The Teutonic Order

  By Copperknickers, June 2008; Revised
  Category: Medieval Europe

The Founding of the OrderA Grandmaster of the Order

The Teutonic Order was an Order of Catholic Knights from Germany. Formed in 1143 by Pope Celestine II, they operated at first in Palestine as a hospital, but they soon turned into a military order, and they played an important role in Outremer, controlling the port of Acre. They also served in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although powerful, they were never quite as influential in the Crusades as the Hospitallers and Templars. After Christian forces were defeated in the Middle East, the Order moved north in 1211 to help defend Hungary against the Cuman Khanate. They settled there for a while, but were expelled in 1225 after attempting to place themselves directly under Papal instead of Hungarian rule.


The Northern Crusades

Although the Order had their roots in the Middle East, their most famous exploits took place in Lithuania and the Baltic in the Northern Crusades. In 1226, Kuonrad I, Duke of a small state in Poland, appealed to the Knights to defend his borders and subdue the pagans in nearby Lithuania, allowing the Teutonic Knights use of Chelmno Land (Culmerland) as a base for their campaign. They were also granted lands by the Holy Roman Empire. The conquest of the Baltic pagans was accomplished with much bloodshed over more than fifty years, during which natives who remained unbaptised were subjugated, killed, or exiled. Fighting between the Knights and the Balts was ferocious; chronicles of the Order state they would "roast captured brethren alive in their armour, like chestnuts, before the shrine of a local god". To make up for losses from the plague and to replace the partially exterminated native population, the Order encouraged the immigration of colonists from the Holy Roman Empire and from Poland. The colonists included nobles, citizens, and peasants, and the surviving Old Baltic converts were gradually assimilated through Germanization. The settlers founded numerous towns and cities on former pagan settlements. The Order itself built a number of castles (Ordensburgen) from which it could defeat uprisings of Old Balts, such as Marienburg an Mergentheim. They also carried out attacks on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, with which the Order was often at war during the 14th and 15th centuries over land disputes.


The Downfall of the OrderEmblem of the Order

In 1410 at the Battle of Tannenberg, a combined Polish-Lithuanian army, led by Władysław II and Vytautas, decisively defeated the Order. Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and most of the Order's higher dignitaries fell on the battlefield. The Polish-Lithuanian army then besieged the capital of the Order, Marienburg, but was unable to take it owing to the resistance of Heinrich von Plauen. When the First Peace of Thorn was signed in 1411, the Order managed to retain essentially all of its territories, although the Knights' reputation as invincible warriors was irreparably damaged. While Poland-Lithuania was growing in power, the Teutonic Knights dwindled through infighting. They were forced to impose high taxes but did not give their citizens representation in the administration of their state. Grand Master Heinrich von Plauen was forced from power and replaced by Michael Küchmeister, but the new Grand Master was unable to revive the Order's fortunes. After the Gollub War the Knights renounced all claims to the state of Samogitia in 1422. The western Prussian lands of the Vistula River Valley and the Neumark were ravaged by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars. Some Teutonic Knights were sent to battle the invaders, but were defeated by the Bohemian infantry. The Knights also sustained a defeat in the Polish-Teutonic War (1431-1435). In 1929 the Teutonic Knights were converted to a purely spiritual Roman Catholic religious order and were renamed Deutscher Orden ("German Order"). After Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany, the Teutonic Order was suppressed throughout the Großdeutsches Reich from 1938-1945, although the Nazis used imagery of the medieval Teutonic Knights for propaganda purposes. The Order survived in Italy, however, and was reconstituted in Germany and Austria in 1945. By the end of the 1990s, the Order had developed into a charitable organization and incorporated numerous clinics. It sponsors excavations and tourism projects in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 2000 the German chapter of the Teutonic Order declared insolvency, and its upper management was dismissed. The Order currently consists of approximately 1,000 members, including 100 Roman Catholic priests, 200 nuns, and 700 associates.