Today in European history: the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699)

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You know that old joke about how the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire? You could write a similar joke for the 1683-1699 Great Turkish War. It wasn’t “great” (this is admittedly subjective, but it definitely wasn't so great if you were in the Ottoman army). It wasn’t “Turkish” (the rise of Turkish nationalism in the Ottoman Empire was still more than a century away), and it wasn’t war, it was actually a series of them.

In the early 1680s, several European nations—including the aforementioned Holy Roman Empire (which at the time was controlled by the Austrian Habsburgs), Hungary (also controlled by the Austrian Habsburgs), Croatia (ditto), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, Venice, and a bunch of smaller partners—all joined a new Holy League at the behest of Pope Innocent XI (d. 1689). The Ottomans, in their late 17th century wisdom, managed to entangle themselves in conflicts with each of them—the Venetians in Greece, the Russians in Crimea and at Azov, the Poles in Moldavia, and the Austrians in, uh, Austria. It would have been nearly impossible for the Ottomans to have won so many simultaneous conflicts at their peak, and by the 1680s, they were no longer at their peak.

You can read about a couple of the crucial battles of the Great Turkish War elsewhere on this site. The Battle of Vienna in 1683 kicked the conflict off and made for a pretty wrong-footed start from the Ottoman perspective, and the Battle of Mohács in 1687 cost the Ottomans a huge chunk of territory in eastern Europe. Those two battles, plus the Battle of Zenta in 1697 and the loss of Azov to Russia, were the major engagements of the war, and all went against the Ottomans. The result was the Treaty of Karlowitz, adopted on January 26, 1699, after two months of negotiations in the Habsburg town of the same name (the modern Serbian town of Sremski Karlovci). Karlowitz stands as something of a milestone in the course of both European and Ottoman history, as it was the first treaty that the Ottomans were forced to conclude on European terms.

Karlowitz obliged the Ottomans to give up considerable European territory to the Habsburgs, territory that includes parts of modern Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They lost Dalmatia (another part of modern Croatia) and the Peloponnese (in Greece) to Venice (though they got the Peloponnese back not long after), and parts of modern Ukraine and Moldova to Poland-Lithuania. Negotiations begun here and concluded in the Treaty of Constantinople (1700) ceded Azov to Russia (the Ottomans later got that back as well). But the symbolism of Karlowitz, the unambiguous acknowledgement that the power dynamic in the Ottoman-Europe relationship had leveled out or even shifted a bit toward the European side, was arguably more important than any of its terms.

That said, the Treaty of Karlowitz has long been viewed as a turning point in the traditional, slightly ahistorical view of Ottoman history, and its impact has thus been overestimated. That narrative posits that the Ottoman Empire began declining all the way back in the 16th century, and that decline fully manifested with Karlowitz. Among Ottomanists, however, this “decline theory” has been pretty well debunked. I mean, 400 years is a long time to be in constant decline. The Ottoman Empire looks weaker in the 17th century than it was in the 16th century not so much because it was in decline but because the rest of the Mediterranean was catching up. Yes, the empire struggled through a string of sultans, and even the occasional grand vizier, who weren’t exactly dynamic leaders. But the imperial bureaucracy was so well-entrenched by this point that the machine of state hummed along regardless.

What we see in this period is less a decline than a transformation of the empire into something that looks more like a modern bureaucratic state than the absolutist monarchy it had been previously. As I say, the rest of the neighborhood was starting to catch up, and the Ottoman defeat in the Great Turkish War shows, among other things, that the Ottomans weren’t able to fight a multiple front war against multiple European enemies. But the empire won or at least stalemated a number of military conflicts with European powers in the early 18th century. It took Pruth back from Russia in 1711, won the Peloponnese back from Venice in 1718, and fought both Russia and the Habsburgs to standstills in the 1730s. So it wasn't exactly reeling the way the traditional narrative holds. It just wasn’t the undisputed power it had been a century or two earlier.