Academic journal article East European Quarterly

An Examination of Historians' Explanations for the Mongol Withdrawal from East Central Europe

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

An Examination of Historians' Explanations for the Mongol Withdrawal from East Central Europe

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

The Mongol military campaign into East Central Europe in 1241 is noteworthy for two important and intriguing features: the ferocity of the attacks, which appeared to signal doom for the rest of Europe; and the sudden and unexpected withdrawal of Mongol forces in the following year, thereby "saving" Europe. The withdrawal is particularly intriguing due to the fact that a single satisfying explanation for its occurrence has not yet emerged in the literature on the subject. Historians, in their efforts to determine the cause or causes for the Mongol withdrawal from East Central Europe, have offered numerous theories over the years for this event. The purpose of this article is to examine these theories and to illustrate how they have been composed. In addition, the objections raised by various historians against them will be presented.

The structure of the following article is very rigid and was determined, in large part, by the way historians have described the events in question and presented their theories concerning the withdrawal. In spite of the fact that the Mongol withdrawal, as many have argued, may well have "saved" Europe, the withdrawal itself attracts little attention as an issue for study or debate. Few works have been written solely on this event and the vast majority of these have been written in Hungarian, one of the less common European languages used for research. General histories that discuss the Mongols, Kievan Rus', or the various countries of East Central Europe, seldom devote more than a paragraph or two, if even that much, to the withdrawal issue. The authors of these works generally allow enough space to present their views but do not attempt to substantiate them in detail by referring to other works or historical sources. Therefore, the seemingly fractured presentation of these theories, as offered in this paper, stems from this problem.

II. Summary Of The Mongol Campaign Into East Central Europe

The Mongol invasion of East Central Europe began after earlier and highly successful military campaigns in areas farther to the east had been concluded. Volga Bulgaria, with its capital city of Bulgar, fell to the Mongols in 1236/1237. Numerous principalities in the northern and eastern regions of Kievan Rus', such as Riazan' and Suzdal, were overrun by Mongol troops during 1237 and 1238. The Cuman confederation, having suffered continual Mongol incursions into its territory since 1222 (highlighted by the disastrous battle of the Khalka in 1223), finally disintegrated under this pressure in 1239. Remnants of the powerful Cuman entity, approximately forty thousand troops under the direction of King Kotony, fled their steppe home to find refuge in Hungary later that year. In 1240, Kiev, Chernigov, Galicia and other principalities of southern and southwestern Kievan Rus' collapsed under the weight of successive Mongol attacks. All of these events signified the destruction, submission, and/or weakening of most of the political units lying to the east of Poland and Hungary by 1241.

The Mongol campaign of 1241 into East Central Europe has been characterized as a "major one, even by Mongol standards, and its execution was a strategic masterpiece."(1) Mongol forces, after leaving the recently conquered area of Galicia, split up into at least three groups before undertaking the invasion.(2) One contingent set off in a northwesterly direction toward Poland while a second group, headed by Kadan, the son of the Great Khan Ogodei, advanced into Transylvania in order to enter the Carpathian basin from the southeast.(3) The main contingent of troops, under the direction of Batu Khan, grandson of Chingis Khan and the political leader of the Mongol Empire's western ulus, headed due west, crossing the Carpathian mountains through the Verecke pass (the same pass used by the Hungarians in their invasion of the Carpathian basin 350 years earlier) and entering directly onto the plains of Hungary. …

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