Europe was saved by miracles and heroes

Both liberals and conservatives tend to have a Euro-centric view of history. That is to say, both camps tend to view the rise of the Europeans as something that was bound to happen. This view enables liberals to avoid confronting the cultural failings of the countries that were conquered by Europeans on the grounds that you cannot blame the victims for something that was bound to happen. This view enables conservatives to have an inflated sense of the superiority of European culture as compared to their competitors.

A good antidote to this Euro-centric view of history is to study the times when European culture was on the ropes. The rise of the Turks is particularly instructive, for they did to many European countries what the European countries would later go on and do to the rest of the world.

Turkish vs. European battles were battles between professionals and talented amateurs, just as future European conquests would be. Europeans were often more interested in settling scores amongst themselves than they were in fighting the Turkish threat. This was true even after it became clear how serious the Turkish threat was. Again, this is similar to the situation that confronted the European imperial expansion. Those cultures that managed to avoid conquest (such as Thailand, Ethiopia, or Japan) were the ones that managed to stay united. Almost without exception, those countries that fell to Europeans did so because the infighting amongst themselves seriously weakened them.

Yet somehow I never hear liberals using the same kind moral condemnation of the Turkish conquests that they use for the European ones. And I never seem to hear conservatives talk about how the European culture was inferior to the Turkish one in the same way that they talk about the victims of European conquest.

But I think that if you read history without blinders you will see that the only thing that prevented Europe from suffering the same fate as Africa was a few odd miracles and a couple of heroes. Or you could call it luck if you would prefer not to view the world as the medieval Europeans did.

No matter how you look at it, I think a fair-minded person would have to admit that the Turkish success was due largely to their institutions and culture. In other words, you could have placed any average member of Turkish upper class on the throne and it would not have made much difference. The Turkish military machine did not depend on heroes to win its wars. By the same token, when the Turks finally went on the decline it was because their institutions had become utterly corrupted. In those circumstances, even good Turkish leaders had a hard time winning battles.

By contrast, those few successes that the European cultures had at delaying the Turkish advance depended on the character of particular individuals. Once those particular individuals had died or otherwise lost power, the Turkish advance would roll on as before. So in one sense you could argue that those particular individuals did not accomplish a heck of lot in the long term.

But if you see the corrupting of imperial institutions as being a foregone conclusion (as I do), then the Turkish advance into Europe becomes a race against time. How far could they get before their institutions became worthless?

In that context, those individuals who managed to halt the Turkish advance for a time seem pretty significant. If a half dozen people had never been born over a span of a couple hundred years, the Turks would have taken much of Europe. If even one or two of them had never been born, Rome, Vienna, and who knows what else would have fallen.

Attaching such importance to a few individuals is unpopular in this day and age. It is argued that individuals are rarely all that important compared to the broader cultural context. But the fate of Europe was balanced on a hair for a couple of hundred years. It very easily could have gone the other way. In that context, I would argue that a few key individuals did make a dramatic difference.

It would require a book to properly support such a sweeping argument. But if I have aroused your interest, I can suggest some places for you to start reading on your own.

Ironically, one of the best places to start is to read about a man who was not even European. I am speaking of Timur (or Tamerlane as he is sometimes known). This murderous man had the morals of Hitler. But he created an empire on the basis of his own talents as a military commander. And in the process he destroyed the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Ankara.

This obviously delayed the Turkish expansion by a number of years. They basically had to rebuild their empire from scratch after Timur died. But I think the fact that Ottoman Empire was able to reconstruct itself after the disaster at Ankara was a testament to the strength of their institutions. In contrast, consider how fast Timur’s empire fell apart after he died.

As I have said, this is a common refrain throughout the rise of the Ottoman Empire. There were great captains who managed to halt the Turkish advance for a time, but their influence never lasted long.

But that does not mean that Timur had no effect on history. Think of how much further the Turks would have gotten if Timur had not interrupted them. It took a while to recover from the devastation that he wrought.

Skipping ahead in time, read up on John Hunyadi. If you went back in time and took him out of the picture I think that the Turks would have taken Vienna. Not only did he do more to stop the Turks than any other European captain, but he also seemed to have a clear eyed view of the deficiencies of European institutions. At the very least he understood the importance of establishing a professional army, and he was able to pass on a legacy of sorts to his son Matthias. His victories also gave Skanderbeg a chance to return Albania where he turned into one of the “heroes” who were instrumental in slowing down the Turkish advance.

But like most of other “heroes” his heirs were not able to sustain his legacy. The institutions that Hunyadi tried to start were not able to take root. And in the end Hungary did fall to the Turks. But he bought Europe time.

There are few others that are worth reading about such as Mircea the Elder, Skanderbeg, and Jean Parisot de Valette. I would argue that those who came earlier like Mircea the Elder did more to affect history than those that came later like de Valette. To be sure, nobody expected de Valette to be able to hold on to Malta (least of all the Turks). But in de Valette’s time the Turks were at their peak and their intuitions were starting down the path of decline. So I don’t think the scope of Turkish conquest would have changed much if de Valette had not been around.

By contrast, without the time that Mircea the Elder provided for Europe there might never have been a Hunyadi or a Skanderbeg and the Turkish advance could have swept into Rome and Vienna. But Mircea the Elder is not as well known as de Valette is because the Balkans eventually fell to the Turks and remained under Turkish rule for a long time. One can only wonder how much differently history would have turned out if his advice had been followed at the Battle of Nicopolis.

Would it have really mattered in the long run if the Turks had managed to conquer more of Europe? I suppose the answer to that question depends on how much of the current dysfunctional nature of the Balkans you want to blame on their long period of Turkish rule.

But my point in bringing the history of the period up has more to do with speculation about the future than it does about speculation about the past. The institutions that enabled the Turks to own the Mediterranean degraded to the point that they became “the sick man of Europe.” Is it not possible that Western institutions will degrade in a similar manner? In an eye blink of time on historical scale, Europe was much like Africa is today. What is to keep it from regressing back from whence it came?

Such things seem farfetched now. But I do not think it ever crossed the Turks’ minds that the Europeans that they defeated time and time again would one day make most of the world their thralls.

One Response to “Europe was saved by miracles and heroes”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Europe was saved by miracles and heroes By Ape Man | January 6, 2008 – 4:31 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Knowledge Both liberals and conservatives tend to have a Euro-centric view of history. That is to say, both camps tend to view the rise of the Europeans as something that was bound to happen. This view enables liberals to avoid confronting the cultural failings of the countries that were conquered by Europeans on the grounds that Click Here to continue reading. […]

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