“Worse Was Lost at Mohacs” – Hungary’s Historical Psychosis

Mohács is a word fraught with meaning for Hungarians. The word, or more appropriately the name, has come to symbolize more than just a 16th century battle. Mohács has become a byword for the succession of tragedies which have recurred in Hungarian history. Over the past several centuries whenever Hungarians suffered at the hands of historical fate, they have been consoled with the statement, “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.” Roughly translated this means, “worse was lost at Mohács.” Thus the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1956, the losses in World Wars I and II, the curses of fascism and communism all pale in comparison with what happened to Hungary in a few tragic hours at the Battle of Mohács . What resulted was no less than both the end of medieval Hungary and also its end as a major European power. To Hungarians nothing could be worse than the loss at Mohács. For a people who have suffered more than their fair share of catastrophes, the Battle of Mohács ranks as the seminal disaster in Hungarian history. It is hard to overstate just how devastating the battle was to the future course of Hungary.

Battle of Mohács

A 16th century Ottoman artistic rendering of the Battle of Mohács

Disunited – The Long Road To Defeat
In the decades leading up to Mohács, Hungarian society was riven by infighting. Following the death of King Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadi Mátyás) in 1490, the landed nobility asserted their authority. They made sure that the weakest king they could find was placed on the throne. This turned out to be Vladislaus II (Ulászló II), who would soon acquire the nickname “Ok Ulászló” because he agreed with any and all of the nobility’s demands. Vladislaus II handed over most of the royal estates to the nobility in order to satisfy them. Without the income from these lands, the crown became severely indebted and expenditures on border defense against Ottoman incursions in southern Hungary fell to a trickle. Meanwhile, the nobility spent decades mistreating the peasantry.  Their actions included passing discriminatory laws and increasing taxes on those who worked the land. This led to a full scale peasant revolt in 1514.

The rebellion was put down with an extraordinary amount of violence, followed by the imposition of onerous laws which enshrined the largest landholder’s privileges at the expense of not only the peasantry, but the lesser nobility as well. This was soon followed by the accession of a youthful, inexperienced and weak king, Louis II (Lajos II) to the throne. These events made Hungary ripe for conquest by the Ottoman Turks who had been constantly testing the porous border defenses of Southern Hungary. The situation would come to a head in the late afternoon of August 29, 1526 as the Imperial Ottoman army met Hungarian forces on an uneven plain near the Danube River and the town of Mohács in southern Hungary.

Battle of Mohács - painting by Bertalan Székely

Battle of Mohács – painting by Bertalan Székely

Drawn & Quartered – An Army & A Kingdom Fall Apart
The Hungarian forces arrayed that day on the fields near Mohács had wasted months just getting organized. Only when the enemy threat was clear and present did the stubborn, selfish nobility heed Louis II’s call to arms. Their behavior contributed as much to the Hungarian defeat as did the formidable Ottoman war machine. The Ottoman army at Mohács was at least twice the size of the Hungarian one, with a decided advantage in firepower and fighting prowess. In simplified terms, the battle went as follows. The Hungarians charged the center of the Ottoman line. At first, they made some minor gains, but the Ottomans unleashed a devastating counterattack on the Hungarian flanks utilizing a lethal combination of accurate artillery fire and crack troops. The Hungarian forces quickly crumbled before the onslaught. What followed was encirclement and near total destruction. The Ottomans took few prisoners. Sources state that the Ottomans killed thousands of captives by having them drawn and quartered. Louis II, the 20 year old Hungarian king, was said to have drowned in a stream while trying to escape the field of battle. Few of the defeated were able to escape the battlefield alive or for that matter with their limbs intact.

It was not just 28,000 Hungarian soldiers and assorted mercenary troops that were wiped out on that rainy, late summer’s day. The loss opened a massive gap in central Europe’s defenses. The Ottoman Turks were now free to head north and west, forge deeper into Europe, where in coming years they would besiege Vienna. As for the legacy of Mohács, this set in motion Ottoman occupation of the Hungarian heartland for most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Another swath of Hungary that bordered Ottoman occupied territory became a no man’s land, acting as a permanent war zone with resulting depopulation, deforestation and starvation in those areas. The loss at Mohács led to even greater losses for Hungary, losses from which the Kingdom would never recover. Mohács effectively ended Hungary’s status as a European power forever. It would take nearly three centuries before Hungary would regain complete independence from foreign rule.

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

All Was Lost –Memorializing Mohács
Today the Historical Memorial Park of Mohács is as close as Hungarians and foreign tourists can get to the watershed battle. The Park has a visitor center that is built in the shape of the Hungarian crown. Unfortunately, the visitor center provides limited information and interpretation on the battle. The park contains the site of a mass grave with approximately 400 bodies of those killed in the battle. There are symbolic carvings posted around this burial site. The site is a somber, morose place. It is believed that some of the battle may have taken place near here, but no one can be quite sure. The plain where the battle was fought continues to elude discovery. It is strange that such an important place in Hungarian (and Central European) history was never marked. Then again would it really matter if the specific site was known? In effect, locating the battle site would please a few historical purists and battlefield buffs. For the majority of Hungarians, knowing the actual place would be just another reminder of their ill-fated history. Besides, they get enough painful reminders each time someone says “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.”  

 

 

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