The Politics of Imagining “the Turk”

15. 3. 2017

The stereotypical “Turk,” sensual and cruel, was really a product of the pamphlet literature of the 16th century.

The Fall of Constantinople

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople under Sultan Mehmet II on May 29, 1453, marked the end of one empire and the beginning of another. News of the fall of the City of Caesars spread throughout the Christian world during the summer of 1453, depicting “the Grand Turk” as bold and ambitious, desiring more than Alexander or Caesar to conquer the whole world. The monk who was an eyewitness of the fall of Constantinople and described its fall as the greatest catastrophe in history was not just an upset observer; his description contains some wishful thinking, too. Namely, about Christian unity in the face of such a powerful enemy. However, the event clearly showed that for many Greeks the Ottoman turban was less hated than the Roman tiara.

It was in this period of time, when Christendom was being politically fractured under the strain of the Ottoman offensive, that the term “Europe” was brought into use and took on political importance. It was a favorite term of Pope Pius II, who was the first to use it in a book title. Pius’s priority as pope was to rekindle the crusading zeal of Christendom–the referent for which had so obviously been partitioned by the Great Schism–by appealing to “our Europe, our Christian Europe.” Europe was an easier term under which to preach unity than Christendom, and this unity was directed against that Islamic military opponent called “the Turk.” The Holy See became the center of endeavors to oppose the progress of the Conqueror. Yet there are traces of a belief in the conversion of Sultan Mehmet II to Christianity. In 1461, Pope Pius II sent a letter to Sultan Mehmet II, in which he urged him to convert to Christianity and so become the greatest of Christian princes, gaining the admiration “of all Greece, of all Italy, of all Europe.”

The first alliance between European Powers and the Ottoman Empire occurred during the struggle for the Holy Roman Empire between the Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France. King Francis sought an ally to open a second front against the Habsburgs and found a powerful ally in Sultan Suleiman. In 1535, King Francis negotiated an agreement with the Porte, and France was conceded capitulations, receiving superior trade privileges. Eventually, French and Ottoman forces undertook some joint ventures, including an attempted invasion of southern Italy in 1536–37. The Ottoman navy sacked Reggio and Nice in 1543 and, needing winter lodging, were accommodated by the French, who vacated the city of Toulon, leaving it at the Ottomans’ disposal.

For similar reasons, in 1583 Queen Elisabeth of England sent Sir William Harborne, her “first duly accredited ambassador to the Great Turk,” to Istanbul. Sir Harborne persuaded the sultan to threaten Spain just at the time when the Great Armada was being prepared for the attack on England.

A Part of the European Balance of Power

The so-called Turkish threat was also a benefit for other opponents of the Habsburgs inside and outside their realms, not just for the Catholic kings of France. During the 16th century, the Protestants, too, repeatedly allied themselves with the enemies of the Austrian Empire, because any force the Habsburgs engaged against the “infidels” in the east detracted from their potential to intervene in the affairs of the west. On account of this, the Ottoman Empire had been called “the ally of the Reformation.” The Ottoman conquest favored the spread and survival of Protestantism in all its forms in lands where, had they been under Christian rule, it would have probably have been stamped out later by the Counter-Reformation. While numerous contemporary authors suggested that Ottoman sympathy for the Reformation had a genuinely religious basis, it is clear that to the sultan the Reformers were of great interest as a weapon against the Habsburgs.

The Treaty of Paris in 1856 officially recognized the Ottoman Empire as a permanent part of the European balance of power. The preamble to that treaty declared that the independence and integrity of the Ottoman Empire was vital to “the Peace of Europe,” while Article 2 gave the Sublime Porte the right “to take part in the benefits of international law and the Concert of Europe.” This status was codified at the Hague Conference in 1899, in which the Ottoman Empire was included as one of the participants.

