In September 1939, the joint invasion of Poland by National Socialist Germany and its defacto ally Soviet Russia, defeated the Polish Army in 36 days. (Not too bad considering the much better equipped, more numerous, and better positioned French and British armies only lasted 45 days) Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers, sailors, and civilians fled to Western Allied countries but millions did not. The Soviet authorities emptied the jails, put the communist political prisoners in charge, and encouraged the rest to seek revenge. Because the Soviets disarmed the populace, “axe murder” became the most common cause of death in eastern Poland for the next three months.
In formal agreement with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939, Poland was to be erased from history. Stalin’s stated and declared aim was the final destruction of Polish culture. On 10 February 1940, the Soviet Union began the forced exile and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Soviet occupied eastern Poland (Western Belorussia and western Ukraine today). That night, the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and Red Army burst into the homes of 139,794 middle and upper class ethnic Poles. (That number is straight from the Soviet archive, the actual number was probably much higher) Service in the pre-war Polish state was deemed a “crime against the revolution”. Captured Polish officers and soldiers were soon joined by thousands of government workers, land owners, school teachers, university professors, scientists, Polish Jews, factory managers, writers and publishers, business owners, and priests and clergy, including their extended families. Anyone they could find who could provide any leadership or resistance to the Soviet socialist march westward was targeted. Most were given 15 minutes to pack and herded onto trains for the long cold journey to gulags in Siberia and Kazahkstan where they were to be worked to death on collective farms or starved. Thousands of Polish women were raped and many more Polish citizens were immediately executed at the whims of their occupiers. Soviet journalists and teachers celebrated, proclaiming, “Poland had fallen and would never rise again.”
Mass graves of Poles from the Soviet pogroms of early 1940 were found all over eastern Poland and western Russia, the 22,000 dead found in Katyn Forest by German troops in 1943 being the most famous. Most survivors arrived in Siberia in April when the temperatures were still well below zero and were forced to build their camps with what they had, with no shelter or winter clothing and little food provided. Tens of thousands more perished enroute to and during the construction of the camps. Many Poles were sent to the same camps the kulaks were murdered in the decade before.
2.2 million Poles were deported east by the Soviet Union in the 21 months between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The vast majority were never seen again. Only about 200,000 survivors returned to Poland after the war. The returnees were mostly soldiers and their camp followers from the Polish Armored Division and Polish II Corps, who fought with the Western Allies in North Africa, Italy, and France; the ZPP (Soviet based Polish Communists), and the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, Soviet creations later in the war comprised of Polish soldiers led by Russian officers.
The two million Poles killed by the Soviets are not included in the usual figure of six million Poles killed during Second World War, or 22% reduction in the Polish population. The official six million figure was compiled by the Soviet backed Polish government in 1947 and included the three million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the German occupation, and three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust. The 1947 estimate did not include the Poles killed by the Soviets because the areas occupied by the Soviets from Sept 1939-June 1941 were never returned to Poland after the war and were given to Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine. The two million Poles killed in the “Forgotten Holocaust” by the Soviets were included in the Belorussian and Ukrainian wartime death tolls to hide the fact that they weren’t killed by German socialists but by Russian socialists.
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder should be required reading for humanity.
On the Eastern Front, Zhukov’s Operation Bagration was successful beyond his wildest ambitions. By the end of July 1944, Soviet tanks had reached the Vistula River and the eastern suburbs of Warsaw. On 1 August 1944, the Polish Underground Resistance, otherwise known as the Home Army, launched Operation Tempest to seize their capital from the Germans in order to assert their authority as the legitimate Polish government after the impending Soviet liberation. Stalin and Hitler never let that happen.
Starting on 1 August and for the next two months, 40,000 members of the Home Army fought the German 9th Army in desperate street battles in Warsaw. Despite assurances from FDR and Churchill, Stalin refused to support the uprising and ordered his troops not to cross the river. Most Soviet units could not have directly supported the Poles since they spent from the offensive, but no serious attempt to supply the Poles was even tried, despite their proximity and air superiority. The only support the Home Army received were supply drops from the RAF that landed in German hands as often as Polish. Destruction of postwar Polish leadership not under Stalin’s control was too convenient for the Soviet dictator.
Once Hitler was sure there would be no Soviet intervention, he ordered Warsaw destroyed. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, declared “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.” Hitler told his generals that Warsaw was to be “wiped from the face of the Earth, all the inhabitants were to be killed, there were to be no prisoners.”
In compliance, the SS sent in special extermination units with the task of murdering anyone of Polish descent: man, woman or child. They averaged about 10,000 a week. German tactics against the civilians were so brutal, 200,000 of the Warsaw’s 700,000 civilians soon stood with the Home Army to fight. Like the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the Germans realized that only the total obliteration of the city could root out the resistance. They began a systematic destruction of the city neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, street by street, and house by house.
On 13 September, Stalin began a token supply effort to the uprising after several near mutinies by Polish troops in the Soviet Army, but by then the damage was done. The leadership of the Home Army was dead, and Warsaw was utterly destroyed. On 2 October 1944, the remaining Polish defenders surrendered. 15,000 of them were sent to the gas chambers in the nearby death camps, along with 60,000 civilian defenders. 200,000 Polish civilians died during the two months of brutal street fighting, and 350,000 were expelled from the city and sent to labor camps across Germany.
