Episode 68 – Tamerlane versus Fredrick the Great

The Military bracket sends us two men of outstanding generalship, the first, the world conqueror, undefeated in battle, and as Montefiore puts it, “the ultimate hero-monster,” Tamerlane. The second, the soldier-statesman of the 18th century, Fredrick the Great. Both of these men could have easily been put into the Leaders category, but my decision to put them here is based on their battlefield exploits. 

My sources for Tamerlane begin with After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 by John Darwin, Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, A History of China by John Keay and Tyrants: History’s 100 Most Evil Despots and Dictators by Nigel Cawthorne. As for Fredrick the Great I start with Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era by Paul K Davis and Titan’s of History: The Giants Who Made Our World by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Timur aka Tamerlane
Timur aka Tamerlane

Tamerlane, also known as Timur, I will be using both names in today’s episode interchangeably, was born on April 9, 1336 near the city of Kesh, modern day Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan. There is some controversy about the year of his birth as some of the historical writings of the time push his birth back to the 1320’s. His birthplace was part of the Chagatai Khanate a remnant of the Mongol’s led by Genghis Khan some hundred plus years earlier. The claims of his heritage being part of the line of Genghis Khan is rather, how shall we put it, murky. Timur’s lineage through his father’s side who claimed to be a descendant of Tumanay Khan, a male-line ancestor of Genghis, was what helped him gain power over the Chagatai. 

The name Timur means iron in Turkic which fits the man who would be the last of the great conquerors from the east. The name Tamerlane come from an incident when he was a young boy. Legend has it, Timur was hit in the leg by two arrows which caused him to have a limp for the rest of his life. He would have the nickname Timur the Lame written about him by westerners hence the name Tamerlane.

Because he was not a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, Timur could never claim to be the khan of his people. Instead, he would place figureheads as khans with them knowing full well who was really in charge. This is a very important issue as it would be one of the main reasons why the empire that Tamerlane would create, came crashing down with his death in 1405.

After Timur climbed his way to the top of the Chagatai through his brilliant strategies in smaller encounters, it was time to unleash his fury on the rest of the world. And unleash he would. First off, he had to bring together the scatted remnants of the Mongol Hordes that splintered all across Asia and parts of Europe. 

Partnering first with Tughluq and later Hussein, both leaders of the Chagatai khanate, Timur would carve up the lands around his home base of Samarkand which is in present day south-eastern Uzbekistan. This would be Timur’s capital city for the rest of his days. 

Hussein and Tamerlane would have a falling out which would cost Hussein his life. Timur would marry Hussein’s wife Sara Khanum to legitimize his position as emir, or commander of the armies of the growing Tatar khanate. His goal was to recreate Genghis Khan’s great empire through the reopening of the Silk Road between China and Europe as well as conquering new lands and plundering their riches.

The soldiers of Tamerlane’s army were Turks, Georgians, Arabs and Indians. In a short nine-year period, Timur’s numerous tumans, units consisting of 10,000 men, would conquer, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Persia, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, Anatolia, Syria, all of central Asia, northern India, the approaches to China and much of southern Russia: his longest struggle was against Tokhtamysh, the khan of the Golden Horde, whom he finally defeated and destroyed in 1391.”

One of the methods that Tamerlane utilized in his rapid conquests was terror. He would slaughter whole cities populations and construct pyramids of heads of his victims. From there, he would send out secret agents to warn cities in his army’s path that the same outcome awaited them if they didn’t surrender immediately. It was a tactic that we will learn more about from Timur’s teacher, Genghis Khan, in episode 72.

Here are some of the numbers of those cities who tried to oppose Tamerlane’s forces: “70,000 citizens in Ifshahan, 20,000 at Aleppo, the beheading of 70,000 in Tikrit, and 90,000 in Baghdad, the incineration of a mosque full of people in Damascus and wholesale destruction of cities in Persia following a revolt there in 1392.”

By 1398, the empire that Tamerlane was in control of rivaled anything that Genghis Khan had achieved, but he didn’t stop there. With his invasion of India that year, he massacred over 100,000 civilians in Delhi as well as slaughtering 100,000 soldiers who surrendered to him under the promise of leniency after the Battle of Panipat. The barbarity of his destruction of people and places could have placed him in the Parthenon of evil if not for the brilliance of his military accomplishments. 

It has been said that Tamerlane was the defender of Islam, but that would be in the face of his attack against the Ottoman Empire in 1402. It was after the Battle of Ankara that the sultan Bayezid I was captured and caged. Bayezid would die the following year which would trigger an event known as the Ottoman Interregnum causing a massive civil war that would last for 11 years until Mehmed Çelebi, Mehmed I would claim victory. Mehmed was the man that Timur would place on the throne after his father died.

