No one on the planet, by now, has not heard of the violence that greeted Pope Benedict’s references to Emperor Manuel II and his reflections on Islam. Manuel, invariably (and unfairly) described as “obscure” or “forgotten,” lived in one of those interesting ages of the world that teach lessons to those who are not blind and deaf. In his father’s lifetime, the Eastern Roman Empire’s powers of resistance had sunk so low that John V had to swear fealty to Murad I, the Ottoman sultan. Manuel had himself been a hostage at Sultan Bayezid’s court and was forced to fight against his own empire. His old host, Bayezid, laid siege to Constantinople from 1394 to 1402, and, like his father, Manuel went on a fruitless journey to the West in search of support. Fortunately, Timur and his Tartar horde defeated and killed Bayezid, giving the empire a short breathing space.
Manuel married a Serbian noblewoman, Jelena, the daughter of Constantine Draga. Constantine had been a wise statesman who fully understood the Ottoman threat to Europe. He survived the disastrous battle of the Marica River that doomed the northern Balkans to the Ottoman yoke, but, forced to become Bayezid’s vassal, he died fighting the Christian Wallachians. This was ever the Turkish tactic: to keep the West divided against itself.
To understand the suicidal conduct of Western states today, we have to look back to their history, back to the fatal period of the 15th and 16th centuries when the Ottomans were rolling across the Balkans and across the Danubian Plain. By the mid-15th century, they were poised to devour Hungary and the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and threatened even Italy. The 100 years between 1450 and 1550 were an almost unmitigated disaster for the West. Constantinople was lost forever, the Serbian state annihilated, and Hungary—the bulwark of the West—disastrously defeated at Mohacs in 1526. The only really bright spot was Spain, which finally expelled the Moors and their collaborators in 1492. In the east, there was no good news except for Belgrade, which unexpectedly withstood a massive Turkish siege led in person by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople. But Belgrade (like Lepanto 115 years later) was truly one of those exceptions that prove the rule, a brief moment when Hungarians, Serbs, and Rumanians could join with the papacy in a common crusade.
The Ottoman threat became urgent in 1451, when Mehmed II ascended the throne. Though not apparently a faithful Muslim, he was determined to make a reputation for himself by eliminating the last vestiges of the Eastern Empire. He accomplished the task in 1453, when he broke into Constantinople and sacked the city that would be turned into his capital. The last emperor of the Romans, Constantine XI, the grandson of Constantine Draga, fell defending his city. Thus began over 500 years of terror for the Greeks of “the city” and of Asia Minor. Mehmed had at first been conciliatory to some of the anti-Latin elements in the city, promising protection to Admiral Lukas Notaras, the man who had sworn that he would rather see the crescent flying over his city than a papal flag. Notaras, a brave man, learned his mistake the hard way. After a few drinks, Mehmed summoned the admiral’s young son, whom he wished to rape. When Notaras refused, he and his sons were butchered for the amusement of the sultan’s dinner guests.
Encouraged by Italian intellectuals, Mehmed began to think of himself as the emperor of the entire Roman world and planned to make good his claim by taking over what was left of Serbia, eliminating Hungary as a threat, and seizing control of Albania and the Dalmatian Coast, from which he apparently intended to launch an invasion of Italy. If ever the West faced a threat, this was it. Not since the days of Hannibal had one ruler commanded such military resources and strategic vision. To conquer Hungary, though, Mehmed would have to subjugate what was left of Serbia and take control of the Danube, which was guarded by the Hungarian-held fortress of Belgrade, a city which both he and his father regarded as central to their strategy. Although a far smaller prize than Constantinople, Belgrade was the key to a kingdom far more significant than the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire. He moved quickly into Serbia in 1454 but was stopped by a Hungarian force capable of skirmishing with the Turks but not of fixing a pitched battle.
By the summer of 1455, Mehmed had fixed the doom of Belgrade and vowed that he would storm the citadel, conquer Hungary in two months, and eat his dinner in Buda. He besieged the Serbian commercial center Novo Brdo, and, believing the sultan’s promise of fair treatment, the town surrendered, only to have their property stolen. The people were made slaves. Good-looking women were given to the soldiers, while the sultan kept the best-looking boys and young men.
While Serbia and Constantinople were under attack, England and France were concluding the ruthless Hundred Years’ War. But even after expelling the English, French kings were occupied with expanding their power and would do their best to frustrate any crusade to recover the Balkans. In the 16th century, Francis I made a famous alliance with Sultan Suleyman against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. France agreed to attack Austria—thus aiding and abetting Suleyman’s campaign to conquer Vienna—and would receive northern Italy in payment. Southern Italy, as former possessions of the Eastern Roman Empire, would be handed over to the tender mercies of the Turks.