3½ months later, the Soviet controlled 1st Polish Army occupied the city on 17 January 1945 after the Soviet Vistula/Oder offensive. They immediately began consolidating the power of the Soviet sponsored Polish Worker’s Party: a communist organization made up of those Polish communists that survived Stalin’s purges of Poles in the Communist International in 1938 and 1939. The Soviet dominated Polish Worker’s Party ruled Poland for the next 45 years until it was defeated by Solidarity in 1989.
On 17 Sep 1939, Hitler’s de facto ally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics better known as the Soviet Union, invaded Poland from the east as the Poles were fighting the Germans coming from the west.
By 9 September 1939, Polish mobilization was complete the Poles and were holding their own along the Vistula and in the Carpathians against the German attack. They even launched a large counterattack at Bzura and repulsed the initial German attacks on Warsaw. Unfortunately on 9 Sep the German propaganda minister Josef Goebbels announced to the world that the Germans had reached Warsaw. The German people thought they had won and were jubilant. Goebbels ran with it. Poland had no way of contradicting Goebbel’s message. The British, French, and Soviets all soon believed Poland was lost. The mistaken belief absolved the Brits and French from any further assistance, and on the 11th, Stalin decided he’d better invade Poland before the Germans took it all.
On 17 September 1939, eight days after the Poles were supposedly defeated by the Germans, Soviet forces crossed the Polish frontier from the east, and made defense along the Vistula pointless. Initially Polish units on the eastern frontier thought that the Soviets were coming to Poland’s assistance, but that notion was quickly dispelled. On 25 Sep, the Polish government announced the evacuation of the country. The last Polish army unit only surrendered on 6 Oct – a month after the war had supposedly been lost.
In occupied Eastern Poland the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, immediately arrested and summarily executed tens of thousands of Polish army officers and NCOs, politicians, police officers, business owners, priests, school teachers, and university professors, anyone exhibiting leadership qualities. The Red Army sacked, tortured, raped, and killed its way through eastern Poland in a prelude of what would happen to Germany 5 1/2 years later. Hundreds of thousands Poles were sent to slave labor camps in Siberia. Sham elections were held by the NKVD to give an air of legitimacy to the brutal occupation. Anyone who ran against their preferred candidate was killed, and anyone who voted against them was sent to Siberia.
“The liberation of Poland (by National Socialist Germany and Communist Soviet Union) is an example of cooperation of socialist nations against Anglo-French imperialism.” – The Communist International, 7 Oct 1939
In April 1989, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland won the right to run candidates in the first fairly free parliamentary elections since before Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union 50 years before. On 4 June 1989, the Polish people headed to the polls (Ha!).
The Communists knew they were not popular, but they had several critical advantages. First, they still controlled the bureaucracy and the election apparatus. Also, their commissars still controlled the Polish military. Furthermore, more than half of the seats were rigged so only communists were allowed on the ballot. And finally, there was still 60,000 Red Army soldiers stationed on Polish soil.
The Communists believed they could not possibly lose the election utilizing these and every plausibly deniable, and not so deniable, electoral dirty trick. And many Solidarity candidates agreed with them. But the Polish people’s dissatisfaction with Communism’s inherent hypocrisy and corruption ran deep. Despite bureaucratic harassment, voter intimidation, and widespread election fraud, observers estimated that 98% of eligible voters turned out, virtually all for Solidarity.
Early ballot counts immediately showed that Solidarity and its allies had won a decisive victory. By the next day, it was confirmed: Solidarity had won 90% of the seats. Even seats where there was only a communist name on the ballot were lost to write-in candidates. It was a stinging rebuke of collectivism.
However, there was still the specter of military intervention. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Polish military units began marginalizing, neutralizing or even out right arresting their commissars after the election, particularly if they attempted to take over units from their commanders. The Polish Army would not influence the election and the Poles did not have to worry about the Soviets. Like everything else about communism, the Red Army in 1989 was a facade. The Soviet 6th Motorized Rifle Division and 20th Tank Division had not received fuel or spare parts in months, because their supply system was so horribly corrupt. They had huge discipline problems and soldier-gangs ruled the barracks, where officers refused to go. What soldiers they did have control of were needed to tend the farms around the cantonment areas, which was the only way the divisions could be fed adequately. The Brezhnev Doctrine was dead, not because Gorbachev disavowed it, but because he had no choice.
Solidarity’s landslide victory was a reality on 6 June, 1989.
In July, the communists managed to hold onto the presidency through a series of back room deals, but a Solidarity candidate became prime minister in August. In September, 1989, the first non-communist government in the Eastern bloc in was sworn in.
The rest of Eastern Europe took notice
By the evening of the 17 May 1944 it was clear to Field Marshal Kesselring that the Gustav Line had been irreparably breached. He ordered his troops to fall back to the “Hitler Line” at the far north end of the Liri Valley, where he hoped to replicate the tenacious defense of the Gustav Line.
Despite the terrible pounding they were receiving from the Poles on Pt 593, the Fallschirmjaeger initially refused to leave Monastery Hill, a position they had occupied and defended for five months, in conditions and battle that many veterans compared unfavorably to Stalingrad. They wanted to make the Poles storm the Monastery proper, which they were obviously going to do at dawn on the 18th. However, Gen Senger, their corps commander, would have none of it. He needed them on the Hitler Line.
