The Other’s new face: Austria, the Habsburg empire and Islam

Paula Sutter Fichtner
12 February 2008

All twenty-seven member-states of the European Union are currently pondering Turkey's application for membership. A few are enthusiastic about the prospect; some worry about the economic and demographic consequences of such a move; others are more concerned about the effects on European security that an Islamic government more radical than the current moderate one in Ankara might have.

Paula Sutter Fichtner is professor of history emerita at Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, City University of New York.
She is the author of many books including Protestantism and Primogeniture in Early Modern Germany (1997),
Emperor Maximilian II (Yale University Press, 2001),
and The Habsburg Monarchy 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire (Palgrave, 2003).
Her latest book is Terror and Toleration: The Habsburg Empire Confronts Islam, 1526-1850 (Reaktion, 2008)

Of all these states, however, Austria has perhaps the most multi-layered perspective on the possibility of Turkey’s presence at the “heart of Europe”. Other current members, including recent arrivals such as Bulgaria and Romania, have their own national memory of conquest and colonisation during the Ottoman period. But this is very different from the intimate enmity of states and empires – Habsburg vs Ottoman - that for centuries battled one another for religious and territorial pre-eminence in central and east-central Europe. Memories, mental images, even some of the language of this historical conflict with the Muslim Turks still mark Austria (and Hungary, which was once ruled by the Austrian house of Habsburg). Can this experience offer insight into contemporary Europe’s struggle to understand the modern version of its great “other”, and to forge with it a new relationship that by taking account of this history in all its layers might avoid continuing the sorriest aspects of it?

The forge of enmity

Today's Austria and Hungary (taking account of the changes in national territory across recent centuries) were, unlike most of western and northern Europe, once on the frontlines of Ottoman – and Muslim - aggression. From the late 14th century to around 1700, the armies of the Ottoman Turks, marching under the green banner of the Prophet Mohammed, conquered and occupied a good part of the Danube valley, along with much of Balkan Christendom. great stretches of southeastern and east-central – and Christian - Europe. They were forced by bad weather to break their siege of Vienna in 1529, but they clearly intended to try again. By 1541, one of the greatest Ottoman sultans, Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566), occupied Buda and Pest (the city was consolidated only in 1872) and most of southern Hungary.

The task of resisting the Turks and the religion with which they became synonymous fell by default to the devoutly Catholic Habsburgs, the Austrian dynasty which itself was assembling a central-European empire that, after 1526, included the kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia. Thus, Ottoman expansion threatened both the Habsburgs’ faith and the complex of lands that gave them claim to political power in Europe.

Ottoman Muslim rule in Hungary was in important respects no more oppressive than its Christian equivalent. The sultan did not conscript boys to serve in his armies and his court as he did from other territories under his control. Tax collection was less rigorous. When rapacious army units under both Christian and Muslim command tormented civilians, as they often did, the victims could be on either side of the religious divide. Nevertheless, while there may have been a few Austrians and Hungarians who believed that Islam was a religion of peace, no one would have taken them seriously.

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Tariq Modood, “Theliberal dilemma: integration or vilification?” (8 February 2006)

Faisal Devji, "Back to the future: the cartoons, liberalism, and global Islam" (13 April 2006)

Faisal Devji, "Between Pope and Prophet"(26 September 2006)

Tina Beattie, “Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words” (18 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, “Pope Benedict XVI: science is the real target” (19 September 2006)

Michael Walsh, “The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty” (20 September 2006)

Patricia Crone, “Jihad: idea and history”(1 May 2007)

Irfan Husain, “Sir Salman in the sea of blasphemy” (22 June 2007)

Birgitta Steene, “The Swedish cartoon: art as provocation” (10 September 2007)

Faisal Devji, “Epistles of moderation” (18 October 2007)

To contemporaries in central Europe, the process of Ottoman takeover was terrifying in ways not altogether unfamiliar in the present day. Massive campaigns out of Constantinople and up the Danube valley usually began only after repeated and sudden raids and skirmishes had softened up prospective targets. Men were often massacred on the spot, and women and children kidnapped into various forms of servitude. Settlements were looted, then burned. The Austrian village of Perchtoldsdorf, just beyond the city limits of modern Vienna, was the site of a massacre in 1683 that epitomised for many the bestiality of the Turks and the diabolic character of the religion that they professed.

