Translated from the Third Reich original. History and description of the eastern provinces of the German Reich.
SEVEN centuries have passed since the Knights of the Teutonic Order crossed the Vistula and began the conquest of Prussia and the preaching Christianity; seven centuries since towns and cities arose and German peasants turned with their ploughs the sods which till then the iron had not stirred from their primeval rest.
Battle is the beginning of Prussian history. The Knights of the Brotherhood were summoned to the aid of a Masovian duke who could no longer defend himself from the heathen Prussians. By force of arms must the Brothers subdue or drive out the heathen tribes and for their reward the lordship of the land was to be theirs. And yet that was not the real object of the fight which the Knights of 1231 now began. What their aim was can be seen in a letter addressed to the Brotherhood by Pope Gregory IX in the previous year. “To win the land from the Prussians”, he writes, “go boldly forward, armed with the might of Heaven, that with God’s help His kingdom may be established and the fear of Him spread abroad to the uttermost boundaries.” This then was the aim and object of the struggle which seven centuries ago began on the banks of the Vistula; the spreading of the Faith.
Today we are far removed from the belief that faith can be inculcated at the point of the sword but in those times it was considered a matter of course. War against the heathen was the highest duty, the greatest sacrifice which a man could offer.
A religious war was not to be confused with a war of conquest. The great English philosopher, John of Salisbury, said of the Brotherhood at this time: “Of hardly any others can it be said that they are waging a just war”. It was this belief which inspired the mightiest expression of Western faith, the Crusades to the Holy Land for the liberation of Jerusalem. The expeditions which the Teutonic Knights conducted against the heathen in Prussia and Lithuania were also crusades. French and English, Spaniards, Italians and Germans have led such crusades into the Orient; Danes Poles and Bohemians into the heathen districts on the east and south-east coasts of the Baltic Sea. In order to understand many of the most important events in Western history we must be able to appreciate the enthusiastic spirit of Christian self-sacrifice which inspired these crusades and we must not forget that it was this spirit too which inspired the Knights of the Teutonic Order. Their work of conquest in the 13th and 14th centuries is its own justification for it served to spread the Christian belief.
Even those who are not interested in the especial conditions of the past will not be able to deny the importance of this forcible Christianizing of the Baltic countries of Prussia, Latvia and Estonia. At the beginning of this struggle and of their mission the Knights of the Order came into contact, not in Prussia but in the neighboring country of Latvia, with two determined opponents: Russia and the Eastern Church. It was the arrival of the Germans that decided that this territory should become a part of the Western Church – that is, culturally and politically European – and not Russian Orthodox – that is, Eastern and Asiatic. That the eastern boundary of Europe and the Occident was drawn where it still remains is due largely to the success of these knights in monks’ clothing who appeared on the coasts of the Baltic in the 13th century. Once we have appreciated the importance of the German crusades we are able to understand the belief in their mission and in their task which actuated them. Not for nothing did the Knights wear a black cross on the white robes that covered their armor; not for them was the gay military life of other knights. Even in the Beld they kept strictly to the rules of their Order which enforced upon them, as upon other monks, piety and self-restraint.
Thus it was that the small group of Brothers began, 700 years ago, the conquest of Prussia with a consciousness of the importance of their mission. The task would have been impossible but for the help of other crusaders who, urged on by the selfsame zeal, joined the Brothers, not as members of the Order but nevertheless willing to stake their all in the fight against the heathen. From Scandinavia to Bohemia, from the North Sea to the Alps the priests told of the deeds of the German Brothers and preached the crusade against Prussia. Year after year the pious throngs, led by the Knights of the Order, joined in the conquest of the East. Deeper and deeper they penetrated into the lands of the heathen. The Prussian tribes were fought until they were subdued and accepted the Christian faith, for the object of the Order was not destruction but conversion. The survival of so many Prussian place-names in Samland shows that the contention that the Order exterminated the Prussians is contrary to the facts. At the farthest boundaries of the conquered territory strongholds were erected at strategically important points – an impenetrable line of defense for the new Christian overlordship. At first but simple defenses of earth and stakes they grew in the 14th century to buildings of a highly developed type. The largest among them became monasteries with at least 12 brothers. The fortress became a cloister in which the Brothers lived according to the rules of the Order. These monasteries existed as organisation centers under the leadership of a Commander of the Order as soon as the country had begun to reach a higher state of civilization.
It soon became evident that though the proselytizing zeal was the central motive of the crusades and of the Brothers it was not the only thought in their minds. Their manhood, their knighthood made them truly leaders of men and aroused in them the desire for the founding and building up of a state and it was this will to statesmanship which was the second principle upon which the Prussia of the future was to rest. Already in the 14th century the chronicler of the Order, Peter von Dusburg, shows how clearly these two ideas of religious and temporal authority were connected in the minds of the Brothers when he concludes the description of each individual campaign with the words; “The land has been won for the Faith and the Brothers.”
