Even after 300 years, the Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman army holds a highly symbolic place in popular historical imagination. Recently, opponents of Turkey's bid to join the European Union invoked it as a warning example.
These opposing voices can be seen as echoes of a political and cultural controversy in that, for centuries, the Ottomans and the Turks as their successors were denounced as the eternal "other" of Europe. In his book The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe, Andrew Wheatcroft undertakes a synopsis of the historical events of the Siege of Vienna and the surrounding myth. Without adding much from a scholarly perspective, the book is very good at demonstrating to the general reader the interconnections but also the tensions between these two sides that make what is generally called history.
The conflict between Habsburgs and Ottomans had deep roots as part of Christian-Islamic ideological confrontation. Additional points of conflict were the claims by both states to be the true heirs of the Roman Empire, as well as the aspiration of their rulers, Mehmed IV and Leopold I, to emulate their imperial predecessors.
This ideology was played out in the border zones of the empires with much suffering of the inhabitants. And as a symbolically significant act, the Ottoman attack on the capital of its imperial rival was hard to surpass.
However, organising such an attack needed more than a firm belief in one's superiority. In describing the military efforts of the Ottomans and Habsburgs alike the book is at its best.
Wheatcroft convincingly shows that despite all contemporary talk of Ottoman corruption, the Ottoman army was a powerful enemy. After the relief of Vienna it took the Habsburg coalition army three campaigning seasons to capture Buda, and marching on to Istanbul remained an inaccessible dream.
In general, the motives, strategic decisions and reactions of the commanders on both sides are well explained. The reader even gets an occasional glimpse of the ordinary soldier in both camps. The attack on Vienna was no folly, despite its being frequently described as such, nor were the defenders the immaculate heroes they were later shaped into.
War is aptly understood as a form of cultural contact. Both sides had to learn and adapt in the matters of siege tactics, the use of cavalry and firepower. However, contact between the two enemies went beyond the purely military. Ironically, the individuals most familiar with the other side were not travellers or diplomats but the numerous captives who had to survive in an alien society.
The ideology of Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry (like today's talk of the "clash of civilisations", which Wheatcroft views with suspicion) stressed division, but historical events point to a more complex situation.
It is one of the book's strengths that it demonstrates how far Ottomans, Habsburgs and the rest of Europe lived in a common world with borders that were more porous than we usually imagine. This point, in particular, is ill-matched to the sensational title of the book, where less flamboyant language would have been more appropriate.
The two states that considered themselves arch-enemies for so long were more alike than they probably wished for. This likeness increased in the 19th century when, as multicultural states, the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires faced many of the same problems.
In the growing crisis of empire, at least for the Habsburgs, the myth of Vienna and the heroes of the Turkish Wars such as Charles of Lorraine and Eugene of Savoy became convenient shorthand for recalling past glories.
The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
By Andrew Wheatcroft. The Bodley Head, 368pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780224073646. Published 21 August 2008