The human effects of such assaults were devastating. Families were torn apart, sometimes forever, sometimes just long enough for one spouse to remarry, only to have a former partner reappear awkwardly after years of captivity. Diplomats from the Christian world, including Vienna, were often summarily jailed in filth-ridden Ottoman prisons for little more than reporting the views of their home governments. Even for people who survived such episodes, life could become living martyrdom.

Many of these experiences were recounted in gruesome, often physically disgusting, “captive narratives” by central Europeans (Austrians and Hungarians among them). The public that read them was both titillated, especially when the subject was the inner workings of harems, and alerted to what awaited Christians who fell into the hands of the Turks. Many of these were translated into several languages and reprinted well into the 18th century.

Such experiences - real and vicarious alike - gave rise in central and east-central Europe to views of the “Muslim-as-Turk” that would shock all but the most confirmed of today's Islamophobes. Indeed, it is distress over the political and social divisiveness of these images that prompts many western politicians of today to squelch them as fast as they can. Habsburg governments and the church they supported struggled with no such compunctions. They spread these notions that quickly hardened into stereotypes to impress upon their peoples the urgency of resisting an enemy that took land and life as well as religion. Popular songs and homilies, printed broadsides and various forms of visual arts – all were co-opted into making the Turk and his faith as loathsome and as frightening as possible.

From this complex emerged visions of the Muslim Turk that still lurk in the minds of many in Austria, Hungary, and elsewhere in eastern and southeastern Europe: the Turk as The Lecherous Brute, the Turk as The Child- (particularly Male Child-) Molester, the Turk as the Wanton Destroyer of Life and Property, the Turk as the Terror of the World - such epithets and many more like them became common usages in the speech and languages of the Habsburg empire. Scholars, aristocrats, and the vast range of common folk, literate and illiterate, all were familiar with them. These negatives, of course, were often contrasted with the virtues of Christianity and the dynasty that was defending it.

Flare-ups of these sentiments do reappear in Austrian public life even today. But these outbursts are considerably offset by the widespread belief that the Turks and their religion should be judged on the basis of informed understanding rather than inherited imagery. In light of the long-standing hostility between Muslim Turk and Christian, however, it might be enlightening to ask: how did such an attitudinal change take place? If nothing else, such a query may offer some guidance for modern leaders who believe that they must resist Islamist terrorism, but without demonising an entire faith and its believers.

A turn to the liberal

Ottoman military fortunes in central Europe began an irreversible downslide turn in the summer of 1683. After a destructive campaign in the environs of Vienna, the sultan's forces besieged the city from 4 July to 11 September. On 12 September, an international coalition of Christian armies put the Ottoman troops into flight. One decisive victory led to more; by 1700 virtually all of Hungary was free of Turkish overlordship. In the next two decades, Habsburg armies had descended the Danube far enough to contest Belgrade in 1717.

It is always easier to think more objectively about one's enemies when they are no longer a threat. The response in the territories of the Habsburg empire to the defeat of the Turks was no exception.

Indeed, routinely malicious stereotyping of the Turks and their faith faded so quickly in the18th century in Vienna and other parts of the Habsburg monarchy as to provoke extensive contemporary commentary. The educated elites and those in high government service began looking at their onetime foe in much more nuanced ways. While very few forgot or diminished Ottoman-inspired torments and the role of the house of Austria in bringing them to an end, Habsburg rulers and imperial ministers saw that they had to work with the sultans in Constantinople and - when necessary - to accommodate their culture. In this sense the regimes of the erstwhile Muslim enemy, while decisively restrained in Europe, were not to be humiliated in perpetuity, at least at the level of state relations. The motives on both sides, however, were far more practical than moral. Ottoman support was needed for the Habsburgs to check Russian expansion into the Balkans and toward the Black Sea, and the Turkish rulers required Habsburg help for the same reason.

