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Vienna’s Last Jihad Review

By Dr.Erika Berroth, Associate Professor of German, Southwestern University

C. Wayne Dawson’s novel “Vienna’s Last Jihad” offers intriguing insights into life in 17th century Europe at one of the decisive turning points in the struggle for domination between the civilizations of Islam in the Ottoman Empire, and Christianity in the Holy Roman Empire.

The future of East Central Europe hangs in the balance during the 1683 siege of Vienna. The Turkish army advances close to the city gates of Vienna, when reinforcements arrive in the nick of time and Poland’s king leads an army of Habsburg allies to victory.

This pivotal moment in the spread of Turkish power and Islamic faith in Europe is the backdrop for Dawson’s diligently researched historical novel that teaches and entertains with its fascinating attention to the everyday culture at the time. Detailed observations cover diverse material and intellectual cultures, such as weapons, clothing, advances in the technologies of war-fare, watch making, optical instruments, developments in the medical field, such as healing herbs and oils, coffee drinking, the status of women, Jesuit inquisition, witch hunts, dog breeding, the Copernican revolution, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and tolerance.

Learning from others, including from the enemy, is what prepares the novel’s main character Mathis Zieglar for his arduous tasks. (“You learned from pagan, Muslims, Christians?” “One must keep an open mind for God to fill.”) He earned his nickname Hauptfeder, main spring, from a watchmaker who observed his martial arts skills of turning in mid air like a coil – like the mainspring powering a watch. Zieglar’s knowledge of Tatar and Turkish languages and customs, his intellectual curiosity and proficiency in oratory and interrogation, propel him into a career as a double agent.

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Muslim Ottoman Turks

Suspense builds as we follow Zieglar from besieged Vienna, infiltrated by crooks and traitors, into the Tatar and Turkish camps, where soldiers pass the time palying a game of tetherball with chopped off enemy heads, and to the countryside where he hopes to negotiate safety for his family.

Will Zieglar’s youthful arrogance get in the way of staying under cover? Will he be able to reconcile his ambitions in his service for the military with his private goals of winning favor with his beloved Magda? Will he be able to fight his demons – traumatic childhood memories of a Tatar attack on his family—and redeem his feelings of guilt and shame? Will he be able to save Vienna and save the ones he loves? Zieglar’s faithful dog, the Rottweiler Lösung (German for “solution”) and his allies from various cultural contexts highlight the importance of interdependence in attempting the impossible.

The horrors of war, collateral damage, tactics, technology, love, lust, greed, betrayal, intrigue, friendship, suffering, loyalty, and faith – the novel offers a rich tapestry of experiences and emotions and keeps you turning the pages. While readers might well know how the siege of Vienna ends on September 12, 1683, they will nevertheless follow the daily accounts leading up to that point from the novel’s start on June 20, 1683, holding their breath.

The book invites readers to dive into 17th century life. What Mathis Zieglar understands about intercultural and interdisciplinary learning resonates with our 21st century challenges: “Who will win the struggle between the Christians and the Muslims? It will be the side wise enough to learn from friends and enemies. Just as a mainspring coil opens the power of a watch, we must open minds to God may fill them.” Let’s keep an open mind.