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7: In the Wan Light of the Crescent

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Meanwhile, Columbus had long sailed to and already returned from the New World (1492); actually he had repeated the journey three times. The lines of power in Europe were also redrawn. As a result, the proud Adriatic declined into an insignificant waterway on the periphery of the Mediterranean; Dalmatian ports that had recently been resplendent city-states not so long ago became miserable fishing villages. Venice was experiencing its golden age, though a long agony awaited it. Replacing Italy, the Iberian Peninsula became the temporary center for the flow of economic power. What came to be called capitalism took its first steps on the backs of fat sheep and skinny peasants in England's textile industry.

In the meantime, Martin Luther posted his manifesto on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg (1517). This period is also called that "long sixteenth century" which arched from the middle of the 1400s to the thirties of the 1600s, which made wage-earners out of serfs in new centers shifting to northwestern Europe and gave birth to the Protestant ethic, and in which the citizenry, tolerated only in some places under feudalism, had begun to forge weapons for future victory.

We want to add two remarks to the preceding. A view over a longer time span would give them true meaning. One: in the wake of the discoveries and conquests overseas, surplus of precious metals suddenly replaced the scarcity of such metals in Europe, while prices and the terms of trade underwent great realignment. Two: the numbers of inhabitants in Hungary and England at the time of Matthias Corvinus were approximately equal. Today, the ratio is one to five.

The greediness of the Szapolyai-Werböczi faction, which triumphed over the peasants in 1514, deprived the Fuggers of their mining concessions, who meanwhile "forgot" to pay the miners wages. Then a miners uprising followed that of the peasants ending in defeat and vengeance. Is it any wonder that, after all this, there was not enough money for the war against the Turks, even though fortifications were falling in the south one after the other? The bells rang in vain; even legendary Nándorfehérvár fell in 1521. Five years later, in 1526, Suleiman the Magnificent decided to wage an all-out military campaign, at a time when the trauma of the brutal drowning of the 1514 peasant uprising in blood still deeply pervaded the country. However, because they were longer lasting, the nobles' more severe acts of vengeance were not their immediate physical reprisals but their stripping the peasants of their rights to movement and ownership, the strict subordination of the peasants to the landowner. Although the radical laws on this matter -like laws generally- were never completely enforceable, they nevertheless cast a dark shadow on Hungary for centuries.

The son of Wladislas II, King Louis II (1516-1526), then a twenty-year-old, puny-looking youth, was able to dispatch a total of twenty-six thousand men to the south; meanwhile, he waited in vain for Szapolyai's army of ten thousand coming from Transylvania. To this day, some still debate whether or not Szapolyai, who coveted the throne, was intentionally late. The Hungarian army did not attempt to block the strategically sensitive river-crossings along the frontier; instead, it waited on an open field at Mohács and allowed the Turkish army with three to four times the number of troops and even greater fire power to advance. The defeat was disastrous. The archbishops of Kalocsa and Esztergom, five bishops, enormous numbers of nobles, and some ten thousand soldiers were killed. Louis fled, his horse stumbled in a swollen brook and buried the king under him. According to another version, enraged nobles finished him off. (His widow, Maria Habsburg, loaded the king's treasures on a boat and fled upstream on the Danube. Later, she energetically promoted the validity of her family's claim to the Hungarian throne; then she was successful governor of the Netherlands for a quarter of a century; she lived out her last years in Spain.)

"Mohács is the burial ground of our national greatness . . ." The conventional wisdom of the nation holds that Mohács was a reversal of fortune to the Hungarians like that of Waterloo and Verdun to the French and Wagram to the Austrians. Correctly, with reason? Not long ago, archaeologists stumbled across several of the long-looked-for mass graves on the battlefield at Mohács. In 1526, Louis II first ordered the mobilization of one-fifth of the serfs, then one-half, and finally all of them. And some time still remained... But, perhaps because of the ominous recollection of 1514, all this mobilization failed to come about. The bulk of the dead identified in the mass graves at Mohács turned out to be foreign mercenaries. Though the ranks of Hungarian leaders suffered enormous casualties at Mohács, the genuinely Hungarian military forces remained nearly intact after the battle.

