Sukhoi Su-11 (1947)

Since the Su-9 was first proposed as a TR-1- powered fighter, things had come full circle. The airframe and guns were unchanged from the Su-9, only the Su-11 ‘s engine nacelles and position on the wing had been altered to any visible degree. The Su-11 (also known as ‘Izdeliye LK’ for aircraft ‘K’ fitted with Lyul’ka engines) made its first flight on 28th May 1947, but the engines gave insufficient power, preventing the fighter from reaching its specified performance. In addition it suffered from a lack of longitudinal stability at high speeds plus several other problems, and so was soon abandoned. By the end of April 1948 the aircraft had been scrapped but its wing went to TsAGI for static structure testing. In flight the Su-11 showed only a slight increase in ceiling over the Su-9 to 13,000m (42,651ft) but took just 3.6 minutes to reach 5,000m (16,404ft).

ManufacturerOKB Sukhoi
Year of construction (s)1947
length10.55 m
Wingspan11.8 m
Wing area21.4 m²
drivetwo Lyulka TR-1
power12.7 kN each
Top speed925 km / h near the ground
940 km / h at an altitude of 800 m
Rise time3.2 min at 5,000 m
Service ceiling13,000 m
Range900 km
Empty weight4,495 kg
All-up weight6,350 kg
crew1 pilot
Armamenttwo 23 mm MK NS-23,
one 37 mm MK N-37 or
one 45 mm MK N-45


Between Ottoman Europe and that other Europe, which saw itself as the only true one (Europe identified itself with Christendom), a line was drawn. It shifted with the Turks’ advance, just as, at the end of the modern period, it would follow their first retreats. When the Ottoman Empire had reached its maximum extension, that line (or rather, that buffer zone) cut diagonally across the European continent, from roughly the Caspian Sea to the Adriatic. To the east, it ran through the northern steppes of the Black Sea, moving northwest of that sea toward central Europe, following the southern edges of Lithuania and Poland. It then crossed northern Hungary and returned south through Croatia. Farther to the west, opposite the western basin of the Mediterranean Sea, that “sea of fear”—in the striking expression of the Italian historian Giuseppe Bonaffini—marked the separation between the “Land of the Franks” and the Maghreb of the Barbary regencies. The eastern basin, on the contrary, where the Ottoman possessions and the scattered fragments of Venetian Romania overlapped a great deal, became an “Ottoman lake,” as these fragments were eliminated one after another.

In a Europe that also included many other cleavages of all kinds, that split became the major border, often compared to the “iron curtain” following World War II. It was a political border separating a single state, that of the “well-guarded countries of Islam”—which also extended over a part of Africa and Asia—from several distinct Christian states. But it was much more than that: it was perceived on both sides as separating two worlds that stood opposed by their religions and more broadly, by their irreducibly different civilizations. That, at least, was the view arising from the respective ideologies previously described. On the Christian side, the Polish and Hungarian borders were so many ramparts or fortifications of Christendom. On the other side, three border fortresses were designated “Sedd-i islm” (barricade of Islam): one in Herzegovina; one in the sanjak of Qirqa near Zemn; and one in the sanjak of Vidin. A fourth, also in the sanjak of Vidin, present-day Kladovo, was called “Feth-i islm” (Conquest of Islam). Belgrade was given the nickname “Dr ül-Jihd.”

Simultaneously, a mysticism of the border (serhdd) developed among the Ottomans, sustained by the holy orders of dervishes. It made reference to the early glory days of Islam at war and gave rise, in the most prosaic everyday life, to holy figures in touch with the afterlife and endowed with supernatural powers. We therefore read in the vita of Sheikh Muslihuddn of Smreska, a spiritual master of the border: “In his time, on all sides the governors and sovereigns acted with his support and, in confrontations with the enemy as in the expeditions of gzis, in his presence and in his absence, they appealed to the departed one for help.” One day, that sheikh was seen in the company of a man who looked like an irregular soldier (a levend), with whom he conversed on familiar terms. When the stranger left, the sheikh asked one of his dervishes: “Have you seen the levend? He is of the Seven.” Referring to the mystic doctrine of Ibn ‘Arab, the biographer explains: “He meant by that that the sheikh was in the position of a pole (kutb), and that he knew the hidden saints (rijl) who were beneath him. But God is the most knowing!”

The symbols used to represent the two opposing sacralized worlds after the conclusion of peace treaties, when mixed commissions sought jointly to realize on the ground the line that separated them, were of the same register. In Dalmatia, crosses carved on tree trunks or on walls of rock delimited Venetian territory, crescent moons that of the Ottomans Similarly, during the Polish-Ottoman demarcation in 1680, four years after the truce of urawno between the two countries, stone mounds were erected on either side to mark the border. On the top of the mounds, the Poles planted crosses, and the Ottomans piled up pieces of wood shaped like turbans. A soldier in the escort of the Polish commissars reported: “When it came time to build mounds, the Turks, using spades they had attached to their saddles, built in a flash a mound of earth, after digging around a large trunk of an oak tree found in the middle. Once the work was completed, their superiors climbed on top of the mound and barked like dogs, their faces turned to the sky, thanking God for having conquered all that by their swords.”

That strong symbolic investment did not prevent the Islamic-Christian border from being, in actual fact, a border like any other in many respects, with the ambiguities common to border situations. A border is both a separation and a passageway, whether official or secret. It can institute an artificial break between ethnically and even religiously similar populations (for example, the Serbs and the Croats on either side of the Ottoman-Hungarian border), or those who, in any event, share a way of life. A border therefore makes no sense for transhumant shepherds or for fishermen in quest of waters full of fish. At the same time, in contrast to “the interior,” it is a place of constant tensions, of “border incidents,” and of contacts and exchanges of all natures.

That Islamic-Christian border, imposed by events, was fundamentally a scandal for both parties. Each saw it as the stigma of an unacceptable situation. For the Christians, it was the mark of an illegitimate presence that had amputated part of their continent, the painful materialization of a historical anomaly. For the Ottomans, the border signified the nonfulfillment of their mission. So long as it survived, it reminded them of their failure; it stood as a reproach. The fact is, it took them a long time to admit openly the reality of their borders. Only a painful learning process would persuade them that they did not rule over a virtually universal empire but over a particular state, which, like other states, had its limits. The preamble to a border demarcation act (sinurnme) with Poland in 1680, inserted in the census registry of the Ottoman province of Podolia, took care to recall, in very stereotypical terms in fact, that though the document that followed had to do with borders, these were not to be taken too seriously, since only God entrusts kingdoms to the rulers of the world here below. A Hadith is evoked promising that, sooner or later, all the territories of unbelievers would become accessible to the warriors of Islam. Already, it was observed, the infidels had begun to desert by fleeing their ramparts, their fortresses, and their forts. As other texts on the subject of diplomacy indicated, fixing the borders could follow only from the principle of “dissimulation” (mudara). It was not until the late eighteenth century—1772 to be exact—that, drawing the lessons from the dramatic setbacks suffered at the hands of Russia, an Ottoman diplomat, Ahmed Resmi, ventured to send a “council treaty” (layiha) to Muhsinzde, grand vizier of the time, expressly recommending that the empire be maintained within the defined borders and condemning dreams of excessive expansion.


Rejected by both parties on principle, the Islamic-Christian border was a militarized border or, to borrow the expression that would be used for the Habsburg border after the Treaty of Karlowitz, a “military border” (Militärgrenze). It was not a continuous rampart over the entire length of the border, a “Great Wall of China”; rather, more complex defense systems appeared on several key segments of it. These were a combination of major fortresses several lines deep, built of stone, and following whenever possible the most modern principles of military architecture (the trace italienne, or bastioned fortress), and of a whole set of forts and guard posts possessing more rudimentary and much less burdensome alert systems. Such was the case for the stockades (palanques; the word, like the object itself, existed on both sides of the Hungarian border): forts surrounded by a defensive wall made of tree trunks into which loopholes had been cut, encircled by a moat. Such structures existed on the Ottoman as well as the Christian side, sometimes separated by very large distances, as in the steppes of the Black Sea. In both cases, depending on the circumstances, they could have an offensive as well as a defensive role: they were used as a base for launching occasional harassment raids in the Kleinkrieg but also for operations of greater scope in times of declared war. The border was never inert, even when, officially, it was peacetime. The very existence of a permanent military presence meant that local incidents would invariably break out in one place or another. In 1567, for example, Emperor Maximilian was moving toward peace with the Turks, yet he nevertheless wrote to one of his officers, captain of the fortress of Kiskomáron, south of Lake Balaton: “Keep your soldiers at the ready as if there were no peace at all.”


In the center of Europe, the need to build a barrier against the Ottoman advance emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sigismund of Luxemburg, king of Hungary, set in place a system whose cornerstone was Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár), ceded by George Brankovi, the despot of Serbia. One of his successors, King Matthias Corvinus (1458–1490), reorganized that old defense system to make it more coherent and unified. It was now divided into three sectors: to the west, the sector of Croatia-Dalmatia and Slavonia, placed under the authority of a single commander, or ban; in the center, a second sector called Lower Danube, under the authority of the “captain general of the lower regions of the kingdom of Hungary”; and finally, to the east, a third unit of defense under the authority of the voivode of Transylvania. Farther back from the border, the system was complemented by two other parallel fortress systems.

The conquest of Belgrade by Sleyman the Magnificent in 1521 dealt a fatal blow to that system. A few decades later, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Ferdinand of Habsburg’s ambassador, would draw a military lesson from that event, which he judged key: “It is clear that this event threw open the flood-gates and admitted the tide of troubles in which Hungary is now engulfed. Its first approach involved the death of King Louis, the capture of Buda, the enslavement of Transylvania, the overthrow of a flourishing kingdom, and an alarm among neighboring nations lest the same fate should befall them also.” And he concluded: “These events ought to be a lesson to the princes of Christendom and make them realize that, if they wish to be safe, they cannot be too careful in securing their fortifications and strongholds against the enemy.” But in the wake of 1521, it appeared that the kingdom of Hungary, threatened by such an adversary, did not have the means to assure its own defense. In a sense, Hungary had to “internationalize” it. The young king, Louis II Jagellon, appealed for the support of one more powerful than he, his brother-in-law and ally, Ferdinand of Habsburg, Charles V’s younger brother. Ferdinand was archduke of Austria, and, after Louis II’s accidental death, he would become king of Hungary and Bohemia. During the siege of Belgrade, he sent thousands of Germanic foot soldiers from the hereditary possessions of the Habsburgs to rescue the city. The Ottomans were victorious. In 1522, King Louis II granted Peter Berislavic, ban of Croatia (Croatia had been associated with Hungary by a personal union since 1102), permission to entrust the defense of the Croatian border to Ferdinand, which made Habsburg a de facto suzerain of Croatia. Subsequently, on January 1, 1527, following on the Battle of Mohács, Ferdinand was elected king of Croatia, in exchange for the pledge to defend the country against the Turks. So began the organization of the Habsburg border of Croatia, which would serve as a prototype for the very long Habsburg border generally. The line of that Croatian border with the Turks remained almost unaltered until the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, which would change the rules of the game by placing Bosnia-Herzegovina under Austrian administration. As for the Hungarian part of the border, it was first drawn with the tripartition of the kingdom in 1541: the center became an Ottoman province; the east a principality of Transylvania, vassal of the Ottomans; and the north and west a “Royal Hungary” in the hands of the Habsburgs. At that date, the border began east of the Maros and Temes valleys, then followed the northern edge of the Hungarian great plain to the center and southwest of Transdanubia, finally reaching Slavonia. But unlike the Croatian border, the Hungarian border, nibbled away by the Turks, continued to evolve during the rest of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the same time, the Habsburgs came to emphasize the Christian and therefore transnational character of the enormous border, which they defended over hundreds of kilometers, from the Carpathians to the Adriatic. In particular, the needs of a centralized organization impelled them to “denationalize” or “exterritorialize,” and also to Germanize, the corresponding zones. German subsidies, obtained with some difficulty from the diets of the Reich, in large part financed that system. It was therefore not only the populations directly threatened or actually affected by the Turkish peril but others as well, across Mitteleuropa as a whole, who assumed the tax burden. The argument given to those for whom the peril was more remote tended to be more religious than national.

