Ask your average person to name an event that took place during the 1600's, and you are likely to get a blank stare.
One of the western world's most important events took place in 1683, as a powerful Ottoman army advanced into Europe. Already having conquered Hungary and Transylvania, 138,000 Ottomans laid siege to the city of Vienna, the gateway to continental Europe. 11,000 troops and 5,000 volunteers declared that they would defend the city to the last man. For almost two months, they held out against the Turkish onslaught, suffering severe casualties as the Turks breached the outer walls of Vienna, digging tunnels and filling them with gunpowder.
Jan III, by artist Jan Matejko
Enter Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, and the husaria, or winged hussars. As the battered Austrians prepared to fight in the streets of Vienna, Sobieski led a relief force of 30,000 Poles, 18,500 Austrians, 19,000 Franconian, Bavarian, and Swabian troops, and 9,000 Saxons. The Turks attacked the relief force, resulting in 12 hours of intense infantry combat before Sobieski saw that the time was right to break the back of the Turkish force. Sobieski led a charge of 20,000 Polish and German cavalry, the largest cavalry charge in recorded history, with Sobieski and 3000 winged hussars at the head of the charge. The Turkish lines crumbled, and the hussars pressed into the Turkish camps as the elated remaining defenders of Vienna poured out of the city, finally on the offensive.
The Turks retreated and abandoned their attempts to conquer Europe. Sobieski, ever the statesman, declared the following:
"Veni, vidi, Deus vicit."
I came, I saw, God conquered.
"Sobieski Sending Message of Victory to the Pope" by Jan Matejko
Few Americans, including those of Polish ancestry, are aware that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once among the greatest nations on earth. In addition to Poland and Lithuania, it incorporated lands in present day Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Austria, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia. A vassal state, the Duchy of Courland, even established colonies in the Carribbean and Africa. The armies of the Commonwealth, led by the legendary husaria, were a dominant force and became the basis for western cavalry. A modern democracy, even Kings were elected. Refugees from religious and cultural persecution were welcomed, and it was not uncommon to see Christian churches side by side with Jewish temples and Islamic mosques in major cities. In a time when the Reformation and Counter-Reformation resulted in the deaths of countless "heretics," the Commonwealth was a sanctuary and forum in which theologians could debate without bloodshed.
Commonwealth Hussars by artist Jozef Brandt
The Commonwealth collapsed for various reasons, not the least of which included the election of Kings not entirely dedicated to the welfare of the Commonwealth. The deputies in the Sejm, the legislative body, squabbled amongst themselves for personal gain, paralyzing the Commonwealth's defenses. With Russian soldiers inviting themselves into the Commonwealth as "friendly protectors," the Sejm was forced to vote for policies re-enforcing foreign interests, eventually resulting in the dissolution of the Commonwealth. It ceased to exist in 1795, when all of Poland was swallowed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Poland and Lithuania did not regain independence until the close of World War I in 1918.