But power politics alone did not revise stereotypes. Even at their most aggressive, the Turks had received some favourable press in central Europe. The captives who wrote so pathetically of their own miseries and those of fellow Christians as prisoners in the Ottoman lands, had good things to say about their enemy too. It was possible for Christians to interact cordially with Turks at public baths in Hungary or even in some prisons. There was a stereotype of the Turk that emphasised his positive, admirable qualities: particularly as a fighting man, who was disciplined, clean, and brave beyond many of his European counterparts. Furthermore, although the house of Habsburg was fervently Roman Catholic, it had not set out to exterminate Islam as a faith: curbing Ottoman territorial appetites was quite enough. Once that mission had been accomplished, rulers in Vienna saw no principled impediment to dealing with the Turk as he was rather than, under the pressures of self-defence, he had been imagined to be.

Vienna's willingness to establish closer economic ties to the Ottoman-ruled Balkans also moderated views of its former enemy and his culture. Trade had often had tamed confessional antagonisms. Even at the height of the Habsburg-Ottoman conflict, Hungarian towns and markets where Christian and Muslim did business with one another were often free of religious tensions. And merchants from Constantinople, though not necessarily Muslims ([Christian] Armenians, for example, played a prominent role in Ottoman business life), had been plying their wares in the Habsburg Austrian lands to great effect. The most notable import to come with them was coffee, drunk ceremonially at the Ottoman court by Christian and Muslim alike long before it had made its way into central Europe.

Moreover, 18th-century ideals of the oneness of mankind and the commonalities of all religions made such rapprochement even easier. Austria's version of the Enlightenment, it is true, encouraged new stereotypes of Turks and Muslims; but these were far less threatening and more reassuring than the vicious images of the past. Two of the most important and influential examples perform in Mozart's comic opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio: the humanitarian Pasha Selim, who sounds like a contemporary European moralist despite his turban, and his overseer, the irascible, lecherous, and arrogantly stupid Osmin. Neither figure comes out of Ottoman cultural realities, but both are recognisably human, a quality that earlier Christian visions of the Muslim-Turk barely admitted.

But it was educational and cultural policies in the Habsburg empire that did the most to cultivate more objective views of the Turks and Islam in the Habsburg empire. By the middle of the 17th century, the dynasty's government had recognised that all too many negotiating sessions with the Turks had collapsed because of linguistic slips and cultural misunderstandings. As the Habsburg–Ottoman border in the Balkans grew after 1700, Vienna's customs and diplomatic officials encountered speakers not only of Turkish but of several other languages too. The house of Austria and its advisors therefore embarked upon a systematic programme to train a small group of talented boys who would serve as translators and interpreters in Constantinople and other outposts if need be. In 1754, Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) opened the Imperial Oriental Academy, modelled on the French institute founded by Louis XIV. At first expected to produce only interpreters and translators, the Vienna academy soon became a selective finishing-school for diplomats and other emissaries to be sent to the east.

Thus, by the end of the 18th century, the Vienna government had decided once and for all that solid information about the Ottoman empire was far more informative than distorted polemic. The plan of study at the Oriental Academy developed accordingly. The study of the culture and history of the Ottoman empire quickly became as important in the curriculum as linguistic training. Without both, or so the view of the faculty ran, no one could deal effectively with alien cultures. Out of this education came not only unusually learned foreign-service personnel, but a school of Austrian “Orientalists” who were instrumental in sharpening European awareness of Ottoman and eastern civilisations alike. A figure central to this enterprise was Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), whose ten-volume history of the Ottoman empire (1827-35) remained a basic work for Ottomanists well into the 20th century. An outstanding student at the Oriental Academy, he was also heavily influenced by Enlightenment universalism and its Austrian equivalent, the historical realism of the German scholar Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), and by the cultural pluralism at the basis of Johann von Herder's (1774-1803) philosophy of history.