The agricultural zones entrusted to settlers behind the lines of fortresses, as well as the fortresses themselves, now escaped the influence of the magnates and traditional institutions, both Croatian and Hungarian. The Habsburgs placed them under Austrian military authority, which, as of 1556, took the form of the Wiener Hofkriegsrat, or Consilium Bellicum. That war council, established in Vienna, assumed the centralized command and military administration of the Turkish border, and also oversaw diplomatic relations with Istanbul. A bureau of experts and an administration, which developed over time and split into specialized bureaus, aided the council. Prince Eugene of Savoy, champion of the fight against the Turks in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (his martial statue would later be erected in front of the Habsburg Palace on Castle Hill), was war council president from 1703 to 1736. As of 1578, there was also a War Council of Inner Austria (Inner-Österreichischer Hofkriegsrat), established in Gratz until 1705, which controlled the border of Croatia and Slavonia.

The Hungarian and Croatian troops were not sufficient to cover the border, and the Habsburgs, like the authorities in charge of the other segments of the border with the Turks, and like the Turks themselves, were obliged to use every means at their disposal. As Sigismund of Luxemburg had done in his time, they used Orthodox Serbian settlers (Soldatenbauer) and many kinds of religious dissidents. Those attending the large military conference held in Vienna in 1577 even planned to establish the Teutonic Order in Hungary, which seemed logical, since that order, created in the Holy Land during the Crusades, had been installed in Prussia in the thirteenth century to fight the pagan Slavs. They never realized that plan, but they did establish German mercenaries alongside other elements in the Hungarian fortresses. That presence elicited the sharpest of criticisms from the diets of Hungary, which considered the Germans even more barbarous than the Turks. The crimes and impieties they attributed to them reached the level of atrocities. The “remonstrances” (gravamina) of the Diet of 1662 portrayed these German mercenaries as follows: “Against the peasants they have perpetrated homicide, torture, rape, even murder following rape, such that they have committed worse violence than the Turks. They have not even respected the sacred character of the churches but have acted out their guilty passions on prepubescent minors who took refuge in these churches; they even went so far as to cut children to pieces and threw others into the fire.” If these words are not merely an expression of xenophobia and the violence actually went that far—if, that is, some chose the churches to indulge in their abominations—we must believe that undesirables could be found on the ramparts of Christendom!


Kazakh warrior in padded armour, 15th-16th century


Alert systems as well as forts and bastions were also set up on the coasts and islands, which the opposing fleets and pirates of all sorts threatened. In its Stato da mare, Venice especially undertook impressive fortification projects with state-of-the-art technology against the Turks. But that statement must be qualified, since one of Venice’s finest accomplishments, the citadel of Nicosia in Cyprus, fell into the hands of the Turkish besiegers within two months; by contrast, the siege of Famagusta, which did not benefit from the same technical advances, lasted no fewer than eleven months.

In the marine zones, the notion of border was obviously hazier, and defense meant primarily control of strategic points.

In that sense, the entrances to the straits leading to Istanbul represented an essential “border” for the Ottomans. The first fortresses they built on the Bosphorus before the taking of Constantinople—Anadolu Hisri, constructed by Bayezid I in 1394, and Rmeli Hisri, built by Mehmed II in 1452—were intended to blockade the Bosphorus and thus prevent any rescue by sea of the besieged Byzantines. Once the city was captured, the sultan was anxious to preserve it from all external aggression. The threat came primarily by sea, usually from the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, since the Black Sea was becoming an “Ottoman lake.” Under these conditions, it was the entrance to the Dardanelles especially that the conqueror was anxious to fortify, building new fortresses on either side of the strait: Kal‘e-i Sultniye in Asia, near ancient Abydos; and Kilid al-Bahr on the European coast. He also had the island of Tenedos (Bozcaada) fortified. Süleyman the Magnificent would again restore the two castles in the Dardanelles in 1551, but they gradually fell into neglect in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, since the decline of Venice left few worries in that regard. By contrast, during the War of Crete, they once again became a very sensitive zone. Mehmed II’s two castles were again restored and two new forts built at the entrance to the Aegean Sea: Sedd al-Bahr on the European bank and Kum Kal‘e on the Asian side. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–1774, because the Russians had entered the Mediterranean, there was a need for two new forts on the banks of the Dardanelles. A French volunteer of Hungarian origin, Baron François de Tott, supervised their construction.

In the meantime, the outlet of the Bosphorus onto the Black Sea had in turn become a “border” to be defended: the danger began to appear in the early seventeenth century, as a result of the sudden appearance in the strait of a new and bold adversary engaged in worrisome exploits, the Cossacks of Ukraine. To parry these blows, Sultan Murad IV built two new fortresses on either bank of the Bosphorus, at its extremity, near the two present-day castles of Rmeli Kavai and Anadolu Kavai. Evliya Çelebi calls them the “padlocks of the sea” (Kilid al-Bahr kal‘eler).

With the rise of the Russian threat, which became in the eighteenth century the chief peril to the empire’s integrity, that end of the Bosphorus became the most sensitive point of the Ottoman borders. In the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–1771, even though the Russian fleet appeared in the Mediterranean and not the Black Sea, the Ottomans felt the need to reorganize the defense of the Bosphorus by building new fortifications on both its banks, and at the entrance to the Black Sea. Selim III (1789–1807) would further develop and improve that new defense system, known as the “seven fortresses” (kil‘-i seb‘a).


The mention of the Cossack incursions and of the Russian advance in the Black Sea brings us back to another segment of the Islamic-Christian front in Europe, the northeastern one. It was less visible than the Habsburg front because less central to Europe, but it was also a theater for centuries-old confrontations in the name of the Cross and the Crescent. In that enormous zone delimited to the north by the fringes of the taiga, to the south by the Black Sea, to the west by the Lower Danube, and to the east by the Volga, the conflict between Islam and Christendom (Catholic and Orthodox) predated the Ottomans. It went back to the Islamization of the Golden Horde, itself a legacy of the Mongol conquest of the region. In 1475, Sultan Mehmed II became the suzerain of the Tatar khanate of Crimea, which had emerged some decades earlier from the dismantled Golden Horde. In addition, the Ottomans would have direct access to a certain number of strongholds and territories south of that entity, at the mouths of the great rivers on the north side of the Black Sea. The kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania, joined by the Union of Lublin in 1569, and the grand principality of Moscow, which would gradually become the empire of the tsars, stood opposite that Muslim region, beyond the steppes. Within that natural environment, Muslim and Christian states were separated not by a more or less linear border but by huge, almost unpopulated and undeveloped spaces. These were the “wildlands” (dikoe pole in Russian; dzikie pola in Polish), a land border that was in many respects more like a sea border. That vast territory would give rise to the Ukraine, whose very name alludes to the fact that it was a border (krai, ukraina).

North of that zone, Poland and Lithuania built a line of fortresses designed to protect the southern border zones of their territories. These were the cities of Bar, Kanev, Braslaw, Vinnitsa, Wlodzimierz, Kiev (former capital of the first Russia), Kamenec, and Chmielnick. Farther to the northeast, the Muscovites also built their line of fortresses between Bolhov and Tambov, but from the sixteenth century on, that border began to advance to the south.

These fortresses were in the hands of representatives of great noble families, who were both military governors (starosts) and very large property owners. Included among these great Polish-Lithuanian names were the Sanguszkos, the Sienawskis, the Ostrogskis, the Proskis, and the Winiowieckis (Višniaveckis). Some, such as a noble from Silesia, Bernard Pretwicz, starost of Bar, would become semilegendary heroes in the fight against the Turks and the Tatars. In 1552, Sleyman the Magnificent expressly requested that Pretwicz be removed. King Sigismund Augustus gave the sultan satisfaction, transferring the troublemaker to Trembowla, a stronghold farther from the border. But other champions of the anti-Turkish struggle immediately replaced Pretwicz on the border.

Altogether south of that zone, where the great rivers flow into the Black Sea, stood the Ottoman fortresses: Kili (Chilia) on the Lower Danube, and Aqkerman (Cetatea-Alb, Belgorod Dniestrovskij) on the Lower Dniester, both conquered by Bayezid II; Bender (Tighina), farther upstream on the Dniester, annexed by Sleyman; and Jankerman (Özü, Ochakov, Ochakiv) on the Lower Dnieper, built by the khan of Crimea between 1492 and 1495 and occupied by the Ottomans in 1538. To these were added Kefe (Caffa, Feodosija) and the other Ottoman fortresses on the southern and southeastern coast of Crimea; Kersh and Taman on the Cimmerian Bosphorus (the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov); and, in the Sea of Azov, Azov (Azak) at the mouth of the Don, which the Ottomans and the Russians would fight over from the end of the seventeenth century to the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja in 1774.

As for the khanate of Crimea, it was within the purview of a tribal and clan organization and was based on a plunder economy. The Tatar hordes would raid the villages and cities on the border to bring back booty, especially slaves, who supplied the Ottoman market. Caffa was the hub of that traffic, as it had been in the Genoese period. The frequency and intensity of the raids were a function of the relations between the khan on one hand, the king of Poland and the prince of Moscow on the other. Depending on the period, the khan was sometimes the ally of Poland, sometimes that of Russia. The payment of a tribute governed these alliances; to the extent that it was actually paid, it served to compensate the loss of revenue resulting from the reduction in the number of raids. Beginning in 1513, therefore, Crimea was allied with Poland-Lithuania against Moscow, in exchange for the Polish king’s pledge to pay an annual tribute of fifteen thousand florins, so that, as Khan Muhammad Giray wrote, “his kingdom may be spared.” There was nothing absolute about the guarantee, however, since the khan was far from in control of all that activity, which stemmed in large measure from a constellation of autonomous actors. As Khan Mengli Giray wrote to King Alexander Jagellon in 1506, in response to the king’s complaints: “Hungry people, when they are on horseback, must feed themselves wherever they can find food.” In addition, some Tatar groups were entirely independent of the khan. Wandering nomads north of the Black Sea, they are designated in the sources by the names of the Ottoman fortresses that they used, as needed, for bases and refuges.

As a result of all that, the “politics of the steppes” cannot be reduced to a binary confrontation between Islam and Christendom; it was the result of a complex game between protagonists acting at different levels. The rulers might be at peace, as the sultan and the king of Poland were continuously for the greater part of the sixteenth century, but that in no way prevented local actors—Polish-Lithuanian great lords on the border, Ottoman pashas or the chiefs of Tatar hordes, all at great distances from their respective capitals—from having their own interests and objectives. In fact, they had the upper hand in a very active Kleinkrieg, whose end was unlikely, particularly since the raids of one camp came in response to those of another.


A new phenomenon emerged from a desire to respond effectively to the raids of the Tatars by returning them in kind: “Cossackry,” or at least, the use the Polish-Lithuanian defense would make of the Cossacks.

The term “Cossack” comes from a Turkish word, kazak, which designates a dissident, a rebel, a bandit. It is especially used in the Ottoman sources to designate the groups of Tatars independent from the khan. And just as there were Muslim kazak, there would be Christian Cossacks. Within that context, the term was first applied to elements at odds with the established order of feudal society, particularly peasants fleeing the exploitation and oppression of the Polish-Lithuanian magnates. These dissidents settled, seasonally or permanently from the start, in the no-man’s-land separating the Christian borders from the Tatar regions. Historians differ a great deal about the origins—in reality fairly obscure—of the phenomenon, and their respective interpretations are usually not devoid of ulterior motives, whether ideological, national, or social. In any event, the migrants took refuge particularly in what was called Niz, the Dnieper Valley beyond the river rapids. There they engaged in a kind of ideal life, rugged to be sure, but free and virile, combining hunting, fishing, the harvesting of honey, and out-and-out banditry. They lived in small groups but could also band together for actions on a larger scale, under the authority of charismatic leaders from their ranks or, paradoxically, under great border lords. Relations were ambiguous between the border nobility and these dissidents, who called into question the established order and, when necessary, struck blows to it, but who in other respects represented a labor force invaluable for opposing the Tatar raids. The Cossacks themselves could not be totally at odds with the interior, on which they remained dependent, if only for their necessary supplies of arms and gunpowder. In addition, once their leaders began to emerge, the Polish model of nobility did not fail to exert its attraction on them. The best illustration of these ambiguities is provided by a case that has greatly divided historians, that of the Lithuanian prince (of the Orthodox faith) Dimitrij Višniavecki, who was also the prototype for Bayda, the hero of Ukrainian popular tales. Named starost of Kanev and Cherkasy by the king of Poland, Višniavecki was, in the 1550s and 1560s, one of the most visible successors of Bernard Pretwicz in the fight against the Tatars. In August and September 1556, he traveled down the Dnieper at the head of a private army and occupied the island of Malaja Hortica, fifteen kilometers south of the last rapids. There he built a fortress, the first milestone in the “camp” (se) of Zaporogue Cossacks, or “Cossacks of the rapids,” which somewhat later was set up on another island in the Dnieper, Tomakovka, some sixty kilometers farther south. The se became a base for launching Cossack raids, whose troops were now more rigorously organized and structured. The Zaporogue army included regiments subdivided into tens and hundreds. Each regiment elected delegates to a council that itself chose a supreme leader, designated by two partly homophonic terms: hetman (from the German Hauptmann) and ataman (an old Turkish term). The many lexical borrowings from the Turko-Tatars only illustrate the Cossacks’ extensive imitation of their antagonists. They resembled each other, in fact, but only to better stand in contrast: it was said that any man who presented himself to the hetman to become a Cossack would be accepted only after a ritual consisting primarily of making the (Orthodox) sign of the cross.