About midnight on the night of 17/18 May 1944, the Green Devils of the German 1st Fallschirmjaeger Division reluctantly pulled off of Monastery Hill. Some escaped up the Liri Valley, but many were captured by the British or execueted by the Poles of the Kresowa Division.
Both the British and the Poles intercepted Senger’s heated radio transmissions to the Fallschirmjaeger telling them to abandon the monastery. Suspecting a trap, the Poles ordered the 12th Poldolski Lancers, a cavalry outfit that had left their horses and armored cars at the bottom of the mountain, to recce the monastery before they attacked. In the predawn hours of 18 May 1944, the troopers painstakingly infiltrated their way through the wire, minefields and tortured terrain, where they found the Monastery abandoned. Its only occupants were thirty seriously wounded German soldiers.
The lancers raised a make shift regimental pennant over the abbey followed closely behind by a Polish flag. At 10:15 am, the regimental bugler, Cpl. Emil Czech, sounded the Hejnał Mariacki from the Monastery to signal to the entire valley that it was in Polish hands. The Hejnał Mariacki, or Call of St. Mary, is played every day at dawn, noon, and dusk off the city walls of Krakow. It commemorates the sacrifice of a lone polish trumpeter in the 13th century who spotted a Mongol force trying to sneak into the town. From the bell tower of St Mary’s cathedral, he sounded the Hejnał Mariacki to warn the town of the approaching danger. The call cuts off abruptly because the trumpeter was shot in the throat with an arrow.
The trumpet echoed down the valleys and could be heard as far away as the Eighth Army Headquarters. The horrifying German and Soviet propaganda that the Poles were unwilling to fight the Germans in 1939 was finally laid to rest. That afternoon, the Poles made contact with the British advancing up the Liri Valley.
The Germans continued to fight on for Colle Sant’Angelo and Point 575 on the north wall of the Liri Valley for another two days, mostly because the Poles weren’t taking prisoners. But with the fall of the Abbey, their fate was sealed.
The Fourth, and final, Battle of Monte Cassino was over.
By 16 May 1944, the French Expeditionary Corps had broken the Gustav Line in the Aurunci Mountains and outflanked the Germans in the Liri Valley. But what German soldiers could not do, Italian civilians did. The victorious Goumiers sought out every remote mountain village and plundered and abused the “infidels” as they believed they were entitled to as spoils of war. Over the next four days, the Moroccans raped over 7000 men, women, and children ranging in ages from 11 to 86. 800 Italians were murdered. Italy would remember this as the “Marocchinate” or “The Time of the Moroccans”. Though the Germans were confused by the unexpected French delay, they were appreciative, had the French continued, Monte Cassino would have been isolated.
To the French right but far to their rear at the mouth of the Liri Valley, the entire British 78th Infantry Division of the British XIII Corps was across the Rapido and pushing further up the south wall of the valley. One by one, positions systematically fell to the British, Indians, and Canadians as the Germans looked over their shoulders for the French advancing through the mountains behind them. The British were about to do what had almost never been done before in history: proceed up the Liri Valley with Monte Cassino in hostile hands. But that was because the Germans in the Abbey and its surrounding points had more pressing problems than the valley below them; they were clinging to Monastery Hill by the slimmest of margins.
It took two days, under constant fire, for the Polish II Corps to organize the replacements, assign them to the assault battalions, and clear assault lanes through the Fallschirmjaegers’ newly placed minefields. But on the night of 16 May, the Carpathian Division conclusively overran Pt 593 and the expected German counterattacks were defeated. In the after action review Polish junior officers and NCOs credited its capture to their quadruple issue of grenades. Moreover, the Kresowa Division broke through to the Liri Valley from Monte Cairo north of Monte Cassino, where Juin would have broken through in January had Clark supported him. The Germans on the Monastery Hill were not surrounded, but only just so.
When the sun rose of the 17th, the Poles, like the Benedictine monks before them, began to make the monastery defenders’ lives a living hell from Pt 593.
On the night of 21 April 1944, a thin Maj Gen Wladyslaw Anders stood next to Kiwi Lieut Gen Freyburg and watched in silence as the first units of his Polish II Corps secretly replaced the shattered New Zealand Corps in the vicinity of Monte Cassino. Anders’ smallish frame and unpretentious demeanor was exasperated by Freyburg’s larger-than-life presence, but Anders was by far the more experienced. A veteran of the First World War, the Russo-Polish War of 1920, a brigade commander in the old Polish Army, Anders was one of the few men on the planet who had walked out on the Soviet’s infamous Lubyanka Prison alive. Now he was the commander of 100,000 exiled Polish soldiers. For last three years, he and his men and women had prepared for this moment, for the road back to Poland went through the Germans at Monte Cassino.
Poland was secretly partitioned by the Germans and their Soviet socialist brothers as part of their de facto alliance in August of 1939 and dual invasion of Poland in September of 1939. Invaded from all sides, the Polish army collapsed after fighting for only 37 days. Having already experienced German and Russian occupation in the First World War, millions of Poles fled the country. Some went north through Scandinavia and eventually to Britain. Some went south to the Balkans. And some went east, only to be captured and interned by the Soviets. Of those hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees in Soviet Russia, 20,000 teachers, officers, politicians and intelligentsia were separated out by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, and murdered. The rest were condemned to prison or labor camps in Siberia by the Soviets… at least until they became useful again for something other than slave labor.
