How are Hungarians’ fights against the Ottomans between 1368-1699 being portrayed in history books outside Hungary?
Explaining why I am politically correct and not just another nationalist from the area…
It is time to talk adequately about the role of the Hungarians in the wars against the Ottoman Empire before 1526, according to the significance of their efforts. It was not just Hungary at stake but western civilization, too.
Simply put: there would be no paprika, no goulash, no Hungarian football nor Hungarian heritage whatsoever to talk of; and who knows what would have happened to the Renaissance in Italy and with the economic and spiritual development of western Europe without those very events that are being omitted from history books.
Who will equalize the balance and fill the gaps on the wall of spreading history if not you and me? Let’s even the odds.
Due to various sad events of the 20th century, the role of the Hungarians in the Ottoman wars is missing from many history books outside Hungary. I have come to this conclusion after investing much time in inquiring about it not only in many FB groups but on Linkedin, Historum, Quora, and Reddit, not to mention Wikipedia and various websites.
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The effects of the Ottoman wars were serious…
Who cares that Hungary was ethnically crippled in the wars between 1368 and 1699 and could not recover from the losses anymore? The road to the partition of the country in 1918 has been paved by our staggering casualties. It didn’t help either, that the kingdom’s reins of power were firmly taken in the hands of the Habsburgs. Haven’t they profited the most from the Ottoman wars?
However, it was not like this in contemporary Europe. The Hungarians’ efforts were widely known and acknowledged in Christendom. For example, wasn’t it Cardinal Richelieu who said that the heroic last stand of Miklós Zrínyi (Nikola Zrinski) and his Hungarian-Croatian soldiers at the Siege of Szigetvár Castle in 1566 saved our civilization?
A long list could be made up of popes, emperors, monarchs, and famous people who complimented and praised the service of Hungary for defending west Europe against the Ottoman conquest. They all said that the Hungarians and the Croatians were facing the enemy disproportionately left alone, and for a very long time.
Of course, there were many non-Hungarians fighting against the Ottomans and their deeds must be honored as well: the Romanian, Polish, Croatian and Serbian governments support the spreading of their history very thoroughly. I do not want to seem like “another junk nationalist from East Europe who invents lies for propaganda”. I just want to make justice by underlining things that had been not so easily recognizable. God forbid them to forget the important role of other nations of the Balkan but they have their own historians who are speaking up for them.
Now, let us lag behind them and add the Hungarians’ role, too. It is important to tell the world that the bulk of the struggles was obviously done in Hungary and by the Hungarians. It can be adequately and factually tracked down in the number of ethnic losses and destruction but there are also many heroic sieges and battles that have been recorded. As for our ethnic losses, read my previous article here:
What would have happened without the Hungarians?
Let me focus just on those events when the valor of Hungarians is concerned, adding the guesswork of “what would have happened to Europe if these things had not taken place”. Before writing a list of these deeds, let me have a remark. Historians tend to concentrate on generals and kings, noblemen, speaking about grand campaigns, significant battles, and heroic sieges. Nobody pays enough attention to the staunch resistance of peasants and commoners, burghers who provided the basic environment to the historical events.
Also, there were uncountable Hajdú and Hussar soldiers who died in small, nameless forts of the 1,000-mile-long and 100-mile-wide Hungarian Borderland that separated the mighty Ottoman Empire from the rest of Europe for several centuries. Here you can read about this Borderland:
When talking about Hungarian “deeds” that hindered the expansion of the Ottomans, let us not talk only about the victorious battles and sieges. Even a defeat or a lost castle can be added to our list because they slowed the enemy down and gained precious weeks, days, or minutes for others to flee, survive, or regroup. Every drop of blood counts and every single last stand is valuable, even if we don’t know the names. However, sometimes we are lucky and know the names just like in the case of the last stand of the warriors of Fonyód Castle:
A few major events that took place before 1526:
In the light of this, here is an ad-hoc list of happenings and one might wonder what would have befallen on western Europe without these events.
- the wars before the Battle of Nicopolis, 1396: Hungarian kings made preventive attacks against the Ottomans; without these campaigns, the nations of Balkan would have fallen sooner under the Ottoman rule and the fall of Constantinapolis would have happened earlier.
- King Zsigmond built the southern Borderland system, a double chain of castles that successfully blocked the enemy. Moreover, General Hunyadi János almost drove the Turks out from the Balkan in 1443 during his Long Campaign, proving that the enemy can be defeated in open battles. A year later, it was only the death of the Hungarian king in the Battle of Várna that gained the luck for the Ottomans, without it they could have been pushed back to Asia and the fall of Constantinapolis would have been postponed or even prevented.