After the major Tatar raid against Moscow in 1571, conducted by Khan Devlet Giray I, as a result of which the Russian capital was partly destroyed, not only Russia but the Poland of King Stephen Báthory felt the need to secure their hold over the Cossacks. They organized a new defense system that included guard posts manned by a special category of “Cossacks” who were better controlled by the states, the “registered Cossacks” (reestrovye). Relatively effective against the Tatar raids, they were more or less docile and maintained shifting relationships with the “true” Cossacks. The last two decades of the sixteenth century and the first four of the seventeenth century were the golden age of Cossack military power—a stateless army that had become an insuperable factor in regional policy. Their actions occurred by land and by sea. They had always been skillful at moving across the great rivers of the steppe, but in about 1600, they equipped themselves with an actual fleet of vessels, small but sturdy and easy to handle, by means of which they increased the number of their brilliant exploits. Venturing into the Black Sea, they attacked the Ottoman ports: Varna, on the Bulgarian coast, was plundered in 1614; Sinop, in northern Anatolia, met the same fate in 1614. At the same time, they momentarily occupied another neighboring stronghold, Trabzon (Trebizond), and attacked Beykoz, on the Bosphorus on the outskirts of Istanbul. The Cossacks seemed ready to repeat the assaults of the old Varegues against the walls of Constantinople in the early Middle Ages. In the early seventeenth century, the hetman Peter Sahaidchany, originally from western Galicia, fled Poland to seek refuge in Cossack territory, where he ultimately imposed his supreme authority. Like Višniavecki before him, he became a hero of legend, the inspiration for many anecdotes. (In one of these, extenuating circumstances led him to exchange his wife for a pipe and tobacco.) In 1617, he supported Poland in its war against Moscow, which earned him the position of commander of the “registered Cossacks.” An indefatigable actor in the struggle against the Tatars on the steppe, he seized Ottoman Kefe in 1616 and took the opportunity to liberate the Christian slaves there. During the 1621 Ottoman campaign of Osman II in Khotyn, he again took Poland’s side. But the emergence of that new power was ultimately a danger for Poland and for the Ottomans, though they did not fully realize it for some time. The two states therefore agreed to prevent the Cossacks from becoming in their turn a state that would disrupt the political balance of the region. The Ottomans, however, who had only limited confidence in the capacity for Polish resistance, did not believe they could forgo organizing a new defense system north of the Black Sea, rehabilitating some of their old fortresses and constructing new ones. Moreover, they placed the forts and cities of Bujak (the region between the mouth of the Danube and that of the Dniester) under the authority of a Nogay Tatar leader, Kantemir Mirza. In addition, the energetic Murad IV, wishing to increase his control over a khan of Crimea still inclined to shake off Ottoman tutelage, in 1624 dismissed Khan Muhammad Giray and named as his successor another member of the dynasty, Janibeg Giray, who had been waiting in the wings on the island of Rhodes. Yet Muhammad Giray refused to give in and attempted to remain in place. To carry out that bold plan to defy the Porte, he and his brother, the qalgha Shahin Giray, concluded an accord with the Zaporogue Cossacks in December 1624. The sultan seems to have yielded. The episode is noteworthy, since for once, these two buffer forces, Tatars and Cossacks, similar in nature and antagonistic in principle, came together, while the two “established” states, seeing their creatures about to escape their control, united to stop them. The Ottomans played their trump card, the Nogay leader Kantimir Mirza, against the rebel khan and once more removed Muhammad Giray. He and his brother tried again to resist by taking refuge in Poland, where they formed an army of forty thousand men, composed of Tatars but also of Polish adventurers and Zaporogue Cossacks. The two rebels were finally defeated. As a result, the khans of Crimea would more than ever be under the sway of the sultan of Istanbul, who appointed and dismissed them as he liked, until the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja imposed the autonomy of Crimea, a prelude to the Russian takeover. As for the Cossacks, Poland and then Russia went on subjugating them. In 1638, the Polish armies, aided by the “registered Cossacks,” stamped out the most intractable elements of Cossackry and eliminated their institutions. A large number of Zaporogue Cossacks then took refuge on the left bank of the Dnieper. There they came into contact with other Cossacks, known as the Don Cossacks. Finally, at the instigation of their hetman, Bohdan Khmelnicki, they came under the control of Russia, by the terms of the Treaty of Perejaslav (1654).


17th century Hungarian Hajdúk

Uskoks of Croatia


This brief glimpse of the Cossacks has shown that their history is highly revealing of the complexities and ambiguities of the Islamic-Christian border. The inexpiable and chronic struggles for which that border was the theater were no doubt waged in the name of two antagonistic religions, but political interests inextricably combined with them: the lords of the Polish-Lithuanian border had irredentist aims on the coasts of the Black Sea and conducted their own policy, in concert with the Habsburgs when necessary. That policy was officially at odds with the one announced by the Polish Crown, which was compelled to exercise caution toward its troublesome neighbor. The Crown, however, did not neglect to give these lords their approval and support, but by necessity in secret. Economic interests were also present, since there was booty to be had on either side, and on this point the Cossacks and their potential silent partners among the nobility were not to be outdone by the Tatars.

At the same time, each of the two camps, in violent opposition with each other, was far from being as united as the Manichaean model of confrontation would suggest. On the Christian side, tensions existed not only between the Russian and Polish states but also between Catholics and those of the Orthodox faith. At the social level, that is, between lords and peasants, these conflicts lay at the very heart of Cossackry, even if the movement was later co-opted to a certain degree.

The Muslim camp was also not unified. Grafted onto the Ottoman-Tatar tensions were all sorts of conflicts among the Tatars themselves: rivalries between members of the ruling clan and rivalries between tribes, as illustrated by the episode involving Kantemir Mirza, the ally of the Ottomans against the ruling Giray branch. These fissures on both sides opened the way for a complex play of alliances and oppositions that was not always overridden by the fundamental Islam/Christendom cleavage.

In addition, the Cossacks were the emblematic embodiment of a phenomenon—the one, perhaps, that left the most traces in Europe’s collective memory (though we must take care to remember that each region of Europe has its specific memory)—that existed more or less, in various forms and with diverse fates, along every segment of the Islamic-Christian border in Europe.

As for the Habsburg border in Croatia and Slavonia, it too was separated from the Turkish lines by a no-man’s-land similar to the Polish dzikie pola, though on a smaller scale. These were called the nicija zemlja (“empty lands”). They resulted from the border raids by Turkish forces but also from the scorched-earth policy conducted on both sides. Refugees leaving the territories ruled by the Turks came to settle on these marches near the Habsburg lines. They were given the name “Uskoks” (from a Croatian verb uskociti, meaning “to move by successive leaps”). They were primarily Serbs and Vlachs. (These Romanian-speaking Vlachs were also called “Arumanians” or “Kutsovlachs” or “Tsintsars.”) The authorities granted them peasant holdings on uncultivated lands and on the prairies. In 1538, Ferdinand of Habsburg exempted them from paying taxes for twenty years, in exchange for their services guarding the border, and granted them the right to collect a third of the booty recovered from the Turks. Each Uskok captain had to maintain a standing army of two hundred settler-soldiers.

Over time, various elements joined these first Uskoks, not only Serbs and Vlachs from the Ottoman Balkans but also—moving us closer to the origins of the Cossacks—outlaws and peasants fleeing the oppression of the Hungarian and Croatian magnates in order to live under a different social arrangement. Their base cell was the zadruga, a community of members united by blood ties, collectively using goods held jointly and sharing the revenues among themselves. Several communities formed a village, which elected its own civil and military leaders. The rights and obligations of these “border guards” (Grenzer, Granicari) was ratified and elaborated in the very exhaustive charter on the military borders of Slavonia and Croatia, issued in 1630 by Emperor Ferdinand II, the statuta Valachorum. The term haram, an Arabic word meaning “outlaw” or “bandit,” transmitted by the Ottomans, was used to designate these communities, whose military leader bore the Slavic title “voivode.” Several “harams” formed a “kapitanat,” commanded by a kapitan, who was under the “border general.”

In addition to these land Uskoks on the Croatian border, there were maritime Uskoks along the edge of the other border zone, the Adriatic. Their base was the fortress of Senj (Segna), an aerie overlooking the sea. Some of these maritime Uskoks also came from the Ottoman territories, which they had fled, but others were from the Habsburg possessions and from Venice. Like the Cossacks, they were ardent defenders of Christianity and the inveterate enemies of Islam, but they would sometimes attack and pillage the ships of Christians living under the sultan’s rule or in Venice. They justified themselves by arguing that these were bad Christians who collaborated with the infidel. They were officially dependents of the Habsburgs, but Venice sought to contain them, so as not to incite disputes with the Ottomans detrimental to its commercial interests.

The Ottomans, of course, also had corsairs in the Adriatic. Intended on principle to respond to the attacks of the Uskoks, they did not overlook an opportunity to take the initiative. Nor did either side forgo attacking ships from their own camp on occasion. Similarly, when the two opposing camps wanted to settle their quarrels and enter a phase of peace, their respective corsair auxiliaries, deaf to all diplomatic considerations, continued to obstruct commerce and to precipitate incidents. They thus became a nuisance, against whom the two camps now united. For example, the minutes of a hearing held by the judge (n’ib) of the fortress of Nova record that the representatives of Venice and those of the sultan reached an agreement to compensate merchants and other victims of corsairs, dependents of each of the two parties, as well as victims of Montenegro bandits (Karada eshkiyalari). On the Hungarian border as well, the Habsburgs had to be very pragmatic in resolving the question of labor power. They appealed to German mercenaries, to the great displeasure of the populations they were supposed to protect, since in reality the Germans perpetrated the worst misdeeds. In addition, as their predecessors had already done in the fifteenth century, the Habsburgs recruited shepherds and serfs for their border needs. As in the previous cases, these elements were designated by a term of Turkish origin meaning “bandit”: they were hajduks (Turkish, haydut). It is quite true that they often became bandits. In 1604, Stephen Bocskai, future prince of Transylvania, used that labor pool in his rebellion against the Habsburgs. Once his victory was assured, he fulfilled the promise he had made to the hajduks who had supported him: by the terms of an agreement reached with Vienna in 1610, he relocated them to the plain around Debreczen, where they would enjoy a great deal of autonomy. In 1608, the Hungarian diet recognized their privileges in exchange for the performance of military service for the king. Thereby established on the border of Ottoman Hungary and Transylvania, they maintained small strongholds between the course of the Tisza and the Transylvanian border. These elements, however, were overseen by Calvinist preachers and welcomed fugitive peasants, whom they refused to hand over. Once again, the Islamic-Christian border, by virtue of the need for troops to which it gave rise, became, with the complicity of the border officers, a social escape route for those in the hinterland and the site of an “alternative” society.

Another famous episode in the history of these communities with a special status, established on the border between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman, was linked to the wave of Serbian emigration in 1690. In 1689, the imperial army, having recovered Hungary, had broken through the Ottoman defense and penetrated into Serbia and Bosnia. Many Serbs had taken the side of the invaders and conducted guerrilla warfare against their Ottoman masters. Their religious leader, Patriarch of Pec Arsenio III Crnojevic, after hesitating between placing himself under the protection of Venice or under that of Emperor Leopold I, finally opted for Leopold. On April 16, 1690, Leopold published a proclamation in which he asserted his desire to restore the ancestral freedoms of all peoples who were his subjects in his capacity as king of Hungary. He especially promised to ensure freedom of religion. That pledge favored the uprising of the Orthodox Serbians and Albanians, the sultan’s subjects, by mooting their reservations about a regime known for its militant Catholicism. As a result, the imperial armies suffered setbacks that obliged them to retreat. The Serbian patriarch also decided on withdrawal, taking along a portion of his people, though their number is in dispute: he himself spoke of forty thousand families. They went first to Belgrade—in June 1690—a city the imperial forces still held. But the Ottomans recaptured Belgrade on October 9. The Ottoman victory forced the patriarch and his flock to negotiate with Leopold a move to Habsburg territory. On August 21, 1690, the emperor published a first diploma—others would follow in subsequent years—laying the foundations for Serbian autonomy, particularly in religious matters, in a kingdom of Hungary that had come under Habsburg domination. The Serbian peasant soldiers escaped the unbridled tax exactions of the noble large landowners and did not pay tithes to the Catholic clergy. They dedicated the equivalent sum to supporting their own clergy. The Hungarian magnates and the episcopate did not fail to protest these privileges. In addition, on May 1, 1694, the War Council of Vienna decided that the Serbs would receive lands in “Cumania,” that is, between the Danube and the Tisza. After that, the Serbs came to populate the regions, desert at the time, of that zone along the Danube, from the lower Tisza and the Maros to the border with the Ottomans.

