Forgotten Scenes of Austrian-Croatian History

The seed for the Austro-Croatian cooperation was planted centuries ago. When the last king of the independent kingdom of Croatia Stephen II died without a heir in 1091, it was decided by the Realm’s nobles to join the kingdom of Hungary. Hungary was a major power at that time, the bulwark against the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans had set out to expand westward into the heart of Christendom. As they subjugated one Christian realm after the other, they closed in on the Hungarians. Until 1526 as their armies finally met at Mohacs.

But by then, the once so formidable kingdom of Hungary was in turmoil, following the sudden death of King Vladislav II left the leadership to his inexperienced son Louis II. The battle was a disaster, leaving the new king and key members of the nobility dead, thrusting the kingdom into chaos. 

The remaining nobles elected Ferdinand of the house of Habsburg to be their new king and so it was that the kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia joined the Austrians.

Already devastated from war, the two kingdoms were now an all-too-fragile frontier against the Turks. In 1529, the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the greatest leaders in history, whose vast realm stretched from Egypt to Serbia, finally broke through to arrive at the Habsburg capital of Vienna, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. They laid siege to the city and after a month of bloody fighting they were finally stopped by a “miracle” snowstorm at the beginning of October, saving the city at the last moment.

The Forgotten Siege

Basically, everybody knows about the first siege of Vienna, but far fewer people are aware that Suleiman returned…

Over three decades after the first siege of Vienna, in 1566, Sultan Suleiman again set out from Constantinople to finally bring Vienna to its knees. As the massive army closed in on the city, the sultan received reports that a smaller detachment making its way up from the south had been intercepted and destroyed, and the Ottoman commander, a favorite, executed on the spot. Enraged the mighty sultan, turned south again to deal with this threat – which in truth had been only a small force composed of mostly Croatian riders.

This intrepid band was led by Nikola Šubić Zrinski, a Croatian nobleman who held command over a small force of 3,000 composed of Croatians and Hungarians as well as a rather insignificant fortress at Szigetvár in southern Hungary.

But Zrinski was anything but insignificant. As an accomplished general and former Ban (viceroy) of Croatia, he had served with distinction at the first siege of Vienna. He knew firsthand how devastating the might of the Turks could be and set out to again protect Vienna, but this time on his own terms.

Suleiman arrived at Szigetvár on the August 5, 1566, leading an army of over one hundred thousand soldiers. Immediately it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary siege. The fortress was split into three sections, the new town, the old town, and the citadel, each surrounded by water and only connected by narrow bridges. 

As the attackers approached the walls, decorated with colorful banners as if in celebration., they were greeted by cannon fire. The Ottomans dug in and prepared to storm the fortress. Then as the Turkish cannons hammered the walls and wave after wave of attackers stormed the narrow bridges, they repulsed by the disciplined defense, suffering heavy losses with each attack. 

After three days, the defense of the new town became untenable. So the defenders calmly retreated into the old town suffering only miner casualties, while the Ottomans had lost over 3,000 soldiers. The old town proved an even more difficult price, as it was well defended and only approachable from a single bridge. For 10 days the enraged sultan threw his troops at the defenders, suffering horrendous casualties in men, supplies and morale. 

By this time news from the north reached the attackers, not only were the Austrians successfully preparing the defense of Vienna, but they even managed to retake some Hungarian cities under Ottoman control. When the Turks finally broke through to the old town only to witness the Croatians retreating in good order to the citadel, the sultan finally lost his patience. Enraged though he was, he also admired the valiant struggle of Zrinski and his men. He sent an envoy with an offer: if Zrinski would surrender the fortress to the Sultan, not only would he and his men be spared, he would be made ruler of all of Croatia. The sultan received no reply.

The citadel was the final line of defense, the last stand. Again, it was only approachable from a single bridge, flanked by high towers. The Turks brought their cannons into the old town to directly fire upon the walls of the citadel, while their men tangled in vicious hand-to-hand combat at the end of the narrow bridge. 