European states, entering into negotiations or concluding arrangements with the Ottomans, de facto recognized the Ottoman Empire and acknowledged a policy of coexistence. However, the negotiations and alliances were not accompanied by any official redefinition of the status of the Ottoman Empire or its acceptance as a legitimate member of the community of nations. The turning point for the relationship between European Powers and the “Turk” was marked by the Treaty of Carlowitz (1699), representing the first instance in which “the Turk” was invited to participate in a European congress. However, despite the decline in military threat, the “Turk” was still perceived as a “cultural threat.” As a result, Europe pursued its former conqueror with a particular intensity. Although the time of reconquest and empire was seen by many as a reincarnation of the old religious war, the former “infidel” metamorphosed into a “barbarian.” That is to say, civilization seemed to supplant religion in Europe’s external differentiation from “the Turk.”

Defenders of the Christian Faith and Culture

The Ottoman Empire was posing a substantial threat to the Habsburg Empire. The constant raids of bigger or smaller units were weakening the power and will to resist of their victims. The Emperor Ferdinand’s ambassador to Istanbul, Oghier Ghiselin de Busbecq, once remarked of “the Turk” that “like a raging lion he is always roaring around our borders, trying to break in, now in this place now in that.” Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, brother of Emperor Charles V, had to agree to pay the sultan a yearly “gift” of 30,000 ducats, and Emperor Maximilian was forced to continue the yearly “gift.” Only after the peace made in November 1606 was the humiliating yearly “gift” discontinued, but the emperor had to pay a huge sum of 200,000 florins. Although the Ottomans did not make significant additional conquests in the 17th century in Europe, their military presence was sufficient to perpetuate the “Turkish terror.”

The belief that the “Turkish terror” was the divine judgment upon Europe’s sins and religious divisions was widespread, and, after 1541, in towns and villages of the Austrian Empire the “Turk-bells” [Türkenglocken] called the faithful every day at noon to penitence and prayer.15 When, during the summer of 1591, the Ottomans started an offensive on a wide front between the Adriatic and Kanizsa the Turk bells rang once again to summon the faithful to pray to God for help against the “wild Turks.” This practice spread into all Austrian lands and continued till the early 20th century. It was a habitual practice in many Slovenian villages late in the 19th century that people added to the Lord’s Prayer the angelical salutation for “averting the evil Turk.”

Although it was widely held that “the Turk” was militarily superior to the West, the major Habsburg weakness was financial. As a rule, the Estates of the various lands were reluctant to vote adequate tributes to raise a powerful army. Yet, the Habsburgs usually managed to obtain enough money, and the “Turkish menace” proved to be one of the best means of raising ever higher taxes. Ambassador Cavalli of Venice once remarked that the powers of Ferdinand of Austria fluctuated with the degree of the “Turkish danger.” However, the lack of secure imperial revenues made the conduct of military operations uncertain and confused. A victorious army might suddenly come to a halt because the subsidies from the Estates of various lands or the loans from various financiers had run out.

As a result, the peasants were frequently left unprotected and exposed to raiding parties. Thus, in 1747, the peasants of Carinthia asked the Carniolan and Carinthian Estates, assembled in Wolfsberg, that they cancel the land tax if they intend to keep on levying the “Turkish tax” without doing anything about driving out the enemy. In 1474 the Styrian Estates, assembled in Maribor, similarly informed Emperor Frederick III that the peasants were desperate because of continual invasions and that they were ready to renounce their allegiance to the manorial lords and either unite with “the Turk” or emigrate. According to the annalist Jacob Unrest, particularly the peasants of Carinthia grumbled bitterly against the lords and openly accused them of having secret treaties with “the Turk.”

The “Turkish Threat”

Although the “Turkish menace” subsided after 1683 and the Ottoman Empire no longer posed any real military threat to the Habsburg Empire, Habsburg propagandists enjoyed praising the dynasty as a paragon of courage and as the bulwark of Christendom, and the frequent exaggeration of the “Turkish threat” was a means of amplifying the Habsburgs’ achievements and importance. Overstatements also helped mobilize support at home and abroad, by implying that if the Habsburg bastion fell, “the Turk” would first slaughter the Habsburgs’ own uncooperative subjects and then proceed up the Danube to the Rhine or Paris and do the same to the Habsburgs’ Protestant and French enemies. In this respect, the propagation of the idea of a common menace contributed to bridging denominational gaps and consolidating the Habsburgs’ domestic and international position by emphasizing their indispensability. In Habsburg propaganda, the value of the “Turkish menace” was deemed very high, the more so as the Military Border was not only a bastion against “the Turk,” but also in case of any uproars in Hungary. Even more importantly, the “Turkish menace” was a helpful tool in the process of centralization in the Habsburg Empire.