The German’s sudden and inevitable betrayal of Soviet Russia in June of 1941 proved to be the imprisoned Poles saving grace. Stalin, in desperate need of soldiers to fight the Germans, offered to raise a Polish Army from those refugees as long as Britain equipped them. Churchill agreed. Col. Wladyslaw Anders, one of the highest ranking Polish officers still alive, was chosen to lead the new Polish Army. Training camps were set up in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles volunteered rather than be worked to death. They departed their labor camps in Siberia over the winter of 1941/42 and made the long trek to the training camps. Tens of thousands starved or froze to death enroute. Nevertheless, Anders collected 50,000 soldiers and 100,000 family members in his camps around Tashkent. In the spring of 1942, Stalin recognized the cognitive dissonance of supporting a Polish army from refugees he created, and wished the problem to go away, so he stopped rations to “Anders’ Army”.
Anders knew they could no longer stay in the Soviet Union. In a modern day Anabasis, Anders led his army into the desert, marched 3,500 miles out of the Soviet Union and through British held Persia to Palestine. There he joined other free Poles: the 3rd Carpathian Division, comprised of Poles who fled south to the Balkans after the invasion, and the forgotten defenders of Tobruk— the Free Polish Brigade who fought with the British in North Africa. With these units he formed the II Polish Corps in early 1943, and after the invasion of Italy by the Allies, was assigned to the British Eighth Army along the Adriatic coast. In March, 1944, Anders was told that if the Kiwis failed at Monte Cassino, the Poles would finally get their chance to fight the Germans.
One factor would color all of Anders’ decisions in the coming battle at Monte Cassino, which would be the largest the Western Allies fought against the Germans to this point of the war. It was that he had a national army but no national state. More practically, he didn’t have a country from which to receive replacements. Unlike other national armies who were under the command of the British or Americans; such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, France and the Netherlands; Poland had no state support structure or colonies from which to receive resources. His army, for the most part, was Poland. Furthermore, there were no more replacements for his army from Poles outside Poland: the Poles in Britain formed the I Polish Corps and they were preparing for their part in the upcoming invasion of France. Stalin killed any Pole left in the Soviet Union. Those who emigrated abroad, to their everlasting credit, enlisted in the armies of their adopted homeland, whether it be America, Canada or Australia. There were Poles forced into conscription by the Wehrmacht, but they were few and likely to be killed before they made it to him. The only way back was forward. Killing Germans was good, but the men needed to fight the Soviets were in Poland, and the Germans at Monte Cassino stood in Anders’ way.
The British and Americans knew the destruction of the Abbey at Monte Cassino in February changed the calculus of the battle, though they did not realize its extent. The key to the Liri Valley and Route 6 to Rome was the town of Cassino; the key to Cassino was Castle Hill, the key to Castle Hill was Hangman’s Hill; and the key to Hangman’s Hill was the Abbey itself. Since the clumsy and brutish destruction of the Abbey allowed the Germans to fortify it, the Brits and Americans assumed that it needed to be the focus of the battle. But as the Germans suspected, and the Italians knew, that this was not the case: the key to the Abbey was actually Point 593, which was a small hillock just to the northwest on Snakeshead Ridge.
In the previous three battles, a supporting attack was always launched against Pt 593, but only to prevent enfilading fire on the main attack or tie down counterattack forces, not to capture it. When the Polish II Corps received the mission to take the Abbey, the corps’s staff naturally started its mission analysis. During their initial intelligence preparation of the battlefield, a young analyst did his research on the area and noticed the ruins of a small 17th century Papal star fort on Pt 593. But why was that star fort in such an inaccessible location? Digging into the history of the area for the answer, he found that the star fort (and presumably the earlier medieval keep ruins beneath it) provided a last desperate refuge for the monks during Italy’s turbulent past. Control of the star fort by the monks ensured that if it wasn’t also captured, the Abbey was untenable. The analyst studied the terrain further and found that the Allies could reverse engineer the battle: If Pt 593 fell, the Abbey would fall; if the Abbey fell, Hangman’s Hill would fall; if Hangman’s Hill fell, Castle Hill would fall; if the Castle fell, Cassino would fall. And if Cassino fell, the Road to Rome through the Liri Valley was open.
So think of the Abbey as a typical suburban American house. The star fort on Point 593 was (and still is) a sort of combination storage shed and fortified zombie apocalypse safehouse in the back corner of the monastery backyard. Also, it butt’s up against the back fence (Snakeshead ridge), so unless you climb over the back fence, you can’t approach the shed (Pt 593) except through the house (the Abbey).
In that context, think of the Liri Valley as the street the house is on. Throughout the Monastery’s 1500 year history, any army wishing to drive down the street, i.e. exit or enter the Liri Valley to capture Naples or Rome, had to secure the Monstaery because it dominated traffic on the street. To do this some secured Papal approval because the Monastery was property of the Papal States, governed directly by the Roman Catholic Church. But most chose to capture the Abbey.