Tamerlane was a follower of Sunni Islam which made him an enemy of Shia Muslims. To this day he is considered by the Shia to have been a monster, but maybe not as much as one of the three branches of Christianity, the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church. Timur pretty much destroyed this branch and turned it from a major player in Christianity into a fringe group.

The fear of being invaded by the forces of Tamerlane was potent. Byzantine Emperor John I paid huge tributes to him to avoid his attacking Constantinople. The Russians were petrified of what would happen to Moscow when Timur’s army headed towards them in 1395. According to Geoffrey Hosking in his book Russia and the Russians, “When he approached Moscow, Vasili I led an army against him, while Metropolitan Kiprian brough the miracle-working icon Our Lady of Vladimir to the city. Suddenly Timur changed course and withdrew, an unexpected development which many attributed to the influence of the icon. Actually, Timur had already achieved his main aim of defeating Tokhtamysh and had no further reason thereafter to concern himself with Moscow.”

The death toll from Tamerlane’s wars has been estimated to be around 17 million people, which represents about 5% of the world’s population at the time. If we were to equate it in today’s numbers, it would be around 380 million people. This comes close to the numbers of Genghis Khan and puts Timur on the top ten list of killers in world history.

While out destroying whole countries, Tamerlane was enriching his city, Samarkand. The mosques and palaces are some of the most beautiful structures in the world to this day. 

Timur decided in late-1404 to turn his attention east, toward China. He wanted to punish them and restore the Yuan dynasty in China which was founded by Kublai Khan. Fortunately for the Ming Dynasty, Tamerlane fell ill and died in February 1405.

While his empire collapsed pretty quickly after his death, Timur’s legacy presents a complex picture. His great-great-great-grandson Babur, would found the Mughal Empire in India which would last from 1526 until 1857. But the most important influence would be on Europe. By attacking the Ottoman Empire when he did, it gave a reprieve to the Europeans from the expansionist Turks. In addition, the destruction of the Arab countries caused them to fall behind the growing powers of the west. 

In 1941, Soviet researchers decided to open the tomb of Tamerlane despite a legend that said that whoever would disturb his final resting place would be cursed. They opened in on June 19, 1941. Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazi’s began three days later. When he was reburied in November of 1942, it closely preceded the Soviet’s win at the Battle of Stalingrad which we learned about in episode 64.

Now we will turn to the other combatant in the Military bracket, Fredrick the Great.

Fredrick the Great
Fredrick the Great

If there ever was a young man who you would look at when he was a teenager and say that there was no way this guy was ever to be a military genius, it would be Fredrick William, son of Frederick William I and his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover. Fredrick’s father was a devote military man who was also hot-tempered and intolerant of his son’s effeminate personality. When Fredrick was alleged to have had a homosexual affair with one Peter Karl Christoph von Keith. After it was found out, von Keith was sent to away and Fredrick was sent to Königs Wusterhausen, a hunting lodge owned by his father. 

When he turned 18, Fredrick had had enough of his father’s abuse and planned to flee to England with one of his tutors, Hans Hermann von Katte along with some other junior army officers. When the plot was found out, Fredrick and von Katte were arrested and imprisoned. Fredrick’s father forced his son to watch the execution of von Katte on November 6, 1730.

On June 22, 1733, Fredrick was forced to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a relative of the Hapsburgs of Austria. This would be a friendly marriage, but one without any real intimacy or love.

When Fredrick’s father died in 1740, the now Fredrick William II inherited a country with 2.3 million inhabitants and a standing army of 80,000. This is a ratio of one in 28 being in the army, far greater than any other country in Europe at the time. Quickly, Fredrick would make use of the army his father had put together and unleash war upon his neighbors for the next forty plus years.

 The first conflict the Prussian leader would jump into was the beginning of the War of Austrian Succession when he decided to snatch Silesia away from the Austrian Hapsburg’s. This conflict lasted from 1740 to 1748 and was the over Fredrick’s unwillingness to acknowledge the ascension of Maria Theresa to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire and his desire to expand Prussia’s territory. It also included many of the great powers of Europe at the time. Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Russia and many principalities joined the war and fought at different times. 

With the overall War of Austrian Succession were two other conflicts, the First Silesian War fought between 1740 and 1742 and the Second Silesian War of 1744 and 1745. The culmination of the First Silesian War was the Battle of Chotusitz, which was a Prussian victory and forced the Austrians to sign the Treaty of Breslau giving Fredrick Silesia. This of course was a short-lived settlement as hostilities continued. 

It is in the Second Silesian War that Fredrick began to impress the world. The Battle of Hohenfriedberg, fought on June 4, 1745, was a brilliant use of aggressive war tactics. The Prussian’s and Austrian’s armies were of equal size, but Fredrick’s strategy won the day. The Austrian’s lost 9,000 total men, 4,000 killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. Fredrick would lose 5,000 men in total. It was after this overwhelming victory that the Prussian leader would begin to be called “The Great.”

