The Sons of Sobieski Reclaim Their Catholic Identity

Perhaps the most mesmerizing scene in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the moment when the Lord of the Nazgul faces Gandalf at the fallen gate of Minas Tirith.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

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Just as the first part of his description of the siege of Gondor is reminiscent of that of Constantinople in 1453, so too does this scene echo an important one in real life: the unlooked-for arrival of John III Sobieski and the Polish army to break the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683.

But more compelling than any fiction is the real-life story of the heroism of the defenders, the providential nature of their salvation, and its incalculable benefit for Europe—so much so that Bl. Pope Innocent XI instituted the feast of the Holy Name of Mary to commemorate Sobieski’s victory (the Polish King had placed his army under the Virgin’s protection). As Dom Guéranger recounts in The Liturgical Year,

the Turks, who had more than once caused the West to tremble, again poured down upon Christendom. Vienna, worn out and dismantled, abandoned by its emperor, was surrounded by 300,000 infidels. But another great Pope, Innocent XI, again confided to Mary the defense of the baptized nations. Sobieski, mounting his charger on the feast of our Lady’s Assumption, hastened from Poland by forced marches.

On the Sunday within the octave of the Nativity, September 12, 1683, Vienna was delivered; and then began for the Osmanlis that series of defeats which ended in the treaties of Carlowitz and Passarowitz, and the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire. The feast of the most holy name of Mary inscribed on the calendar of the universal Church, was the homage of the world’s gratitude to Mary, our Lady and Queen.

Had Vienna fallen, the history of Europe and the world would have been much different and far worse, and traditionally the Viennese have marked the anniversary of their deliverance. The Kahlenberg, the mount outside the city whereon Sobieski surveyed the battle boasts a chapel in memory of the event.

Indeed, nothing would appear more natural than to commemorate a battle that rates at least as high as Gettysburg or the Normandy Beaches in historical importance. Unfortunately, in 21st-century Austria, as in the rest of the Western Nations, “natural” has come to mean very different things to different people – one man’s simple reason is another’s trigger.

So it was that, on September 7, a group calling itself Gedenken 1683 (“Remembrance 1683”) planned to carry out a commemorative ceremony on the Kahlenberg. As they said on their website,

History is not just something past for us, but an elementary component of our identity and therefore a prerequisite for our present and future. We therefore express our explicit commitment to a positive and identity-creating approach to our memory and associate our work with an explicitly patriotic basic consensus.

But as in the United States, where honoring Columbus and the Confederate dead has morphed into a thought crime, so too in Austria.

Those behind the ceremony were the Austrian branch of a group found in several European nations, the Identitarian movement. Routinely denounced in the press and by the bien pensant media folk, their members are young, and so have grown up in the cultural void produced in Europe by the secularizing semi-Marxist Generation of ’68. In fact, their views run a wide range—from traditional European throne-and-altar conservatism to just this side of neo-fascism, from Latin Mass Catholicism to neo-paganism.

One may well argue the merits of their views, but surely the worst way to deal with the Identitarians is living up to their darkest suspicions. If one finds disquieting their belief that there is a conspiracy on the part of the ruling elites to drown the native European cultures in an Islamic tide, then encouraging Muslim immigration and attempting to cover up the resulting crimes is probably unwise. If one scoffs at their conviction that the rulership intends to muzzle dissent through unsavory means, then the events outside Vienna that September 7 were an enormous mistake.

For, right on cue, the good people of Antifa turned out to protest the ceremony. They cut off the routes to the Kahlenberg; the police did nothing to keep them open. Through the modern miracle of social media, the Identitarians called off the Kahlenberg event, opting for a banner-and-torchlight procession through the streets of the Inner City of Vienna instead. Antifa were left to keep lonely vigil in the rain, taking out their annoyance by beating up a few random hikers who had not heard about what was going on.

Local media coverage the next day was in some cases almost comical. Several journals featured identical descriptions of the anniversary: “The memory of the victory over the Turks in 1683 is upheld by right-wing extremists worldwide, including the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and the Christchurch assassin.” Truly, such an Orwellian statement beggars belief. One cannot imagine a better way to convince those that know their history that the Identitarians must be on to something.

If Austrian media are keen on expanding the Identitarian ranks, they could not have done a better job. Presuming that these young people are wrong, fighting them with lies is an utterly insane tactic. Worse, it raises an uncomfortable specter about their views on the connection between history and national identity: what if they are right?

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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