If the ideology of expanding the domain of Islam through warfare against the “infidel” played an important role in legitimizing the rule of the sultans, fighting the “Turkish peril” served as a potent means of asserting the legitimacy of the Habsburg dynasty. The greater the “Turkish peril,” the greater was the importance of the role of the emperors for their subjects and their enemies. Hence, the Ottomans were portrayed as a mortal danger, not just to the Habsburgs, but also to their own uncooperative subjects and to the Habsburgs’ Protestant and French enemies, if the Habsburgs were not fit for their noble task as bulwark of Christianity. As a result, the themes of barbarism and sacrilege abound in the chronicles of the times. The stereotypical “Turk,” sensual and cruel, who was wantonly shedding the blood of Christians, destroying their settlements, seizing their wealth, carrying them into slavery, and polluting the holy places, was really a product of the pamphlet literature of the 16th century, when the emperors required greater power for themselves against the local estates and demanded higher taxes for the crusade against the “infidels” by vivid presentations of the atrocities committed by the enemy.

The confrontation between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire consolidated the bulwark as a metaphor used to define the roles of Austrian nations in history as well as their relationships with one another. Southern Slavs, Albanians, Hungarians, and Poles equally shared the belief that their nation’s historical mission was the defense of Christendom and Western civilization against the bloodthirsty enemy.

‘I Have a Grievance, Therefore I Am’

As it was recounted times and again, from 1396 to 1736, the “bloodthirsty Turks” incessantly raided into Slovene lands at longer or shorter intervals. During these raids, they allegedly destroyed many villages and took droves of captives, mostly young men and women, to slave markets. According to historian Josip Gruden, it could be said “without exaggeration” that in Carniola alone “the Turks took away for sure more than a hundred thousand of our people and that they, at least, killed that many.”

On these grounds, the Slovenes, too, assigned to themselves a special historic mission as antemurale Christianitatis. According to them, the Slovenes and, indeed, all Southern Slavs, for the most part halted the Ottoman incursions all alone, as “defenders of the Christian faith and culture against the bloodthirsty enemy in the true meaning of the word.”

“While other nations and even kindred Slavic tribes, for instance Czechs and Poles, could have nicely developed in peace,” suggested Karl Glaser, “Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had to fight with savage Turks, with the cursed enemy of Christianity and civilization, and thus defended western nations against savage enemies.” According to this myth, while other European nations were able to progress in peace, the Slovenes, together with other Southern Slavs, had to fight against “the bloodthirsty Turk,” and, as a consequence, lagged behind in terms of cultural progress.

In the most popular Slovene novel of the 19th century, about “a Slovene janissary,” written by the liberal journalist and politician Josip Jurčič and translated into more than fifty languages, the reader can find many references to the “Turkish terror,” which were, in fact, nationalistic interpretations of history. The fact that, speaking about the 15th century, Jurčič actually presented his political viewpoint about the political situation in the second half of the 19th century, is clearly seen in the following passage:

“But the Slovenians were fighting for more than their lives: they battled for their wives, their children, their faith and native land. And knowing that to surrender to their foes meant slavery or death, they now fought behind their stone walls with desperate strength and courage against enemies well armed and in overwhelming numbers. The courage of those Slovenians of yesterday probably could not be matched by their descendants of today.”

