Teutonic Knights: Or, Germans are bad neighbors.

Teutonic might is put to the test today!

Zach – Welcome back to Minimum Wage Historian! Today we’ll be looking at the Teutonic order of knights. These guys fought in the Holy Land, Poland, Lithuania and Russian. The legend of these face wrecking knights has gone on to inspire generations of Germans and H&K fans everywhere.
Anna – Barbarians playing at empire while pretending to do so in the name of religion. That’s us Romans’ job!
Zach – Now, now, Anna, let’s give them a fair shake. I know you Byzantines aren’t fond of Crusaders, but let’s see if we can sort out the myth from the fact and come to some kind of conclusion about these Germanic knights.
Anna – They’re still barbarians.
Zach – Let’s get started by introducing our panel. Today we have Countess Matilda of Tuscany: Northern Italian leader who earned respect by the edge of the sword. Next we have Julius Caesar, dictator of the Roman Republic. And we have Buffalo Calf Road, Cheyenne warrior woman. Then we have Tomoe Gozen, woman samurai and head taker. Next is Gaspar Correia: Portuguese conquistador and “historian.” Then we have St. Olga of Kiev, a saintly Russian woman with a talent for blood soaked, revenge fueled destruction. Alright, let’s get started.
Olga – We are talking about Germans, da?
Zach – I see you didn’t read the research again.
Olga – Too long. Too boring.
Tomoe – It is our honorable duty to research the topics at hand!
Olga – Then you read, darling. You read and I eat hot pockets.
Caesar – I told you they were simply divine!
Olga – You, Caesar, are right about so-called “hot pockets.”
Anna – Getting started… The “Teutonic Order” or Order of Brothers of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem has its beginnings in the city of Acre, a city the Crusaders captured during the 1st Crusade. Their purpose was to help pilgrims get to Jerusalem and to establish hospitals.
Caesar – Sound like the other knightly orders that started in the Crusades, the Hospitlars and the Templars.
Anna – Yes, they were the German version of the more famous Orders and organized along similar lines.
Tomoe – They are like the Sohei monks of Japan. They are monks but they fight. And like the Sohei, the Teutonic Knights are not very well behaved.
Zach – I guess that depends on how you look at it. They were no less or more moral than any other European Order of Knights. However, Acre eventually fell back into the hands of the Turks and when Outremar fell, the Teutons left and headed to Transylvania which then belonged to Hungary, to fight nomadic pagans such as the Kipchaks and Cumans. While there, the Teutons began to set up shop and try to declare themselves an independent state with a nod to papal authority. Well the Hungarians didn’t go for that so they kicked the Teutons out.
Buffalo – So, these German knights moved in like bad relations and started acting like they own the place?
Zach – Yeah, pretty much. This will become their Standard Operating Procedure for the next few hundred years. After Transylvania, they went up to the Baltic area and began a crusade against the pagans that lived in the area of northern Germany, Belarus.
Gaspar – Let us not forget that while in Transylvania, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order fought the Master Vampire and was bitten. Once he became a vampire he in turn made his whole order into vampires. That is the real source of the Teutonic power.
Caesar – Umm…they had crusades in Germany?
Anna – Indeed they did, my dear Caesar. The Holy Roman Empire (upstart barbarians pretending to be Imperial) was a relatively civilized area, the the Baltic Germans were still semi-nomadic pagans.
Caesar – I see not much had changed in the twelve hundred years since I fought them.
Matilda – Germany was not a barbarian nation, Anna. I myself am a descendant of Germans.
Zach – Northern and Eastern Europe were actually quite popular destinations for crusades that didn’t want to bother going all the way to Palestine to fight infidels. Here’s a short list of a few notable nobles that went to fight crusades in the Baltics. King Waldemaro of Denmark
King Luis of Hungary, Gaston Febo, count of Foix, Wilhelm IV, earl of Hainault, Thomas Ufford, earl of Suffolk, Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick.
Anna – Pagans and heathens are just as good to kill in the north as they are in the Holy Land I suppose.
Zach – It carried the same benefits. If you die fighting Turks or Germanic pagans, then you’ll be forgiven of your sins all the same. Well, the Teutons, being German and all, decided to try their hand at fighting pagan Prussians. Prussians at this time were somewhat isolated and backwards and were the most archaic of Europeans. Caesar would have probably recognized them.

here’s an idea of the land the Teutonic Order took over.