Hammer-Purgstall worked tirelessly as a researcher, editor, translator, and publicist to make fact-based scholarship a norm for Oriental studies. Driving this commitment, however, was a much more expansive programme, for which uncovering new primary sources and accumulating information were only the beginning. His final goal was to persuade others to understand cultures on their own terms. In order to do this, it was necessary to clear one's own mind of prejudice and the slipshod thinking that it fostered.

Neither Hammer-Purgstall, his immediate circle of friends and supporters, nor his natural successor in the Austrian school of Oriental scholarship, Alfred von Kremer (1828-89), were uncritical of Islamic and eastern civilisations even ast hey tried to study them free of the biases of the past. The after-effects of Ottoman aggression in central Europe were still visible in Hammer-Purgstall's lifetime. Both men deplored the religious obscurantism that, as they saw it, pervaded the Islamic lands of their day. These societies and governments were far too repressive for progressive European tastes as well. Kremer quite emphatically preferred the relative liberalism of his native environment to the stifling intellectual environment that he found in the east. Both men realised that without Habsburg government and theinstitutions it promoted, they would not have received the education that had made their careers.

Nevertheless, neither Hammer-Purgstall nor Kremer were indiscriminate yes-men of their regimes. Both of them were quick to train their critical sights on negative features of Habsburg political, social (and in Kremer's case, economic, life). Hammer-Purgstall viscerally disliked the reactionary government and constricting religiosity of post-Napoleonic Austria. Kremer's views of his government and its Ottoman counterpart were about as far from pro-Habsburg propaganda of the early-modern era as one could get. Both states, he thought at the end of the 19th century, had something to teach the other about the problems of ruling multinational domains.

Then and now

Orientalists today do not command great scholarly respect, thanks in good part to the late Edward Said (1935-2003). His hugely influential Orientalism (1978) laid out an eloquent brief against European writers on the east who, for all of their passion they poured into their work, were conscious, or at best, unwitting handmaidens of European global expansion. Their literature, art, and learning reinforced the linguistic and cultural infrastructure of imperialism in the east and gave rise to demeaning stereotypes of eastern civilisations and their religions that took firm hold of Europeans. Once entrenched among elites and interested governments, he went on to say in his later writing, these negative ideas could only be dislodged from a groundswell of protest from the less powerful.

Both Hammer-Purgstall and Kremer willingly served their ruling dynasty in several official positions. One of the former's great disappointments was that he was never made Austrian resident ambassador in Constantinople (Kremer had several consular assignments in the middle east). Both men realised that putting their linguistic expertise and sophisticated training at the disposal of their government gave support to the house of Habsburg's political and economic ambitions. Hammer-Purgstall even observed at one point that British willingness to learn something about the culture and languages of India had helped bring the Raj to the sub-continent.

Such involvement with established power would seem to open them to Said's general criticism of Orientalism, though he himself confessed in his book that he had bypassed the German side of the question. If he had ventured over the Rhine, he might have written a more qualified story. The work and career of Hammer-Purgstall testifies much less to scholarly subservience than to human willingness to reject intellectually barren clichés about alien and even hostile cultures in the name of serious learning.

Nor was it the resentful underclasses of Habsburg society that promoted the spread of his ideals to gradually widening circles throughout the empire. It was the Habsburg regime itself, on grounds that had little to do with high principle and a great deal to do with reasons of state. That government probably never intended that Austrian Orientalism acquire the philosophical commitment that it did; indeed, the development from start to finish had the air of the accidental about it. But accidents occur; and once they do they are fair game for history, to be studied both for content and occasionally for advice.

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