More Was Lost At Mohacs

In 1526, centuries of Hungarian independence were lost at the Battle of Mohacs, where their king and most of the nobility was killed in one fell swoop in ferocious combat with an Ottoman army. This experience, lamentable as it is, is by no means unique. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo, for example, is still remembered as a foundational moment by the Serbian people, whose freedom from Ottoman oppression was likewise extinguished as a result of the bloodbath there, an event which to this day causes political controversy given the status of Kosovo as a land inhabited mostly by Albanians thanks to centuries of Muslim rule over the Balkans.

Both the long suffering of the Hungarians and Serbs under Ottoman rule (and that of many other peoples throughout this world throughout history) relate strongly to a problem of demography and logistics. One of the darkest secrets of history, after all, is that genocide is often ultimately successful in its goals of crippling other nations because it attacks at the resource base that makes it possible for such a people to do anything at all, whether that is to farm or to learn or to do business or to marshal and supply its armed forces. This is not to say that a nation which has a large population and resource base will necessarily be a mighty one, only that a nation with too small of a resource base will eventually find itself unable to defend itself against aggression [1].

Ultimately, there are two sort of resource bases that must be protected and cared for by institutions and regimes. The first of these is the population itself and the territory of that population. Although we may be accustomed to looking only at elites, we must recognize the dependence of elites upon a larger body of relatively unknown citizens, unknown because most of these people are engaged in some kind of necessary labor but throughout history have left little trace in the historical record apart from their appearance on religious or civil bureaucratic data recording tax or tithe information, family size, and so forth. Populations must be of a certain size and a certain wealth in order to support activities that a state would wish to undertake. A large and populous nation might find itself unable to do much in the absence of wealth because its large population is at subsistence level and simply has no resources to undertake any other activities beyond the grim fight for survival. A small and wealthy nation, likewise, might have a great deal of income but will lack the forces to defend its territory and might have to rely on mercenaries or strength in diplomacy, making even its survival a chancy matter that depends on actions taken on a generation by generation or crisis by crisis basis. Most nations and institutions are simply not fortunate enough to prosper on this basis.

The second resource base that must be protected is that of the leaders themselves. One of the key problems of decadence is that when corruption affects those who by virtue of education and inclination are leaders of men (and women) or when disaster eliminates or critically weakens that body of leaders, then the length of time it takes to train or develop substitutes is often far too lengthy for a recovery to be possible in the midst of a crisis. A nation that loses its leadership base in a single battle does not generally have a generation to wait for a new crop of potential leaders (lacking in good mentors, no less) to recover the loss. Rather, that sudden and irreparable loss will generally lead to long-lasting difficulties as a consequence of those logistical and demographic realities, similar to those suffered after a similarly massive loss of population and territory.

There are exceptions that prove the rule. In 1806 and 1807, the Kingdom of Prussia fought nearly singlehandedly (it was belatedly helped by Russia) against Napoleonic France, having its vaunted army crushed and forced to make a peace that cost it half of its territory and population. Yet these people were not killed, nor did Prussia lose its leadership in those disastrous battles, meaning that with proper reforms and a greater level of spirit on the part of the population to rise up against the hated French, less than a decade later a Prussia with half of the territory and population was able to field an army twice as strong and regain its lost land (and more) in the peace that ended the Napoleonic Wars in a victory for the Sixth Alliance. What happened to Prussia was a temporary defeat that did not threaten either the long-term viability of the resource base or of its leadership. More was lost at Mohacs, when the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers was combined with a loss of nearly the entire leadership base of the Hungarian nation, something that could not be replaced quickly enough to spare the nation from domination between its enemies.

Something else happened to of even greater importance to Hungary (and to other nations in its position). The partition of Hungary between the Austrians and Turks led the area of Hungary to be a battlefield for centuries, as warfare and raiding led to depopulation and impoverishment. One of the many insidious ways in which warfare harms populations is in the diversion of efforts from productive endeavors to self-defense or violence which could otherwise be used to the benefit of themselves and their communities. Another way warfare tends to damage the long term health of a nation is by the destruction of infrastructure and of trust, both of which are necessary for development and widespread economic growth [2].

A nation of peasants without leadership does not account for much in the course of the world. There must be people willing and able to lead for the potential of people to be realized. While most people shy away from the burdens of deep and serious reflection and thought and strategic planning, and the marshaling of resources, it is these activities that provide for growth and progress in any field of human endeavor. Those who are drawn to such activities, and who show a sense of diligence in them, will tend to be rewarded with opportunities to serve and lead, and when those people serve others and not only themselves, their actions can lead to great improvement.

Yet these elites must succeed in a variety of tasks that are not always easy to understand or appreciate. It is one thing for an elite culture to be developed generation over generation and passed on through the cultivation of children or other students, but that elite depends on a larger body of support and resources, which means that a wise leader will always attend to the well-being of the population at large, whose excess resources go into the development of strength, efforts at expansion, and taxation for government projects. In light of this obvious requirement of a thriving populace to lead to a thriving nation as a whole, it is remarkable that so many elites would rather have a large piece of a small pie at the cost of permanent social unrest than have a smaller piece of a much larger pie where their legitimacy is aided by their serving the interests of others. Greed is only good, after all, when the desire for gain is not selfish in its sweep, but seeks after mutually beneficial efforts by which that gain is shared by all.

So, what was lost by the Hungarians at Mohacs and by the Serbs at Kosovo and by other peoples in other disastrous times? It was the loss of direction, the loss of leaders, and leaving behind only a large group of people without vision or training or skill in leadership to be ruled over by greedy neighbors taking advantage of a temporary disaster to seek permanent change. Whether it is a battle, a plague, a war of succession, a genocide, or some other way that this particular change is sought, the end-goal is the same. One’s enemies never cease to work in such a way that they can exploit whatever disasters occur for their own selfish benefit. To the extent that our survival depends on perfection, any slip-up will be fatal. It is far better to build the resources by which success become far more likely, even if that requires far more time, even generations to achieve.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, International Relations, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More Was Lost At Mohacs

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Pessimist’s Guide To History | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Timor | Edge Induced Cohesion

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