The sixth stop on the grand march through Poland’s history is the only one that refers to the tradition of our arms: the breaking of the siege of Vienna in 1683.
The Polish Kingdom was on the border of the expansionist power of the Ottoman Empire from the first half of the 16th century, from the moment when the Turkish storm broke Hungary, previously poised as the bulwark of Christian Europe. The main Turkish thrust then was aimed at Austria, at the capital of the Habsburg empire – Vienna. At the beginning of the 17th century, however, conflict with Turkey was impossible for Poland-Lithuania to avoid. After the defeat suffered in 1620 at Cecora, Moldova, where hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski himself fell, in the following year the Rzeczpospolita had to face the entire military strength of the Ottoman Empire led by Sultan Osman II. In the camp near Chocim, the Polish-Lithuanian-Cossack army, under the command of Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, stopped the more than 100,000-strong Turkish army and saved the integrity of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Half a century later, Turkey struck again with all its might. In 1672, its forces took Kamieniec Podolski and moved against Lwów. The Rzeczpospolita signed a disgraceful peace in Buczacz, under which it lost the Podolia and Bracław provinces, along with the southern part of Kiev, and agreed to pay an annual, humiliating tribute to Istanbul. The nobles, however, refused to ratify the Buczacz dishonor and passed taxes, allowing the war to be pressed on against the Turks. This is when the military genius of the then Grand Crown Hetman, Jan Sobieski, shone out. The great-grandson of Stanisław Żółkiewski became the avenger of the bones of his great ancestor. Sobieski defeated the Turkish army, including in the battle of Chocim (1673), and then, as the newly elected king of Poland – again near Żurawno (1676). The truce that was signed at that time allowed for the recovery of some of the previously lost lands, but Kamieniec remained in Turkish hands. King Jan III Sobieski then turned his political efforts towards the Baltic. However, it was his duty to recover all the lands lost to Turkey.
When at the beginning of 1683 the Ottoman empire began preparations for the next great offensive against the Habsburg Empire, and a huge army under the command of vizier Kara Mustafa headed for Vienna, the Sejm of the Rzeczpospolita, in accord with the intention of the king, decided to conclude an alliance with the imperiled Christian empire. In exchange for this alliance, the Habsburgs renounced all grievances arising from the help their army and diplomacy had given to Poland-Lithuania during the Swedish-Moscow Deluge of the mid-century. The army mobilized by Jan III, with a strength of over 25,000 soldiers, set out at the beginning of September through Moravia to Vienna, then besieged by the Turks. After meeting up with armies from the German principalities, also marching to help Vienna, the King of Poland stood at the head of the combined army. As the commander-in-chief, he directed a daring, but at the same time well-planned attack on the over 100,000-strong army of Kara Mustafa. The decisive role was played by the charge of 20,000, mostly Polish heavy cavalrymen – hussars. The Turkish army was forced to flee in panic. The siege against Vienna was lifted. Jan III Sobieski, together with his Polish hussars, had saved the capital of the Christian empire. The pressure of Islam against Europe collapsed at this very moment, at least until the 21st century. Right after the battle the king wrote to his wife, Marysieńka: “Our Lord and God, forever may He be praised, has given victory and glory to our nation like no bygone centuries have ever heard”. This victorious moment, this glory, the Lukians tried to capture in their painting, emphasizing the role of the defenders of Christianity, of European civilization, which Sobieski’s hussars took upon themselves. Yet gratitude on the part of Austria the Rzeczpospolita was not to receive. Kamieniec and the entire region of Podolia would be recovered after the death of Sobieski, together with the peace treaty with Turkey concluded in 1699 in Karłowice.
The Poles in 1939, however, remembered their breaking of the siege of Vienna as a moment of deserved glory. All the more so as the role of Europe’s bulwark had recently been played again – when Poland shielded Europe from the Bolshevik onslaught in 1920. The victorious commander of “the Miracle on the Vistula”, Marshal Piłsudski, in 1933, on the 250th anniversary of the victory at Vienna, received a parade of 12 cavalry regiments at Błonia outside Kraków and paid homage to his great predecessor – the victor from Vienna. This tradition was depicted by the Lukians – not yet knowing that in a few months the Polish army would again perform the role of bulwark, this time attacked by barbarians on both sides: Germans and Soviets. And then, too, ingratitude on the part of the West would be Poland’s experience.