Nikola Šubić Zrinski – Croatian Leonidas

One of the most famous military leaders in the history of Croatia was Nikola Šubić Zrinski (pronunciation: [nǐkɔla ʃûbitɕ zrîːɲskiː]), also known as Nikola IV Zrinski or Miklós IV Zrínyi. He held the position of the Ban of Croatia, a position equivalent to the head of state, military and judiciary of Croatia from 1542 until 1556, and was one of the most successful generals of the Kingdom of Croatia and the Habsburg Monarchy.

He earned prestige and trust of king Ferdinand I. in many battles, saving the king’s army from defeat in 1542 with his detachment of 400 Croatian soldiers at the siege of Pest (today’s Budapest).

Statue of Zrinski
Statue of Zrinski in Čakovec (credit: Ex13)

He was immortalized in history and song for his heroic actions at the siege of Siget (Szigetvár), facing an Ottoman host roughly 100,000 strong, commanded by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottomans undertook to siege and subsequently assault the fortress of Siget in several waves, which was defended by Zrinski himself with a garrison of some 2,500 men of mostly Croatian soldiers and several other Croatian nobles.

Being repulsed numerous times, the Ottomans eventually succeeded in cornering the defenders and Zrinski in the old town of Siget, the third and final part of the fortress complex connected by causeways.

Unknown author – Artistic impression about the battle of Siget

Suleiman the Magnificent would now live to see the end of the siege however, as he died in his tent and his death was kept secret until the final battle was over.

The fortress was thoroughly destroyed by Ottoman bombardment during the month-long siege. Having only 600 men remaining, Zrinski refused to surrender to the Ottomans, who offered him to rule the Kingdom of Croatia in sultan’s name.

Instead, Zrinski ordered the men to light a slow match on the remaining gunpowder in the fortress magazine and assembled all soldiers for a final push out of the crumbling town. He mounted his horse, drew his saber and delivered a speech:

“Let us go out from this burning place into the open and stand up to our enemies. Who dies – he will be with God. Who dies not – his name will be honored. I will go first, and what I do, you do. And God is my witness – I will never leave you, my brothers and knights!”

He had the men fire a large mortar loaded with shrapnel onto the causeway, killing scores of Ottoman soldiers. He then charged out of the town onto the narrow bridge to meet some 80,000 remaining Ottoman soldiers, the rest of the defenders following his example. He fired his pistol and struck at the Ottomans with his saber, sustaining gunshots and arrow wounds which would kill him during the charge. Almost all of the defenders would be killed in the final battle as well, save few who escaped through the Ottoman lines or were captured.

Johann Peter Krafft – The battle of Siget (1825.)

Bursting into the old town, the Ottomans were met with the final wrath of the defenders, as a devastating explosion of the powder magazine reportedly killed up to 3,000 Ottoman soldiers. Due to heavy losses, lost time, and attrition the Ottomans subsequently abandoned their plans to continue on and siege Vienna.

The battle of Siget thus brought Zrinski fame throughout Europe and the rest of the world. He was immortalized in a famous Croatian opera bearing his name.

It is interesting to note that the Kwansei Gakuin University in Kobe, Japan, has selected the aria “U boj, u boj” from this opera as it’s official anthem. The aria gained popularity in Japan after being sung there by stranded Croatian sailors of the Austro-Hungarian navy in 1919.