The Village Massacre that Shaped the History of Europe
The tower in the image, located in the village of Perchtoldsdorf, in Austria, is about a half an hour bike ride from my family’s house on the outskirts of Vienna. The picturesque town, located on the edge of the Wiener Wald (Vienna Woods), has for generations been a favorite place for the residents of Vienna to sit in outdoor gardens during evenings and imbibe offerings from the local vintners. The village is also popular with tourists who can be seen in the cafes sampling gelato, torte, kuchen, and strudel. Most foreign visitors who come here likely don’t know that a bloody event took place here in1683 that affected the destiny of Europe in the most profound ways.
During the first Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529, the inhabitants of Perchtoldsdorf took refuge in the tower. They successfully defended it until the Turkish army retreated in October of that year. In 1683 a large Turkish army, led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha, returned to Hapsburg ruled Austria. Once again, the Turks besieged the Perchtoldsdorf tower and demanded surrender. This time the citizens acquiesced and presented the keys of the city to the Turks, who immediately slaughtered the entire population of the town. There must have been survivors, perhaps hidden in the woods, because word of the massacre quickly got back to Vienna.
Due to the advance of the Turkish army, many Viennese had already abandoned their city. The court of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold had fled as well. The 20,000 strong army commanded by Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, withdrew his forces toward Linz, leaving a garrison of about 15,000 under the command of Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg to defend the city. They faced an enemy force of 170,000, according to Kara Mustafa’s documents. The defenders, having heard of the massacre at Perchtoldsdorf, resolved to fight “to the last drop of blood.”
At this time in history, the Ottoman Empire, although officially Islamic, was generally more tolerant of diverse religions than Europe. The Catholic Church was still executing Heretics under the auspices of the inquisition, and warfare between Catholics and Protestants raged intermittently throughout much of the continent. Although I refer here to the Ottoman fighters as Turks, many like the Ottoman commander Kara Mustafa, who was born in Albania, came from diverse parts of the Empire. It seems that the Grand Vizier, however, did not have a propensity for tolerance. He was somewhat of an Islamic extremist and Christian hater. The slaughter of the population of Perchtoldsdorf was not his first act of gross cruelty. It was arguably Kara Mustafa’s goal to extend the Ottoman Empire and the influence of Islam to all of Europe.
The Siege of Vienna
The siege of Vienna lasted for two months. Near the end of that time, half the defenders were dead, and most of the rest were wounded and starving. But they fought on. Turkish sappers had attempted to breach the city walls in various places by building tunnels and planting charges, but the defenders built their own tunnels to intercept and foil the Turks. The allied relief army, consisting of the Duke of Lorraine’s troops, other Austrians, Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians, Bohemians, and Poles under the combined command of King John Sobieski of Poland arrived on September 11. This alliance of Christian states against the Ottomans in the late 17th century was encouraged and, in part, financed by Pope Innocent XI. The date of the arrival of the Christian forces may or may not be coincidental to that chosen by the hijackers who attacked the NY World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001.
The Battle of Vienna
On September 12, 1683, while the allied Christian forces attacked, part of the Turkish army was still attempting to take the city, counting on the massive explosive charges their sappers had placed in the tunnels. The charges were already lit, and the tunnels evacuated by the Turks, when the Austrians burst through and snuffed the fuses. The defenders had set up water-filled buckets in various places to detect the vibrations of digging, but the story goes that it was bakers, who worked at night, who heard the sounds of nocturnal tunneling.
Although the allied forces were still significantly outnumbered, they routed the somewhat disorganized and demoralized Turkish army, which had suffered significant losses from disease and wounds during the siege. The battle lasted most of September 12. It culminated with the largest cavalry charge in history that took place in the late afternoon spearheaded by the Polish King and his “Winged Hussars.” The cavalry smashed through the Turkish center, causing the Turks, including Kara Mustafa, to flee the field leaving behind most of their belongings and treasure.
There is a story that the bakers of Vienna, who had helped save the city, made little doughy creations shaped like the Turkish crescent, which the citizens could tear off and bite down in celebration of the victory. These pastries later became known as croissants. Whether this story is entirely factual or not, some Muslim fundamentalist groups have banned the eating of croissants. The fleeing Turks left behind copious bags of coffee in their encampment, which some of the looters thought might be camel feed. Popular history has it that a Polish Nobleman, Jerzy Kulczycki, who had acted as a spy for the Austrians in the Turkish camp, took the bags and opened the first coffee houses in Vienna. It seems that Kulczycki had the inspiration to serve his coffees mixed with milk to cut down the bitterness of the Turkish beans. His experiment evolved into modern-day lattes and cappuccinos. Turkish baklava may have inspired the concept for Austrian strudel (different from N American version), which is the perfect thing to have with your coffee.
Walking the cobblestones of Perchtoldsdorf, over which the blood of its citizens once flowed, I wonder what would have been, had Kara Mustafa graciously accepted the keys of the town instead of ordering the slaughter. Would the defenders of Vienna have fought so hard? Would the fall of Vienna have opened the gates for the Ottomans to conquer Europe? How different would history and culture be?
Kara Mustafa went beyond his orders from the Sultan by attempting to take Vienna — a decision with which some of his commanders had disagreed. Losing the campaign consequently did not get him points with the Sultan. He had the Grand Vizier executed by strangulation on December 25, ironically, for the Christian hater, Christmas day.