Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania and a Muslim Europe

A friend called my attention to an interesting article written by Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the editors of mandiner.hu. The young right-of-center journalist gave a title that must have been shocking to Hungarian readers: “Gábor Bethlen urged a Muslim conquest of Europe.” Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1613-1629), is one of the revered heroes of Hungary. He is considered to be a man who brought prosperity and cultural flowering to the province and who was also an extraordinarily skillful diplomat. He managed to achieve relative independence for Transylvania, wedged between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.

What do Hungarian school children learn about Gábor Bethlen? Practically nothing. It is easy to summarize the information provided about this perhaps most famous Transylvanian prince in the history textbook for grade 10 students. We learn that Bethlen, who “acquired the throne with the assistance of Turkish troops, had to take into consideration the requirements of Istanbul if he didn’t want his country to find itself between two fires.” Another few sentences deal with Bethlen’s involvement in the Thirty Years War against Ferdinand II, king of Hungary, his initial successes and his subsequent failures, which forced him to sue for peace (Peace of Nikolsburg/Mikulov, December 31, 1621).

The larger part of Rajcsányi’s article is a transcription of a very long letter written by Gábor Bethlen to János Rimay, Transylvanian ambassador to the Porte. The letter was written on April 11, 1621, in the middle of Bethlen’s anti-Habsburg military campaign when “more and more of Bethlen’s supporters were turning away from him” and he was forced to renounce the Hungarian crown that had been offered to him earlier.

The letter Rajcsányi published had appeared earlier in the blog “Kitalált Újkor” (Invented Modern Times). According to the author of the post, in the 1830s József Tunyogi Csapó (1789-1858), a member of the Hungarian National Academy, published all of the ambassadorial instructions of Bethlen with the exception of this incriminating one. It was discovered only recently by Sándor Papp, a historian of Hungarian-Ottoman relations at the University of Szeged.

It seems that even the conservative but until now pro-Fidesz members of the Hungarian media have become tired of the anti-refugee propaganda which endlessly repeats the great Hungarian historical sacrifices in holding back Muslim terror from Western Europe. Although this may have been true before the Battle of Mohács (1526), the picture after that date is anything but clear. Rajcsák somewhat sarcastically remarks that 150 years after Mohács “Hungary needed the contemporary international NATO forces” to get rid of the Turks, who by that time were comfortably settled in the country. All the while “such great Hungarian heroes as Imre Thököly (1657-1705), whose statue is still on Heroes’ Square, and his friends, typically in Turkish pay, did their best to hinder the armies of Christian Europe while they sacked and robbed their homeland.” Besides Thököly, there are others whose historical assessment needs correction. Clearly, Rajcsák thinks that Bethlen is one of those.

Gábor Bethlen’s statue on Heroes’ Square

Rajcsák compares this 1621 letter to a conspiracy theory concocted by today’s Hungarian far right. In such a modern transcript this document would be proof that “the Protocols of the Grand Lodge of György ‘Dark Force’ Soros” are planning the Islamization of Christian Europe. Perhaps, says Rajcsák, it would be time “to do something with our pro-kuruc/anti-labanc historiography and educational system.” On the meaning of the words “kuruc” and “labanc,” take a look at a post I wrote titled “A distorted past haunts Hungarians.”

Ágnes R. Várkonyi, professor emerita of ELTE and member of the Academy, complained recently about the lack of research on Bethlen’s diplomatic efforts. It was only lately that historians discovered that Bethlen’s great plan was the creation of a Central European Confederation that would have included Bohemia, Moravia and, Croatia.” So far, so good, but in order to achieve this goal Bethlen, as this document proves, was soliciting a Ottoman military occupation of the whole area and beyond.

Bethlen through his ambassador suggested to the Sultan (hatalmas Császár/great emperor) that he move his troops to Belgrade and from there to Nagykanizsa, on the border between the Turkish occupied territories and Royal Hungary, all the way to Graz. He emphasized that it would take only four or five days to reach Graz from Kanizsa. It is easy terrain and food is plentiful in Styria and other neighboring provinces of Austria. From there it would be easy to reach Italy and march as far as Milan (Mediolanum), which at that time was ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs. Milan would allow the Ottomans to fight against Spain both on land and on sea.

He himself, who would attack the Habsburgs from the north, would need only 30,000 Ottoman and 15,000 Tatar troops, which in his estimation would be sufficient to penetrate as far as Passau and Bavaria where he would camp and take hold of the Danube River. Bethlen hoped that even Ferdinand II could be captured in Vienna, surrounded by Hungarian-Turkish and Tatar troops. Thus Ferdinand’s realm would be a Turkish protectorate, just like Transylvania was. The sultan would be able “to buy not just one fort as his father did in Eger but a whole kingdom.”