These historic encounters usually followed a similar pattern. The attackers would initially try storming the hill, and inevitably fail. There would then be a siege. Shortly thereafter, the attackers would get restless because they were wasting time and resources on the Monastery that would be required for use on Rome or Naples. So they would get impatient and launch multiple costly assaults, which would wear down the monks and their defenders. When capture was imminent, the monks would then retire to the small fortress on Pt 593 and the attackers would flood victoriously into the Monastery. That was, until they got into the backyard and were stopped cold by the defenders on Pt 593. The star fort on Pt 593 made the northwest corner of the abbey untenable and the space between the monastery and the fort a killing ground, i.e. the backyard in our house simile.
Now here’s the true genius of Pt 593: Occupying it could only tangentially affected the Liri Valley. Attackers that captured the monastery but not Pt. 593 could enter and exit the Liri Valley at will, even with the monks still occupying the back corner of the backyard. However, it was to the backyard of the Monastery what the Monastery was to the Liri Valley: As the Monastery made passage in the Valley difficult, Pt 593 made the northwest portion of the Monastery grounds untenable. So naturally, the attackers looked at Pt 593, then looked at the valley, then looked back at Pt 593 and said, “Screw this, I’m not attacking that, I’m done with this place. We need to move onto Rome (or Naples).” And the invaders would invariably move on to Rome or Naples, and leave a token force to keep the monks isolated in the star fort. This was the signal for the monks to make the attackers lives miserable until they either left, or were weakened sufficiently that the monks could burst forth from Pt 593 and slaughter them. In either case, the monks would then reclaim the Abbey, clean up the debris, restock the library, and resume the Rule of St Benedict, at least until someone else wanted to enter or exit the Liri Valley without the Pope’s permission.
In the mid twentieth century, this all changed. Modern engineering, improved and efficient aerial and ground logistics, proper reconnaissance and modern firepower lessened the formidability of the terrain. Snakehead Ridge was still impassable to vehicles and even to mules in some places, but the French in January proved that that was no barrier to a successful assault, if you had prepared properly, conducted a sufficient recce, surprised your enemy, had a touch of élan, and most importantly, threw a ton of soldiers at it.
To deceive the Germans, the Polish II Corps planned to execute the same plan as the Indians and Kiwis before them. But since they had a larger force along the same frontage, they would weigh the attack on Pt 593 from over Snakeshead Ridge, thereby breaking the historic cycle, by taking Pt 593 before the Abbey. As the monks knew, this would make the backyard and NW side of the Abbey untenable, but this time not for the attackers, but for the defenders, the Germans.
The young Polish analyst presented his findings, and the Corps operations officer issued initial reconnaissance guidance to confirm it. Unfortunately, the Poles were not yet in the line at Cassino and moreover, Operation Nunton forbade any patrolling to minimize the risk of capture. But MajGen Wladyslaw Anders, the Polish II Corps’ Commander, was so intrigued with the information that on 5 April 1944, he personally undertook a dangerous low level aerial reconnaissance of the area. Though he was nearly killed for his efforts, he confirmed the analyst’s assessment and issued his commander’s planning guidance accordingly. Disconcertingly, he found that the Germans turned the area around the ruins of the star fort in a hellish maze of mines, wire, interlocking fields of fire, and preregistered artillery. On the other hand, he also saw it was possible, if improbable, to capture Pt 593 from the north and northeast, but only if the attack was properly planned and coordinated. Unlike the Americans, the British, the Indians, and the Kiwis; the Poles’ main objective during the Battle for Monte Cassino would be Point 593, not the Monastery itself.
Just a little over a month after he was elected Pope of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City, Pope John Paul I died in his bed on 28 September 1978. Two weeks later on 16 October the Second Papal Conclave of 1978 elected Pope John Paul II after two days of deliberations. Pope John Paul II was the greatest Roman Catholic Pope of the modern age.
Born Karol Wojtyla outside of Krakow, Poland, he was the son of a Polish Army noncommissioned officer and attended university in Krakow where he studied history and languages until the Nazis closed it down in 1939. By 1941, his entire family was killed by the Germans, but Wojkyla survived by taking jobs in factories that got him exempted from the random detention and execution of Polish civilians. He spent his free time studying at an underground seminary while protecting and hiding Polish Jews from the Nazis.
After the war, Wojtyla was ordained a priest and spent the next 30 years in the difficult position of an outspoken Roman Catholic in a country dominated by Communism. His unpretentious demeanor and wise counsel earned him the nickname “Uncle” which his parishioners and peers used until he was elected Pope in 1978, when he took the name John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, and one of the youngest and healthiest. He had a worldly view that contrasted greatly with previous popes. Pope John Paul II spoke eight languages fluently and was the most widely traveled pope in history. He spent much energy repairing relations with the other world religions and was the first Pope ever to pray in a mosque. Pope John Paul II was not against contraception for health reasons i.e. to prevent the spread of HIV, and routinely affirmed Catholicism’s stance that evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive. He publicly apologized for many of Roman Catholicism’s historical sins, and the first ever papal email was sent apologizing for the church sex abuse scandals.