Caesar – I’d go, I’d see, I’d conquer.
Matilda – The Teutons had a mandate from the Pope to forcibly convert the pagans. They were invited by a Polish baron to come in and help with their crusader activity. Any land conquered would go to the Polish. At this time Poland was split into many duchies and baronies.
Anna – That was the same deal Constantinople had with the Crusaders and it didn’t turn out too well for us.
Matilda – It didn’t turn out well for the Polish either. The Teutons began taking over land and declaring independence from the Polish and Lithuanians. Keep in mind that the Teutons were Germans but they did not represent Germany. They were their own separate entity and also consisted of Polish and knights from other areas.
Zach – The Teutons then began a massive military campaign against the pagan Prussians and slowly began conquering their lands. As part of their deal with the Church, they began to “Germanize” the Prussians. They’d teach them German, how to act civilized and how to act not so pagan. At this time a military was only as good as the land that supported it, so the more land the Teutons conquered, the stronger they became. There were never many Teutonic knights, but they’d raise armies from the civilized Prussians and hire mercenaries.
Anna – It wasn’t just Prussians they wanted to convert, but any Pagan. They went on Crusades against the Lithuanians who were sort of still pagan but when the King of Lithuania converted, thus cancelling the legal reason for the Crusade, they continued on fighting anyways. The Teutonic Knights went so far as Russia in their zeal for land and power.
Olga – Ha! Yes! They invaded Russia but looked what happened! Alexander Nevsky! That’s what happened! Battle of the Ice! Alexander fought Germans on frozen lake. Lake ice broke and into water goes the Germans!

The Battle of the Ice ended the Teutonic war against Novgorod. (A Christian kingdom BTW, but that never really seemed to concern the Crusaders.) Learn more about Nevsky and the Battle of the Ice HERE.

Zach – Not content with peace keeping actions against Prussian insurgents, the Teutonic Knights began invading their neighbor, Poland. This didn’t make for friendly relations. But then the few Prussian states that hadn’t been conquered by the Teutons asked Poland for help. They promised Poland that they’d join their kingdom if they could just get rid of the Teutonic Knights for them. Poland agreed because they wanted Prussia and they hated the Teutons. Sometimes it pays to make friends with your neighbors, a lesson Germany hasn’t learned.
Anna – This became what we call, the “thirteen Years War.” Poland and Prussian allies against the Teutonic order. The Poles created their own Knightly Order, the Order of Dobrzyn. (Though technically under the same government, Poland and Lithuania were at war so Lithuania didn’t send any help…it’s a feudal thing. It’s complicated.)

A Polish Knight. Poland had a mixture of Russian and German arms and armor and were strongly Nationalistic before Nationalism was cool.

Zach – The Polish had had enough of their expansionist neighbor and began uniting into a single kingdom. Poland started getting stronger and stronger and began to march against the Teutonic lands. The Polish queen, Sophia of Halshany, pushed Greater Poland into this war. The Holy Roman Empire sided with the Teutons but didn’t offer too much support.
Buffalo – So the oppressed pagans started fighting back against the invaders. I know who I’m routing for!
Olga – Yes! Go get those foul Germans!
Matilda – Hey, I’m partly German!
Olga – But I like your Italian parts better.
Zach – Remember the Hussites? Well, they were down south fighting against their neighbors so Bohemia or Hungary weren’t going to interfere. France and England were still worn out from the Hundred years war and Sweden and Denmark were busy being neutral and not getting in the way. Polish armies consisted of Nobles’ private armies, city militia and Czech mercenaries. The Teutons had to hire a lot of mercenaries to come close to equaling the Polish numbers. The war started with a Prussian and mercenary army besieging the Teutonic order’s castle at Marienburg.

The headquarters of the Teutonic order. One of the largest castles (land wise) in Europe and surprisingly in great shape!

Anna – So, the land war started. The Poles, now having access to the Baltic sea, began arming merchant ships and hiring privateers to fight the Teutonic Order. The Poles learned from the Hussites and used armored wagons with lots of guns and crossbows. Things were going back and forth with no side gaining advantage over the others. There were many battles with no clear winner. Then the Holy Roman Empire sent an army of reinforcements to help the Teutons. This caused Poland to do a mass conscription. These two massive armies met at the Battle of Konitz and the Teutonic Knights slaughtered the Polish army. The Poles retreated from Prussia and the Teutons began to spread all over taking city after city. The situation was desperate but the Polish king, Casimir IV, called another mass levee and hired more mercenaries. The nobles offered to bring their private armies in exchange for economic and political privileges, which Casimir quickly agreed to.

Casimir thinking, “Ha! Those Germans will never try to invade Poland again!”

