September is a very important month for Poland and all people with a Polish background. Two significant, yet contrasting, events occurred during this month in Polish history: the 1683 victory at Vienna, which halted the Ottoman Empire’s advance into Europe and the 1939 conquest by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
In both cases, Poland proved to be central in deciding Europe’s fate, a centrality that is all-too-often overlooked in studies of European and global history.
During the decades leading up to the 1683 Battle of Vienna, the Islamic Ottoman Empire had gradually been eroding Christian power in southeastern Europe. The rivalry between Christianity and Islam had persisted for centuries, and both sides had committed horrible atrocities against each other. In the summer of 1683, the Turks set their sights on Vienna, which would serve as a gateway to conquer the rest of Europe.
For months, a massive Ottoman army of 150,000 laid siege to Vienna. The city’s fortified walls and handful of brave Austrian defenders managed to impede the Turks from attaining a quick victory, but by September it became clear that, bar some miracle, Vienna would fall.
Poland would provide the miracle. Polish King John III Sobieski had long feared Ottoman encroachment into Europe and recognized that if Vienna fell, Poland might be next, followed by the kingdoms of the west. In early September, Sobieski marched an army of 60,000 men toward Vienna to relieve the desperate defenders.
On Saturday, September 11th, Sobieski’s forces, including his prized Winged Hussars, charged upon the dumbfounded Turkish camp from atop a ridge. The Ottomans were slaughtered, their leader Kara Mustafa Pasha, forced to flee for his life. After the victory, Sobieski wrote to the Pope, “We came, we saw, and God conquered.”
Exactly 256 years later in 1939, Poland’s fortune would be the opposite. On September 1st, Nazi Germany invaded Poland with 40 infantry divisions and 14 mechanized divisions. They utilized a strategy called Blitzkrieg, which relied on an overwhelmingly fast-paced armored assault.
Although the Poles mobilized around 1,000,000 men, they were technologically outmatched, especially in armor. Furthermore, Germany’s powerful air force wreaked havoc on Polish military establishments and transportation lines.
To make matters worse, the Soviet Union had allied with Nazi Germany and invaded Poland from the east on September 17. Surrounded by two invading powers, it is amazing that Poland lasted as long as it did. The Polish army completely capitulated on October 5, which meant Poland had resisted for 35 days (In comparison, France lasted about 45 days against Nazi Germany alone). The western powers failed to provide Poland with any significant military support, despite their promises to do so before the war. Along with Poland fell the flood gates, and the Nazis quickly went on to control or influence most of the European continent.
Although the results of these two historical events were drastically different, they share two major similarities: 1) In both instances, Europe was threatened by an enemy bent on total conquest. 2) In both instances, Poland was among the first to fight this grave threat, and the consequences of that struggle impacted Europe’s overall fate.
Had Poland failed to halt the Turks at Vienna, Europe would have been vulnerable to further bloodshed and destruction. Similarly, had Poland succeeded in halting the Nazis, it would have interrupted Adolf Hitler’s designs and possibly rallied the rest of Europe against him in a moment of weakness.
In that sense, Poland has been the historic linchpin of Europe. Its fate has been inextricably tied to the fate of the rest of the continent. This is in no small part due to Poland’s central geographic location within Europe, which has time and again put it on the front lines of the immemorial struggle between east and west.
As Poles and people of Polish descent, we should be proud about our central place in history. At the same time, we should learn from our past and be prepared for the possibility of once again having to play a difficult, but crucial role in future events.