Since there were Serbs on the Ottoman side of that border as well, here, as along the border of Slavonia-Croatia, the Serbian people were split in two by the great fracture. Initially, the Serbian patriarch was also installed on the border, at the Krushedol Monastery (about fifty kilometers northwest of Belgrade), among his people. But in 1701, he received the order to move to Szentendre (about twenty kilometers north of Buda), this time far from his flock.


On the Ottoman side of the border of central Europe, there were no exact equivalents of the Uskoks of Croatia or the hajduks of Hungary, but there was a similar need felt to complement the regular units (Janissaries sent from the capital, siph who held local timars) by elements recruited, with extreme pragmatism, at the local level. A corps of “local Janissaries” (yerli kul) thus formed, made up of Islamized South Slavs and in particular, of emancipated slaves (aza-dlu). Another corps, the ‘azab, posted to the fortress garrisons but participating in naval expeditions as well, also recruited from among the local Slav peasants. Originally Christians, they usually—but not always—became Muslims. A Ragusan witness thus wrote to Emperor Maximilian I in the early sixteenth century, “possunt esse Assapi tam christiani quam Turcae et aliae nationes.” As for the corps of martolos, present in many Ottoman border fortresses, they were still composed primarily of Christians, though they included converts to Islam, and their officers, the aghas, were Muslims. They also displayed another similarity to the Grenzener on the other side: although some received pay, others were peasant soldiers whose land holdings had a special status, exempting them from most agricultural royalties. It is possible that, on this side as well, the Serbs were organized into extended family communities of the zadruga type. Ottoman regulations specified that those of their brothers and nephews who did not perform military service were not exempt from the ordinary agricultural royalties.


The acquisitions in North Africa of Sleyman the Magnificent and Selim II had made the coasts of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli an Ottoman border. This time, the western Mediterranean constituted the buffer zone with the Christian states. As on other borders, local representatives of the central power, from which they were far removed, had a tendency to conduct their own policies, which did not always coincide with that of the center. But things went farther here than elsewhere: the former provinces became quasi-independent states, though they never completely cut the umbilical cord attaching them to Istanbul. Like the other border regions, the “regencies” had at their disposal a labor force in the “intermediate buffer zone.” This time they were Barbary corsairs. Like the other “border men,” these corsairs were unpredictable (opportunity could turn them into common pirates) and their motivations were mixed: they fought in the name of Islam, and it has been noted that the resentment of Muslims, then of the Moriscos driven from Spain, played a role in the growth of privateering and in the trafficking to which it gave rise. At the same time, privateering and its booty were also their source of revenue, an alternative to regular commerce. The corsair captains and their own captains, like the officers of the Maghrebian ojak, occasionally rose from the ranks of these “renegades,” whose Islamization generally took place for opportunistic reasons and did not always withstand every test. (But woe to those “Christians of Allah” if they returned to Christendom and fell into the clutches of the Inquisition!) Among the renegades were emancipated slaves, but also, since here again the border served as an escape valve, dissidents of all kinds who had an interest in fleeing Christendom: dissatisfied soldiers or sailors, peasants oppressed by their lords, habitual offenders and other outlaws, merchants in quest of brighter opportunities, and any specialist willing to cash in on his knowledge or expertise. There was no dearth of Venetians, Genoese, Sicilians, Calabrians, Neopolitans, Corsicans, and sometimes even Jews, who would “become Turks” and try their luck in Tunis, Algiers, or Tripoli. In part 1 of his Don Quixote (chaps. 39–41), Cervantes recounts that the bey of Algiers, a certain Hasan Pasha, demonstrated his friendship to the author during his captivity in the Barbary port—and that bey was a Dalmatian who had converted to Islam. Another famous example is the man who became bey of Tunis in 1637. The founder of a dynasty, the Muradids, which would rule the regency until the early eighteenth century, he was none other than a Ligurian by the name of Osta Morato. Another celebrated case is that of a Venetian, who would rule Algiers from 1638 to 1645 under the name Ali “Piccinino.” Not all had such good fortune, but many of these renegades had astonishing fates: there was also Orzio Paterno Castello, from a noble family of Catana that he was compelled to leave, having killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. During his escape, he was captured by corsairs from Tripoli, and he converted to Islam, taking the name Ahmad. He would become a dragoman (interpreter) in Tripoli.

Beginning in 1650, the renegades who acquired high positions in the regencies were instead “Ponantines,” seamen from the north, English and Flemish especially. The corsair threat poisoned Mediterranean navigation and had an impact on every nation. It affected populations who were in a position to see “Turks” only during a sea journey, generally to the greater misfortune of the passengers in question. European literature and theater are full of captives taken by the Barbary corsairs, who in an instant reversed people’s best-laid plans and suddenly made the worst outcome seem possible, though not always certain. Molière describes such a fate in The Bungler, act 4, scene 7: “In feats of adventure it is common to see / Folks taken by Turkish corsairs at sea.” Victims of the corsair attacks were reduced to slavery. How many destinies were thereby altered! They would toil and wallow in prisons, in convict galleys, or in the service of private individuals. The Christian states strove to redeem them, as did charitable institutions and religious orders that specialized in bargaining with the infidel masters. The most important of these were the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinitarians, founded in France in 1193 by John of Matha and Felix of Valois, and the Order of Our Lady of Mercy, also called the Mercedarians, which Pedro Nolasco founded in Barcelona in 1203. But the slaves who were redeemed after a more or less prolonged captivity were in the minority. According to the estimate of Emanuel of Aranda, a Flemish gentleman soldier and himself a captive in Algiers, 600,000 Christians died in captivity in Algiers between 1536 and 1640. Considering the Maghrebian slave trade as a whole between 1530 and 1640, a Trinitarian, Father Dan, declared: “It would not be stretching the truth to say that they [the Maghrebis] have put more than a million [Christians] in chains.”

Algiers was the principal center of the slave trade, but all the cities of the Barbary Coast between Sale and Tripoli participated in it. In the hundred years between 1580 and 1680, there were on average some twenty-seven thousand of these Christian slaves in Algiers (there would be fewer subsequently). At the same time, there were some six thousand in Tunis and perhaps two thousand in Tripoli. The grand total for these estimates nearly corresponds to the figures Father Dan indicates on that somber balance sheet:

As to the slaves of both sexes that are in Barbary today, there are a quantity of them from all the Christian nations, such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Flanders, Holland, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Russia, and so forth. The number of these poor captives reaches about thirty-six thousand, according to the enumeration that I have carried out on the spot and to the records that have been furnished and sent to me by the Christian Consuls who live in the Corsair Cities.

Such a grave phenomenon mortgaged the entire economic and social life of many coastal zones, such as those of Valencia, Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Campania, and Sicily. But it also poisoned navigation as a whole, in both the western and eastern basins of the Mediterranean. In addition, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Maghrebis ventured as far as the Atlantic and into the English Channel. They then abducted their captives from off the coast of Cape Finisterre of Galicia, as well as near Belle Isle and Saint Malo, and even on the Banks of Newfoundland, where the French, Portuguese, and English cod fishermen were threatened. Iceland itself was attacked.

Like all who sailed the Mediterranean, the French were targeted, despite their political alliance with the Great Turk. They thought they could remedy the difficulty by turning to him. Registering complaints with the Sublime Porte about the exactions by Barbary corsairs was a recurring mission of ambassadors to Constantinople. But apart from the fact that the pirates were by nature uncontrollable (like the Cossacks, Tatars, and Uskoks), such measures assumed that the regencies were still altogether an Ottoman frontier, when in fact they had become quasi-independent states. They had to be bargained with or combated directly. That realization came about gradually. By the early seventeenth century, an insidious war took hold between the French fleet and the Maghrebis. Then, to end privateering, France signed treaties with Algiers in 1628 and 1640; with Tunis in 1665; and again with Algiers in 1666. But since the problems persisted, in the 1680s Louis XIV engaged in gunboat diplomacy against the corsair ports: in July 1681, Abraham Duquesne bombarded the roadstead of Chios, where he had pursued Tripolitan vessels. Algiers was shelled in 1682, 1683, and 1688; Tripoli in 1685. After that repressive phase, France signed a whole series of new treaties: in 1684 and 1689 with Algiers; in 1681 and 1685 with Tripoli. The corsairs of Sale were a special case, necessitating a negotiation with the Moroccan sovereign. A French captain, Lefebvre de la Barre, negotiated a first treaty, but Versailles refused to ratify it. An ambassador of Mawly Ism‘l named Temim, governor of Tetouan, had to travel to France before Louis XIV would finally sign a treaty, on February 12, 1682. The baron of Saint-Amans brought the text to Morocco, so that Mawly Ism‘l could ratify it in turn. Nevertheless, French-Moroccan relations rapidly deteriorated. In 1699, a new Moroccan embassy to France, that of Admiral Abdallah Ben-‘Aïcha, attempted to conclude another treaty, but negotiations fell apart. The problem posed by the Barbary corsairs persisted into the eighteenth century, and there were further bombings from time to time.


Elsewhere, however, on that border as on others, the mirror effect was fully at play: Christendom’s other response to the exactions of the corsairs was to retaliate in kind against the “Turks.” The corso maltese was a large-scale privateering operation under the aegis of the Knights of Malta, freed from Ottoman pressure by the failure of the siege of the island in 1565. At the same time, the Knights of Saint Stephen established themselves in Livorno in 1562, at the instigation of the grand duke of Tuscany. That organization survived until the early eighteenth century, under the dual patronage of the grand duke and the eponymous saint. These Christian corsairs engaged in pillaging as well. They took booty and especially slaves, who were sold on the markets of Livorno, Malta, and Genoa. For the most part, Muslim captives were assigned to the various European galley fleets as oarsmen. In a letter to Colbert, the marquise of Nointel, ambassador to Constantinople, cites the figure of two thousand “Turks” rowing on French galleys in 1670 (not all came from the Mediterranean corso, however). In 1721, an ambassador of Sultan Ahmed III named Yirmisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi arrived in France with great pomp to see the young Louis XV, having ransomed, at his stop in Malta, a captain by the name of Süleyman held prisoner there. He also brought with him a list of captives in Marseilles and asked the French authorities to liberate them or at least to allow them to be ransomed. The unwillingness he encountered impelled the ambassador to cause a very undiplomatic scene in front of his interlocutor, Minister Dubois:

While you claim to be the best friends of the Most High Empire, you are holding as slaves and in prison more than a thousand of my brothers in the Law. You make them pull the oars on your galleys. What are their crimes? For what reason are they held in that slavery? … The Germans, with whom we are sometimes at war and sometimes at peace, deliver our slaves in exchange for ransom. And there are many to whom they give their freedom without demanding anything! I have received from our people requests by which I see that you have them for thirty, thirty-five, forty years of slavery. Why not deliver them?

That incident marred the festivities and undercut the friendly atmosphere. It peremptorily reminded people of something that everything else was intended to make them forget: that Europe was split in two.

Tornado GR.1A in the Gulf War

The Tornado multirole aircraft is operational in five different forms: Tornado GR 1 interdictor strike aircraft for close air support; counter air attack and defence suppression; GR 1A tactical reconnaissance aircraft; Tornado GR 1B long-range maritime attack aircraft and Tornado F3 long-range air defence fighter. The GR 4 is a mid-life update of the GR 1.

The Tornado entered service in 1980 and ceased production in 1998. The Tornado was manufactured by Panavia, a consortium of BAE Systems, EADS (formerly Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace) and Alenia Aeronautica.

Aerial reconnaissance has come a long way since the first jet reconnaissance mission in the summer of 1944. Today it is a multi-faceted business employing aircraft and drones flying over enemy territory at ultra-low or ultra-high altitude, planes standing-off outside the reach of the defences and looking in or listening from there, and satellites orbiting high above the combat zone. During the recent war in the Persian Gulf the Royal Air Force sent its Tornado GR.1A reconnaissance aircraft into action for the first time. These state-of-the-art planes carry no conventional optical film cameras; instead, they use an electro-optical system similar in concept to the family camcorder to record the scene passing below the aircraft. Photographs are no longer the main product of aerial reconnaissance — now it is ‘electro-optical imagery’.