Despite this, Pope John Paul II was hated throughout much of the world due to his staunch and outspoken nature against totalitarianism. He specifically decried Apartheid in South Africa, the Mafia in southern Italy, Latin and South American dictators, Socialist Liberation Theology, and was the one of the few world leaders with the courage to call the fighting in Rwanda what it was: genocide. He was a consistent opponent of war in general, but more importantly, Pope John Paul II was the world’s moral leader against Communism.
He survived numerous attempts at humiliation (a favored tactic of socialists) and two actual assassination attempts, one of which was bankrolled by the KGB, due to his voracious anti-communism. His homilies and sermons on the evils of Communism and Socialism gave hope to hundreds of millions of oppressed people around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. Most historians agree with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom said that without Pope John Paul II there would have been no Solidarity, and without Solidarity there would not have been the Fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and died in the Vatican on 2 April 2005. On 8 April 2005, four million people packed into Rome, St Peter’s Square, and the Vatican to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. His funeral is the single largest gathering in the history of Christendom. It was attended by over 90 heads of state, and in a historical anomaly, was attended by the spiritual leaders of 14 of the world’s largest religions, including Islam, Judaism, the various Protestant denominations, and Eastern Orthodoxy. It was the first time the Archbishop of Canterbury attended Catholic Mass since the 16th Century, and the first time the Patriarch attended a papal funeral since the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches a thousand years before.
He was canonized St. John Paul II on 27 April 2014.
Under the pretext of assisting Protestant Hungarian rebels against the Catholic Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire sent a massive army of over 200,000 to seize the southern gateway to Central Europe, the Austrian capital of Vienna. As in the Siege of Vienna in 1529, Emperor Leopold I assumed that the Ottomans needed to seize the fortresses in Hungary along the Danube in order to float their heavy artillery down the river to successfully besiege the city. He fortified and reinforced Vaag, Raab and Commore downstream from Vienna, only to have the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha Pasha surprisingly move overland from Belgrade and strike directly at the heart of Christian resistance to Ottoman expansion in Europe, Vienna. “The head of the snake”, in Kara Mustapha’s words.
In the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire was both simultaneously the splendid and all-powerful Caliphate of Islam, and showing the first signs of becoming the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Ottoman Empire was known later in the 19th century. In the late 17th century Ottoman society stagnated and further conquests had been checked and rolled back in the Northeast and East by an aggressive Imperial Russian Tsardom, in the Middle East by the Safavid Persians, in the Indian Ocean by Portuguese sailors, and in the Mediterranean by the galleys of Spain, Italy, and the Maltese Knights. Only in Transylvania, Hungary and the Ukraine had the viziers of the sultan had any success conquering territory in the name of Islam.
Kara Mustapha was the latest of a long line of the aggressive and competent Albanian Köprülü viziers, and he was by far the most ambitious. He recognized that the Ottoman Empire must expand or its internal governmental and organizational fallacies would bring the Empire down. He saw himself as the future ruler of the heartland of Europe in the name of the sultan. He boasted that he “would water his horses in St. Peter’s Square” and “turn the Basilica into a mosque”. Sultan Mehmed IV, who was enjoying the fruits of being the most powerful man in Islam (his personal hunting grounds were larger than modern day Bulgaria and his personal harem was in the tens of thousands) gave a green silk cord tied as a noose to Kara Mustapha: seize Vienna or strangle yourself. Kara Mustapha wore it around his neck, day and night.
By advancing overland, Mustapha gambled that he could take Vienna before reinforcements from the Empire’s Circles (Circles were an administrative unit of the Holy Roman Empire e.g. Franconian Circle, Bavarian Circle etc.) or a relief force from Poland arrived. Although the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was normally a staunch ally of the Holy Roman Empire’s arch rival, France, the Commonwealth’s elected King Jan III Sobieski signed the Treaty of Warsaw that spring and vowed to come to Vienna’s aid if the Turk’s besieged it, as Leopold was if the same befell Krakow. But Krakow was a long way from Vienna and it took time to assemble a large enough army to do battle with Mustapha and relieve the city. Kara Mustapha’s surprise overland move on Vienna would have been successful had it not been for three men: Prince Hieronim Lubomirski, Count Ernst von Starhemberg, and the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano.
When Mustapha’s Tartar foraging parties were spotted just two day’s ride from Vienna in early July, Emperor Leopold I hastily departed for Linz, entrusting the defense of city to Starhemberg, the military governor of Vienna, and Leopold’s spiritual advisor Marco d’Aviano. Although Vienna was unprepared for a siege, Starhemberg leveled Vienna’s vulnerable suburbs, quickly evacuated most of citizenry, tallied and secured the arms and stores, and tirelessly established the defense and organized the remaining civilians into a militia. The Imperial commander, Charles V Duke of Lorraine gave Starhemberg 1/3 of the Imperial army, about 12,000 men, to defend the walls and man Vienna’s 380 cannon, before he withdrew further into Austria with the remainder to await and gather further reinforcements. The first reinforcements were 3000 Poles under Lubomirski who immediately forced marched from Poland upon news of Mustapha departing Belgrade, and arrived in Vienna just before the Turks invested the town on 15 July 1683.