But the defenders still held their ground, while the Ottomans set to work constructing two additional bridges to create more points of attack. After a month of relentless attacks, the fighting suddenly stopped. Zrinski’s exhausted soldiers wondered if this was the day they were going to die. Four days went by without attack, when suddenly a giant explosion tore a huge hole in the citadel´s walls. The ottoman miners had detonated a black powder charge right underneath it.

Even though the citadel was breached, the buildings where on fire and the defenders could immediately be surrounded, another two days went by without an attack. Why the delay? Only the Ottoman inner circle knew that Sultan Suleiman the magnificent had died. Aged 72, exhausted from a life of conquest and the stresses of the siege of Szigetvár, he died of a stroke or possibly a heart attack. Afraid his death could dissolve the army, his inner circle had his personal physician strangled to prevent him giving away the secret.

After Suleiman’s lieutenants overtook leadership, they rallied their forces for the final attack to crush the remaining defenders and bring the siege to an end. Zrinski, witnessing the massing of attackers, refused to fight the final battle on Ottoman terms. With a stirring call to arms, he had the citadels gate thrown open, revealing a large cannon firing right into the mass of attackers. Hundreds were killed on the spot, throwing the Ottomans into panic. At this moment Zrinski and his remaining men charged out of the burning citadel, cutting their way across the bridge and pushing the Ottomans all the way back into the old town. After inflicting massive casualties, they were finally surrounded by the thousands of attackers. When the fighting finally stopped Zrinski and every single one of his men laid dead at the feet of the Turks. 

With the defenders gone, the Ottomans rushed to take the battered citadel. But they had not seen the last of Zrinski’s resistance. Right before their final charge, the defenders lit a fuse connected to a massive powder magazine. As the attackers poured into the fortress, they received Zrinskis´s parting gift. The magazine, killing an additional 3,000 Ottomans.

It was over: Zrinski and his men were dead, Szigetvár was taken. But the cost had been monstrous. The Ottomans lost between, 20,000 and 30,000 soldiers, untold masses of provisions and munitions, winter was fast approaching and their great leader, was gone. All for a strategically insignificant ruin. After that, the planned attack on Vienna was no longer an option and the Ottomans retreated. It would take them more than a century to threaten Central Europe again.

The story of the siege at Szigetvár reverberated through Europe, with the clergy declaring it “the battle that saved civilization.” Zrinski and his men where immortalized in song and poem, and they were celebrated as an example for heroism and untrembling resistance in the face of certain death.

Maria Theresa and her Croats

As time went on, destiny again called upon the Croatians to help Austria. When Emperor Karl VI, too, had no male heirs to ensure a stable succession, he dictated a revolutionary document known as the Pragmatic Sanction. It declared, among other things, that a woman would be able to ascend to the Habsburg throne. 

All that was needed was the official support of the various kingdoms of the Empire. At first, the nobles hesitated. And it was the Croatians who took the first step, signing the Pragmatic Sanction. Nonetheless as Maria Theresa claimed the throne, many of the other rulers were appalled by the idea of a woman as the head of a mayor European power and a war of succession followed. 

In the end, Maria Theresa turned out to be one of Austria’s great leaders, enacting many reforms in legislation, administration and education, she was also patron to many building projects and the expansion of infrastructure, specifically in Croatia, where her rule is considered a little golden age in the region. According to contemporary accounts, she never forgot that first signature, and held a special place in her heart for her Croats.

A quiet legacy

As years past, the impact of the Croats on the empire was more subtle, serving the Habsburgs as obedient and resilient subjects. After the first siege of Vienna, the rampaging Ottoman armies had left large parts of south-eastern Austria depopulated, and royal decree summoned the Croatians to fill the void. Conscientiously, they rebuilt the desolated countryside and establishing thriving new communities. Today, many towns in the Marchfeld, east of Vienna, can trace their roots back to those settlers, whose inhabitants are often unaware of their Croatian descent.

In contrast with their southern brethren in glorious Burgenland, where Croatian communities have stood the test of time. To this day, you can wander into one of many little villages and hear people casually chatting in a Croatian dialect centuries old.

To me, the idea that these people were never forced to assimilate, or “Germanize,” stands as a beautiful example that in Austria, diversity may not be such a new idea after all.