In January 1991, a few days before the start of the aerial onslaught against Iraq, six Tornado GR.1A aircraft and nine crews drawn from Nos 2 and 13 Squadrons joined the Royal Air Force Tornado detachment at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The GR.1A is optimized for the low-altitude reconnaissance role flying at night or in bad weather, and it carries no optical cameras or conventional film. In the space that had been occupied by the cannon and ammunition magazines in the attack version of the Tornado, the GR.1A carries an in-built electro-optical reconnaissance system. The main sensor is the Vinten 4000 infra-red linescan equipment, which scans from side to side, perpendicular to the line of flight, from horizon to horizon, from a small blister beneath the fuselage. Supplementing this cover, looking to each side of the fuselage, are a pair of British Aerospace/Vinten sideways-looking infra-red sensors. The electronic images seen from these three sensors are fed to six separate video-recorders.

Infra-red photography using conventional film has been around for a long time. Tactically, it has the great advantage that it functions in lighting conditions ranging from bright sunlight to the darkest of nights and requires no artificial illumination (i.e. flares) that would betray the presence of the aircraft. Another well-proven technique is to link the reconnaissance system electronically to the aircraft’s navigational computer, so that the latter places in the corner of each image a small block giving the aircraft’s position, heading and other details at the time the image was captured; also, as he passes through the target area, the navigator can press a button to put an ‘event marker’ on any image of particular interest. These features are of considerable assistance to the interpreters who will later examine the imagery. In the Tornado reconnaissance system these features are incorporated and their capability is enhanced.

While the imagery produced by the infra-red electro-optical equipment lacks the crystal sharpness produced by conventional film cameras under optimum conditions, for military intelligence purposes this is a small handicap. The important advantage of the new system compared with normal photography is the reduction in the delay in getting the intelligence to those who need to use it. There is no need to develop or print the imagery before it is viewed. In the aircraft the navigator can observe the video imagery on a television screen in his cockpit in real time (and at night the screen will show things that his eyes may not see), and he can pass on, by radio, any significant discoveries that may have been made. He can even replay in flight particular parts of the imagery if he wishes to identify specific objects on the ground. After the aircraft has landed, the video cassettes can be played immediately for analysis.

During the Gulf conflict the Tornado GR.1As operated as part of a multi-faceted Coalition reconnaissance effort that included several types of drone, F-14s carrying reconnaissance pods, RF-4C Phantoms and Lockheed TR-ls and U-2s. Ground surveillance was carried out by Boeing E-8A (J-STARS) aircraft using a powerful sideways-looking radar to detect traffic movements deep in enemy territory. Electronic reconnaissance (elint) was the domain of the Boeing RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’, the Lockheed EP-3E ‘Aries’ Orion and the BAe Nimrod R.1. Overseeing the area at regular intervals were the US satellites with their own secret range of reconnaissance sensors.

Each separate system — the low-and the high-flying aircraft and drones, the radar surveillance planes, the electronic eavesdroppers and the satellites — possessed its own unique advantages for intelligence-gathering. That of the Tornado GR.1A was the ability to conduct searches of specified areas or routes at relatively short notice, and to do so at night and beneath a solid layer of low cloud (which would preclude effective optical or infra-red searches by higher-flying systems).

To avoid optically aimed anti-aircraft fire, the GR.1As operated only at night. Flying singly over enemy territory, these aircraft normally cruised at speeds around 645mph using their terrain-following radar to maintain a constant altitude of 200ft. Although the aircraft had provision to carry a couple of AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles for self-protection, the threat from Iraqi fighters was considered minimal and crews preferred to leave the missiles off and so avoid their weight and drag penalty.

The Tornado GR.1As flew their first combat mission on the third night of the war, 18/19 January. Soon after dark three of these aircraft took off from Dhahran to conduct separate searches of areas from which ‘Scud’ surface-to-surface missiles were being launched against Israel or Saudi Arabia. Squadron Leaders Dick Garwood and John Hill, assigned to search the area to the south of Habbaniyah, completed their mission without incident. When their imagery was examined afterwards it was found to show a ‘Scud’ launching vehicle in the open. F-15E attack planes were directed to the area but low cloud prevented them from finding the vehicle.

A second wave of GR.1As also took part of the ‘Scud-hunting’ effort that night. Flight Lieutenants Brian Robinson and Gordon Walker conducted a search in the Wadi al Khirr area. Later analysis of their imagery showed at least two camouflaged sites thought likely to contain ‘Scud’ support vehicles.

During the night of 19th/20th Flight Lieutenant Mike Stanway and Squadron Leader Roger Bennett had a brief tussle with the defences. Their mission was a search of the western end of the main Baghdad — Ar Rutbah highway, an area from which ‘Scud’ missiles were being launched against Israel. Stanway flew along the highway using the aircraft’s moving-map display to follow the line of the road, which, apart from the headlights of an occasional vehicle, remained unseen in the darkness. The search continued without incident until the aircraft was some 20 miles east of Ar Rutbah, then, as Bennett later explained, the mission took on a more exciting turn:

I suddenly noticed a bright glow over my left shoulder in my 8 o’clock. I thought it was an ER, guided missile, either one of the shoulder-launched variety or an SA-9, and it was guiding towards us on a disconcertingly constant bearing. Mike broke hard left and climbed into it to evade. I selected flares, but the dispenser was faulty and they refused to eject. Fortunately the evasive manoeuvre by itself was enough: the missile went sailing past us and detonated some way away.

Subsequent examination of the imagery revealed a ‘Scud’ launching bunker with a man standing outside it. It was clear that the man or someone near to him had fired the SAM because the imagery showed that almost immediately afterwards Stanway had banked the aircraft sharply to avoid the upcoming missile.

Invariably it was the highly skilled photo-interpreters (PIs), viewing the expanded imagery on large TV screens in the Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at Dhahran, that made all the important Scud finds rather than the aircraft navigators. As Bennett explained,

One of the PIs found the camouflaged bunker. Once he had pointed out what it was, it was almost obvious. But it required an expert to do it. Everybody tried to find the ‘Scuds’, but they were not left out into the open waiting to be found. After each firing, the vehicles dispersed and ran back under cover.

Mike Stanway and Roger Bennett had their most memorable sortie during the small hours of 26 February, two days after the start of the Coalition ground offensive. They took off as an airborne reserve in support of two other Tornados that had been allocated specific tasks, but on the way they received orders to fly a route reconnaissance along the main roads linking An Nasiriyah, Al Amarah, Basrah and Jalibah in eastern Iraq.

First the crew had to rendezvous with a Victor tanker over northern Saudi Arabia in order to take on fuel, and that proved no easy task. Thunderstorms in the area caused considerable turbulence, with dense cloud extending from an altitude of 26,000ft down to below 3,000ft. Bennett recalled:

Normally we would tank at around 10,000 feet. The Victor tanker had tried every level, and at 3,000 feet he was still in cloud and in turbulence. We found the tanker by using our attack radar as an AI [airborne interception radar]. Visibility was down to about 100 metres, with thunderstorms and lightning, and we tanked at 3,000 feet. There was a lot of turbulence, the tanker was moving violently up and down and there was a serious risk of mid-air collision. The weather was awful and getting worse. After a struggle Mike got the probe into the basket but it immediately fell out; he got it back in again and we started to fill up but then the probe fell out again. I looked at the fuel and said, ‘Right, we’ve got enough.’ We left the tanker with about 7½ tons of fuel, climbed out the top of the weather at 26,000 feet and headed off to the north.

Just short of the Iraqi border, the Tornado let down to low altitude and headed for Tallil. Bennett continued:

Still the weather was pretty awful. We did not break cloud until we were below 1,000 feet. At 200 feet we were in the clear, with a solid overcast and no turbulence at that level — perfect conditions in which to do a reconnaissance in a GR.1A!

Near Tallil an SA-8 missile control radar locked on to the aircraft. Stanway hauled the Tornado into a tight turn and Bennett released chaff, and the lock-on ceased. Despite the two pairs of wide-open eyes quartering the sky around the aircraft, no missile was seen and it is likely that none was fired.

The initial part of the reconnaissance, of the highway from An Nasiriyah to Al Amarah, revealed little traffic. Just short of Al Amarah the aircraft turned south and followed the highway to Basrah. The crew saw a moderate amount of traffic, most of it heading north:

As we ran along that road we were fired at by AAA but fortunately it was not tracking fire — it was unaimed. It looked as if they were firing at our engine noise, and at 560 knots [645mph] at 200 feet they did not hear us until we had gone past. So all of the tracer went behind us — it looked quite pretty!

Short of Basrah the crew turned again, this time on to a westerly heading to follow the highway to An Nasiriyah:

The road to An Nasiriyah, part of the main Basrah to Baghdad highway, was chockablock with traffic. It looked like the M5 during the rush hour. I didn’t need to look at the imagery: we could see the vehicles out of the canopy. They had their lights on, and as we approached they heard us and the lights went out. They probably thought they were about to be bombed. There were all types of military vehicle, including transporters with tanks, all moving west about five yards apart. They were not going very fast, about 10mph. The whole time we were looking out for SAMs, but none came up at us.

Later the crew learned that they had stumbled upon the start of the Iraqi massed withdrawal from Kuwait, later termed ‘The Mother of all Retreats’, ordered by President Saddam Hussein earlier that morning. Bennett reported the findings by radio to the AWACS aircraft monitoring activity in the area. The Tornado followed the highway for some 60 miles without reaching the head of the column then, its task complete, it turned south and headed for base. The crew had spent more than an hour over Iraq, all of it at low altitude. Dawn was breaking as Stanway and Bennett left enemy territory and they made the final 40 minutes of the flight in daylight. It was the only daylight operational flying time they logged during the entire war.

The build-up of Iraqi traffic was also observed by the Boeing E-8 J-STARS radar aircraft over Saudi Arabia, and several flights of B-52 bombers were diverted to attack the concentrations of vehicles.

During the Gulf conflict the Tornado GR.1A force flew 125 reconnaissance missions, the great majority of which were designated ‘successful’. Like most types of intelligence-gathering operation, these carried none of the panache and spectacle associated with the more aggressive types of air operation. Nevertheless, in determining the positions of worthwhile targets, the reconnaissance planes significantly increased the effectiveness of the Coalition attack aircraft.

Red Sea Convoys

HMS Kimberley (photographed in 1942)

Italian destroyer Pantera

The first of the Red Sea convoys, collectively the BN/BS series, consisting of nine ships including six tankers, gathered in the Gulf of Aden on 2 July. Thereafter these convoys sailed up and down the Red Sea on a regular schedule. Admiral Balsamo attempted to attack this traffic, but the war’s opening months held little but frustration for his destroyers. On six occasions in July, August, and September, they sortied at night in response to aerial reports of Allied vessels but in every case failed to make contact. Aircraft and the surviving submarines did little better. Guglielomotti torpedoed the Greek tanker Atlas (4,008 GRT) from Convoy BN4 on 6 September 1940, while high-level bombing attacks damaged the steamship Bhima (5,280 GRT) from BN5, which four Italian destroyers had failed to locate, on 20 September.

As Italian warships burned their oil reserves on unsuccessful sorties, the Allied Red Sea Squadron grew stronger, deploying by the end of August four light cruisers, three destroyers, and eight sloops. Other warships passed through on their way to and from the Mediterranean. In September, as traffic volume swelled, the Mediterranean Fleet lent the newly arrived antiaircraft cruiser Coventry, which alternated with Carlisle along the Aden–Suez route to provide extra protection against air attacks.

By October the Italian ships faced mechanical breakdowns, the increasing exhaustion of crews by the extreme climate, and a growing shortage of fuel. Nonetheless, they continued to sail. On the evening of 20 October, four destroyers weighed anchor to search for BN7, which aerial reconnaissance had spotted sailing north. The plan called for the slower and more heavily armed Pantera and Leone to distract the escort while Sauro and Nullo slipped in to send a spread of torpedoes toward the merchant ships.

Attack on Convoy BN7 and Battle of Harmil Island, 20–21 October 1940, 2320–0640

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

BN7 Escort (Captain H. E. Horan): CL: Leander (NZ) (F); DD: KimberleyD2; DS: Auckland (NZ), Indus (IN), Yarra (AU); MS: Derby, Huntley

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

Section I (Commander Moretti degli Adimari): DD: Sauro (F), Nullo Sunk

Section II (Commander Paolo Aloisi): DD: Pantera (F), Leone

The convoy timed its progress to pass Massawa around midnight. The moon was bright, but haze reduced visibility toward the African coast. At 2115 the Italian sections separated, and at 2321 Pantera detected smoke off her starboard bow. She reported the contact to Sauro and began maneuvering at twenty-two knots to position the low-hanging moon behind the contact.

