The Teutonic Knights: A Forgotten Crusade in Present-Day Poland

As medieval warrior monks go, the Knights Templar may hog all the limelight and conspiracy theorists’ love but it was the Teutonic Knights who achieved a real-world Holy Grail – their own independent state that was in due course to give rise to an empire.

In a spectacular testimony to their power and ambition, the world’s largest castle can to this day be seen at Malbork in the north of Poland, looming menacingly over the train tracks connecting Warsaw with the Baltic seaport of Gdańsk. The history of both cities is in fact intimately connected with the Teutonic Order for the Polish capital was founded as an outpost of the knights’ trade in the produce of fertile Polish farmland upriver from their state while Gdańsk was for a century their main port and conduit for the trade to western Europe.

Born at Akko in present-day Israel during the Third Crusade in 1190, the Teutonic Order’s original raison d’etre of looking after ill and wounded crusaders did not promise long-term stability. As Saladin ended a century of Latin rule over Jerusalem, the Teutonic Knights cast about for non-believers to fight closer to home which, as their name indicates, was for the most part in Germany. An opportunity arose in 1228 when the Duke Konrad of Mazowsze (Masovia) invited them to the north-east of present-day Poland to help ward off the pagan Prussians. That fateful decision was to prove rich in historical consequences and ironies.

The Teutonic Knights proved effective in subduing and converting the pagans to the point of extermination and took over their name. Originally standing for the pagan speakers of a Baltic language closely resembling Lithuanian, “Prussians” came to mean the German-speaking descendants of the Teutonic Knights who went on to unite the Reich and claim the imperial title of the Kaiser.

By the 16th century the era of the Crusades was over and Grand Master Albrecht von Hohenzollern chose in 1521 to convert to Lutheranism, converting his state to a secular Duchy of Prussia. Forced to bend his knee to the Poland’s King Sigismond and accept his overlordship in 1525, the Hohenzollerns would quickly emancipate themselves from Polish control and seek territories back in present-day, choosing the sleepy village of Berlin as their capital. From there, they managed to prevail over much of Europe and in the late 18th century orchestrate the partition of Poland that for a time left the descendants of Grand Master Albrecht of the Teutonic Knights the lord and master of Warsaw.

The Prussian rule over the Polish capital that their own ancestors had helped found did not last long and was ended by Napoleon. But the memory of the Prussian state’s origins as a crusading state did not die in the Polish consciousness and formed a key part of national mythology in the fight against first the Prussian and then German expansion.

The Communist government, keen to portray the Germans as the eternal enemies of Poland and Russia, was particularly keen on exploring the association of the Teutonic Knights with the modern German state. The Order’s betrayal of their host, Duke Konrad and the massacre of the Slavic-speaking inhabitants of Gdańsk in 1308, which turned the city into a predominantly German-speaking port until 1945, were given much prominence in Communist-era propaganda targeting “western German revanchism”. So was the aforementioned Prussian Homage of 1525, when Albrecht von Hohenzollern, recently turned a secular prince, bent his knee to the power of the Polish king and the earlier battle of Grunwald of 1410 when the allied armies of Poland, Lithuania, Rus and Tatar Crimea defeated the Teutonic Knights.

The make-up of the Grunwald coalition may have had something to do with the Communist enthusiasm for the battle for the Soviet-sponsored, anti-western regime was less embarrassed than most Poles by the religious and international dimension of the struggle against the Teutonic Knights which hardly confirms Poland’s traditional self-image as “the first wall of (Latin) Christendom” (“Antemurale Christianitis”). For all that the Teutonic Knights were mostly self-seeking German adventurers, their crusading fervour was much more than an act and found wide following across western Europe: encouraged by successive popes and Holy Roman Emperors, knights flocked to this remote corner of north-eastern Europe to fight against pagan Lithuanians, heretical Russians, and Muslim Tatars - and against their Polish allies. Among them was an Englishman that went by the name of Henry Bolingbroke who in 1390 went with 70 or 80 household knights to fight on the Teutonic Order’s side. Nine years later, he was crowned King Henry IV of England, his year crusading in the then still half-pagan east largely forgotten – Shakespeare finds no space for it in his plays.

Far from the forward defence of Christendom of the national self-image, the story of the Polish relationship with the Teutonic Order shows the country fighting alongside pagans and Muslims against the avant-garde of western Europe and its “civilising mission” – a much more comfortable narrative for a Communist government than for a fiercely Catholic or pro-western one.