In 1683, a vast Ottoman army camped outside the gates of Vienna. For centuries thereafter, the siege and final decisive battle that took place would be cast as a defining moment in a clash of civilizations — that time the forces of Islam were halted at the ramparts of Christendom.
Yet look just a little bit harder, and that tidy narrative falls apart. The Ottoman assault had been coordinated in league with French King Louis XIV. And perhaps more than half of the soldiers seeking to capture the Austrian capital were Christians themselves. There were Greeks, Armenians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, all fighting alongside Arabs, Turks, Kurds and others in the Ottoman ranks.
One of the main figures joining the Turkish campaign was Imre Thokoly, who was a Protestant born in what’s now Slovakia and an avowed Hungarian nationalist. Tens of thousands of Hungarian peasants who were angry at the rapacious behavior of the Catholic Church, and the imperial Habsburg dynasty in Vienna had rallied to Thokoly’s banner. His alliance with the Ottomans enabled the rapid Turkish march toward the Austrian capital.
It reflected, writes British academic Ian Almond in his 2009 book “Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched With Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds,” how “little use terms such as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ are to describe the almost hopelessly complex web of shifting power-relations, feudal alliances, ethnic sympathies and historical grudges” that shaped much of European history.
That sense of nuance fades over centuries, and certainly wasn’t apparent last year when another Hungarian nationalist — the country’s current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — cited the legacy of the Ottoman conquest to justify keeping Syrian refugees from passing through Hungary’s borders.
“I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” Orbán told reporters last year, apparently referring to the period of dynastic warfare and mayhem that was sparked by the initial Ottoman invasion in the 16th century.