- The greatest pressure was on Nándorfehérvár aka Belgrade Castle that repelled many attacks: the victory over the Turks, by Governor Hunyadi János was the biggest in 1456. If he had failed, we would not hear the bells ringing at noon. The Turks seized this castle only in 1521: thus, Hunyadi gained 65 years to his Homeland and, at the same time to Europe.
- King Matthias Corvinus, Hunyadi’s son built a very strong country with the largest standing army of Christendom. The Black Army successfully blocked the Turks along the Borderland and the king even strengthened his position in Bosnia. His General Kinizsi defeated the Turks in the famous Battle of Breadfield (Kenyérmező) in Transylvania, gaining precious decades of peace with this.
- As the Ottomans could not penetrate through Matthias’ Hungary, they sent an army to Italy. They held the town of Otranto for 13 months and it was King Matthias who sent his General Kinizsi there to beat them out with only 2,500 men. Without Kinizsi, the Turks could have reinforced their bridgehead and could have attacked Rome. It would have been a yummy Golden Apple for Sultan Mehmed II, the taker of Constantinapolis.
- The period between the death of King Matthias (1490) and the Battle of Mohács (1526) was not without heroic fights, either. There were smaller and bigger clashes on the Borderland, led by Prince Corvin or Lord Báthori, Kinizsi, and Szapolyai, not to forget the Croatian hero, Peter of Boriszló. They all defeated Ottoman units that greatly outnumbered them.
- How many garrisons made their last stands, not giving away their life so easily? The Ottoman armies had staggering losses that they usually avenged with the burning of the surrounding villages. Imagine the bloody 44-day-long siege of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) in 1521: young Sultan Suleiman was about to quit the siege when a traitor betrayed the weaknesses of the fort. Finally, the fort fell but the sultan had to return home and couldn’t pick the original Golden Apple, Buda just yet. He had to wait 20 more years with that. Also, his men could destroy and loot “only” the area of the Szerémség (Sirmium) and could not plunder any further: the arriving Hungarian troops were not strong enough to bring relief to Belgrade but they were able to beat the raids back.
- The Battle of Szávaszentdemeter in 1523 was a great victory, indeed, when the ridiculously few Hussars of Captain Bárdi defeated a 12,000-men-strong Ottoman army in a three-day-long series of fights, scattering the Turks unit by unit. They used the old hit-and-run Hungarian tactic, laying traps and ambushing the enemy who was slowed down by having to cross rivers.
- The Battle of Mohács was not such a great defeat as it has been portrayed later. The Hungarians wanted to beat the Ottomans like three years ago but they didn’t have correct information about the deployment of the enemy. After some initial success when the Sipahi cavalry was defeated in a terrible attack of the Hungarian heavy cavalry, the Turkish riders regrouped and returned too early. The Hungarian shock-troops got exhausted and could not overrun the Ottoman infantry. However, three knights could cut themselves through and almost reached the sultan: only the bodyguards were able to overwhelm them. It is for sure, that the abandoned Hungarian-Czech shot-and-pike units fought until evening and were defeated only by the sultan’s cannons. These mercenaries didn’t give away their life easier, either. Suleiman was not sure in his victory when darkness fell. He ordered his cavalrymen to stay in the saddle all night long amid the terrible rain. They didn’t give a chase to the enemy, either. They were allowed to dismount only in the dawn but they had to keep the rein in one hand.
You can watch an animation video about the Battle of Mohács with English subtitles here:
Had the Hungarian King Louis II not been killed (or assassinated?) in the battle, the sultan would have offered his terms and conditions and could have forced the king to open a corridor to him towards Vienna, which was a nicer Golden Apple to him than Buda. As it finally turned out, Suleiman did march in Buda but he was content with looting it, then he returned home, without leaving garrisons behind. He was not safe because Hungarian troops were arriving from the East and Croatian warriors were threatening him from the West. Hungary was a too big meal for him, full of treacherous rivers and marshes, castles guarding the passable roads, packed with desperate defenders.
Some final thoughts
By the second decade of the 20th century, the once strong middle-power of Hungary has lost 72% of its territories, more than what the Ottomans had occupied for 150 years. It is perhaps the joke of history that those Hungarian territories which remained intact and survived the Ottoman onslaught, now are either in Slovakia or in Romania. So the nicest Gothic and Renaissance examples of Hungarian architecture mostly can be found in other countries.
Yet, against all the odds, the historical facts cannot be denied so easily. Let’s pay honor to the people who lived and fought during that time by telling their stories to the English-speaking world.
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