Józef Bem fought for Polish and Hungarian independence before converting to Islam and joining the Ottoman Empire
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
Defeated radicals plotting revolution from exile. Poles opposing Russian influence in Eastern Europe. Syria beset by religious strife and indiscriminate bombardment in Aleppo.
Today’s headlines? Yes … but also the life of Józef Bem, a warrior academic and nationalist hero in both Poland and Hungary who died a convert to Islam serving the Ottoman Empire.
Most of us went to high school when we were 15. When Józef Bem was that age, he left to fight in the Napoleonic Wars and study at a military school in Krakow, where he was something of a math wiz. This presaged his lifelong identity as a science geek, soldier and Polish revolutionary.
A year after Bem was born, the country of Poland officially ceased to exist. Neighboring Austria, Prussia and Russia had jointed together to carve the ailing Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between them.
The first partition of Poland in 1772 placed Bem’s hometown of Tarnów in the Austrian province of Galicia. The next two in 1793 and 1795 removed Poland from the map. The annexations were bloodless at first as the foreign powers paid off members of the Commonwealth parliament, or Sejm, to paralyze the government with the veto powers accorded to them.
Polish nationalists who wished to have their country back soon found a supporter in Napoleon Bonaparte. After defeating Prussia in 1807, the French emperor created the Duchy of Warsaw with a liberal constitution that inspired countless Poles to its service.
At the age of 18, three years after enlisting, Bem was invading Russia as a sub-lieutenant in a Polish artillery regiment in Napoleon’s Grand Armée.
To be fair, he had a lot of company. Around 680,000 soldiers marched in Napoleon’s ill-fated 1812 campaign. Less than a fifth of that number came straggling back.
After surviving the bone chilling Russian winter and attacks from marauding Cossacks, Bem fought in defense of Danzig, which surrendered after a month-long siege. Tsarist Russia then reoccupied the Duchy of Warsaw and gradually stripped away its remaining autonomy during the following decade and a half.
Having survived one of the most devastating retreats in military history and seen his nationalist hopes and dreams crushed, what did Bem do next? Start experimenting with rocket science, of course. Math and rocket artillery go well together, and the young Pole had an affinity for both.
He also became a professor at a military college, but lost his chance at tenure due to his involvement in a Polish nationalist conspiracy. Exiled to Lvov in Galicia, he made do with lesser pursuits such as experimenting with new steam engine technology, and nursing a leg wounded in a duel. His opponent was not so fortunate.
In 1830, military cadets in Warsaw began the November Uprising, which overthrew Tsarist rule across Poland. Bem immediately volunteered on behalf of the rebellious Polish government of Adam Czartoryski and was given command of the hastily formed 4th Light Horse Artillery Battalion.
Major Bem and his 16 cannons first distinguished themselves on April 10, 1831 by blasting Russian troops out of Iganie, allowing Polish infantry to secure the village before a counterattack ended the engagement in a draw. A visiting general promoted Bem to the rank of lieutenant colonel on the spot.
He made an even bigger name for himself at Ostrołęka one month later. Polish troops had been instructed to hold the town and its vital bridge to the death, but by the end of the afternoon the Poles were running out of living soldiers to follow those orders. Russian troops advanced across the bridgehead.
As the Polish infantry retreated, Bem’s horse artillery rode into position in front of the advancing Russian Astrakhan Grenadiers.
A normal commander would not risk his artillery by deploying it directly in front of advancing enemy troops. Bem didn’t give a damn about “normally.”
His battery was so close, Bem ordered three of his platoons to attack with muskets and grenades, while the other two readied the cannons, which eventually unloaded 270 shells at short range. Bem’s guns single-handedly wreaked such havoc that the German-born Russian commander, Hans Karl von Diebitsch, withdrew his troops back across the river.
But the Polish army kept on scoring tactical draws in battles with Russian forces which could call on endless reinforcements. Soon the Poles were defending the capital of Warsaw, and it became clear the uprising was doomed.
But Bem wasn’t the kind of commander to surrender to his lifelong enemy. Instead, he marched 20,000 troops to the Prussian border and surrendered to that state instead. He intended to lead his soldiers all the way to France to serve as an army in exile, but the Prussians wouldn’t let him.
So what did the irrepressible Pole do next upon arriving at his new home in Paris, the city of light? He became a math teacher.
But Józef ’s old habits of conspiring to overthrow governments and writing textbooks didn’t just disappear. He joined the Polish exiles of the Hotel Lambert, and penned a history of the Polish revolt, followed by another of France. As a side hobby, he pursued various schemes to form legions of Polish exiles abroad.