BN7 was thirty-five miles north-northwest of Jabal-al-Tair Island (itself 110 miles east-northeast of Massawa) when Yarra, zigzagging in company with Auckland, sighted Captain Aloisi’s ships ahead. Yarra challenged and Pantera replied with a pair of torpedoes at 2331 and then another pair at 2334, at ranges fifty-five and sixty-five hundred yards, respectively. Shooting over Yarra, she “lobbed a few shells” into the convoy. According to a wartime British account, “a lifeboat in the commodore’s ship was damaged by splinters, but otherwise no harm was done.” Leone, which trailed Pantera by 875 yards, never fixed a target and thus did not fire torpedoes.

Yarra saw the torpedo flashes from broad on her port bow and turned toward the enemy. Both sloops opened fire as torpedoes boiled past, narrowly missing. The Italian ships altered away, shooting with their aft mounts. Aloisi reported explosions and claimed two torpedo hits, but in fact, his weapons missed. Kimberley was trailing the convoy. She rang up thirty knots and steered northwest to close the action. Leander, sailing on the convoy’s port beam, headed southwest, while the sloops and minesweepers stayed with the merchantmen. Pantera and Leone, considering their mission successfully accomplished, continued west-southwest and broke contact. They eventually returned to Massawa via the south channel.

After the gunfire died away, Captain Horan steered Leander northwest to cover Harmil Channel believing the enemy ships had retired in that direction.

Upon receiving Pantera’s report, Sauro and Nullo had turned to clear the area while the first group attacked and to put themselves in a favorable position relative to the moon. This involved a ninety-degree port turn at 0016 on 21 October and another at 0050. The section then headed southeast, but for nearly an hour it encountered nothing. Finally, at 0148, Leander and another ship hove into view. Sauro snapped off a single torpedo at the cruiser (another misfired). In response Leander lofted star shell, and then ten broadsides flashed from her main batteries in two minutes before she lost sight of the target. Italian accounts say this engagement occurred at sixteen hundred yards, while Leander’s report stated the enemy was more than eight thousand yards away.

Sauro turned south by southwest and at 0207 attempted another torpedo attack against the convoy. One weapon misfired, and although Sauro claimed a hit with the other, it missed. At the same time Nullo detected flashes that she believed came from an enemy torpedo launch, and within minutes a lookout shouted that wakes were streaking toward the Italian destroyer’s bow. At 0212 Sauro turned north and disengaged, eventually circling behind the British and taking the south channel to Massawa. Nullo’s captain, however, put his helm over even harder, “because it was [his] intention to attack, being still in an opportune position to launch against the convoy, before taking station in formation.” However, the rudder jammed for several minutes, causing Nullo to circle and lose contact with Sauro.

At 0220 Leander’s spotlights fastened onto “a vessel painted light grey proceeding from left to right”—in fact, Nullo steaming north. The cruiser engaged from forty-six hundred yards off the Italian’s starboard bow. Nullo returned fire, first against “destroyers” spotted astern (probably Auckland) and then at Leander. The ships dueled for about ten minutes. The Italian enjoyed one advantage: she employed flashless powder (the British noted only two enemy salvos), whereas British muzzles flared brightly with each discharge. Leander fired eight blind salvos (“little could be seen of their effect”), but several rounds nonetheless hit home, damaging Nullo’s gyrocompass and gunnery director. With this the Italian destroyer abandoned her attack attempt and turned west-northwest running for Harmil Channel at thirty knots. In the two actions Leander fired 129 6-inch rounds.

Guessing Nullo’s intention, the cruiser pursued in the correct direction. At 0300 Kimberley joined, and at 0305 Leander turned back, “appreciating that the enemy was drawing away from her at the rate of seven knots and that the convoy might be attacked.” Kimberley continued, hoping to intercept.

The British destroyer arrived off Harmil Island before dawn. At 0540 her lookouts reported a shape to the south-southeast, and she closed to investigate. Nullo’s lookouts likewise reported a contact. The sharp angle of approach made it impossible to be certain, but the Italian captain assumed it was Sauro, especially when it seemed to signal the Harmil Island station. He was more “worried about the shallows scattered around the mouth of the northeast passage and above all of the 3.7 meter sandbank immediately north of his estimated 0500 position.”

At 0553 the British destroyer opened fire from 12,400 yards. Surprised, Nullo took four minutes to reply and at 0605 swung sharply from a northwest heading to a south-by-southwest course. By 0611 the range was down to 10,300 yards. Due to her prior damage, Nullo’s gunners fired over open sights, while human chains passed shells up from the magazine. Harmil Island’s battery of four 4.7-inch guns joined the action at 0615 from eighteen thousand yards. At the same time, with the range now eighty-five hundred yards, Kimberley turned south, emitting black funnel smoke, causing Nullo’s gunners to think they had scored a hit.

At 0620 Nullo scraped a reef, opening her hull to flooding and damaging a screw. Then, while the ship was setting course to round Harmil Island, a shell exploded in the forward engine room and a second slammed into the aft engine room. Nullo skewed sharply to the left and lost all power; splinters swept the upper works. The captain ordered his men to prepare to abandon ship while he angled the ship toward Harmil in an attempt to run it aground. The aft mount continued in action until the heel became excessive.

Having expended 115 salvoes, Kimberley launched a torpedo to dispatch her adversary; it missed, so she closed range and uncorked another. The second torpedo slammed into Nullo at 0635 and blasted her in two. Meanwhile, the Harmil battery finally found the range, and a shell struck Kimberley’s engine room, wounding three men. Splinters cut the steam pipes; the British destroyer lost power and came to a halt.

Kimberley’s men frantically patched the damage while the drifting ship’s guns remained in action, shooting forty-five rounds of HE from no. 3 mount, and achieving some hits that wounded four of the shore battery’s crew. After a few long minutes, the destroyer restored partial power and pulled away at fifteen knots. The shore battery fired its final shots at 0645, when the range had opened to nineteen thousand yards. During the battle Kimberley expended 596 SAP and 97 HE rounds.

After she was clear the destroyer lost steam pressure again. Finally Leander arrived and towed Kimberley to Port Sudan. Nullo remained above water; her guns ended up equipping a shore battery. On 21 October three Blenheims reported destroying a wreck east of Harmil Island. This led the British to conclude two enemy ships had been involved in the action.

The Aden command faulted the escort (except for Kimberley) for demonstrating a lack of aggressiveness, although deserting the convoy to chase unknown numbers of enemy destroyers through a murky night does not in retrospect seem the best course of action either. The Italian ships, although outnumbered, delivered two hit-and-run torpedo attacks, according to their plan. However, while using widely separated divisions increased the probability of finding the enemy, a natural consideration given the history of failed interception attempts, it also guaranteed that the Italian forces would lack the punch to take on the escort and deliver a meaningful attack. In fact, the first Italian attack seemed more formulaic than a serious attempt to cause damage.

The Italian East African squadron conducted another (fruitless) sortie on 3 December 1940. It aborted a mission planned for early January after British aircraft damaged Manin, one of the participants, and on 24 January it sortied again, without results. On the night of 2 February 1941, however, three destroyers departed Massawa and deployed in a rake formation to search for a large convoy known to be at sea.

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

Convoy Escort: CL: Caledon; DD: Kingston; DS: Indus (IN), Shoreham

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

Sauro spotted the enemy, made a sighting report, and immediately maneuvered to attack. She launched three torpedoes at a group of steamships and then, a minute later, at another dimly seen target marked by a large cloud of smoke. She then turned away at speed. Her two sisters did not receive the report, but ten minutes later Pantera stumbled across the enemy and also fired torpedoes. The Italians heard explosions and later claimed “probable” hits on two freighters. Tigre never made contact.

On her way to Massawa’s south channel, Sauro encountered Kingston. Out of torpedoes, the Italian retreated at full speed. Concerned that the British were attempting another ambush, the squadron concentrated on Sauro and radioed for air support at dawn. In the event, the three destroyers safely made port. The Italian East African press reported two freighters as probably hit, but despite this claim, all torpedoes missed.

By April 1941 Imperial spearheads were probing Massawa’s defensive perimeter. With Supermarina’s approval, Rear Admiral Mario Bonetti, Balsamo’s replacement from December 1940, ordered a last grand gesture—an attack by the three largest destroyers (Leone, Pantera, and Tigre) against Port Suez, five hundred miles north, and a concurrent raid by the smaller destroyers Battisti, Manin, and Sauro against Port Sudan. The British Middle Eastern command had considered such an attack possible and had reinforced Port Suez with two J-class destroyers and sent Eagle’s experienced air group south to Port Sudan, while the carrier waited for mines to be swept from the Suez Canal so she could proceed south.

The Italian venture ran into problems early when Leone struck an uncharted rock forty-five miles out of Massawa. Flooding and fires in her engine room forced her crew to abandon ship. Her two companions returned to port, as the rescue operation left insufficient time for them to continue the mission.

On the afternoon of 2 April the remaining Italian destroyers sailed once again, this time against Port Sudan, 265 miles north. British aircraft attacked them about two hours out of port but caused no damage. Then Battisti suffered engine problems and scuttled herself on the Arabian coast. The other four continued at top speed through the night and by dawn were thirty miles short of their objective. However, Eagle’s Swordfish squadrons intervened, sinking Sauro at 0715. The other ships headed for the opposite shore, under attack as they went. Bombs crippled Manin at 0845. She eventually capsized and sank about a hundred miles northeast of Port Sudan. Pantera and Tigre made it to the Arabian coast and were scuttled there.

Caught off guard by the Italian sortie, British warships rushed north. At 1700 Kingston found Pantera’s and Tigre’s wrecks. The two ships had already been worked over by Wellesley bombers, but Kingston shelled Pantera’s hulk and then torpedoed it, just to be sure

The biggest Italian naval success in the Red Sea was a Parthian shot that occurred on 8 April, with Massawa’s defenses breached and ships scuttling themselves on all sides. MAS213, a World War I relic no longer capable of even fifteen knots, ambushed the old light cruiser Capetown, which was escorting minesweepers north of the port, and scored a torpedo hit from just over three hundred yards. After spending a year in repair, the cruiser sat out the rest of the war as an accommodation ship.

This was the Italian navy’s final blow in East Africa. The capture of Massawa relieved Great Britain of the need to convoy the entire length of the Red Sea and released valuable escorts for other duties. On 10 June an Indian battalion captured Assab, Italy’s last Red Sea outpost, eliminating a pair of improvised torpedo boats. After that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the narrow sea a nonwar zone, permitting the entry of American shipping.

However, German aircraft continued to exert a distant influence over the Red Sea, by mining the Suez Canal and attacking shipping that accumulated to the south of the canal. As late at 18 September Admiral Cunningham complained to Admiral Pound that “the Red Sea position is unsatisfactory . . . about 5 of 6 ships attacked, one sunk [Steel Seafarer (6,000 GRT)] and two damaged. . . . The imminent arrival at Suez of the monster liners is giving me much anxiety. They are crammed with men and we can’t afford to have them hit up.” In October 1941 the Suez Escort Force still tied up four light cruisers, two fleet destroyers, two Hunt-class destroyers, and two sloops. The British maintained a blockade off French Somaliland until December 1942.


Franz Joseph’s Empire, Sisi, and Hungary I

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph with his troops at the Battle of Solferino, 1859

On 6 October 1849, the former prime minister of Hungary, Count Louis Batthyány, was taken into the courtyard of the main gaol of Pest. An Austrian military court had condemned him to hang for treason on account of his role in promoting Hungary’s independence, but he had slit his throat several days earlier in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. So the court changed the penalty to death by firing squad. Batthyány was so weak that he had to be carried to the place of execution; he died slumped on a chair. Several hours before, at five thirty AM, thirteen generals in what had been the army of independent Hungary were also executed in Arad Castle on the same grounds of treason, the majority by hanging. The noose was a harsh punishment, for death came not from the sudden breaking of the neck but from slow suffocation. It was intended to be humiliating, too, for the victim writhed in his agony and, at expiry, his bowels usually opened.