Francis I was hardly the only French king to collaborate with the enemy. In 1683, when the Polish king Jan Sobieski drove the Turks from the gates of Vienna, Habsburg generals went on to drive them out of Buda and Transylvania and to recapture Belgrade. Serbs rose up to throw off their chains. The Balkans might have been rescued, had Louis XIV not decided to attack the empire in Germany.
If France was willing to sell out the Christian East, the Italian states were no better. When the king of Naples considered hiring Skanderbeg, the half-Serb hero of the Albanian resistance, as a mercenary, his rival, the lord of Rimini, threatened to invite the Turks into Italy.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, who came to the throne in 1453, was no crusader. As indolent as he was fat, Frederick would not lift a finger if he could avoid it, even to oppose the Turkish raids that threatened his own borders. His advisor, the Sienese humanist Aeneas Sylvius Picolomini, was more of a man. This Latin scholar and future Pope Pius II would die of illness, looking out the window from his room in Ancona, as his doomed crusade was supposed to set sail. The popes in general were alarmed by the progress of Islam. They had wanted to defend Constantinople, but they made aid contingent on acknowledgement of papal supremacy. The Greek emperor had submitted in 1439, but the divisions this introduced among his Orthodox subjects was fatal.
Popes could no longer summon crusaders from all over Europe. European princes coveted the Church’s lands, the conciliar movement had weakened papal authority, and the Church Herself was racked by schisms encouraged by French kings and German emperors. No one heeded Nicholas V’s call for a crusade to save Constantinople in 1453. Though his successor, Calixtus III, took an oath that “by war maledictions, interdicts, and all other means in my power I will pursue the Turks, the most cruel enemies of the Christian name,” he, too, received no support. In those years, Rome’s most valuable support came in the form of talented men she sent to the cause: Aeneas Silvius; the papal legate Cardinal Cesarini, who took the field on the ill-fated Varna Crusade in which he died; and, most remarkable of all, the elderly preacher John of Capistrano, who was sent in 1456 to Hungary, where he recruited a body of peasant crusaders, who—despite their lack of discipline—were to break the siege of Belgrade.
If the Muslims were to be stopped, the job would have to be done by the peoples on the front line: Hungarians, Wallachians, Serbs, and Albanians. During the 15th century, the powerful Hungarian state was bogged down in civil wars over the throne, but the Madyars found a true statesman in Janos Hunyadi, whose fundamental policy was an unremitting crusade against the Turk. Hunyadi, who had the courage to fight the Ottomans even when he was badly outnumbered, never let himself be discouraged by defeat.
Janos Hunyadi had little support from the Hungarian nobility, who had long since decided to abandon the Serbian despot George Brankovic´, who ruled over a Serbian rump state on the Danube, to his fate. The young Hungarian King Ladislas borrowed money from Hunyadi on the pretext of putting together a war chest, but hearing of Mehmed’s approach, he discovered a sudden urge to abandon Buda to go on an extended hunting trip. One of Hunyadi’s few allies was the young Wallachian prince Vlad, who agreed to guard the passes into Rumania, where a turncoat prince had made a deal with Mehmed. This Vlad Drakula would become famous for the savagery he learned from the Turks and used against them and their false Christian allies.
Hunyadi also expected support from the Serbs. Although the Serbs had suffered a series of disastrous defeats before and after the national catastrophe at Kosovo in 1389, the Serbian despotate was still a significant Balkan power. The Serbian despot Djuradj Brankovic´ was a remarkable man. Born before the Battle of Kosovo (1389), which broke up medieval Serbia, he fought campaign after campaign—with the Hungarians against the Turks, and with the Turks against Hungarians—to keep his despotate alive. His task was complicated by power-seeking rivals in Bosnia and especially in Montenegro, where Stefanica Crnojevic´—the role model for the current president of Montenegro—embraced Islam and joined the Turks. Turkish conquests had moved its center of power north toward the Danube, but Brankovic´, though he had been driven from his country by Sultan Murad II (his own son-in-law), was also one of the most powerful noble dynasts in Hungary and nearly placed the crown of Saint Stephen on his son’s head.
Backed by a large part of the Hungarian nobility, Brankovic´ had tried to persuade the widowed queen to marry his son Lazar, but her reply foreshadowed the coming centuries of religious strife between Catholic Hungarians and Orthodox Serbs: “Better to marry a Hungarian peasant than a schismatic prince.” In the ensuing power-struggle, Brankovic´ was driven out of his extensive Hungarian estates, but this did not prevent him, later, from joining forces again with the Hungarians, led by Janos Hunyadi, on the Long Campaign in which their combined armies defeated the Turks in Serbia and Bulgaria.