We see no sign of the legendary Polish-Hungarian friendship in this letter because Bethlen is envisaging a massive attack on Poland by at least 100,000 Tatars, reinforced by 40,000 Turks, who would “burn, rob terribly the country all summer and fall.” The only concession Bethlen wanted to secure from the Ottomans was that the Porte “would promise that the territories of the Hungarian Crown wouldn’t be in any way altered.” If these promises are kept “we will serve the great emperor joyfully … just as Transylvania has been securely under the wings of his greatness ever since King János [Szapolyai (1487-1540)].” Soon enough, other countries would join the Ottoman Empire and thus “the whole of Europe would belong to the all-mighty emperor.”

Finally, Bethlen reminds the Porte that “we could have made peace with the Germans but, because we didn’t want to break our promises to the almighty sultan, we suffered incredible dangers in order not to violate the trust of His Mightiness.”

The letter is so specific and detailed that it is very difficult not to take it at face value. I agree with Rajcsányi that it would be time to start rectifying the misinterpretations of historical facts committed over the centuries.

January 7, 2017
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aida
Guest

Thank you Eva for this. Bethlen has an interesting entry on Wikepidia.

Guest

The 30 years war that is the background for this story must have been a terrible time – in some parts of Europe (especially Germany) around 50% of the people died early. many because of those pestilences.
Whether it was the fighing of Catholics against Protestants or the different Kings and Emperors against each other or just a consequnece of the Little Ice Age is essentially irrelevant.
The whole story goes to show that religion and aristocracy are the basic evils of humankind imho!
Anyone who longs for the good old times is crazy …

Guest

Bethlen’s alliance with the archenemy reminds me about what is going on today.

aida
Guest
I suppose history keeps going round although the superficial similarities often blinds us to the profound differences. The temptation is to regard US and Russia as arch enemies as per the past. It would be a disaster if that is how events turned out. Russia and the US have shared concerns in the world as well as challanges in their relations. The art of the diplomats is to recognise when to act in concert and by contrast when you have to stand firm. Those who are worried about the Trump approach to Putin would do well to remember that the Obama policies have not produced any reversal of Putin’s conquests. Maybe it is very fulfilling to stand firm on the moral high ground, but it is hardly the way forward if does not produce practical results. A rethink is needed from time to time and a new President is a good opportunity to do just that. Remember that Lavrov saved the US from turning out Assad whilst ushering in ISIS in Syria. Obama’s high moral ground does not always serve the US well. I do not know what the future will be for the US and for the rest of… Read more »
Guest

Let me spell out the analogy then:
Bethlen in collusion with the Turks
Orban in collusion with the Russians

aida
Guest
Thanks for spelling it out. I am sorry I did not guess this is what you meant. I am no expert on Bethlen. I picked up a bit from Eva’s post and looked at the Wikepidia entry. The EU on the one hand represents a major step forward in the development of Europe. That is my view also I deprecate any attempt to undermine it. On the other hand we must appreciate that whilst the EU remains a union of nation states there are conflicting views, however mistaken we believe them to be that clash with what elected Governments perceive to be in their own interest. The major purpose and to some extent it is being achieved is to find common ground or to find acceptance of the diversity of perceptions of the individual national interests. The lasting message of the principles underlying the EU is to achieve solutions that avoid confrontation. Putin’s Russia is a fact of life. Orban maybe both wrong and disloyal but his country remains a staunch member. Unlike the U.K.which by the vote in the 2016 referendum is irretrievably wrong and deeply disloyal. In the context of which country has done more damage, the U.K.… Read more »
Guest

Don’t pretend that this is an answer to my comment. It looks like obfuscation to me.

e-1956
Guest

I agree with Jean P. – Aida can be called the obfuscator.

Bethlen’s dealing with the Porte was a historical crime.

Not so rare in our history.

How is possible that Hungarian leaders felt tempted to ally themselves with Turkey, Russia, Germany against their own nation?

e-1956
Guest

We should appreciate how Ferenc Deak created the reformed and enlightened Hungary from local resources, while many other past and future megalomaniac despots just wanted a shortcut to power.

Compared to Deak most others committed crimes against humanity.

Joe Simon
Guest

Thököly was captured by Ibrahim pasha in 1685 for not hurrying to help the Turks besieging Vienna.
You are trying to find morality in politics. The US, as we know now, had a plan to attack the British Empire through Canada in the 1920s.
Roosevelt had a better idea. Let Britain and Germany finish each other.
Indeed, it was a much better plan as it turned out.