The executions of Batthyány and the generals came at the end of a bloody war between Hungary and the Habsburgs that had begun with Jelačić’s invasion. The country had held out for almost a year—its resources and Hungarian population ably mobilized by Kossuth and its armies expertly commanded. Even so, it was only in April 1849 that the Hungarian government proclaimed the country’s formal independence, deposing ‘the perjured house of Habsburg’ and appointing Kossuth governor and regent. Until then, Hungary’s politicians had held by the conviction that they were acting lawfully, in accordance with the terms of the April Laws, as granted by Emperor Ferdinand.

Finally, in June 1849 a Russian army invaded Hungary at the request of the new emperor, Franz Joseph (1848–1916). With the Austrian general von Haynau pressing from the west and General Paskevich’s Russians from the north, resistance collapsed. Kossuth meanwhile escaped into the Ottoman Empire. For the remainder of his long life (he died in 1894), Kossuth inveighed against Habsburg rule in Hungary, electrifying audiences in Great Britain and the United States with his oratory. His claim that he had learned English from reading Shakespeare in prison may not be true, but the story enhanced his reputation and the cause of a free Hungary. Visiting England in 1851, Kossuth received a rapturous welcome, feted by tens of thousands in every city in which he spoke. By contrast, when Haynau came to London, he was set upon by the draymen of Barclay and Perkins brewery, pelted with dung, and chased down Borough High Street.

The killing of Batthyány and the generals was the work of the young Franz Joseph, who rejected his ministers’ proposal of a comprehensive amnesty. But the emperor was not yet finished with ‘the scaffold and the bloodbath’, as one former prime minister put it, and he gave Haynau free rein in Hungary. A hundred executions followed, and several thousand long gaol sentences. Even when the Austrian prime minister, Prince Schwarzenberg, ordered Haynau to desist from killing, he carried on, until finally dismissed in July 1850. Haynau was sufficiently insensitive to buy on retirement an estate in Hungary. He never understood why his neighbours did not invite him to dinner.

Emergency rule continued in Hungary until 1854, and some offences remained under the jurisdiction of military courts for several years longer. On top of this, Hungary’s counties were abolished and replaced by administrative districts headed by appointees of the interior ministry in Vienna. Croatia, Transylvania, and the Banat together with the neighbouring Vojvodina were additionally ruled separately from Vienna as crown lands. All institutions of self-government were abolished, and German was made the language of administration. Tasks previously performed by the counties and noble landlords were now undertaken by bureaucrats, many of whom were recruited from elsewhere in the Austrian Empire.

The breakup of Hungary into districts ruled from Vienna was part of a plan that Schwarzenberg (or at least someone close to him) had hatched as early as December 1848. Developments elsewhere were more haphazard. As one of his first acts, Franz Joseph had closed the imperial parliament that had been meeting in Kroměříž. In the early hours of 7 March 1849, troops with bayonets had entered the castle where the parliament met and blocked the entrances, after which they had scoured the city, arresting several of the more radical deputies. In place of the constitutional proposals the parliament had devised, Franz Joseph imposed a constitution of his own, which as he explained was more suited to the times and less influenced by remote and theoretical ideas.

The Decreed or March Constitution was in some respects a good one. It was centralist in the sense that it envisaged one elected parliament for the whole of the Austrian Empire, including Hungary, a single central government, and one coronation. Although the emperor retained strong powers, there were layers of elected bodies, which possessed a devolved authority. The constitution additionally confirmed the abolition of serfdom previously agreed by the imperial parliament, legal equality, and that ‘all national groups are equal and that every national group has an inviolable right to the use and cultivation of its language and nationality.’

For all its merits, the constitution was a cynical ploy. Franz Joseph was out to make his mark, and he was lured by Schwarzenberg’s dream of joining the entire Austrian Empire to the German Confederation to create a massive new territorial bloc in Central Europe, in which the Habsburg emperor would be politically dominant. To win over the German princes to the scheme, Franz Joseph needed to appear as a constitutionalist who was ready to be bound by legal constraints. But by the middle of 1851, it was clear that the German rulers would not agree to a merger with the Austrian Empire, preferring to renew the Confederation set up after the defeat of France in 1814. By this time, too, Franz Joseph was casting envious eyes on Napoleon III of France, who had, as the emperor admiringly described, ‘seized the reins of power in his hands’ and made himself much more than ‘a machine for writing his signature.’

Implementation of the March Constitution went at a snail’s pace, and its provisions on local elected government were drastically pared back. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1851, Franz Joseph issued a series of instructions, known collectively as the Sylvester Patent, that abolished the March Constitution outright and gave himself the sole right to make laws. (31 December is St Sylvester’s Day; a patent was a type of decree.) The coup was completed after the death of Schwarzenberg in April 1852, when Franz Joseph declared that he would now act in the capacity of prime minister.

The Sylvester Patent introduced a decade of neo-absolutism or neo-Caesarism, when Franz Joseph ruled as a dictator. Both terms are recent ones—at the time, the type of government practised by Franz Joseph was known simply as absolutism or more tellingly as bureaucratic absolutism, for the emperor imposed his will through the administrative apparatus. But the bureaucrats also had their own political agenda, which was to maintain the reforming programme of Joseph II, with its belief in the wisdom of state management and in social and economic progress directed from above. They even had a name for themselves: the ‘party of Enlightenment.’

Altogether, the Habsburg civil service numbered in the 1850s around fifty thousand persons, but this included junior and ancillary staff. About ten thousand belonged to the higher ‘policy service’ (Konzeptdienst), and almost all of these had received a university education, mostly in law. Those in the higher branches were overwhelmingly liberal in disposition and outlook, and disproportionately represented in the reading clubs and, during 1848, in the politics of reform. They were liberals in the sense of believing in individual empowerment, through education, legal equality, freedom of the press and of association, and the removal of economic constraints. They saw a strong state as the vehicle for a liberal programme of reform and were prepared to make concessions to it—press freedom was an early casualty. But by endorsing state intervention, the bureaucrats ‘fattened the state up’, turning it into a Leviathan that devoured the individual freedoms that their liberalism had originally championed.

The achievements of bureaucratic absolutism were massive—as one historian has put it, ‘a Josephinist fantasy come true.’ There were new institutes of science, regulations on safety in mines and the workplace, a penny-stamp postal service, new roads, telegraphs, and railways. By 1854, a thousand kilometres of track had been laid, and the Linz to České Budějovice (Budweis) line, originally built in 1832, was converted from horse to steam power. For the roads, almost ten million cubic metres of stone were laid in just three years. Experts recruited from the London Board of Works helped to dredge and canalize the Danube and Tisza rivers. Infrastructural expansion was underpinned by burgeoning coal and iron production, by a developing banking sector for commercial loans, and by the removal of customs barriers that made the Austrian Empire into a common market. Vienna, too, was transformed, with the old city walls torn down and a spacious ‘Ring’ built in its place to house the new class of entrepreneurs and industrialists created by economic modernization.

The peasantry had been freed by Joseph II in the sense that they were able to leave the land and marry without the lord’s consent. But the land they farmed still belonged to the lord, on which account they owed him dues and services performed by hand. In the early months of the revolution, the Hungarian diet had committed itself to giving the peasants the lands they farmed, but elsewhere promises were vague and piecemeal, with the terms of emancipation deferred until the imperial parliament met. The difficulties were that the lords needed some sort of compensation for their loss and that the land that the peasants farmed was of varying legal quality—some was ancestral peasant property, farmed over generations; other land was leased from the lord under contract, or else it was common land or had been cleared by the peasant personally from scrub.

The imperial parliament had shirked its obligation to facilitate emancipation by hiding behind generalities. After 1849, however, the government made a determined attempt to resolve the issues arising from emancipation. Ancestral land became the peasants’, in its entirety, with no compensation paid to landlords. All the rest was compensated for, with the state bearing the brunt of the burden, which it did through the expedient of printing bonds and distributing them slowly. The terms of compensation were worked out by commissions, and the new landowning peasants were obliged to enter details of their properties in land registers. These also recorded liens—whether the property was now leased out or mortgaged—and neighbours, kinsmen, and lenders frequently challenged the contents of the registers. The courts in Hungary alone were in the second half of the century handling seldom fewer than three hundred thousand cases a year of disputed entries, with a backlog extending to over a million.

In the past, minor disputes such as these would have gone in the first instance to manor courts, but with the abolition of landlordism had also gone the landowners’ courts and their gratis contribution to the administration of the countryside. The state had now to fill the gap, establishing across the empire 1,500 new courts and supervisory offices. Bureaucrats were despatched to the countryside to see to the implementation of directives from the centre. Their task was a hard one. The interior minister, Alexander Bach, ordered civil servants in Hungary to buy an uncomfortable uniform based on a Hungarian cavalryman’s, but it cost half a year’s salary and earned them ridicule as ‘Bach hussars.’ Underresourced and living in shabby conditions, they found it impossible to reconcile their obligations with the day-to-day realities of the countryside. Arriving in one Hungarian village, a ‘Bach hussar’ found there to be no prison: convicts were instead lodged unguarded in an inn and given a daily allowance for food.

Bach’s instructions for the civil service stressed the importance of stability, routine, and predictability of outcome in the legal and administrative process. To that end, the Austrian civil law was extended in the 1850s across the whole of the Austrian Empire, replacing in Hungary and Transylvania the arcane and largely unwritten customary law. But to meet local circumstances, the law had to be modified and adapted, thus robbing it of its regularity and uniformity. On top of this, the medley of official circulars, formulary books, clarifications, edicts, and modifications emanating from the centre rendered the law even less certain and its application in individual circumstances unpredictable. Bewildered bureaucrats frequently referred up, so that even trivial matters ended up on Bach’s desk, never to be resolved.

But there was uncertainty at the top too. Franz Joseph was unaccountable, unconstrained by either institutions or a constitution. He was inept but convinced in his own superior wisdom. In an example that shocked the British ambassador, he insisted in early 1852 that a cavalry parade take place on the cobblestones before the Schönbrunn Palace in a deep frost, even though warned of the danger. The horses toppled, killing two cuirassiers. Franz Joseph’s handling of foreign policy was equally calamitous. He did not support Tsar Nicholas in the Crimean War (1853–1856), thus letting down the ally who had come to his rescue in 1849, but neither did he back the British and the French against Russia. Diplomatically isolated, he was now prey for Napoleon III of France, whose army swept through Lombardy in 1859, assigning the province to the kingdom of Piedmont in exchange for France taking Nice and Savoy. It did not help that halfway through the campaign Franz Joseph appointed himself commander. His generalship led directly to the bloodbath of the Battle of Solferino. Two years later, having overrun the Habsburg-ruled duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany, the king of Piedmont was proclaimed king of Italy.

Franz Joseph’s Empire, Sisi, and Hungary II

Kaiser Franz Josef I und Kaiserin Elisabeth

In April 1859, the Austrian National Bank collapsed, refusing to honour its own currency. Franz Joseph had treated the bank as a ‘grand state treasury’, taking what he needed, and he simply did not understand what it meant when earlier that year his agents had been refused a loan on the London market. The bankers would not lend to an unaccountable monarch. Anselm Rothschild put it bluntly: ‘No constitution, no money.’ Franz Joseph’s own finance minister, Karl Ludwig von Bruck, went further. The absolutist experiment had not lived up to expectations and had failed to harness the energies of the Austrian Empire, he wrote. Centralization should be ‘cooled down’ and a ‘sound, enduring constitution’ imposed, but not one that revived the antique arrangements of the past.

Typically, Franz Joseph did exactly what Bruck advised him not to do. Casually commenting to his mother that ‘we will now have a little parliamentarism’, he resuscitated an older institution, the imperial council or Reichsrat, packing it with his aristocratic chums in the hope that it would be mistaken for a parliament. To further the deception, he also recalled the diets so that they might send representatives to join the imperial council, but only ones whom he approved. In the October Diploma of 1860 (a diploma is a solemn decree, stronger than a patent), Franz Joseph declared this Pinocchio’s nose of a constitution to be ‘permanent and irrevocable’, but the bankers still refused to lend. Ignaz von Plener, who had replaced Bruck as finance minister, was adamant in his advice to Franz Joseph. Financial stability could only be assured, he explained, when the National Bank was freed from governmental interference and when borrowing was subject to oversight by genuinely representative institutions.

Franz Joseph gave way. Setting aside the ‘permanent and irrevocable’ October Diploma, he issued the so-called February Patent of 1861. Technically explanatory of the October Diploma, the patent gave the Austrian Empire a real parliament, even though it retained the old name of the imperial council. It was made up of two houses—an Upper House of high aristocrats and churchmen and a Lower House comprising deputies sent by the diets—whose consent was needed for all legislation. New regulations published at the same time laid down qualifications for voting to the diets, extending the franchise to about a quarter of the adult male population and introducing a complicated procedure for casting ballots that advantaged the German-speaking population.

The February Patent kept many of the emperor’s powers, including over the army and foreign policy. Most importantly, the emperor chose the government, and ministers were responsible to him. Invariably, Franz Joseph appointed bureaucrats and not politicians to the ministries. Having served in the administration, they were more likely to be loyal to him, and in any case he valued expertise more than political posturing. A bureaucratic elite, therefore, still made most of the important political decisions. On top of this, legislation was frequently enacted in the form of administrative decrees that bypassed the parliamentary process entirely. Bureaucratic absolutism thus gave way not to government by democratic institutions but instead to bureaucratic constitutionalism.

At the head of the apparatus remained the man who described himself as his empire’s ‘first civil servant.’ At work by five in the morning, Franz Joseph busied himself with paperwork, often correcting ministerial drafts or rewriting them entirely. His office routine was broken by meetings with his ministers and, twice a week, with general audiences at which any of his subjects might petition to see him. Here his bureaucratic routines proved their worth, for a filing system meant that he could keep up with every petitioner—whether he had visited before and, if so, what his concerns had been, and the remedies given. Franz Joseph kept going throughout the day on Virginia cigarettes and coffee, which he replaced in old age with mild cigars and tea. The knowledge he acquired of matters of state was formidable, but it lay unsorted in his mind, with trivial matters of protocol often uppermost.

Franz Joseph treasured the Austrian presidency of the German Confederation, for it provided a vehicle for projecting power as far afield as the Baltic and North Sea, as well as suggesting dynastic continuity with the old Holy Roman Empire. As late as 1863, Franz Joseph was still hoping to be offered the German imperial crown. But Prussia also had ambitions to leadership in Germany, which the Prussian ambassador to the Confederation, Otto von Bismarck, expressed with typical forcefulness. In 1862, on the eve of his appointment as the prime minister of Prussia, Bismarck explained to the Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli in London how he planned to reorganize the Prussian army. Then, he went on, ‘I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Confederation, subjugate the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen’s ministers.’ But Bismarck did not just say it to the British government—the Austrian ambassador was also in the room with Disraeli.

In Franz Joseph’s case, forewarned was not forearmed. On the flimsiest of pretexts, Prussia declared war on the Austrian Empire, defeating the Habsburg army in a lightning campaign waged over seven weeks in 1866. The kingdom of Italy, Prussia’s ally, counted on the winning side, even though defeated at sea at Lissa (Vis) in the Adriatic in the first fleet battle to involve ironclad warships. Italy was now rewarded with Venice, while Bismarck rolled up all the states north of the River Main into a new North German Confederation under Prussian presidency. Less than five years later, the South German states gave way, joining Bismarck’s newly proclaimed German Empire. The Habsburg link to the German lands, which had persevered throughout the history of the dynasty and had survived both Napoleon and 1848, was now finally severed.

In less than twenty years, Franz Joseph had lost Lombardy, Venice, and the German Confederation. The Austrian Empire had shrunk back into Central Europe. On top of this, it stood to lose even more, for Hungary was far from pacified. Rumours of insurrection circulated there, fanned from abroad by Kossuth. The roughness of Austrian rule was summed up in 1858 by the governor of Hungary, Archduke Albrecht. When asked by a Hungarian delegation to restore the kingdom’s ancient constitution, Albrecht grabbed his sword, exclaiming, ‘This is my constitution.’ Unsurprisingly, the diet summoned in 1861 to select deputies for the parliament in Vienna refused point-blank to cooperate and even questioned whether Franz Joseph was Hungary’s lawful king. The imperial parliament that met in Vienna, in a temporary wooden structure on the new Ring, was accordingly eighty-five deputies short. Hoping to break Hungary’s will, Franz Joseph ramped up the politics of coercion, only to be faced by a tax strike.

Hungary was saved for the Habsburgs by the intervention of two people. The first was the lawyer and politician Ferenc Deák. Deák argued that the public law of Hungary rested on two instruments—the April Laws of 1848 that had granted Hungary independence and Charles VI’s Pragmatic Sanction that had declared Hungary an ‘inseparable and indivisible’ part of the Habsburg lands. The trick was to arrive at a compromise that bridged the two documents, and Deák saw how this could be done. The second to intercede on Hungary’s behalf was more unexpected—Franz Joseph’s wife, Empress Elizabeth, whom he had married in 1854, when she was just sixteen.

Elizabeth or ‘Sisi’ was, in the words of Franz Joseph’s valet, ‘a world away from being the ideal wife.’ Wilful and self-obsessed, she luxuriated in her own beauty. Having done her duty by providing a male heir, she travelled, flitting between health spas, Corfu, and England. There were visits in between to Monte Carlo, where she played the tables, and long cruises in the Mediterranean, in token of which she sported an anchor tattoo on her shoulder. Much has been said of her that is not true. For most of her life, she kept her waist at 16.5 inches in diameter (42 centimetres), but she was neither too thin for the corsets of the time nor anorexic. Although she periodically dieted, she normally ate a healthy breakfast with wine, a meat dish for lunch, but little for supper, since coffee and cigarettes had by the evening robbed her of her appetite (she chain-smoked, including in the state carriage). Even so, she exercised vigorously, having her own gymnasium in the Hofburg, where her high bar and balancing rings survive, and she was a distinguished equestrian. In England, she rode to hounds with the Northamptonshire Hunt, but it is unlikely that she had an affair with the Scottish huntsman Bay Middleton, despite a tantalizing aside in one of her daughters’ diaries. Franz Joseph’s valet hinted at liaisons, and she did sometimes behave peculiarly with men, but beyond that we know nothing.

Sisi’s education in Bavaria had been erratic, since her father had eccentrically imagined that she would in time join a circus troupe, so she was largely self-taught. She spoke fluent English, Hungarian, and demotic Greek, and composed some exquisite romantic poetry in the manner of Heinrich Heine, on whose works she was an acknowledged expert. Her husband by contrast was a bore. It is not true that he only read the Army List—he also read the newspapers’ military supplements. Franz Joseph was a stickler for etiquette, mainly because in its absence he did not know what was appropriate. Although he may not have presented himself to his bride on their wedding night in full regimental uniform (as has been alleged), he did attend one of his wife’s hunts dressed in Lederhosen. Franz Joseph had affairs, but probably not with the burly actress Frau Schratt, with whom he is usually associated. His preference was for married middle-class women with a home to go to, the husbands having been bought off.

Franz Joseph’s letters to Sisi (his survive, but not hers to him) are extraordinary in their affection and intimacy. She is ‘my heavenly angel’, ‘my darling’, ‘sweet soul’, and he signs off ‘your little one’ or ‘the manikin’ (Männeken)—he was shorter than she. They share family news, gossip, and private jokes, so Schratt is either ‘the girlfriend’ or on account of her tantrums ‘the minister of war.’ In his study, Franz Joseph hung a portrait of Sisi in a loose robe, with her hair cascading to her waist and giving only the faintest smile. (In fact, her hair reached to her ankles, and she never opened her mouth to smile for fear of showing her irregular teeth.) Yet their meetings were often tempestuous and even violent, with furniture thrown. Clearly, the relationship succeeded best at a distance.

Sisi first visited Hungary in 1857 and was charmed by the lack of stiff ceremony there. Free from oversight, she was able to disport with Gypsies and jugglers, and to enjoy the effusive attentions of the Hungarian aristocracy. She also came to know the leading Hungarian nobleman, Count Andrássy, and the lawyer Ferenc Deák, both of whom were willing to negotiate with Franz Joseph. Sisi recommended them to Franz Joseph. Although Andrássy had only recently been amnestied for his part in the Hungarian War of Independence, Sisi succeeded in having Franz Joseph meet him. To his surprise, the emperor found the count to be ‘brave, honourable, and highly gifted.’ At Sisi’s insistence too, he met secretly with Deák, reporting their conversation back to her in cipher. For more than a year, the empress acted as an intermediary, relaying messages between her husband and the Hungarian political leaders, and stiffened the resolve of the two sides to make a deal. Behind the scenes, she pressed the emperor to show flexibility, in letters that told him explicitly what to do.

Sisi’s intervention was not decisive, for Franz Joseph would eventually have had to come to terms with Hungary, but she facilitated the meetings that led to a solution and worked on her husband to be better disposed to the Hungarian leaders. The result was the Compromise or Settlement of 1867. Devised by Deák, it gave Hungary independence while keeping it in the Habsburg Empire, thus squaring the April Laws with the Pragmatic Sanction. The Compromise gave the kingdom its own government and parliament, with an Upper House of dignitaries and an elected Lower House, but the emperor as king of Hungary appointed the government. To satisfy Hungarian demands, Transylvania was also fully absorbed into Hungary, and Hungarian law replaced the Austrian civil code. In June 1867, Franz Joseph and Elizabeth were crowned king and queen of Hungary, with the Holy Crown being placed on their heads consecutively, and she, too, was invested with the royal sceptre and orb. It was an honour never given before to a queen of Hungary.

In 1867, Franz Joseph published constitutions for both halves of the empire. From this point onwards, the Habsburg Empire comprised two equal parts—a Hungarian part and a part for all the rest, which included the Austrian lands, Bohemia, Polish Galicia, the Adriatic coastline, and so on. The second had no obvious name and was officially known as the Lands and Kingdoms Represented in the Imperial Council, and unofficially as ‘this side of the Leitha’ (Cisleithania: the River Leitha marked Hungary’s western border). The two halves remained, however, ‘inseparable and indivisible’, in the understanding of the Pragmatic Sanction. Foreign policy and the army were regarded as ‘common matters’ and were overseen by ‘common ministries’ of foreign affairs and war, to which was added a third ministry of finance, with responsibility for funding the other two. In all other respects, the two governments were separate, with the prime minister of Hungary regarding his counterpart in Vienna as only a ‘distinguished foreigner.’ Since Hungary now had its own government, the name of the empire changed from the Austrian Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (or Austria-Hungary for short). The adjective ‘imperial-royal’ (kaiserlich-königlich, or k.k.) was also replaced with ‘imperial and royal’ (kaiserlich und königlich, or k.u.k.), signalling Hungary’s new status.

Above the ministries sat the Crown Council, made up of the three common ministers, the prime ministers of Hungary and Cisleithania, and whomever else Franz Joseph chose to invite. The Crown Council was the emperor’s instrument and how he kept control of foreign policy and the army. The new Austro-Hungarian Empire or ‘dual monarchy’ had parliaments, and ‘this side of the Leitha’ also had elected diets, but its government was not parliamentary. The emperor conducted his own foreign policy and military deployments, with minimal parliamentary oversight. Franz Joseph also kept the right to legislate by decree, again with few constraints, which meant that he could bypass or substitute for the parliamentary process. When the going was tough, he even had the power to close the parliament in Vienna (but not the one in Hungary) and to impose ministries without parliamentary approval. To that extent at least, absolutism survived.

More importantly, the empire survived, but it was not just a matter of finding a constitutional formula to satisfy Hungarian aspirations. Franz Joseph was unloved in Hungary, not least for killing the kingdom’s generals, but Sisi had the glamour and passion for Hungary that reconciled Hungarians to Habsburg rule. She was their queen, who spoke their language, wore their national dress, and went to hunt in their fields. Back in 1866, Sisi had asked Franz Joseph to buy her Gödöllő Palace, just outside Pest. He had grumpily refused, explaining that ‘in these hard times, we must save mightily.’ The next year, the newly installed Hungarian government led by Count Andrássy bought it for her, as the gift of the nation on her coronation.

Andrássy had no doubt of Sisi’s contribution to the 1867 settlement between the monarch and Hungary. But for the other nations of the new Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sisi showed little interest, being particularly disdainful of Czechs and Italians. Her inconsistency and eccentricities should not, however, conceal the way her intervention in Hungarian affairs fitted into a larger pattern of queenly conduct. Because of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), Maria Theresa, and Catherine the Great of Russia (1762–1796), we tend to think of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a period when female rulers prospered. In fact, there were fewer regnant queens then than in preceding centuries, and females were expressly barred from the succession in Bourbon France and Spain, Sweden (after 1720), and Prussia.

It was, instead, as consorts that queens became influential, directing matters of state behind the scenes and rebuilding the image of monarchy. Leopoldine of Brazil set the pace, for, besides designing the Brazilian flag, she pushed her cautious husband into declaring independence in the first place. But in some ways the closest parallel to Sisi was Queen Alexandra, the consort of Britain’s Edward VII (1901–1910). Elegant, striking in appearance, and a meddler in politics, Alexandra too had a husband whose reign as King Edward the Caresser had commenced amongst the lowest of expectations but whose eventual acceptance and rehabilitation owed much to her own reputation.