Memories of long dead heroes were awakened in 1883, for the two hundredth anniversary of the unsuccessful siege of Vienna, mainly for political reasons. On September 12, 1883, the daily Slovenec reminded its readers how sorrowful were the times ever since “the Turk” trod upon European soil five centuries ago, how mainly the Slavic Balkan peoples suffered under his sway, when Austria was unable to help them, and Western Europe didn’t bother itself with them. All these centuries had passed unchanged and when “the Russian drew the sword for his suffering southern brother, the shopkeeper Englishman, the artful Frenchman or the malicious Italian approached in haste and commanded him: up to here and no farther.” The Slovene press was in particular disappointed with the changed attitude of Austrian government which tried to establish alliance and closer ties with the former enemy, they were full of critiques of the Viennese German press which, at the end of the 19th century onwards forgot the former fear of the old enemy and wrote with compassion about “the Turk.” On the pages of the German and Hungarian press new villains were introduced, the Serbian “swineherd” and Montenegrin “robber.”

In an empire with a Slavic majority and German and Hungarian hegemony, this developed into an important point of differentiation. Though Hungarian and German opinions preponderated in the Dual Monarchy, the Slavs had their “uncompromising champions.” As reported by The Times, Slovenes and Czechs, in particular, distinguished themselves by the vigor of their attacks on the government, disapproving the official policy as favorable to “the Turks” and hostile to the Christians, and as being diametrically opposed to the wishes of the people of Austria. They advocated an unforgiving maxim: “Out with the Turks from Europe.” The disagreement between Germans and Hungarians, on the one hand, and other nationalities of the Dual Monarchy on the other, caught the attention of The Times of London. On November 17, 1876, it reported that Slav politicians in Austria-Hungary, “whether practical or fanciful, sober or flighty,” were at variance with the Germans and the Hungarians on the Eastern Question. Although they were by no means Russian in sympathies, nor were they Panslavists in theory, they had heartily taken sides “with the Christian against the Turk.”

To cut a long story short, during the 19th and early 20th century, in Slovene literature and historiography, “the Turk” was synonymous with a brutal hereditary enemy. As such, he got his place in the last edition of the Dictionary of the Slovenian Literary Language. The Dictionary includes the term turštvo (Turkishness), providing the following examples of its expressive, strongly emotional meaning: “to judge the Turkishness of those savages,” explained as “ruthless violence, behavior.” The Turk has secured a place even in the Slovenian parliament building, decorated with a mural by Slavko Pengov. It depicts the history of Slovenes from first settlements to the Socialist Revolution; Ottoman incursions take up an important place in it.

As noted by Alenka Bartulović, references to Christian roots and the reinforcement of ties to the West, which are characteristic of the myth about the Slovene role in the defense of Europe against “the Turk,” proved useful again in the early 1990s. Although any discourse on the battle of Sisak was silenced during the Communist rule in Yugoslavia, as it was supposed that it could foster conflicts between Slovenes and Croats regarding the question of who had played the major role in this historic battle, it resurfaced and gained an important role in the national myth after the birth of the independent states, the Republic of Slovenia and the Republic of Croatia. However, the quatercentenary of the battle in 1993 was pompously celebrated in Slovenia as it was a great opportunity to remind Europe that it should be grateful to Slovene soldiers, who saved it from the “cruel Turk” when it was unable to do that for itself. In Croatia, though, the anniversary was used to lift the morale of Croatian troops that fought the new “expansionism from the East” in the early 1990s.

As we have just seen, when speaking of the image of “the Turk” it is important to take into account that every image is determined in a great part by the observer’s position towards the observed. This, of course, does not mean that “the Turk” was a passive player. On the contrary, in the process of construction of the image of “the Turk,” he definitely played an active role. Throughout centuries, European powers maintained their diplomats in Istanbul, and eventually, after the defeats in the wars of 1768–1774 and 1787–1792, the Ottomans themselves began to recognize that their empire could no longer be defended without European allies. As a result, the sultans established permanent embassies in Europe in 1793. Unsurprisingly, they learned to play European cards in accordance with their geostrategic interests as well.

Istanbul, December 6, 2015

Božidar Jezernik

Teaches cultural anthropology at the University of Ljubljana. An author of Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers (2003).

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