Vlad the Impaler: Villain or Hero?

Being a pacifist Christian is a sweet thing for those who live in countries where there is infrastructure and laws and a cohesive military, as well as active local police forces that keep society functioning and orderly. The United States and Canada are, therefore, great places for pacifist Christians to live. Somebody else can do the dirty work, while they farm and raise their children and attend their churches without consequences.

The world for pacifist Christians was not always such a pretty place. In fact, it wasn’t such a pretty place for many people groups. In the days of Vlad the Impaler, the Ottoman empire was a huge threat to Christian nations, as the Ottomans were effective in their empire-building schemes and striking terror into the hearts of citizens who would have preferred to farm and raise their children and attend their churches without consequences, too. But that wasn’t going to happen. And, of course, it wasn’t just the Ottomans. European nations were quite happily engaging in the Hundred Years War when Vlad was just a lad. This was also the century of Machiavelli; although he was born just after Vlad died (Vlad didn’t live very long: live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.), you could work backwards and call Vlad Machiavellian in his political affairs. To be fair, this blood-thirsty world must have at least partially inspired the first Anabaptist movement, which began in the early 16th C. And they suffered for centuries at the hands of Christian political states for their convictions.

When I sat down to write this post, I was ruminating on the difference between modern warfare and ancient warfare, not to mention the concept of no warfare at all. Vlad the Impaler lived in “modern” times, more or less, but the warfare of his day resembled the variety one finds in ancient literature like the Bible. It was bloody and brutal in a way we’ve pretended can’t or shouldn’t be done these days — really, what is water-boarding compared to impaling your enemies or chopping their heads off and shoving them on stakes for the world to see first thing in the morning? That kind of blood sport is deeply terrifying to humans on a psychological level. It’s, therefore, successful. Who wants to mess with a nation of men who are willing to conquer in this way?

I mentioned the Ottoman empire earlier because Vlad is primarily known as a hero in Romania for holding the Turks at bay. Romania has long been an Orthodox Christian nation, tucked in an awkward position between Eastern and Western Europe, with Turkey a hop and a skip across the Black Sea. In Vlad’s childhood, he was held as a quasi prisoner to the Ottomans. His brother converted to Islam, but he refused. What he did convert to was their idea of striking terror into their enemies, and he used it against them when he later became prince of Wallachia (i.e. Romania). Vlad did what he had to do to protect a Christian nation against the inevitable invasion of non-Christian people who didn’t then and don’t now believe in freedom of religion.

So was he a hero or a villain? It’s difficult to say. Partly, this is owing to the advent of the printing press and his short life span. The people who didn’t like him published a lot of tall tales about him, such that our modern minds have a hard time parsing reality from fiction. He’s the inspiration for the most famous vampire story of all time, for heaven’s sake. Vampire stories aside, I’m pretty sure historians agree that he was an extremely bloody ruler.

So was he or wasn’t he a hero? I would call him a hero, albeit I’m inclined toward pacifism. I have that push and pull most humans find inside themselves, the pull to live at peace, and the push to not just defend one’s country or family, but to cut off the problem at its source. To get the job done, even if it will take brutality to achieve it.

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2 comments

  1. Fighting the Ottomans I can understand and agree with…hating them so savagely and employing mass terror I can also understand in the context of his life–but don’t agree with.

    It is possible to go too far and violate Christian morals, even when supposedly defending Christianity…

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