Murad was forced to acknowledge Djuradj, once again, as ruler of an autonomous vassal state, but, when the Hungarians broke their treaty with the Turks and ravaged their way across Serbia only to be defeated at another Kosovo battle, the enraged despot imprisoned Hunyadi and held him for ransom.
On the eve of Mehmed’s invasion, the despot had given up all hope of help. He had been willing, once again, to settle differences with his enemy Hunyadi, who had taken possession of the despot’s confiscated Hungarian estates. When, in June 1455, Brankovic´ attended a special meeting to consider the emergency, however, John of Capistrano, recently arrived from his missionary labors among the Hussites, let his zeal for the Church get the better of his judgment. The missionary preacher told the despot that he would receive help only if he renounced Orthodoxy and acknowledged the pope. The 80-year-old despot was disgusted: “I have lived a long life and acquired a reputation for wisdom. People would think me a fool if I renounced the religion of my ancestors that I have practiced for 80 years.”
In disgust, Brankovic´ capitulated to the sultan, and the papal legate left Hungary to persuade Pope Callixtus III to send a fleet against Constantinople to distract Mehmed, but the best the Pope could do was to grant a plenary indulgence to any soldier who took the cross against the infidel. That would prove to be enough.
Belgrade’s defenders (no more than 7,000 men) waited nervously to see who would arrive first, the Turks or the Hungarians. Although the citadel was off-limits to Serbs, they were the dominant population of the town. On June 13, Mehmed ended the suspense, arriving before Belgrade with his vast army. (The Western estimate was about 15,000, but this may be too high.) By the end of the month, his cannons were booming away at the blockaded citadel, now called Kalamegdan.
Because his Turks were still primitive in military technology, the sultan relied heavily on foreigners. Germans, Hungarians, Bosnians, and Dalmatians manned his principal cannons, all of which had been constructed by Western Christian craftsmen—North Italians, Germans, and Hungarians. Selling the rope has been a Western art since the 15th century.
The story of the siege is the stuff of legend. Hunyadi, with his Hungarian regulars, and Saint John, with his ragtag army and with 40 boats filled with Serbian archers, arrived on July 14. They broke the blockade on the Danube, and the allies made their way into the beleaguered city. On the 21st, Mehmed attacked in force with his crack troops who, after a fierce battle, were only barely driven back from the fort. A Turk nearly succeeded in planting the sultan’s banner on the wall, but one of the defenders named Titus Dugovic´ seized the Turk, and they fell down the slope together. Titus was later ennobled by Mathias Corvinus.
What happened the next day is still a mystery. The Turks had been repulsed, but, unless Mehmed was willing to retreat, Belgrade was doomed. The accounts are confused, but it is agreed that some of Capistrano’s peasants left their bunkers and began insulting the enemy, who ignored them until their numbers increased and they began harassing the Turks. Hunyadi had suspected some such insubordination and apparently warned Saint John to bring them back, but he, too, caught the fever, and, lifting up the cross, he cried out, “What God has started, we shall finish!” The Turks, who were not used to this sort of zeal, panicked, then ran. Hunyadi, seeing what happened, sent his soldiers into the fray and, along with the pilgrims, they slaughtered thousands of Turks and seriously wounded the sultan himself. On the slow march back to Adrianople, the Serbs killed thousands more. After the repulse, the defenders discovered two Venetian ships, out of a contingent of six that had been outfitted and manned by the Serenissima and sent to aid their Muslim allies. Bells were rung throughout Europe, and the Pope declared the day he heard the news of the Christian victory to be the happiest day of his life. Belgrade was saved, only to be lost by a later generation of Hungarians who had learned nothing from the career of the great Janos or his son, King Mathias Corvinus. Let us not forget the lessons.
Today, the West is facing a challenge from Islam that is more serious, perhaps, than any we have faced since the days when Suleyman the Magnificent besieged Vienna in 1526. Now as then, the West seems unable to make a united front to defend its interests. Republican politicians make flowery speeches about waging a “War on Terror,” but, under a Republican president, Islamic immigration in the United States has increased in the past five years since the events of September 11.
Although Republican strategist Grover Norquist has even forged an alliance with Islamic groups that have transparent ties to terrorist organizations, Karl Rove, echoing Gertrude Stein, says of Norquist’s antics, “There’s no there there.” Norquist’s defenders say he has turned over a new leaf, but his critics perceive that he has only learned to be more careful. Grover Norquist is not the only collaborator in the Republican Party. Albanian nationalists have supported a long list of party leaders—most notoriously, Bob Dole—who have delivered up the sacred Christian land of Kosovo-Metohija as the price.
American politicians who take Muslim bribes or allow themselves to be intimidated by threats from CAIR are like the renegades of the 16th century who filled their pockets by betraying their Faith and their people. We cannot fight a War on Terror until Christian Americans refuse to vote for members of the jihad’s Fifth Column.