Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: The Enemy at the Gate (2008) by Andrew Wheatcroft

In 1683 the Ottoman Empire, which at the time controlled most of the lands now comprising Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, sent a massive army against Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire and the gateway to the rest of Europe. The Siege of Vienna lasted for two months, ending on September 12 when a Habsburg relief army reached the city and routed the besieging Ottoman forces. It's popularly believed that this event marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's decline, culminating in the nineteenth century when it became known as the "sick man of Europe."

Andrew Wheatcroft's book is an excellent precis of a big chunk of European history, and his description of the siege reads like a thriller or adventure novel. He also makes it clear that the siege marked the culmination of the first wave of what we now call Islamophobia. For generations prior to the siege the words "Ottoman" and "Turk" were synonyms for cruelty, fanaticism, and bloodlust. It was a toss-up what scared the West more about the Ottomans: their religion or the military threat they posed. The more things change...

In the 30 or so years that followed the siege, the Habsburgs, with the financial and political support of the Vatican, launched a de facto holy war against the Ottomans. This new crusade, which had the military support of many other European monarchs, pushed the Ottomans back from most of their possessions. The lengthy war was bloody and vicious, leaving both sides confirmed in their bad opinions of each other. And this is what makes this history particularly interesting. Modern Islamophobes often use the Siege of Vienna as an example (in their view) of the bloodthirsty expansionism that's integral to Islam. Of course, looking at history from a Muslim perspective what one sees in the years after the Siege of Vienna is yet another Christian crusade. And so when Christianophobe Muslims see what the US does in Pakistan with its drone strikes and the Israelis do when putting settlers on illegally seized Palestinian land, they think, the more things change...

This is popular history at its best, as well as being a useful look at a place and period in European history that doesn't normally get a lot of attention.

No comments: