Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe, a Book Review

By James Barasch on May 18, 2013

To many, Poland is the country that can’t get a lucky break. Partitioned out of existence in the late 1700s and reconstituted as a nation in 1919, only to be invaded two decades later and have a quarter of its civilian population massacred during World War II, Poland was ‘liberated’ in 1945, only to spend the next 40 years behind the Iron Curtain under Communist domination. There was, however, a time when Poland was a mighty kingdom, spanning nearly a quarter of Europe’s landmass, from Berlin to Smolensk, from the North Sea to the Black Sea. It is that proud kingdom, led by its most successful elected monarch, Jan Sobieski, which saved Europe from a massive Ottoman Turkish invasion in 1683, altering the course of history. In Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe, Miltiades Varvounis paints a touching and vivid portrait of this larger-than-life Polish King and forgotten hero from lesser-celebrated countries.

Born in 1629 into one of the most powerful families of the Polish aristocracy, Sobieski grew up in a privileged environment in one of the freest countries in Europe at the time. Unlike many contemporary governments of Western Europe, which were centralizing under absolute governments, 16th and 17th century Polish-Lithuanian government was a loosely organized confederation of two sprawling states, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Constructed to grant the large aristocracy (about 10-15% of the population) a wide degree of autonomy and freedom, the government was run by an assembly of nobles, the Sejm and an elected monarchy, often selected from a foreign family. Indeed, Sobieski was one of only three native Poles to be elected to the throne during the duration of the “Republic” (1579-1789). Educated in Cracow and having toured the great capitals of Western Europe, Sobieski returned to Poland in 1648 to participate in defeating the Great Cossack Uprising, the first shock in a series of foreign and civil wars that would fatally weaken the underdeveloped loosely organized Commonwealth, which though possessing the most fertile soil in Europe, was also burdened by thousands of miles of indefensible borders. These wars unexpectedly catapulted Sobieski to great renown as both a brilliant strategist and a ferocious and indomitable fighter, but also cost him his dear elder brother Marek, who died early on in 1652.

Marrying the Polish-French Princess Marie (Marysienka) d’Arquien in 1665, with whom he had 5 children, Sobieski was a devoted, boisterous family man, as indicated by his passionate letters to Marysienka. Elected King of Poland in 1674, he served for the remaining 22 years of his life, reforming the military, modernizing the central government, and striving to improve Poland’s standing with its more modernized neighbors. His crowning achievement came in 1683, when Sobieski led a multi-national expedition to relieve the embattled city of Vienna from a massive Ottoman Turkish siege. In the largest cavalry charge in European history that inspired J. R. R. Tolkein’s ‘Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ in his Lord of the Rings, Sobieski and his German allies shattered the numerically superior Ottoman siege force and permanently ended Ottoman expansion into Europe.

Varvounis vividly and effectively recreates Sobieski as a Polish Theodore Roosevelt: loud, boisterous, a man of enormous appetites, a ferocious whirlwind of energy and mental acuity, a capable warrior and tactician and a devoted family man. His anecdotes from Sobieski’s life, as well as extensive background information on his country and his environment orient the reader to the Poland of that time. While it would have been helpful to have more in-text citations, Varvounis’ vivid prose and engaging style makes for enjoyable reading and does justice to a largely forgotten hero of European history.

Rating: 4/5

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