On September 12, 1683, the Christian Coalition led by King John III Sobieski defeated the Turks at the gates of Vienna, thus saving Christendom. Venimus, vidimus, Deus vincit, the Polish monarch wrote in a letter to Pope Innocent XI. “We came, we saw, God conquered.” While equestrian statues of Sobieski can be found throughout Poland, there is not one in the Austrian capital. For years, this conscious omission was the result of the chauvinistic attitude of many Austrians. Today, opposition to commemorating this Catholic savior of Western civilization results from downright silly notions of political correctness.
John III Sobieski was born into an aristocratic family in 1629. In the seventeenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was devastated, first by a series of corrosive wars with Sweden and later by the bloody uprising of Ukrainian Cossacks, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, against the Polish Crown, a period that has been depicted in Nobel Prize-winning writer Henryk Sienkiewicz’s classic trilogy of adventure novels: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael.
In the 1660s and 1670s, Sobieski gained a reputation as an able commander in Polish struggles against the Swedes and Cossacks. From 1667 to 1674, he served as Hetman of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the nation’s second highest-ranking military commander after the king. On November 11, 1673, troops under Sobieski’s command defeated the Turks at the Battle of Khotyn, a fortress in present-day Ukraine. As a result of military defeats in the years leading up to Khotyn, Poland-Lithuania had to pay a tribute to the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to Sobieski’s military leadership, Poland no longer was in a submissive position with respect to the Turks.
The victory at Khotyn took place one day after the death of the unpopular and militarily inept King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki. After the Jagiellonian dynasty had died out in 1596, Polish kings were elected. All the nobles (who made up about 8-10 percent of the country’s population; by contrast, the first and second estates in pre-Revolutionary France constituted just 2 percent of French society) had the right to vote. Most of Poland’s elected kings were foreigners: a Frenchman, a Hungarian, Swedes, and Germans (Saxons). The Sejm, or outdoor parliament, of nobles was held in the fields outside Warsaw. Riding high on the success of Khotyn, Sobieski was elected King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1674.
During his reign, Sobieski became known as a one of the most learned and cultured European leaders of his time. He built a beautiful residence for himself in Warsaw’s green Wilanów district, modeled after Versailles and among Europe’s loveliest Baroque palaces. Sobieski patronized the Gdansk astronomer Johannes Hevelius, known for his pioneering studies of the topography of the moon and discovery of ten constellations (one of which he named “Sobieski’s Shield”) as well as four comets.
However, it was his military skill that catapulted Sobieski to international fame. In the summer of 1683, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and Sobieski signed a treaty of mutual assistance in the face of the Turkish threat. Shortly thereafter, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha’s Turks entered Vienna, killing and raping Christians, pillaging, and destroying churches, including St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Leopold called on the help of Sobieski, who became the supreme commander of the Christian Coalition composed of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of Hungary.
The battle took place at Kahlenberg, a hill on the outskirts of Vienna which today offers some of the best views of the majestic Austrian capital. Sobieski led the largest cavalry charge in history against the enemies of Christendom. Sobieski’s men were winged hussars: cavalrymen with eagle and turkey feathers assembled in artificial wings attached to their armor. The purpose of these wings was probably to spook the enemy’s horses during cavalry charges: they made a loud rustling sound as the horseback Poles stormed through the wind. Although the Turks outnumbered the soldiers of the Christian coalition by a ratio of three to two, they were soon defeated.
After the Polish-led victory in Vienna, Pope Innocent XI created a Holy League, whose members included Poland-Lithuania, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papal States, Venice, and, eventually Russia; its purpose was to protect Christian Europe from the Turks.
Sobieski was a devout Catholic. As he left Krakow for Vienna in 1683, a gorget bearing the likeness of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the most sacred icon to Polish Catholics, was hung around his neck. Before the Battle of Vienna, a Mass was celebrated for the Christian troops by the Italian Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano (later beatified by Pope St. John Paul II), Emperor Leopold’s religious advisor. However, Sobieski, like other Polish kings, championed religious toleration, granting legal protections to the Jews, for instance.
More than three centuries after the Siege of Vienna, there are several monuments related to the battle in the Austrian capital, but not one depicting Sobieski (there are plaques bearing the king’s likeness on the façades of two Viennese churches, one belonging to the city’s Polish community). For a long time, this was the result of the chauvinistic attitude of many Austrians towards the Poles. Some Austrian historians have even questioned that Sobieski was the supreme commander of the Christian Coalition, although no non-Austrian scholars have expressed similar doubts.
Austrian feelings of superiority to the Poles are deep-rooted in history. A century after the winged hussars’ charge, Austria, Russia, and Prussia took part in the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. While Poles under Austrian rule were given more liberties than their compatriots under Russian and German control, Austria nonetheless stifled the Polish struggle for independence.
During World War II, the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex was established in Upper Austria. Thirty-five thousand Poles were killed in the camp, making up 40 percent of its fatal victims. For a long time, Austrian authorities failed to properly commemorate the camp and its victims. After the war, the area of the former concentration camp was devastated and residential buildings were built over it; currently, a private villa stands at the main camp gate. Mauthausen-Gusen was added to the registry of protected historical sites only in 2016 after the intervention of the Polish minister of culture.
Tellingly, the initiative to build a monument to Sobieski in Vienna came not from the Austrian side, but from Poland; the idea was put forth by the Krakow Archers’ Fraternity with the support of the mayor of Krakow and the Polish prime minister.
In the summer of 2018, there were plans for a ceremony during which a monument to King John III Sobieski would be unveiled at Kahlenberg, the site of the 1683 battle. Just weeks before the planned event, however, a new mayor of Vienna, Social Democrat Michael Ludwig, was installed. He decided to scrap the plan to tribute to Sobieski, as he feared it would be considered “anti-Turkish” (many Turkish immigrants live in Vienna) and, bizarrely, because 2018 was not the appropriate time to build military monuments.
Ironically, Sobieski was not an anti-Turkish bigot. In the seventeenth century, the Polish nobility believed in an odd myth that, unlike the serfs, they were the Sarmatians, a distinct race descended from the Persians. Sobieski and other Polish nobles had a strong affinity for oriental dress and furniture. This love for the Turks was not entirely unrequited: impressed by Sobieski’s army’s skill, the Ottomans took on great respect for the Poles and never recognized the partitions of Poland. In the eighteenth century, after the Polish state had been annihilated by its neighbors, the sultan would often ask where the ambassador from Lechistan (the traditional Turkish name for Poland; currently, it is Polonya) was during meetings with diplomats.
In recent weeks, the Sobieski monument has been displayed in Polish cities with which the king had been affiliated. The first stop was Krakow, and the monument was situated on the square in front of the Franciscan basilica across from the “papal window” in the Krakow curia, where during his visits to Poland Pope John Paul II (and, later, Benedict XVI and Francis) would give impromptu addresses to Cracovians. The monument is on a platform trailer, which symbolizes that it is on its way to Vienna, its final destination.
Realistically, many years will probably pass before Sobieski is properly commemorated in the Austrian capital. That political correctness rather than the passionate pursuit of historical truth and giving due respect to a heroic defender of Western civilizations has been the deciding factor is scandalous.
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