Suleiman could still pillage unimpeded with his army; he reduced tens of thousands to slavery. He even entered Buda Castle, which was left undefended. And what Queen Maria had not carried off, he now loaded on boats, including the codices in Matthias Corvinus's library. After that, however, he evacuated the castle, then the entire country, and returned home. This Turkish behavior was only seemingly illogical. Suleiman the Magnificent wanted to demonstrate his power, and hereafter he appeared willing to accept a Hungarian ruler who was content to exercise sovereignty.

John Szapolyai (152~1540), chosen to be king with full awareness of Suleiman's position, waged war with varying success against the rival Habsburg king, Ferdinand I (152~1564), the brother of Queen Maria and Charles V, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain. Let us describe this period with three events. (1) Almost to the very day of the first anniversary of the battle, Suleiman again pitched his tents on Mohács's bloody fields, ordered Szapolyai, that is, King John I, into his presence, who paid homage to him there by kissing his hand. (2) In 1529, the Turks seized Buda by assault from Ferdinand I's forces but then handed it -together with the Holy Crown, which Suleiman had obtained in the meantime over to King John. (3) The Fuggers, who had been recalled to the country, entered into contracts for the right to work the mines in Upper Hungary with one king and then another.

A decade and a half passed in this manner -meanwhile, the sultan tried to capture Vienna several times- then, in 1541, Suleiman again came to Hungary, apparently to assure Szapolyai's son, the infant King John Sigismund, of his support as guardian. A few hundred of the sultan's Janissaries, encamped below Buda, "strolled" into the castle and suddenly raised their flag. This is how the capital city of Hungary came into Turkish hands for a century and a half (1541-1686). The country, divided in two after Mohács, now split into three parts:

-Its western and northern strip was apart of the dynamic Habsburg Empire; within this, it was a kind of border region of Austria's hereditary provinces, a buffer zone at the time of the Turks' deployments against Vienna, and a bridge-head for the hoped-for additional eastern conquests.

-The middle triangle, the peak of which extended far beyond Buda, and which embraced the fertile Alföld, the eastern half of Transdanubia, some part of the central mountain range in the north, and the lower tip of Transylvania, was in time increasingly absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

-The Transylvanian Principality emerged quickly in what was Szapolyai's eastern kingdom; sometimes it was more independent, sometimes less so, though from the viewpoint of the future preservation of Hungarian national aspirations, it was of vital importance and was imbued with a predominantly Protestant character.

Let us proceed from the east to the west. Because his internal support was slight and unstable and the sultan apparently sided with him only so long as it lay in the interest of Turkish expansion to the west, John Sigismund eventually renounced the Hungarian throne and was content to occupy the throne of the Prince of Transylvania. He was followed in this post by István Báthory (1571-1586), who was soon chosen king of Poland as well. Báthory, who was one of the most brilliant figures in Polish history, gained his most dazzling victories against the Russian czar, Ivan IV, mainly with Transylvanian and Székely military forces. On his death, Transylvania was again left to its own devices. Or quite the contrary, it could find even less respite under the immense pressure of the two rivals, but it was also tormented by its own "split personality". First, the hope arose that the Turks could be driven out with the help of the Habsburgs, and then, amid the vast shedding of blood and tears, the independent principality temporarily ceased to exist. Later, the sultan sent a royal crown to István Bocskai (1605-1606), who was once again turning to the Turks, though he did not pledge full allegiance. He remained prince, maneuvered, and gathered strength.