The state which was built up after the 13th century on the formerly heathen soil became christian not only in name. This part of the southeast coast of the Baltic developed from a barbaric land into a country where the Church flourished in all the richness which it attained in the late middle ages. Here was no question of Church and State, t he country was a christian state in which religious fervor worked hand in hand with a desire for material well-being. The country of the Order was a worthy example of western civilization in the middle ages and, situated in the midst of heathen lands and christian countries in a far more backward state, developed with a surprising rapidness.
Like the Brothers of the Order the crusaders who came every year to Prussia had also a double motive. They too were zealous Soldiers of the Cross but they too came with their own personal wishes and hopes. The best of these crusaders were seeking new homes. For many of them the expedition into the heathen domains became one of colonization whether they settled down at once in Prussia or returned later with their families, with horse and cart, plough and seeds to visit once more, as peaceful workers on the land, that country whose soil they had first trodden sword in hand.
In the first century of the history of the Order crusade and colonization were scarcely more than two aspects of one and the same thing. The colonization was the peaceful complement of the conquest which had preceded it. In bringing to this thinly settled district, with its mighty forests and impassable swamps, the benefits of a higher western culture the Knights justified their conquests and ensured their permanency. The Brothers of the Order and the lay crusaders joined in the conquest of the land, the former to rule it and the latter to settle it; they foo were missionaries of western civilization and founders of a well-ordered state which has endured to this day. Crusaders, Brothers and settlers in the 13th and 14th centuries carried the torch of civilization into a land which, until then, had not known its blessings.
Like the Western Church most of the great Orders were European rather than national bot there were two exceptions: the Spanish Orders which fought against the Moors, and the Teutonic Order which was of a predominantly national character. Not for nothing was the latter known as -The Order of the Brotbers of the German Lodge St. Marien at Jerusalem”. For this reason the state which they founded in Prussia became a part of the German nation and the German Reich, and though the Brotherhood had spread into France, Spain and Greece the ßrst crusaders and settlers in the East were exclusively of German race.
During the 13th century the fight for the distant heathen land raged year after year. Gradually, after enormous sacrifices, the land was won and the Faith firmly grounded and the foundation laid for peaceful development in the coming centuries. As the number of crusaders decreased the number of settlers increased. German peasants from Lower Saxony, Thuringia, Meissen and Silesia poured into the land and were followed by German tradesmen who founded new cities which, together with the monastery fortresses of the Order, formed an impregnable bulwark of German life and German culture.
As the work of subduing the heathen gave place to the tasks of peaceful colonization the temporal aspect of the Order came, of necessity, more to the fore. More and more must the monk give place to the knight and monastic piety to managerial ability. In the 13th century the Order had been an outpost of Christianity, in the 14th it represented western civilization in its every aspect. The writing of poetry and history became a part of the work of the Order which gradually became a pattern for the whole of Europe. Out of the religious crusades grew a tournament in which the knights of all Europe jousted on the broad plains of Prussia. English princes and French counts found their way here. In 1390 Henry of Derby, who later became Henry IV of England, fought in the ranks of the Order against the heathen Lithuanians.
A life of knightly jollity flourished in the fortresses of which the finest in the 14th century was the Marienburg, the seat of the Head of the Order. Much more worldly than at the time of its institution the Order yet fulfilled a task important to the whole of Europe. Then it had carried the teachings of Christianity to the East, now it was to be the bearer of the traditions of European knighthood and civilization.
But not only had religion and chivalry been brought to the Last, trade too began to flourish there. The Prussian merchants, especially those of Danzig which city, with Pommerellen, had joined the Order in 1309, became intermediaries for the rapidly increasing trade between East and West. English merchants too came to settle in Danzig and other cities. The more important Prussian trade centers became members of the Hanseatic League. The corn which grew in such profusion in the new Prussia was shipped to England and Spain
In one century the religion, culture and trade of the West had taken firm root in the once heathen soil, one century had sufficed to furn Prussia into a completely German land. Further and further penetrated tbe German settlers and where they went arose strongholds, cities and villages.
One cannot demonstrate the depth of a culture by figures but its geographical extent can be so measured. Where, in the beginning of the 13th century, a thinly settled and barbaric land had existed, by the time of the battle of Tannenberg (1410) 93 cities and 1,400 villages had been founded – a unique accomplishment in colonization on the eastern boundaries of mediaeval Europe. The little Kulmerland on the Vistula, which the Masovian duke Konrad had given over to the Order in 1231 in a state of complete devastation that the conquest of Prussia might be begun from this point, attained in a single century of the Order’s government a high state of civilization. A Polish researcher has recently shown that in the first half of the 14th century the population of Kulmerland was 2,5.6 to the square kilometre while the neighboring state of Masovia showed only 4.5 and Poland (exclusive of Silesia) 6.1. In the year 1230 the Prussian hordes had ravaged the country and threatened the very existence of Poland; a century later the North and East of Europe were populated by an industrious and peaceloving folk living under conditions such as had never been known in this part of Europe before.