Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
Poland’s kings are a fascinating bunch, ranging from great scoundrels like Boleslaw the Bold, who hacked up St. Stanislaw, to larger than life characters like King Kazimierz, who raised 14th century Poland to greatness. Even St. Jadwiga, who founded the Jagiellonian University, was technically “king” because 14th century Polish law did not allow for a queen.
While these rulers are discussed at length in City of Saints, there is another leader not to be overlooked. I caught up with Greek-Polish historian Miltiades Varvounis, author of Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe, to talk about another Polish king—King Jan Sobieski. Considered the greatest warrior king of his time, Sobieski is best known for winning the Battle of Vienna against the Ottoman Empire in 1683, but he his legacy goes well beyond the battlefield.
Gress: Why did you write the book Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe?
Varvounis: Jan Sobieski was one of the most illustrious rulers ever to command an army. He gained glory and fame in his thirties through his exceptional military skills and he was acknowledged as the greatest warrior-king of his time throughout the rest of his turbulent life. His patriotism, his strong faith and hope in God, his military reputation, his taste for arts and letters, and his talents – all these were legendary in his lifetime.
Since World War II, no English work has been published about the king who saved Europe from the warriors of Islam at the Battle of Vienna (1683); a battle which was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic cavalry charge of the Rohirrim that lifted the Siege of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although a great number of books in English have been published on Polish history since the fall of the Iron Curtain, “the Lion of Lechistan”, as Sobieski was called by his enemies, has remained neglected by historians outside Poland.
A personality like Jan Sobieski – the most famous Polish military figure and the savior of Christendom – can never be ignored and forgotten. I took the initiative to present Sobieski and his immortal deeds to the wide readership in the present-day lingua franca.
Tell us a bit about the man Jan Sobieski. What pieces of his life were critical to forming this incredible leader of Poland?
First of all, the Polish world (Orbis Poloni) at that time was mainly responsible for producing such a great and devoted man to the Lord. It was a unique world because of its cultural mix of democratic, patriotic, noble and religious traditions that could not be found elsewhere. Of course, the providence and the grace of God were often emphasized in every corner of the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which righteously was considered to be Antemurale Christianitatis (Bulwark of Christendom) against the Ottomans and Tatars. Polish people – from peasants to nobles and the king – willingly took part in religious life: Masses, rites and pilgrimages. Jan Sobieski could not be an exception to this way of life.
Sobieski also enjoyed learning and during his studies at Krakow, he was fascinated with the Crusades and the legendary battles of the soldiers of Jesus Christ against the centuries-old Islamic imperialist aggression. Fate had him visiting Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire as a member of a Polish diplomatic mission in the 1650s, where he had a chance to observe and understand better the Islamic world and the Ottoman diplomacy.
If we add his charismatic leadership and military talents during the endless battles that he took part in, these traits were more than enough to make him a superb leader, known for his knightly virtues and submission to his destiny. And I say destiny because Sobieski was aware that his purpose in life was not to rule peacefully or to be a patron of arts, but to defend Christendom during the most difficult moment in its entire history.
The Battle of Vienna had huge consequences for Poland as well as for the rest of Europe. Tell us about it and how Sobieski won it.
The Battle of Vienna was one of the most dramatic and decisive battles ever fought. It marked the turning point in the 1000 years of relentless struggle between the West and Islam. In fact, the West recovered and struck back, finally ending Ottoman domination in southeastern Europe. In other words, it was an epic battle that ended the expansion of imperialistic Islam into the heart of the Western world; never again would the armies of the sultan threaten the gates of Europe. The nightmarish scenario of Europe being divided by the Ottoman and French absolutism was avoided.
Regarding the battle that shaped the modern Western world and has no parallel in history, it lasted for 12 hours and was won thanks to the determined leadership of Sobieski and his “Angels of Death” – winged hussars – the best cavalry of all time.