Mustapha sent the traditional offer of submission to Islam to spare Vienna, but Starhemberg refused, and would have even if he wasn’t just recently informed of the slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, a town just south of Vienna which had accepted Mustapha’s offer, whose inhabitants were massacred anyway. The Turks then tried to bombard Vienna into submission, but without their heavy artillery, was outgunned by the numerous cannon protruding from Vienna’s Walls. Mustapha settled into a siege, and on the advice of his French mercenary engineers and artillerists, ordered his men to dig trenches and his sappers to dig mines. He aimed to break the walls of Vienna from below, the defenders with constant assault, and the will of the population with isolation and propoganda.
Marco d’Aviano was the rock upon which the morale of Vienna sat. Under his leadership, he and the Catholic priests of Vienna gave twice daily sermons to the troops and civilians in the city extolling the virtues of continued resistance. They were the front line in the war against treachery from within and broke up at least one plot to secretly open a small gate to a force of elite Turkish Janissaries. D’Aviano and Starhemberg took Turkish propaganda head on and read aloud leaflets proclaiming promises from Mustapha if the city was surrendered. They had only to point at Perchtoldsdorf and the other broken promises of the Ottoman Empire.
Most able bodied citizens were formed into a militia which Starhemberg skillfully intermixed with his Imperial professionals. Every day and night he visited the sentries on the walls. When Mustapha’s trenches crept closer and the countermining failed to prevent the Turks from breaching the walls, the tireless Starhemberg was there to plug the gap or oversee the repairs. One furious assault in early September was thrown back only because of a desperate countercharge by Starhemberg at the head of a company of shoemaker apprentices. Usually, at his side was the stalwart Lubomirski, whose Poles formed the shock troops that sealed the breaches from the inside. His men were used to the deprivations of a city under siege and provided a stoic example for the citizens of Vienna to emulate. More importantly, Lubomirski and his Poles represented a concrete manifestation of King Sobieski’s promise to come to the city’s aid. No matter how cunning and steadfast the defense of the city, Vienna would eventually fall without assistance from the outside.
In the beginning of September, King Sobieski arrived with his army at Hollabrunn, Austria, where he took command of the 24,000 strong Imperial army under the Duke of Lorraine and 28,000 Germans from Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Franconia under Georg Frederich, the Prince of Waldeck to form a united coalition to relieve Vienna. Though the Duke of Lorraine, as the senior representative of Emperor Leopold and the host nation, was entitled to the command (He also narrowly lost the election to the Polish throne to Sobieski years before), and Price Waldeck brought the most troops, both agreed that Sobieski was the most qualified to defeat the Turks. The Turks referred to Sobieski as “The Lion of Lechistan” for his victory at the Battle of Chocim and had defeated all comers, Islam and Christian, for the past decade and a half. Just twenty years before, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was subsumed by its enemies in a period known as “The Deluge”, when the armies of Sweden, Brandenburg, Austria, Transylvania, Ottomans, Cossacks, Tartars, and Russians completely overran the country. Sobieski was instrumental in the Commonwealth clawing back from that catastrophe. In the late summer of 1683, King Jan III Sobieski was at the head of a coalition army trying to save Christendom from the advances of the Islamic Caliphate.
On 6 September 1683, the army inexplicably crossed the Danube with no resistance at Tulin just 30km from Vienna, even though Mustapha’s Tartar light cavalry under his greatest cavalry commander, Khan Murad Giray of Crimea, observed their every movement. Any delay at this point would have been fatal. Just two days later, Mustapha’s sappers breached the wall and his Janissaries occupied the Burg bastion and the Burg ravelin, and were poised to break through the Löbel bastion. The final tunnels under the Löbel bastion were nearing completion; their detonation would doom Vienna. No matter how valiant the defense by Starhemberg and Lubomirski, the loss of two bastions would allow Mustapha to overwhelm the exhausted and beleaguered garrison. However, a Ruthenian noble under Lubomirski, Jerzy Kulczycki, volunteered to sneak through the Turkish lines to contact Lorraine and returned with news of Sobieski’s imminent arrival, which redoubled Starhemberg’s countermining efforts.
Mustapha gambled again that his sappers could blow the Löbel bastion and take Vienna before the coalition army could relieve the siege. It was a good bet. Sobieski still had to make the approach, and then traverse the ravine and stream crossed Wienerwald (Vienna Wood) before he could attack. Moreover, as Sobieski was granted the position of honor in the line, the right, the Polish army had to climb the Kahlenburg, a steep, rocky hill that Mustapha assumed was impassable to cavalry and cannon.
On the 9th and 10th of September, Polish peasants and soldiers dragged their 131 cannon over the Kahlenburg not wanting to waste the horses on such an arduous task. Two ropes were tied to each gun with 20-30 men pulling on each while an equal number pushed the spokes of each wheel. It was painful and backbreaking work which even the nobles, including the King, participated in. On the afternoon of 11 September, the Polish army lit fires and shot flares into the air to alert the garrison of Vienna that salvation was near. That evening, Sobieski and his Poles came down the Kahlenburg, again without harassment from the Tartars.
Murad was held back by Mustapha, who was preoccupied with the sappers’ progress and refused to believe the Tartar reports. The Khan, offended by his treatment, took his men and rode home, on the eve of the battle.