Guest

Really? I well remember driving from Niagara Falls to Niagara on the Lake and they had a big monument for the repeal of an invasion from the USA over the Niagara river …
Brits, Canadians, Indians and former black slaves who came via the underground railway to Canada working together …

webber
Guest

Joe Simon, you are either an idiot or a liar. Roosevelt did not pull the strings in Britain or Germany. WWII was not encouraged by the US. And the US had no plan to attack the British Empire in the 1920s. You seem to have forgotten that the US and Britain were allies in WWI. That suggests you’re an idiot. Your other bletherings suggest you are just a liar.

webber
Guest

And Joe, that Thököly fought for the Turks is indisputable. Read the Hungarian Wikipedia entry if you can’t understand English properly, as I suppose.

Istvan
Guest
I find it interesting that Gellért Rajcsányi’s essay got so much attention, because the attempt at making an analogy to the present is a real intellectual overreach. But there are several hundred comments on the article in just a few days. Which speaks to a Hungarian obsession with historical analogy more than anything else. To argue as Rajcsányi does at the opening of his essay that “contemporary international NATO forces” may have historical relevance to how Gábor Bethlen saw Ottoman forces in 1621 relative to the autonomy the Principality of Transylvania is a rather specious analogy I think. Because the basis for the limited autonomy of Transylvania was set forth by the Sultan very clearly: “We shall never let Transylvania be united with Hungary. Transylvania is Sultan Suleiman’s invention and is the property of the Mighty Sultan… We don’t give anyone else what belongs to us.” (see K. Kiraly and P. Pastor, “The Sublime Porte and Ference II Rakoczi’s Hungary: An Episode in Islamic Christian Relations,” in The Mutual Effects of the Judeo-Christian Worlds: The Eastern Pattern, ed. Abraham Ascher et al, 131). Ideologically Hungarians are obsessed with historical analogies, it’s a bad practice. The history of Ottoman domination of… Read more »
Roland
Guest

Dear Madame

Probably is true , but let me remind you when it was the Mohacs battle and the Hungarians lost- the catholic Europe/Venice/other Italian kings, princes, rulers did celebrate this.
The French king, Francis I, contribution was essential , for the occupation of Hungary in 1540-41. I also would like to remind you that joint forces of Germans and Turks killed and robbed my country. I don’t know which of them was more responsible for the depopulation of Hungary and the destroy of the country.
I would like also remind you that some most venerated scholars/artist such as Leonardo , Bellini worked for the Turks as well. Most protestant rulers, scholars wanted an alliance with the Turks-including Calvin and others.
I’d also remind you even the Jewish population of those time did supported the Turks and if you analyse contemporary documents you could be surprised how much hatred was in both sides.
Prince Bethlen gave a couple of years peace and glory for Transylvania and it is true with the expense of others made a better place for the people who lived there.

Observer
Guest

Roland
Very silly. Pls abstain.

Ferenc
Guest

Here’s news which Eva might especially like:
History teachers demand free choice of school books!
http://hirtv.hu/videok/171865

The reality
Guest

Eva!

Gábor Bethlen and many other Transylvanian princes had anti-Hungarian policy, because they almost killed the Hungarian population during the era religious wars. But do not forget, Despite of Transylvania was ruled by Hungarians, theHungarian state is the legal successor of Kingdom of Hungary and not the successor of principality of Transylvania.

Guest

Hungarian state is the legal successor of Kingdom of Hungary

Wtf does that mean and why should it be important in the 21st Century, silly boy?

Next I’ll be telling you about “DasRömische Reich Deutscher Nation” and how German Emperors rulked all of Europe …

The reality
Guest

The vast majority of the seventeen and nineteen thousands Ottoman soldiers in service in the Ottoman fortresses in the territory of Hungary were Orthodox and Muslim Balkan Slavs instead of ethnic Turkish people.[17] Southern Slavs were also acting as akinjis and other light troops intended for pillaging in the territory of present-day Hungary.[18]

The reality
Guest

During the Ottoman wars the territory of former Kingdom of Hungary shrunk by around 70%; despite these territorial and demographic losses, the smaller, heavily war-torn Royal Hungary remained economically more important than Austria or Kingdom of Bohemia at the end of the 16th century,[12] as it was Ferdinand’s largest source of revenue.[13]

[12] Robert Evans, Peter Wilson (2012). The Holy Roman Empire, 1495-1806: A European Perspective Volume 1 van Brill’s Companions to European History. BRILL. p. 263. ISBN 9789004206830.

[13]Dr. István Kenyeres: THE FINANCIAL ADMINISTRATIVE REFORMS AND REVENUES OF FERDINAND I IN HUNGARY, English summary at page 92

The reality
Guest

A good article about the excellent friendly relationship and allience between European protestant powers and the Islam (Ottomans) against Catholic Europe:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestantism_and_Islam

Guest

Good for them! Should have wiped those Catholic Pedophiles from the Earth!
Read here:
“Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums” by Deschner how many millions of people wwere tortured and killed by the Catholic Church.

The reality
Guest

Éva! Tóthország means Croatia before the 19th cetury. The meaning of Tóth became Slovak only in the 19th century.

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