The Austrian General who Destroyed the city of Skopje to Prevent the Spread of Cholera

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A Brief History

On October 26, 1689, Austrian General Piccolomini burned down the Macedonian city of Skopje to prevent the spread of cholera.

Digging Deeper

In the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s failed assault on Vienna in 1683, the Austrians retaliated by launching their own offenses into Ottoman territory in Europe.  These campaigns continued late in that decade.

One of the commanders of such expeditions was Enea Silvio Piccolomini, a nobleman from Italy (his ancestors included TWO popes!) fighting in Austria’s service.  His campaign was intended to capture Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire.  Although his army was welcomed into Kosovo by the Patriarch and many Serbs joined Piccolomini’s forces, one of the major cities in the region, Skopje (located today in the Republic of Macedonia), suffered from a plague of cholera.  His forces captured the city on October 25, 1689, but what they did next was extreme to say the least!

Although some accounts claim that he took his next, fateful actions as revenge for the Ottoman siege of Vienna six years earlier, another version of the story is that he set the city ablaze to prevent the disease from spreading.  Large portions of the city burned for two days (October 26-27), with the wost damage occurred in the Jewish quarter of the city.  Houses, synagogues, and even a school were among the destroyed buildings.  Only some stone structures survived relatively unscathed.  The mostly destroyed city’s population subsequently declined from 60,000 to 10,000.

Yet, despite his drastic actions, the general himself ended up dying of cholera that same year, and his army ultimately left the region in defeat.

Historical Evidence

References to the incident in English sources are fleeting.  Most books only provided bare bone details.  See for example here.

If you happen to read Macedonian, please check out this online article.  For a modern fictional story of leaders being faced with the tough decision of destroying a city to prevent the spread of disease, see 1995’s Outbreak.

Finally, please let us know if the comments if you could ever imagine a scenario in modern times in which our government might wipe out a city to prevent a pandemic.  Under what circumstances, if any, would such measures be justified?


About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.