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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Simon Millar

Vienna 1683: Christian Europe Repels the Ottomans

illustrated by Peter Dennis, Campaign 191.  96 pp. Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2008. $19.95 (paper).

In 1682, the Ottoman Turks began preparations for a second siege of Vienna (the first Turkish siege took place in 1529).  With Europe divided by the aftermath of the wars of religion and the Treaty of Westphalia, and Louis XIV playing mischievous power games across Europe and pitting the Ottomans against the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs were not in an especially secure position.  The insecurity was worsened by Emperor Leopold I’s unwillingness to believe that that Ottomans would break the current truce, which should have lasted until 1684.

But by April 1683, the Ottomans were clearly moving against Vienna, and the Hapsburgs began to make serious preparations of their own.  Charles, Duke of Lorraine, was appointed overall commander of the Imperial forces, and urgent appeals were sent to other European powers, inside and outside the Empire, for help.  By mid-July, however, long before a coordinated response could be put together, Vienna was besieged.

Under Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemburg, the city put up a stiff resistance.  Ottoman progress was slow, but it was also inexorably steady, and it soon became clear that without relief, the city would fall.

Fortunately for the Christians, relief was forthcoming, in the nick of time.  Critical support was provided by the papal curia in the form of both money and also spiritual indulgences for those who came to the Empire’s aid.  A variety of Imperial and German troops, including significant contingents from Saxony and Bavaria, were joined by Polish and Lithuanian forces led by King John III Sobieski, and this diverse army arrived outside Vienna on (ironically) September 11, 1683.  The next day the Christian allies, under Sobieski’s overall command, drove off the Ottomans in the battle of Kahlenberg.  Vienna was never again seriously threatened by Muslim military attack.

Vienna 1683 is a focussed account of these events, dealing primarily with military aspects of the various campaigns and the siege itself.  The book represents another fine entry in Osprey’s formidable collection of surveys of military campaigns across history.

Like Osprey books generally, Vienna 1683 is aimed at the “interested amateur,” not the professional historian; also like Osprey books generally, it is not a work of original scholarship, though it is nonetheless useful to professionals, especially to those who teach.  It contains a wealth of maps, modern illustrations, and also paintings by seventeenth century (and later) artists, all of which are potentially useful in a university classroom, among other places.  Osprey books usually conform to high standards of presentation, and Vienna 1683 is no exception.

The volume provides an introduction; a chronology; a sketch of the major opposing commanders, in which coverage of Christian forces is limited to Imperial and Polish/Lithuanian figures—regrettable, but understandable for reasons of space; an Order of Battle (though again only for Imperial, Polish/Lithuanian, and Ottoman forces); discussions of the opening moves in the campaign; the siege itself; the battle of Kahlenburg between the relieving force and the besiegers; and the battle of Párkány afterwards.  A brief survey of the battlefields today (for those who might wish to travel to Austria), a bibliography, and an index complete the volume.

There are a few minor problems.  The abundance of noble commanders sometimes makes following their names as potentially difficult for the reader as it made coordinating actions difficult for the Christian side, and this is not helped by occasional inconsistencies in choosing which name to employ as the default for a given leader (Charles Sixte, Duke of Lorraine, is unpredictably referred to as “Charles” or “Lorraine” throughout, for example, and this is a problem with other leaders as well).  A thorough editing should have caught and repaired this problem, especially given that the audience is not expected to be technically specialized in the subject.

The author clearly places these events in the context of Christian-Muslim conflict, correctly characterizing the Turkish assault as an act of jihad.  Unfortunately, he misses a prime opportunity to emphasize just how far the ideology of crusading extended on the Christian side.  In many ways, John III Sobieski may have been the last crusader king, and there were significant elements (at the very least) of crusading in his campaigns.  Some historians have characterized the relief of Vienna as the “last crusade,” and that may well be accurate.  It is regrettable that this fact was not given more attention.

But these are relatively minor complaints.  All in all, Vienna 1683: Christian Europe Repels the Ottomans is a welcome addition to the literature of a subject that is too little treated and too rarely remembered.

Paul F. Crawford

California University of Pennsylvania <crawford_p@cup.edu>

Page Added: September 2008