Today we remember September 11 for what happened in 2001. But it is a memorable day for another event as well: a major turning point of history. Had things on September 11, 1683 gone otherwise, the world would be a very different place.
Between 1667 and 1698, Europe battled the Ottoman Empire, an empire dominated by Islam that endured from 1299 until 1923. From the 1500s through the 1600s the Empire was at the height of its powers and controlled most of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. The current nations of Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Syria, Lebanon Israel, Iraq, Iran, parts of Saudi Arabia (including the Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina) were all part of the Ottoman Empire by 1683. The Ottomans were imperialistic and absolutely determined to conquer Europe. So they began mobilizing a massive army against Vienna beginning in 1682. On August 6, the Ottomans declared war. Months passed before they began their full scale invasion, however, allowing the Habsburg forces in Austria to prepare defenses and to assemble alliances with other Central European rulers. The most significant of those alliances was made with Poland: the Hapsburgs of Austria promised to support the Polish king Jan III Sobieski if the Ottomans attacked the Polish city of Krakow, and Sobieski promised to send his army if Vienna was attacked.
The Ottoman siege of Vienna finally began on July 14, 1683. At the very beginning, the Ottomans demanded surrender. Barely 11,000 troops and 5000 citizens were in Vienna at that time. But they refused to surrender to the Ottomans. The leader of the Viennese troops, Ernst Rudiger Graf von Starhemberg, had just received news that the nearby town of Perchtoldsdorf had agreed to such a surrender. But upon their surrender, the Ottomans had slaughtered them all.
Thus, the Viennese troops decided it was better to die fighting than to die surrendering. Though the Ottomans had a larger army and cannons, the fortifications of Vienna were very strong. The Ottomans attempted to breach the city walls by digging tunnels underneath them and filling the tunnels with gunpowder. They also cut off Vienna’s food supply.
By August, 1683 the defenders of Vienna were worn out and facing starvation.
Then, on September 6, the Polish army arrived, led by Jan III Sobieski. He was soon joined by forces from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia.
Meanwhile, the Ottomans repeatedly blew up large sections of Vienna’s city walls. But despite the large gaps, the Ottomans were never able to get inside. On September 11, 1683 Sobeieski and his allies succeeded in utterly defeating the Ottoman army and driving it away.
By the time of the Ottomans’ defeat, nearly 84,000 troops had joined in defending Vienna against a much larger Ottoman force of between 150,000 and 300,000.
This single battle determined the ultimate course of the entire war against the Ottomans and meant that Europe would not be overrun by them. Although the Ottomans continued fighting against the Europeans for sixteen more years, the battle for Vienna marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans.
About two hundred years later, by the time World War I began in 1914, the Ottoman Empire was a shadow of its former self. It was widely known as the “sick man” of Europe. And it made the mistake of joining Germany in that conflict. When Germany lost World War I, the Ottoman Empire lost as well and faced retribution. Its land holdings in Africa and Asia were divided up among the victors. England took control of Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. Since England had promised to establish a Jewish state in part of Palestine with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, that declaration was then incorporated into the peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire. France took control of Syria and Lebanon, while Greece became an independent nation nominally aligned with the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottoman Empire was crumbling from within and by 1923 it ceased to exist altogether. It was replaced by a secular constitutional republic: Turkey.
1683 was not so very long ago. In fact, it’s classified as belonging to “modern history.”
The battle of Vienna came after the King James Version of the Bible appeared in 1611. It came after Galileo had built the first telescope and discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610. It was fought after New Amsterdam (the future New York City) was founded by the Dutch in 1625. It was after Harvard University was founded in Cambridge, Massachusettes in 1636. It was after Robert Hook discovered cells in 1663 using one of the first microscopes. In fact, the battle occurred in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Isaac Newton was in his prime, as was John Locke. Voltaire would be born less than two decades later, a man who became a friend of Benjamin Franklin, was born but just over three decades after the victory at Vienna.
Had it not been for the victory at Vienna, the Ottoman Empire might have crushed the birth of freedom, science and technology. “Enlightened” is not a word that could describe the Ottomans. Slavery continued to exist within the Ottoman Empire until at least 1908. Christians and Jews were granted only limited permission to worship. They were treated as second-class citizens: testimony by Christians or Jews against Muslims was not allowed. Christians and Jews were not permitted to carry weapons or ride horses. Their homes could not overlook those of Moslems. Their religious practices always had to defer to those of Muslims and according to what was known as the “blood tax,” a certain number of Christian boys were taken from the Balkans and Anatolia before adolescence and were forced to convert to Islam. Religious (Sharia) law ruled supreme.
The world should celebrate the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the gates of Vienna on September 11, 1683, a defeat that ultimately led to its well-deserved collapse.