After Hohenfriedberg, Fredrick would lead him men to victory at the Battles of Soor and Kesselsdorf, culminating in the Treaty of Dresden which solidified Prussia’s claim over Silesia, which was signed on Christmas Day in 1745.

During this period, Fredrick had been in an alliance with France, but after Dresden, the Austrian’s abandoned their ally Great Britain and joined a coalition with France, which to this day has baffled historians. The Prussian leader immediately saw a huge advantage and made Great Britain his ally. Fredrick invaded Saxony which precipitated the Third Silesian War which was part of the Seven Years War, one of the first, truly global wars. 

At first, things looked good for Fredrick with a number of wins like at the battles of Rossbach and Leuthen, but this was not to last long as he was now forced to face a much larger coalition of armies than in the past. With only Great Britain, Hesse, Brunswick, and Hanover on his side, he had to face Austria, France, Russia, Saxony and Sweden. Pressure began to mount on the Prussian with his enemies constantly attacking his own land as well as those territories he had captured previously.

Even worse for Fredrick was the withdrawal of financial support from the British after the death of King George II who happened to be Fredrick’s uncle. Everything was going wrong for Prussia as the Russian’s were now at the doorstep of the capital Berlin. After his crushing defeat at the Battle of Kunersdorf, Frederick thought Prussia was done with. He wrote that it was “a cruel reverse! I shall not survive it. I think everything is lost. Adieu pour jamais.” What happened next is considered to be the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. 

Empress Elizabeth of Russia, a staunch enemy to Fredrick died on January 5, 1762. Her successor, Tsar Peter III, an admirer of the Prussian, halted the Russian advance and signed a peace accord with Fredrick on May 15. Peter would pay for what many in the Russian military would view as a treasonous act, overthrowing him and murdering him in July, replacing him with someone we met in episode 31, his wife, Catherine the Great. She, who was born Prussian, signed an eight-year alliance between the two countries.

All these years of war laid a terrible burden on the people of Prussia as well as decimating the officer corps. Fredrick needed to appease his people and try to avoid any more armed conflict. The was to this end was known as the First Partition of Poland. This was an uneasy alliance between Russia, Prussia and Austria to divide the Polish lands between them. 

Both Austria and Prussia exploited the Polish people, especially those with land holdings. They taxed them to strip them of as much wealth as possible to replenish their almost bare treasuries. While both nations benefited, it did not end their hostilities. What followed was the War of Bavarian Succession. It was not an all-out conflict, as Catherine the Great forced both sides to come to the negotiation table and peacefully resolve their dispute.

By now, Fredrick was an old and tire man, having fought for and with his country for over forty-six years. On August 17, 1786, Frederick died in in his study at Sanssouci, at the age of 74. When Napoleon Bonaparte visited Frederick’s tomb in Potsdam in 1807, he said to his men, “Gentlemen, if this man were still alive, I would not be here.”

Time to move on over to the scorer’s table and find out which man will move on to the second round of the Military bracket.

For the first fifteen points, we count the number of years each man served his country or his people. For Tamerlane, we begin in 1360 when he started his leadership of his armies and end it with his death in 1405 for a total of 45 years. As for Fredrick the Great, we begin with his ascension to the throne of Prussia in 1740 and end it with his death in 1786 for a total of 46 years. Since the difference is so minor, I’m giving both men the full fifteen points.

Next up is how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Timur ravaged vast lands, only being outdone by his ancestor Genghis Khan. The death toll due to his actions changed whole regions of central Asia and the Middle East. Fredrick’s influence, while great, pales in comparison. Tamerlane receives twenty points, Fredrick ten.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history for twenty-five points. This one is a little closer than you might imagine. While Timur changed the fortunes of countries like Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq, Fredrick’s legacy could be traced through World War I and II as his militaristic tactics of aggressive warfare influenced Germany’s war efforts. For this reason, I’m giving a slight edge to the Prussian leader, twenty-five to twenty. 

Last up is how they affected their country or people for the better. With Tamerlane, we have the uncomfortable reality that his empire collapsed soon after his death in 1405. As for Fredrick, Prussia would gain in strength and influence over the years, culminating with the destruction of France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. We do also have to give him some negative points for steering his country into a militaristic nation, taking part of the blame for the two world wars. For these reasons, I’m giving an edge to Fredrick 40 to 35.

The final total is a tie, 90 to 90. Fredrick moves on to the second round based on the first tiebreaker of who wins the last point giveaway. Fredrick the Great will face off against the Soviet General Georgi Zhukov.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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