One of the defining aspects of Hungarian history are the catastrophic military defeats the nation has suffered on a recurrent basis. In 1241, the Mongol Invasion decimated the country. Less than three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks inflicted a devastating defeat at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. They repeated the feat again in Buda a mere fifteen years later. In 1711 Rakoczi’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs ended in a resounding defeat. In somewhat the same manner, the 1848 Revolution brought yet another loss to the Habsburgs (with a major assist from the Russians). Then there was World War I. A conflict that involved more than just lost battles, it also saw the nation’s finest men disappear on far flung battlefields. The Kingdom of Hungary disintegrated in the aftermath, losing 72% of its territory in the peace settlement that followed. Less than twenty-five years later, caught between the Nazis and Soviets, the Hungarian people were among the worst hit by the violent vortex of the Second World War’s final months. In a sort of dark coda, a decisive blow was delivered by the Soviet Union that brought the 1956 Revolution to its knees.
Stopping Point: The Walls Of Eger Castle
This succession of military calamities might make a person wonder how Hungary has managed to survive up to the present day. Or they might marvel at the nation’s resilience to rise again and again from the ashes, while sustaining a cultural life that has been the envy of Eastern Europe. It certainly says something about the Hungarian people’s character that they have not just survived, but also managed to thrive despite this history. The subtitle of journalist Paul Lendvai’s popular history of Hungary perhaps says it best, “One Thousand Years of Victory In Defeat.” And no place in Hungary is more reflective of that phrase “Victory in Defeat” than the city of Eger, site of a famous siege in 1552.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks controlled a large part of Hungary and were closing in on Eger. Their goal was two-fold, subdue Eger and move on towards Kassa (present day Kosice, Slovakia) where vast wealth could be found in its gold and silver mines. At the same time, this success would also open a new supply route westward for another attempted siege of Vienna. The Ottomans arrived at Eger with approximately 40,000 men, a load of artillery and surprisingly, a massive herd of 2,000 camels. By contrast, the Hungarian force was a motley assemblage of 2,200 soldiers, peasants and a few dozen women. The defenders withdrew behind the towering walls of Eger castle. They placed their hopes on heavy artillery and the seeming impregnability of the fortress walls.
Fighting For Kingdom & Birthright: The Siege Of Eger
The vast numerical advantage of the Turks was considerable, but mitigated by the fact that the Hungarians had a fantastic leader in Istvan Dobo as well as an expert tactician, Gergely Bornemissza. Dobo, a land owning noble from northern Hungary, was literally fighting for his family’s birthright. He oversaw the fighting force throughout the battle. His leadership was probably worth several thousand troops. Dobo was able to keep the defender’s morale at a peak level, in contrast to the Ottomans who were riven by infighting. Dobo’s best lieutenant was the infantry commander Bornemissza who had a knack for creating makeshift yet deadly weapons. The most famous turned out to be a water mill wheel filled with gunpowder that would both explode and spread fire. He also developed grenades and powder keg bombs packed with such incendiaries, as oil and sulfur.
Repeatedly the Ottomans found fire raining down on them from the towering castle walls they were unable to scale. Some of this fire came at the hands of female defenders who took to pouring oil on to the enemy, which would then ignite. For thirty-nine bitter and hard fought days, the resourceful Hungarians used every stratagem available to keep the attackers at bay. Finally the Turks withdrew. They had suffered an unexpected defeat. Beaten soundly by a force they had outnumbered nearly twenty to one.
Defining Traits – The Hungarian Will: Resisting Conquest
The Siege of Eger was a legendary victory that echoed down through the centuries. It became a milestone, often repeated in Hungarian historical lore. Case in point, the most famous literary work on the siege of Eger was written over three hundred years later. In 1899, Geza Gardonyi penned the fictional novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Gardonyi literally walled himself off in his room to maintain focus (and perhaps recreate the same siege mentality of the defenders) while writing the book. It portrays the heroism and courage of the defenders in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Today it is required reading for all Hungarian school students. Both Eger Castle and Gardonyi’s nearby home can be visited on a trip to the city. Visitors can look down from the castle walls and imagine the Hungarians valiantly fighting off the mighty Ottomans. The Siege of Eger showed the Turks that the Hungarians would not surrender to absolute conquest. This trait, holding out against all odds, gaining small, but important victories among cataclysmic defeats has defined Hungarians in both medieval and modern history.