Europe: Old Front Lines, New Fractures

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 1392, Hoover Institution Archives.

Despite all the media fuss about the European Union’s crisis in the face of mass Muslim migration, commentators miss a history-determined fault line: the one between the old front-line states that defended Christian Europe against centuries of Ottoman jihads, and the states to the west that never endured subjugation or faced worse than piracy at the hands of the Turks.

Historical memory and its sidekick, myth, run far deeper than Americans grasp or western Europeans are willing to admit. Although many of the EU’s states are closing their borders to the Germany-baited rush of Muslim migrants, the fiercest opposition comes from the buffer of Balkan and East-European states that either suffered centuries of Ottoman occupation or spent those centuries barely fighting off recurrent jihads (every Ottoman campaign of conquest was couched as a jihad).

Those who fought so long to keep the sultan’s armies out don’t intend to surrender to civilians.

We forget that the southeastern Balkans were occupied by the Ottoman Turks almost a century before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. And the region’s sometimes-dubious responses in the wake of conquest have been transformed into patriotic myths that drop inconvenient facts. For example, the famed, ill-fated stand of the Serbian crown against the Turks on Kosovo Field in 1389 was resurrected during the Balkan strife of the 1990s, but the propagandists left out the subsequent Serbian service to the sultan at the Battle of Nicopolis on the Danube, a mere seven years later, when Serbian auxiliaries played a vital role in the sultan’s annihilation of the last great crusading army.

Poland, on the other hand, never wavered in its heroic stand against the Ottomans or their Tartar vassals (as well as against barbaric Muscovy). If any country can be said to have saved Europe, it was Poland (and fine thanks it got, divided between emerging powers after Poland’s strength had been drained).

Hungary, whose leaders are adamant that they will not tolerate a migrant invasion, still remembers the 1526 Battle of Mohacs, where Hungary’s king perished and the now-forgotten, brilliant Hungarian Renaissance ended abruptly. Hungary endured a Muslim occupation for almost two centuries (Bulgaria for five, regaining full independence only in 1908), rejoining Christian Europe only when Habsburg armies under an eccentric genius, Prince Eugene, smashed the sultan’s armies on successive fields.

Croatia was long a frontier state. Southeastern Austria endured brutal slave-seeking raids.  Romanian princes fought until they were crushed and became Ottoman vassals. And Greece, overwhelmed once again, also endured five centuries of seeing its daughters carried off and its sons forced to serve the empire that had beggared them. Crete gained its freedom in 1898.

For long-embattled states, such as Hungary, Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria or Poland—still struggling to attain the level of wealth of Western Europe—German-sponsored diktats from Brussels that they must accept their “fair share” of migrants are not only resented, but flatly rejected.

The states of Eastern Europe aren’t ruled by inhumane monsters blind to the plight of their fellow human beings. They’re shaped by history’s horrors.