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.
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.