tracks the burgeoning use of grenades (named for their resemblance to pomegranates and giving their name to a new military branch, the grenadiers) and the bayonet, a new weapon particularly useful in defending against Ottoman cavalry. The Europeans who besieged Buda in the 1680s brought "wicker gabions to be filled with earth in front of the Ottoman lines"--ancestors of today's Hescos.

It was by no means clear when the Turks besieged Vienna in 1683 that they fielded the less advanced army. Turkish flintlock muskets were more accurate than European matchlocks. The Turkish Janissary was "astonishingly versatile" as well, master of many weapons. But Janissaries had "no uniformity of equipment nor did they march in step like Western soldiers."

Beneath the surface, however, the West was pulling ahead of the East. For the Turks, "bravery and skill in arms" were emphasized, while in the West, "discipline and good order" were valued more. The siege of Vienna was lifted when the Turks reacted to an unexpected flank attack by simply running away. The highly personalized nature of Turkish governance, and the absence of the rule of law, took their toll. A few years later the Turkish pasha defending Buda fought to the death, in part, because he knew he would be killed by the Sultan if he lost the fortress. Thousands of Turkish soldiers died unnecessary deaths as well.

Some of this detail supports Victor Davis Hanson's thesis that Western organization trumps other ways of doing things. But Wheatcroft points out that the real strength of the Ottomans, even in their decline, was in their logistical ability: They were able to field huge armies and maintain their supplies better than the Habsburgs were able to organize their own defense.

Wheatcroft acknowledges, but makes little of, the issue of comparative literacy. The Turkish bow "was still a better weapon than any gun" of the 1680s but European artillery was much easier for the novice to master. The bow required strength and years of training, but musketeers could be trained in a few weeks with the aid of inexpensive drill books. Guess which empire didn't have those books because they didn't have printing presses? Wheatcroft does not mention that the first printing press in Turkey was established in 1721 but closed in 1742 after publishing all of 17 books, and the first newspaper was printed in 1831! A society where people from relatively humble backgrounds read books was vastly different, and more dynamic, than a society where literacy was mainly used to teach the Koran.

The one area where Wheatcroft makes good on his threat of not writing straightforward history is in organization. The narrative isn't well signposted. I had completely lost sight of what Charles of Lorraine was doing with his troops while conditions in besieged Vienna deteriorated, and the lead-up to the 1683 campaign moves backward and forward in time too often. The problem worsens as the narrative advances: The last third of this book feels hasty and poorly edited, with references explained pages later. At the end, there is a sudden shift away from the chronicle of battles to a compressed view of the cult of Prince Eugene and the legacy of Eugene and Charles of Lorraine in the Habsburg military.

This is fascinating material, but nothing prepares the reader for it, nor is it well integrated with the rest of the book. Wheatcroft seems to be preparing to make some very interesting claims about military history, but these are baldly stated with almost no argument or evidence.