If a man of high distinction has an ancestor or a predecessor of similar distinction, he will likely be tempted to write about them. What I find surprising is that so few of them do. A brilliant example is Winston Churchill writing about his ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Some other people could have had their chance too but did not take it. Louis Napoleon, who had plenty of time during his exile, could have written a bestseller with a title in the style of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle; but he never even tried. I would have liked to see a book written by Joseph Stalin on Ivan the Terrible. Would he have described the Czar as a kindred spirit or a bungling amateur?
Note the title of this essay: Miklos Zrinyi, on Miklos Zrinyi. It seems to suggest that Zrinyi is writing an autobiography that includes his earlier self. This is not the case. They are two different people, man and great-grandfather, living in the 17th and 16th century in the country of Hungary. The one who lived from 1508 to 1566 was Captain of the strategically important fortress of Szigetvar. It lay on the road from the Balkans to Vienna. Anyone who wanted to invade Vienna from the south-east had to pass Szigetvar.
While many of the Habsburg captains ran away at the approach of the Ottomans, Zrinyi stood fast. It took a month for the vast Turkish Army to breach the walls. When defence was no longer feasible Zrinyi collected his remaining forces of about 600 men, had his horses killed, burnt his valuables, donned his best attire, drew his sword, had the gates opened and stormed the Turks. Zrinyi and his men all perished. The Ottomans won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. They suffered tremendous losses and were no longer capable of attacking Vienna.
The second Miklos Zrinyi lived from 1620 to 1664. In his youth he had the responsibility of protecting the Hungarian-Croatian border against Turkish incursions. At the age of 26 he was made a general. (This compares well with Napoleon Bonaparte, who became a general at 24.) At 27 he became “Horvat ban”, the highest office in Croatia under the Habsburgs.
Zrinyi the younger was educated by the Jesuits in Graz and Vienna. He was a Catholic but in terms of religion he was always a moderate. In terms of warfare he was both a practitioner of the art and an analyst interested in strategy. He wrote a well-argued and influential pamphlet discussing how the Turks could be defeated.
Zrinyi also had a deep interest in literature, keeping contact with the literary elite of Europe. He spoke fluent Croatian (his native tongue), Hungarian (his adopted language), Latin (the language of Parliament), German (the language of administration), Turkish (know your enemy!) and Italian (possibly in order to read Tasso). But his interest in literature was not restricted to reading. He also wrote poetry. He wrote, in fact, the first epic or epos in the Hungarian language, about his great-grandfather’s heroic defence of Szigetvar. Its title was Szigeti veszedelem (“Peril at Sziget”).
Let me quote from that epic:
Feqyvert es vitezt eneklek, torok hatalmat,
Ki meg merte varni Szoliman haragjat,
Ama nagy Szolimannak rettenetes karjat
Azkinek Europa rettegte szablyajat.
And my translation (sorry, not in rhyme):
Arms and the Man I sing,
Who dared to face the ire of Suleiman,
The ire of that Suleiman
Whose sabre was feared in all of Europe.
Obviously he wanted to imitate Virgil’s Arma virumque cano in the Aeneas. Anyway, it fits in well and sets the tone of the whole epic.
A hundred verses later, after many an individual combat (as in the Iliad) we reach the last day of the siege, his great-grandfather’s last stand. Miklos Zrinyi the elder fights his way through the thick of the Turkish soldiers. He has to cut down one hundred of them to reach Suleiman the Magnificent’s tent. The mighty Sultan tries to escape, but in vain. Zrinyi addresses him:
Verszopo szelendek, vilagnak tolvaja
telhetetlensegednek eljott oraja.
Bloodthirsty dog, thief of the world, your time is up
You will leave this world now and will be damned for eternity.
So quoth Zrinyi and by a single thrust cut the emperor into two.
Zrinyi the poet gallantly gives his great-grandfather the satisfaction of having killed the tyrant. It is actually true that Suleiman died at the siege of Szigetvar, but it was not by Captain Zrinyi’s hand. Soliman was diagnosed with a mortal disease by his doctors before the siege.
As a last comment on the poet Zrinyi, I want to describe his position as a statesman in Hungary. He loyally supported the Catholic King of Hungary, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor, but the loyalty was not mutual. Zrinyi the younger was disliked at court in Vienna because of his insistence on Hungary’s liberation from Turkish rule — something the Habsburgs did not regard as an urgent task. He was also condemned for often expressing sympathy towards Protestants. The Habsburgs gave him some medals and made him a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, but that was all.
Zrinyi the poet’s brother Peter, who translated Szigeti veszedelem into Croatian, was even more disliked at the Habsburg court. He was actually arrested and executed for High Treason. The poet did not die a natural death either. He was killed by a wild boar during a hunting expedition. It was, though, suspected that the boar had contacts in Vienna. Allegedly, a gun was kept in Vienna upon which bore the inscription: “This is the wild boar that killed Zrinyi.” We shall never know whether the wild boar did it or not.
What was going on at the Imperial court in Vienna? Why would they have wanted to kill Zrinyi? Well, it was a time when they would not have hesitated to have anyone assassinated if Habsburg interests were at stake. Did they suspect Zrinyi of treason? Possibly. They could conclude from reading Zrinyi’s essays that he wanted an ethnic Hungarian King and an independent Hungary with an army of her own. And perhaps he dreamed of the Hungarian crown for himself. Did Zrinyi — like Wallenstein, another great Habsburg general — pay for his dreams with his life?
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