At 4 am on 12 September, 1683, the Polish cannon with their commanding position on the Kahlenburg fired into the Turkish camp signaling the beginning of the Battle of Vienna. On the left of the coalition line, Lorraine’s Imperial troops were the first to engage, followed quickly by Waldeck in the center. The Poles, reorganizing after the trip over the Kahlenburg, engaged soon thereafter. The battle was a slow process as the ground was cut by vineyards and low walls, each of which was stoutly defended by the Turks. However, Mustapha held back his best troops, the Sipahi’s and Janissaries, from the battle in anticipation of the imminent breach of Vienna’s walls.
The coalition pounded forward. Nevertheless, the Turk’s still outnumbered the attacking Christians. The battle continued all morning and all afternoon. Sobieski counseled his commanders that the objective of the day was to establish an advantageous position from which to begin the next day’s battle. He informed them that no battle of this magnitude could possibly be won in a single day. The broken terrain they were fighting over must be cleared before Sobieski’s trump card, the famed Polish Winged Hussars, could be unleashed to break the Turks.
All afternoon Lorraine and Waldeck begged Sobieski to charge as the Turks begrudgingly relinquished yard by painful yard. Sobieski wouldn’t relent: a premature charge would waste the striking power of the Hussars, who so far had never lost a battle. In a land that prided itself on its cavalry, the Husaria were a cut above. Only the richest and most competent of horsemen could afford and handle the accouterments of the Husaria. Armoured in a thick Sarmatian breastplate and a Germano/Roman helmet on the heaviest warhorse in Europe, the Polish Hussars were dedicated to the shock value of the charge. Heavily armed with an 18ft lance, a longsword like the knights of old, a sabre like any good Polish nobleman, a battle axe or Cossack warhammer for the melee, and a carbine and a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous French musketeers, the Husaria were meant for one thing and one thing only – to break an army with their charge.
The Husaria’s most distinctive feature was not their armour or weaponry, but their panoply. On his back, the well-to-do Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. This exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles on which flew hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars. The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.
The German, Imperial, and Polish infantry and cavalry pounded the Turkish lines, but still Sobieski would not release his hussars, much to the dismay of those who had fought face to face with the determined Turkish defense for almost twelve straight hours. At 4 pm, just an hour or so before the sun set which would bring an end to the fighting, the first breakthroughs occurred. Both Waldeck and then Lorraine reported that the walls and vineyards were cleared, followed closely by Sobieski’s own Poles. However, was there enough daylight to finish the battle before Mustapha’s sappers blew the mines under the Löbel bastion?
Sobieski, observing the disorganization in the Turkish lines and camp before him, gambled that there was. He ordered the Polish Hussars to charge, and every Pole, Austrian, and German with a horse to follow.
At 4:30 pm, 12 September 1683, 3000 Polish Winged Hussars, followed by 20,000 Polish Panzerini and Kozacy, Austrian and German Ritters, and any coalition fighter with a horse, charged the Turkish lines. The battle was in doubt for but minutes. The largest cavalry charge in history passed through the Turkish lines, then the Turkish camp, and didn’t stop until it was at the Gates of Vienna, five miles away. Upon seeing the effects of the charge, Starhemberg and Lubomirski sortied with the entire garrison and struck the elite Turkish Janissaries and Sipahis as they formed to stop the Husaria. The starving civilians of Vienna followed closely behind, fell upon the Turkish camp, especially the herds of cow and buffalo which they butchered on the spot, and ate their fill.
For but a brief moment, all of Christendom was united in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Gates of Vienna. King Jan III Sobieski was accompanied by Starhemberg and Lubomirski around the city to the rousing crowds of jubilant Viennese. The Viennese bakers created a fluffy crescent shaped pastry in honor of the victory over Islam which we know today as the “croissant.” And for the hardier folk, the Jewish bakers boiled some dough in a circle in honor of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. Today, we call them “bagels”. Kulczycki would eventually go on to open Vienna’s first cappuccino café after the battle with 200 sacks of coffee beans captured from the Turkish camp. With the all the magnificent plunder about, no one wanted the beans but Kulczycki. Vienna had coffee cafés previously, but Kulczycki’s was the first to serve the bitter liquid with sweetened steamed milk. He opened the “Blue Bottle Coffee House” and it was an immediate hit. (The café is still there, and yes, I’ve been there.) Word of the victory sparked wild celebration in Rome, Krakow, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and even London and Paris. But it was not to last.
Lorraine quickly sent word to Emperor Leopold that he needed to return promptly so that Sobieski wasn’t recognized as the savior of Vienna. German and Austrian contemporary accounts and later German historians would roll Lubomirski’s exploits into Starhemberg’s, and excise him completely from the historic record. Leopold was offended at Sobieski’s triumphal parade through Vienna and forbade any monument dedicated to him in the city. Waldeck was relegated to a Hapsburg puppet, instead of the leader of a large contingent of fiercely independent Germans who took on the brunt of Kara Mustapha’s defense and allowed the Polish cavalry to seize the day.
The Christian participants went on to form the Holy League against the Turks and reconquered Hungary, Transylvania, and parts of Serbia from the Ottomans. The battle signaled the Ottoman Empire’s irrevocable decline and they would never again threaten Europe.
Kara Mustapha Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, did not escape his green cord – the Sultan’s assassins strangled him in Belgrade on Christmas Day, 1683.