In 1833, he traveled to Portugal in an attempt to form a Polish legion with the support of the Emperor of Brazil. There he survived an assassination attempt by one sub-lieutenant Pasierbski — possibly instigated by Russia, or by Polish radicals — and was then imprisoned in the Tower of Belem in Lisbon for two months.
In the end, Bem had to wait more than a decade before he finally got to do more than just write about revolution. But when his moment came, it came big.
Monarchists across Europe had spent the last half century trying to wind the political clock back to a time before the French Revolution and its notions of democratic rule and national self-determination. But the dam finally broke in 1848, with liberal uprisings rippling across France, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Prussian-occupied Poland among others.
Bem became involved in the Vienna Uprising that October, when opponents of Habsburg domination of Hungary seized control of the city, lynched the minister of war and chased out Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I. Bem didn’t take to the revolutionary barricades — he built them as de facto commander of the new liberal government’s militias.
However, troops under Croatian Count Josip Jelačić and Prince Alfred of Windisch-Graatz began pounding the Austrian capital with artillery on Oct. 26, and stormed the city center five days later. As Prince Alfred put it, “They do not want to hear about the Grace of God? They will hear the grace of the cannon.”
The only revolutionary leader to escape execution, Józef, was struck by grapeshot in the chest, but didn’t bother to remove the shrapnel until after he crossed over the border into Hungary, where he subsequently dodged another assassination attempt.
Hungarians wanted independence from Austrian Habsburg rule, and they too had formed their own army and government under Lajos Kossuth, another rabble-rousing luminary of the times. Bem quickly became a top military leader of the rebel government, which awarded him one of the diamonds off the crown of Stephen I, the founder of the kingdom of Hungary — even though Bem couldn’t speak Hungarian.
Józef’s first job was to stabilize the Romanian front in a sunny place called Transylvania populated by Hungarians, Romanians and other minorities. The Romanians wanted independence from Austria too — but they liked the idea of being part of a Hungarian empire even less.
During the winter of 1848–1849, Józef’s army managed to drive Romanian troops commanded by lawyer-turned-peasant war hero Avram Iancu into the woods.
When the Austrians then called on a Russian army of 8,000 to intervene, Józef met them in battle and sent the Tsar’s troops fleeing back across the border with a just a quarter of their men remaining.
Bem then tried to mend fences with the Romanians with an offer of amnesty as well as peace negotiations with Iancu. However, his political sidekick Ladislas Csyanyi was in favor of harsh reprisals, and had backing from the Hungarian leadership. Hungarians and Romanians both committed atrocities in the ensuing conflict, leaving a grudge between the nations that flared violently during World War II nearly a century later.
Józef, meanwhile, diverted to crush an Austrian army in the Battle of Orşova.
Eventually, though, he bit off more than he could chew. Shortly after defeating new Russian incursions in early July, his army of 6,000 was devastated in the battle of Segesvár while opposing a joint Russo-Austrian force twice its size.
That didn’t prevent Bem from hiding among his own dead troops and then reassuming command of the survivors to win the battle of Nagyszeben six days later.
By then, the nearby army of his old Polish war buddy, Henryk Dembiński, was retreating. Dembiński had disobeyed orders to march to a defensible position in Arad, and instead deployed to Temesvár. Bem came to assume command of Dembinski’s exhausted and demoralized army of 55,000 as it faced a combined Russo-Austrian force of 95,000.
As usual, Bem met the advancing enemy on Aug. 9 with a vigorous counterattack from his cavalry. Heavy artillery fire nearly broke the Russo-Austrian troops and caused Austrian Gen. Haynau — the “Habsburg Tiger” — to begin withdrawing.
But the Hungarian guns abruptly ran out of ammunition, as the reserve munitions had been mistakenly dispatched to the wrong town. Austrian Prince Lichtenstein counterattacked, covered by heavy fire from the well-supplied Habsburg guns.
A Hungarian light cavalry charge nearly overran the Austrian artillery, but lacked the nerve to withstand the 120 cannons blazing away at them. Bem was gravely wounded and fell from his horse, and the leaderless Hungarian army evaporated in the process of retreating through a forest that evening.
Four days after the defeat at Temesvár, the Hungarian rebels surrendered to the Russians … so as to raise a proverbial middle finger at their soon-to-be Habsburg overlords.