I will not go on to analyze further the tactics and other details that determined the fate of this battle, such information can be found in my book or online. However, I want to emphasize the strength of faith in such moments. Many crucial battles which took place in the name of freedom and Jesus Christ were won by Christian armies because faith and hope – both Christian virtues – existed in the hearts of the soldiers. Sometimes tactics and bravery were not enough to prevail in a battle whose outcome was dangling in the air like an aimless sword. Christian faith was the extra piece that could determine an uncertain struggle, and that was also the case in Vienna, where all the Christian soldiers prayed before marching towards the enemy, knowing that the Lord would bless them and give them strength in those critical times.
What do you think King Sobieski's lasting legacy is?
His legacy includes many cultural developments, artistic achievements, historical monuments and he contributed to the making of scientific discoveries. He won the mother of all battles, which led to significant geopolitical changes, thus shaping the future of the West.
Sobieski also left a culinary legacy. Austrian bakers devised a kind of cake in the shape of crescents, a figure they had seen in the Ottoman order of battle. The cake was taken to France by the Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette, and became a famous delicacy commonly known as the croissant (or kipferl). Moreover, Franciszek Kulczyski, a Polish spy and merchant, helped to popularize coffee in Central Europe by using coffee beans left by the retreating Ottomans. He opened the first coffee house in Vienna and one of his innovations was to serve coffee with milk, a practice that was totally unknown to the Ottomans, Persians and Arabs.
Sobieski’s lasting legacy is most alive in our continuous search for love, freedom, justice, faith, hope, and solidarity. We also have to understand that there are times when the Lord reveals himself to us in someone else’s struggles and victories. The Lord uses such extraordinary people and faithful soldiers of Jesus Christ as Sobieski to enrich our hearts, expand our minds, and empower our bodies. Therefore, Sobieski, who was truly blessed by the Lord, can inspire and motivate people by helping us to dream, believe, take risks for the Kingdom, and to pursue what we otherwise would believe is beyond ourselves.
What parallels, if any, do you see between King Sobieski's situation and Europe's current engagement with Islam?
There is an ongoing clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, not because Samuel Huntington claims so, but history and the present situation do.
Today the Islamic peaceful invasion of Europe is of the demographic, not military, sort. The continent faces an immigration crisis from at least one generation of young Muslims, many of whom are not only zealously unassimilated, but also are influenced by radical imams to wage cultural and physical aggression against their hosts, establishing parallel communities ruled by sharia and “no-go” zones of violence toward Christian and Jewish infidels.
The reader should understand that we are dealing with a large globalized strong community, where many Muslims see themselves as parts of the same social group of shared interests, goals, concerns, achievements and grievances. What is worse, the modern-day Islamic terrorism is mostly linked to Salafist and Wahhabist movements, which are very influential sub-sects of Islam today, encouraging their own variant of Islam as the only solution – the ugly version of jihad. The sad reality is that there are no signs that Islam with its aggressive, supremacist doctrine is going to be radically reformed or that a majority of Muslims will distance themselves from the numerous obsolete and outdated teachings of the Quran.
While the mainstream media and several politicians try to convince us that Islam is the religion of peace, they ignore the fact that the West is facing a resurgent Islam both at home and abroad. And the conflict between the two different and historic civilizations continues today with other terms. We are talking about a struggle that is far from being straightforward and elemental like when two armies are facing each other, which means that the new Sobieskis won’t necessarily be soldiers. They will mainly be cultural warriors and Christian activists willing to put themselves on the front lines of the ideological war against this new incursion. The long-neglected Western value of reasoning (almost destroyed by leftist cultural hegemony) urges us to criticize and understand that Islam – an increasingly organized and powerful civilization – shows little or no tolerance toward the Western society and the values for which we have fought for centuries.
Islam as a 7th century political and religious ideology is a threat to humanity as a whole but the novelty about it is that it is no longer limited to one geographical territory. It no longer respects borders. And the greatest difficulty is that it doesn’t only come from outside, it is already here – in the heart of the West.
It is, however, never too late to wake up from this sleep and to act like Sobieski by showing our enemies that the free world will not give in to violence and oppression.