Here we must mention the main source of Bocskai's strength, -who unfortunately died soon: the military forces of the Székely and the Haiduks. The origin and the settlement history of the Székely living in a part of Transylvania and essentially a Hungarian ethnic group are a long-standing source of controversy in Hungarian prehistory and history. This much is certain, that they arrived very long ago -perhaps not with the Árpáds but even earlier, or perhaps not long after them- on the southeastern as well as the southwestern borders of the Carpathian Basin, and there they supplied the border guards for the emerging Hungarian state. The autonomy of the troops in the southwest quickly faded; on the other hand, those in Transylvania preserved with varying success through the length of the centuries their free legal status, which was comparable to the lesser nobility's, while efforts were made time and again to thrust them into serfdom. As a dreaded military people, the Székely were prepared to support militarily every leadership favoring or tolerating their freedom; in contrast, they resisted efforts to subjugate them in a series of uprisings. Meanwhile, they fell en masse as victims to the most various kinds of military reprisals; they fell -often as Turkish mercenaries- into the havoc created by the Tatar invasions of Transylvania as well as in the recurring epidemics. In the meantime, Saxons continued to move in and settle next to them, and Rumanian shepherds intermingled with them, who had for a long time been infiltrating from Moldavia and Wallachia, first taking cover in the hills and then settling in the valleys, progressively transforming the ethnic map of Transylvania.

Even hazier is the origin of the Haiduks, who had already participated in the Dózsa uprising. In all probability, they were, in part, Southern Slavs who withdrew to the north from the Turks, joined by drovers participating in the breeding and transportation of cattle and by runaway serfs. Supposedly this was how this marauding society developed, which willingly entered military service but was libertine even when measured by the standard of the age and which later, on settling down, amalgamated into a group of people stubbornly defending its Haiduk freedom -essentially the freedom of peasant life- and could almost be defined as a separate ethnic group. (Haiduks, apparently of the same origin, played a role in the history of the Balkans in the wars against the Turks.)

The dilemma of Transylvania -and not much less that of Royal Hungary- whether it was better to fight with the Turks against the Habsburgs or with the Habsburgs against the Turks, was interwoven by a religious schizophrenia caused by the particularly strong Protestantism in Transylvania and then by the Counter-Reformation rising in Vienna, not a purely spiritual, religious division by any means. An unusual situation came about here. While it was not at all true in every case that everyone siding with Vienna was Catholic, and those siding with Transylvania were Protestant, the Principality of Transylvania itself, for instance, under Gábor Bethlen (1613-1629), presented a model of freedom of religion admired in and marveled at throughout Europe. The Turks, in turn, did not care very much about religious matters, and hardly pressed conversion to Mohammedanism; Christian priests functioned quite openly, and a large Jewish community, not Ashkenazi but Sephardic, existed in Buda. Religious intolerance and aggressive evangelizing under the aegis of a militant Counter-Reformation were confined to the Habsburg section of the country.

At the same time, Bethlen, tolerant at home and farsighted, fought very actively on the side of the Protestants on the international battlefields of the Thirty Years' War; on occasion he alone, it seemed, was successful on the frontlines, gaining breathing space for his German, English, Dutch, and Danish allies. (It was in his armies that the typical Hungarian light cavalry, the Hussars, emerged, which then also became an accepted branch of the military in foreign countries, for example, in France.)

About this time, the wandering of Hungarian students from university to university was particularly widespread, and the children of serfs were able to study beside the offspring of the nobility. While earlier we came across Hungarian names in the account books of Italian and then Cracow and Danzig (Gdansk) universities, now they could be also found on those of universities in Germany, Holland, and England (at Cambridge and Oxford). Meanwhile, Gabor Bethlen founded his own college at Nagyszombat (Trnava).

