Genghis Khan: Savages to conquer the world?

In 1979 there was an interesting Song as part of the European Song Contest: Dschinghis Khan. I was a little boy of 5 years but the melody got stuck in my head. The lyrics suggested that the Mongols were some kind of primitives. Later, I heard about the Mongol invasion into Europe and something did sound wrong: how can a group of savages run over half of Europe and a huge part of Asia? Every war I have heard of showed that wars are costly activities. And your armies overextend themselves, they bleed out, etc. So, how could a hardly known group of nomads rule most of the known world within 1 or 2 generations? And how could it happen that they ruled big empires for over 150 years, even ruling the Chinese, the most advanced nation of that time?

I recently read the great book “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford (ISBN13: 9780609809648). The book has a good explanation. Mongols might have had a rough life, but they were not savages. Prior to Genghis Khan they were only absorbed in fighting themselves. Genghis Khan was the man who became supreme leader of all Mongols. And his methods were far from primitive, although often brutal. He was breaking with traditions time after time but kept enough to create a strong coherence.

So far, so interesting. Now, how could the joint Mongols conquer everything? Well, according to the book, the Mongols used their superior battle skills, but incorporated all strategies that they could find. E.g. they must have had brilliant engineers, building all kind of siege weapons in short time. They were smart enough to “hire” more engineers in the conquered areas.  They used fear as a weapon. But the one story that did explain the above questions to me was about the expedition into Europe. Whilst in Europe much emphasis was on honour and fighting bravely during battle, the Mongol’s emphasis was on winning. So, imagine a European army that is ready to fight, like at the Battle of Legnica. The Mongols start a bit of fighting but then retreat. The Europeans thought they have won (why would the enemy flee otherwise?) and charge after the Mongols and overextending themselves, separating cavalry from infantry.  The Mongols were just keeping out of range on their enduring horses and when the chasing army was completely disordered changed direction again and killing everyone with their long distance bows with minimal human costs to their own army. In addition the Mongols were using smoke in combination shouting “Run/Flee” in the language of the opponent to add to the confusion. This was strategy, using the weakness of the enemy, their believe in honour, their bad organisation. And it seems like the Mongols have adjusted their strategy each time. With this approach the Mongols could conquer everything.

The book highlights many other interesting achievements, whether in battle, or regarding religious freedom, regarding society or regarding organisation. Organisation by the way was the reason the wars were an economical success for the Mongols and they kept in power for a long time.

I have too little knowledge to confirm any of the many points of the book. It might not be exactly scientific, but what it does get across is that the Mongols were no primitive savages. To be as successful as they were they needed to outsmart their enemies on a regular base and overcome the paradigms of their time.

So, what are the lessons learned?

  1. If something sounds odd, start digging. There is a reason. It might be a simple misunderstanding, or it might be that you only hear a part of the story. Which part was left out and why?
  2. If you are willing to leave from your traditions and are willing to learn you can conquer the world. Of course you need luck. Of course one cannot just repeat a story like Genghis Khans. But you hear regular stories about individuals that are creating amazing impact. And normally you hear that they have broken with “known” paradigms.

By the way, the impact of the Mongols on the course of world was potentially bigger than one thought of. Whilst Central Europe ultimately got lucky and wasn’t affected that much,  the Mongols had a huge impact on Islam, changing the course of Islam to my (limited) knowledge. There was even a connection between the distribution of the black death and the commerce/road network in the Mongol empire. But not all impact was negative. Many ideas got born and ideas got distributed. Life would be different today. And all that because one man – with luck – took on the world, adapting to the circumstances whenever needed.

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