In just 10 months, Bem had led thousands of troops in more than 30 battles, most of which he won, had not one but two revolutionary governments collapse in flames underneath him and been wounded in action at least three times.
A normal man would have seen that as achievement enough for a lifetime, and would have put as much distance as possible between himself and the vengeful Russians and Austrians.
Indeed, many of the leaders of the Hungarian revolution fled south into Ottoman territory. If anyone hated Russia and the Habsburgs as much, it was the Ottomans. They had clashed for centuries for control of southeastern Europe, while Russia had nibbled away at Ottoman territory to gain better access to warm water ports that did not freeze during winter.
However, the Ottoman government, known as the Sublime Porte, was still nervous about provoking war with its neighbors. As the Sublime Porte wavered on whether to admit the thousands of refugees, some of them threw down the gauntlet — they’d convert to Islam and thereby oblige the Ottomans to protect them.
Eventually, many of the revolutionary leaders received safe passage to Western Europe and even the United States. But Józef wasn’t done fighting the Russians or the Austrians. Bem, along with nearly 300 other Hungarian rebels, announced he had converted to Islam and taken the name Murat Pasa.
Although that secured him asylum, a generous salary and high honors from the Sublime Porte, Bem still wanted to fight the Russians in the service of the Ottoman army. He was not unwilling to shed his own blood to prove his loyalty, as one Ottoman account recorded.
“General Bem had been wounded in seven or eight places and was under the care of special surgeons and doctors … Because his wounds had still not healed, he was cautioned to add yet another wound would cause a loss of blood which could cause him to lose his life, and he was advised to delay his circumcision until his wounds completely healed. Because he was adamant, having no other choice, the army surgeon was summoned and he was circumcised.”
The Sublime Porte, however, wanted to keep Bem far away from where he could provoke a war with Austria or Russia. They instead accorded the tireless Pole the rank of Pasha and assigned him and 20 of his followers, all with new Muslim names, to the city of Aleppo, then far away from Russian influence.
Some histories today state that Pasa Murat was governor of Aleppo. Hardly. This would be like claiming Elton John defended England with sword and lance because Queen Elizabeth II bestowed a knighthood upon him.
“Pasha” is a title that is often translated as governor. But Pasha Zarif Mustafa was the ruler over the city while Bem was merely stationed there. Sure, Bem was a “governor” in Aleppo — he just wasn’t the governor.
Kept effectively under house arrest, the indefatigable military and technology enthusiast pursued plans to build a state-of-the-art gunpowder factory, regulate the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and establish a modern artillery school for the Ottoman Army.
The Polish revolutionary had one last battle to fight, however, as the Ottoman Empire’s own socio-political reforms violently caught up with it in the streets of Aleppo in October 1850. In an effort to correct its plummeting fortunes, the Empire instituted reforms requiring Muslims to pay taxes and undergo forced conscription, rather than only non-Muslims as had been the case before.
Furthermore, the Ottoman government extended rights to non-Muslims in trade, travel and freedom of speech and religion.
As the Christian population in Aleppo grew in numbers and wealth, the newly-taxed and conscripted Muslims became resentful, culminating in bloody riots on Oct. 17 which killed around 20 Christians and Jews in the northern districts of the city and destroyed many of their homes and businesses. Meanwhile, thousands of Bedouin nomads gathered outside Aleppo, anticipating easy pillage should civil order collapse entirely.
Several rounds of fighting ensued as Ottoman reinforcements restored order and deposed the incompetent governor, only for violent factional battles to erupt over the matter of his replacement.
Bem commanded the local garrison of 16 guns and 1,200 troops in the campaign to restore order. Whether he participated in the bombardment of the city on Nov. 5 which caused over 5,000 deaths is unclear, because he contracted a fatal malarial infection that month.
Ultimately, the Ottoman troops suppressed the factional uprising, chased off the Bedouin raiders, and paid partial restitution to religious minorities.
These measures may have inoculated Aleppo from problems down the line, as there was no outbreak of inter-religious violence in that city during the much bloodier Mount Lebanon civil war 10 years later.
Presumably raging that he had been cheated of his opportunity to fight the Russians, Bem wrote in one of his last letters to a friend, “Oh Poland, Poland. I can no more be your salvation.”
He died on Dec. 10, 1850, and was interred in Turkey. His remains were transferred back to his hometown of Tarnów in 1929.
More than hundred years after his death, a monument of Józef Bem in Budapest, Hungary became a focal point of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which for a few weeks cast off Soviet control of Hungary. Even long in the grave, the Polish general continued to bedevil foreign occupiers.