The Rákóczi dynasty was very successful in developing culture, particularly education, but less so in the military and diplomatic field when ruling the Transylvanian Principality. Among them, György Rákóczi II (1648-1660), blinded by the example of István Báthory, began an unsuccessful battle for the Polish throne. For this, the sultan, letting his Tatar auxiliaries loose on him, taught him a grave lesson. Afterwards, drained of blood and crippled, the Transylvanian Principality, which was not only the defensive bastion of Hungarian aspirations to that time but also the place whose intellectual attainments radiated throughout Central Europe, lost its earlier role.

The Turks gradually extended their occupation of the country's middle region and reinforced it militarily. Though border fortresses existed earlier and would be found again later, the century and a half contemporaneous with the occupation of Buda embraced the period that came to be known as the Wars of the Border Fortresses. Located on the shifting boundaries of the Turkish and Royal Hungarian territories -at times wedged together like sawteeth- the border fortresses faced each other crammed with soldiers who were badly paid and barely held in check by distant company officers, who were reduced to looting, longed for military fame, and were fiery-tempered. The age was filled with breaches of peace, arbitrary raids, and romantic single combat: usually, neither war nor peace existed, sometimes easygoing, sometimes bloody and merciless showdowns occurred between defenders in the border fortresses and the Turks occupying the countryside.

Thus the people under foreign occupation lived in a hopeless situation, where they had not already been hauled off or had not escaped. Major campaigns decimated them, minor ones afflicted them; marauding soldiers often preyed upon their cattle; in the interest of repairing the damaged fortresses, they had to serve as thralls on both sides. True, the Turks allowed them to keep their possessions and generally taxed them so that they would have some means left; after all, they had to have something to pay their taxes with on the morrow. They remained under a vestigial Hungarian administration; it was supplemented rather than supplanted by a Turkish administration and judicature. In the mean-time, they also had to pay taxes to Hungarian landowners who had escaped from the occupied territory but showed up one after the other to collect the tax.

Nevertheless, the occupied part of the country was not crippled entirely. In the Alföld, the settlement system underwent realignment: the population of smaller settlements withdrew into market towns, or boroughs, surrounded by large uninhabited land. These towns achieved some measure of peace and independence by paying taxes jointly. And the export to the west of cattle raised in the open Alföld, if not undisturbed, continued unbroken. The herds were driven on foot from the Turkish section of Hungary to Austrian, German, and Italian cities; meanwhile, the sultan's deputies were content with the customs collected at crossings on the rivers Tisza and Danube; traders even achieved tariff reductions by bribing customs officials.

The Hungarian tourist is dumbfounded by the Turkey of today: awareness of the ethnic relationship between Turks and Hungarians is much more alive there than in Hungary. Turks consider the time after Mohács, the


reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, to be their country's most glorious period, the time when their boundaries stretched the farthest. "Then", they say to us, "we ruled Hungary together, didn't we!" We view the situation differently. But the darkly painted picture of the Turkish occupation is not tenable either. The terrible destruction Hungary suffered can be put rather at the beginning and the end of the period, the times when the battles raged most fiercely. In the time between, the Turks' arrangements for a long-lasting stay were sensible. The tax rolls testify to good management. The bulk of the non-military buildings in Hungarian territories under Turkish rule were either religious -türbe (sepulchral chapels), djami (mosques), and minarets (towers attached to mosques) or inns, baths, wells, and fountains. (It is worth mentioning that quite a few members of the highest leadership of the Ottoman state came, in time, from Hungarian children who were kidnaped and raised in a Janissary school.) The real standstill was caused by the fact that the nation stepped out of the main current of European development for a century and a half to two centuries -this interim, in part, forever unrecoverable- and that many places of the country had to be repopulated with foreign settlers, thus significantly altering its ethnic character.