Gaspar – The Polish then hired professional vampire hunters of the Van Helsing Order of Knights and started a covert war. Supported by the Corvinus royal house of Hungary, who were secretly werewolves, the war continued on well into the 20th century.
Matilda – You got that from Underworld.
Gaspar – Did not.
Olga – I love those movies!
Zach – The Polish marched out again and this time they were better prepared. This speaks something of Casimir’s leadership. He turned around a disastrous situation. Also, with their buffet of cities the Teutonic Order was capturing, they were spread thinner than they had been. The war continued to drag on and on for years with no side gaining any significant advantage. The poles would kick but, then get beaten by the Teutons. The Teutons would gain a city and then have their navy wiped out. Eventually though, the Holy Roman Empire started sending less and less money: money they needed to hire mercenaries, the bulk of their armies. Eventually the Polish simply exhausted the Teutonic Knights and Poland gained a part of Prussia, giving them access to the Baltic Sea and the Teutons got to live. They managed their own little kingdoms until the protestant reformation when northern Germany went to the protestants. The southern areas that remained Catholic continued on being Teutonic until Napoleon said “enough of that” and ended them as a governmental and military power.
Anna – There are still parts of the Teutonic order floating about but they exist as charitable and ecclesiastic groups. No longer are they sword wielding warriors of God.
Buffalo – Religiously minded Europeans invading smaller countries for land and wealth. I am utterly shocked. That was sarcasm in case I didn’t lay it on thick enough.
Matilda – The Teutonic knights were aggressive and ambitious. Perhaps they were too ambitious.
Olga – They broke rule #1 of being a military power: Do not invade Russia. Why don’t people learn?
Zach – That’s a lesson for us all. Never, no matter how tempting, invade Russian or mess with the Polish. The Polish resistance during WWII had a motto, “One bullet per German.” They fought the Nazis tooth and nail during the battle of Warsaw. That’s a fascinating story for another time.

Templar – Hey, how you Teutons doing?
Teuton – Oh, you know, usual. Invaded a few countries. Converted some pagans. Now we just kind of sit around and give candy to orphans and pose for German propaganda posters. How about you guys?
Templar – Well, we sort of disappeared with all our treasure and might have had something to do with the founding of America.
Teuton – Oh, yeah, we uh…we did that too.

Zach – To sum up, this was an unedifying war with no real outcome, reason or great cause.  Throughout all stages of the war both sides kept trying to negotiate a peace that both sides wanted but each was too stubborn to agree to.  The Teutonic Knights were typical of Medieval European Knightly orders.  They fought hard, had some of the best military training of their age.  The northern German/Prussian culture comes from the Teutonic knights and their forced conversion of the Prussian pagans.  They shaped modern Germany in terms of culture and heritage.  They came from a much different world than ours and at times we are tempted to attach our own cultural baggage to their deeds.   That can be done for good and bad.

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8 comments on “Teutonic Knights: Or, Germans are bad neighbors.

  1. Joe in PNG says:

    And thus, “the army with a country”, was born.

  2. “If you die fighting Turks or Germanic pagans, then you’ll be forgiven of your sins all the same.” Will these crusaders be greeted by 72 virgins when they enter Heaven??

  3. paulgenesse says:

    Awesome post. I think I hate the Teutonic Knights. Why couldn’t they be more like Jedi Knights? At least Napoleon got at least one thing right and got rid of them.

    • I wasn’t exactly flattering to the Teutonic Knights. I found nothing uplifting in their story, so I sided with the Polish. And if they were Jedi knights, then we’d have lightsabers today and the world would be a better place.

  4. Napoleon Bonaparte says:

    I do not like these Teutonic Knights! They are German pigs and our French ways showed them who was best! Zach, your post sucks as usual! I spit on it!

    • Askeladd says:

      France was from ca. 1500 -> 1800 the most agressive nation in Europe. Constantly waging war against spanish, italian and german territory. And Especially against german territory out of the absurd idea that at least all the land left of the Rhine was theirs. Had something to do with Frankish heritage or so. Despite that, the Germans were all too busy waging war against ona another, then to have a chance waging war against their neighbors as constantly as France did.

      Besides, Napoleon Bonaparte, despite not being aware of this, encouraged the yearning for a united German Nation even more. One can say, that the german Nationalism is a result of the constant threat and actual invasions from France over hundreds of years. Other deeds of Napoleon were the establishment of the code civil and the disposal of ecclesiastical dominions on german territory. So, thank you Napoleon!

      One of the lessons of history are: Nationalism is fucked up!
      Patriotism is the right way to go!

  5. Adolf Schicklgruber says:

    I , on the other hand love these knights and even copied their ideas for my book

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