When a Dying Khan Probably Saved Europe

For several centuries, Europeans dominated the world. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, German, and Italian empires carved up the Americas, colonized almost all of Africa, colonized most of South and Southeast Asia and reduced China to near dependency. The Russian empire colonized central and northern Asia as far as the Pacific.

​ That era is now over, but there was an earlier chapter in world-dominating imperialism coming out of Asia: the Mongols. They once ruled an empire stretching from Korea to Poland, more than nine million square miles. And once, they were a mortal threat to Europe.

​The crucial years for Europe and the invading Mongols were the year 1240 and 1241. Genghis khan, the creator of the Mongol empire, was followed as Great Khan by his son Ogodei, who ruled 1229-1241. Ogodei was himself an excellent general and charismatic leader, and under him the Mongol empire reached its greatest extent.

​ Genghis had broken the empire into four constituent parts to be ruled by his sons and grandsons under the supervision of the Great Khan. These included Mongolia and China, under Tolui. His son Chagatai got Central Asia stretching from the Caspian Sea to China’s Xinjiang province. Another son created the Ilkhan empire, centered on Persia. His eldest son Jochi was allocated lands from the Ural Mountains and west. That included the Russian lands and potentially the rest of Europe. Jochi’s son Batu proved to be one of the most formidable of the Mongol commanders, and Batu also had Subotai in his forces, probably one of the most able military commanders in all of human history.

​ The Mongols were superb cavalry. Their soldiers grew up in a nomad herding culture and were on horseback and learning how to use a bow from the time they were three or four. People tend to think of Mongol hordes, as if their armies were huge. The word “horde” comes from a Mongol-Turkish word meaning simply army camp. The Mongols were usually outnumbered by their enemies, and won by strategy, quality leadership and by subverting enemies through bribery and intimidation. The Mongol forces invading Europe were outnumbered by the European defenders.

​ In late 1240 and early 1241, the Mongols gathered their army and prepared for the invasion of Europe. They had already subjugated the Russian principalities, and razed Kiyv. Subotai razed the city of Riazan and massacred all the inhabitants. Many of the other Russian cities surrendered or fell to the Mongols. Subodai broke the Mongols into three divisions, one north to invade Poland, one to the south to invade Transylvania and what is now Romania, and the middle and main column to invade Hungary, which had a large and dangerous army.

​ The northern column under Kadan khan fought a battle with a mixed force of Poles, Germans and others. In the battle of Leignitz, the Mongols nearly destroyed the allied army. The southern force under Guyuk defeated smaller forces in Transylvania, and ravaged Wallachia, causing heavy population loss. The three columns then joined to face the Hungarian army at the battle of Mohi. The Hungarians fought well but were nearly annihilated. King Bela IV fled, and the Mongols devastated Hungary, with estimates of the casualties at about a quarter of the population, maybe a million lives. The Mongolspursued the Hungarian king into the Balkans, invading Croatia and Dalmatia and destroying Zagreb on the way.

​ In central Europe, Mongols conquered Moravia as well as much of Poland. There was some resistance in Bohemia under king Wenceslaus I, who inflicted serious losses on some small Mongol units. By the end of 1241, the Mongols dominated Poland, Hungary, almost all the Russian lands, including what is now Ukraine, and much of the Balkans. Subodei sent patrols to investigate invading Austria and how the city of Vienna might be taken. Some Mongol forces got within a day or two march from the city, devastating many towns and villages. The Austrians did inflict a sharp defeat on a small Mongol force.

​ In December of 1241, Subodei and Batu took their army into winter camp, and began preparing for a campaign in 1242that would have gone into Germany and perhaps Italy, with the aim of conquering everything as far as the ocean.

​ The campaign never started and the invasion of the rest of Europe never occurred.

​ Ogodei, the Great Khan had died. The cause of his death was apparently alcoholism, with his death occurring in a drinking bout after a day of hunting. Choosing a new Great Khan required that the sons and grandsons and other leaders travel back to Karakorum, the Mongol capital, almost 4,000 miles from Vienna. The new khan had to be chosen by a kuriltai,a meeting of the leading Mongolian families to elect the new khan. Travel that far over steppe and desert took months. Ogodei’s formidable widow, Toregene served as regent until a new khan was elected, which took several years.

​ Batu did not return to Mongolia, but instead directed his attention to the plains of southern Russia and further south and east, to Anatolia, Syria and elsewhere. Batu consolidated what came to be known as the Golden Horde. The Horde subjugated Russia for almost 200 years and sometimes raided further west, but never again was a threat to the rest of Europe. The Horde later fragmented into smaller khanates, including the khanate of Kazan, the khanate of Sibir (from which Siberia gets its name), the Nogai Horde, the khanate of Astrakan, and the Crimean khanate.

Ogodei’s fatal drinking bout may have saved most of Europe from Mongol conquest.

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