Vlad Dracula, better known to history as Vlad the Impaler, ruled the principality of Wallachia for three separate periods between 1448 and 1476. He is widely known for his savage reprisals against those who opposed him and for being one of the most brutal and effective enemies that the Ottoman Empire ever had the displeasure to fight. His cruelty however is what stands out, but whether Vlad was quite as cruel and psychotic as his enemies depicted him is rather in doubt.
That the mythical Vlad has some truth to it seems likely given the sheer variety of contemporary sources, primarily Saxon (i.e. German), Russian and Romanian, that attest that Vlad did carry out some of the brutality that he is oft-credited with. However we need to bear it mind that the sources that depict this brutality, and more specifically its extent and the methods of execution used, are hostile ones and do not often describe that which they saw personally, but rather what they had heard from others.
The primary sources for the horror stories about Vlad impaling his enemies while he dined, for example, are Saxon in origin. The Saxons had a score to settle with Vlad as he had driven them out during the second, and longest, period of his rule between 1456 and 1462. (1) While, primarily German, Catholic monks also have much to say about Vlad’s cruelty, because he drove them out because of their avarice and subversive behaviour in Wallachia. (2)
Vlad the psychotic lunatic is very much the literary creation of his monastic and Saxon mercantile enemies, while the propaganda offensive against Vlad was itself funded by Vlad’s erstwhile Christian enemy King Matthias I of Hungary. (3)
That said Vlad was no angel in that he certainly executed or impaled his enemies in significant numbers, but one rather doubts he did it personally as is oft alleged. (4) One suspects that he left that side of affairs to his special execution units, the Armas, which by any account did the majority of the judicial killing in Vlad’s reign. (5)
All that being so; it is oft forgotten that Vlad was fighting for his very survival against an enemy he knew all too well. He had, after all, grown up as a princely hostage for his father’s good behaviour in the Ottoman Court and was given the best of Islamic religious and military educations. Vlad’s motivation to fight was his strong Christian, and specifically Orthodox, faith; much like that of Ivan the Terrible of Russia who lived a century after Vlad’s death.
Both Ivan and Vlad were highly intelligent (both, for example, made use of highly innovative military engineering) and exhibited an utter ruthlessness in achieving their objectives. The difference is that while Ivan fought a war of offense against the Muslim Tartars; Vlad fought a war of defense against the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Similarly Ivan and Vlad were well aware of the perpetual problem of internal instability that could be brought on by intriguing and greedy nobles (as well as the disastrous consequences that would result from it [both had experienced such instability in their childhood]); so both took steps to make sure that only those loyal to both themselves and their Christian faith were in positions of power and influence.
Ivan savaged his political enemies with his Oprichnina and Vlad did the same with his Armas. This vital context is what is often missing from discussions of Vlad, because in many ways both he and Ivan have suffered from the re-framing of their behaviour against an impossible modern moral standard. Both were fighting brutal enemies who they knew well and were much beloved by their people.
Indeed it is worth mentioning that, in the case of Vlad at least, he fought both Muslims and jews with the same savage ferocity as he dealt with domestic traitors. The Armas didn’t just deal with Vlad’s noble enemies (the boyars) and Muslims, but also eliminated numerous jews as well. (6)
This would have been for two reasons: in the first instance jews had a well-known history of working with the forces of Islam to facilitate an Islamic takeover (as Islam was seem to be more tolerant of their socio-economic behaviour and supremacist religious ideas). In the second because jews tended to be money-lenders/tax farmers and made the common people suffer with usurious rates of interests and use of force to extract money.
Further evidence of this can be found in the fact that the jews of Wallachia fled to the Ottoman Empire and were taken in by the forces of Islam without any quibbling whatsoever. (7)
This reckoning with internal enemies, such as the boyars and jews, in order to fight the forces of Islam, as personified in the Ottoman Sultan, was necessary for the simple reason that Vlad had to have a cohesive force of a significant size in order to combat the hundreds of thousands of soldiers that were going to be deployed against him (as actually happened in 1462 when 100,000 to 400,000 Ottoman soldiers invaded Wallachia). (8)
As Andrei Otetea has observed; in dealing with these internal subversive elements. Vlad cleared away the inhibiting factors preventing the creation of a large professional army (wiping away the small feudal war bands lead by the corrupt boyars) and the introduction of trade controls to prevent the exploitation of his people as well as limiting the power of Saxon merchant and jew alike to influence the affairs of Wallachia through money power. (9)
Essentially what Vlad had created was a nationalistic economic policy that favoured his own subjects not foreign merchants and jewish moneylenders, while also creating a classic professional popular army based on national feeling. (10)
Vlad’s war against the forces of Islam and Judaism also had racio-religious undertones as Baddeley and Woods point out. (11) He explicitly saw himself and his people as engaged in a war to the death against the forces of Islam and Judaism, which sought to exterminate his people and his faith in a wave of imperialistic conquest.
This leads Baddeley and Woods to assert that Vlad was a ‘racist’ of the ‘Hitler type’, but while their hysterical tone about Vlad’s simple common sense is amusing; it suggests rather pointedly that they don’t actually have any substantial criticism of Vlad other than ‘he was a racist, therefore he was absolutely evil.’
Such pseudo-intellectual prima donnas are hardly worth even rebutting, but that can done simply by asking: what should Vlad have done? Allow his people to be butchered, enslaved or converted to Islam?
Apparently so and not only should he have done that, but thanked the Ottoman Sultan for being so condescendingly gracious as to murder, enslave and convert the Wallachians and not say the Italians.
Fortunately ordinary Romanians have far saner view of Vlad and see him as a great national hero who resisted the forces of Islam and their jewish associates to the bitter end. (12)
Long may they call Vlad their ‘Hero-Prince’! (13)
- Meirion Trow, 2003, ‘Vlad the Impaler’, 1st Edition, Sutton: Stroud, p. 155
- Radu Florescu, Raymond McNally, 1989, ‘Dracula: Prince of Many Faces’, 1st Edition, Little, Brown and Company: Boston, p. 195
- Ibid, pp. 202-206; Andrei Otetea, 1985, ‘A Concise History of Romania’, 1st Edition, Robert Hale: London, pp. 192-193
- For example Trow, Op. Cit., p. 238
- Ibid, pp. 236-237
- Florescu, McNally, Op. Cit., p. 104
- Ibid, p. 14
- Gavin Baddeley, Paul Woods, 2010, ‘Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People’, 1st Edition, Ian Allen: Hersham, pp. 222-224
- Otetea, Op. Cit., p. 191
- Ibid, p. 184; Baddeley, Woods, Op. Cit., p. 222
- Ibid, pp. 219-220
- Otetea, Op. Cit., p. 193
- Baddeley, Woods, Op. Cit., p. 220