Arriving now at the third part of the country, the royal or the Habsburg third, the region of Upper Hungary, extracted a measure of profit, even though it was exposed to the struggles between Transylvania and Vienna and changed masters several times; for example, it benefitted from the fact that many merchants traveled through this region to avoid the Turks. Western Transdanubia and Croatia were, on the other hand, borderlands, and they served as terrains and scenes for deployment in countless battles. True, Vienna -and this was no small disappointment to those who hoped the Habsburgs would act against the Turks- embroiled in other wars, entered into several disgraceful peace agreements with the sultan to protect its rear. But these agreements were fragile, and the interests of the Hungarian and Croatian nobles also thwarted them. The high command in Vienna paid the Hungarian troops in the border fortresses especially poorly; it frequently sent to Hungary unreliable and pillaging mercenaries who were worse than the occupying Turks themselves.

We have mentioned different kinds of schizophrenia. Let us take one more splendid example, the case of two Hungarian nobles, a certain Maylád and a certain Nádasdy. "Maylád himself sided with King Ferdinand's faction, but in Transylvania, where his estates lay, this faction was driven back sharply, and it became apparent to everyone that Ferdinand's rule could not take root there. So, to hold on to his estates, Maylád wanted to support Szapolyai. The matter was quite different with Nádasdy, who was supporting Szapolyai at the moment. He was preparing to take a wife, and the estates of his betrothed, the immensely wealthy Orsolya of Kanizsa, lay in Western Hungary, in Ferdinand's part of the country. His interests dictated that he returned to the Habsburg camp. And the two nobles actually agreed at Berzence that Maylád would help Nádasdy cross over to Ferdinand's side, while Nádasdy would facilitate Maylád's switching over to Szapolyai..." Oh well, that is how things went...

And if, having broken the chronology, we have already returned to the 1500s, let us state that one of the most tragic episodes in Hungary's war history is linked to the year 1566. Its hero was a Croatian-Hungarian scion of the wealthy Zrinyi family which possessed huge estates from Transdanubia to the Adriatic: Miklós Zrinyi (the general, to distinguish him from his great-grandson, the poet of the same name who, however, was also a noted soldier and as a writer not only penned verses but was also a superb author of military theory).

Miklós Zrinyi, under siege in the fortress at Szigetvár, which was surrounded by marshes, delayed from August 6 to September 8, 1566, the armies of the victor at Mohács, Suleiman the Magnificent, who was heading for Vienna. At the end of the siege, the sultan himself died in his camp, though his leaders, keeping his death a secret from the army, ordered a last assault -supposedly, with the sultan "watching" the battle from his open tent fully dressed and seated on a throne. In this hopeless situation, Zrinyi burst from the fortress with the few remaining survivors without any hope of breaking out of the blockade. They all perished. But the Turks did not reach Vienna. At Györ, a major force of Austrian troops, standing guard with weapons at their sides, marched off as if they had carried out their duties well.

It is, perhaps, proper to single out precisely this pyrrhic victory from among the numerous deeds of the border fortresses. Of course, it is also certainly worth mentioning the heroic defense of Eger in 1552, when István Dobó, commander of the castle, drove from its walls a Turkish army of 150 thousand with two thousand of his troops and the inhabitants of the city and its environs. But then, how shall we treat the second siege of Eger in 1596 when the Turks gained an easy victory?

On the basis of the first defense of Eger, the deed at Szigetvár, and similar sacred bursts of activity, Hungarian public opinion holds that-"for one nation between two pagans"-the obdurate and self-sacrificing battles at the Hungarian border fortresses impeded the further expansion of the Turks through Vienna and the Vienna Basin to the interior of Europe. However, let us also look at the dates: they can be decisive. On most occasions the Turks, when they came to Hungary with a combat-worthy main force, reached the southern border -the line of the River Drava and there Eszék (Osijek, the ancient Mursia, where the Romans had already built a bridge) only at the end of July and in August. They had, thus, two months for battle, if any, and then, whether they wanted to or not, whether victorious or not, they had to return to their homeland. In other words, given the period's logistical conditions, Hungary, and chiefly the Vienna Basin, lay at the far end of the range of the main Turkish army's operation. Perhaps, only once did the Turks actually manage to arrive below Vienna in mid-July.

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