Who Were the Teutonic Knights?

A relative newcomer to the world of the chivalric orders, the German Order of the House of Mary in Jerusalem distinguished itself in the Holy Land principally by its self-consciously ethnic character. The “German Order” (“Teutonicus” is the Latin adaptation of the German “Deutsch”) emerged during the Third Crusade out of the same impulses that had earlier given rise to the Hospitallers, save that it was formed specifically by Germans and subsequently limited its recruitment to Germans, with only rare exceptions. Its role in Outremer (the land of the Crusader States) was marginal, but it would go on to play a formative role in northeastern Europe, laying the foundations of the Kingdom of Prussia. In the beginning, their activities in the Baltic region also carried the status of a Crusade.

The need for such an order arose out of circumstances peculiar to the course of the Third Crusade. The leading forces on the Christian side in this Crusade were the English and French contingents, and despite divided political allegiances, they had much in common with each other, especially at the top. The English King and his leading nobles were culturally and linguistically French. There was meant to be a major German contingent, as well, and none less than the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Frederick Barbarossa, led it overland through Byzantine territory on its way to Antioch and beyond. This effort miscarried, however, as a result of the Emperor’s death during a river crossing. The Germans lost much of their momentum due to this tragedy; the Emperor’s heirs pressed on, but only played a supporting role. Ease of communication tended to segregate the Germans from the more plentiful English and French.

Like the Hospitallers before them, the German Order began as an organization intended to care for the wounded. In this case, north German merchants serving in Outremer wished to aid their injured countrymen during the siege of Acre. The fall of Acre allowed Christian leaders to make good on their pledges of an endowment for a permanent hospital, and the status of its staff as a religious organization was confirmed by the Pope in 1191.

The order continued with its medical ministry for several years, but Pope Innocent III pressed them to take on a military role as well, much as the Hospitallers had done. Indeed, the organization that he confirmed in 1199 was a hybrid of Templar and Hospitaller practices. Generally, the German Order was to emulate the Templars in its military capacity and the Hospitallers in its other roles; for a short time, the German Order was even placed under the nominal governance of the Hospitallers, although Imperial patronage soon undermined this subordinate position.

Playing a distinctly tertiary role in Outremer, the German Order was nevertheless capable of setting up its own holdings. The most famous of these is Montfort, which they held until 1271. Among the knightly orders themselves, the German Order maintained an affinity for the Hospitallers, and supported them when the latter came into conflict with the Templars in the early 13th century. Altogether, though, the order would only spend the first century of its existence in Outremer itself: they remained as the Christian side lost ground, holding out until Acre was captured in 1291. Having evacuated Acre, they governed themselves out of Venice for 18 years before committing themselves decisively to the Baltic region.

Emperor Frederick II had given the German Order its first fiefs in Prussia in 1226, with the understanding that it was serving as a buffer between Catholic Poland and the pagans of the Baltic coast. A Crusade had been in effect in the region since 1217, but the effort was not proving successful, and local forces were in dire need of support. Insofar as it was protecting Christians from non-Christians, and furthermore working to extend Christian rule into pagan territory, the German Order was considered quite suitable for the task. As time went on, the impulses of self-preservation and self-enrichment took the order beyond its crusading origins into the arena of power politics that had destroyed the Templars before them.

Already in 1237, the order found the opportunity to expand aggressively. Another knightly order, the Knights of the Sword, had been operating in Livonia (modern Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) until a calamitous campaign in 1236 had devastated their prospects. The German Order merged the Knights of the Sword into its own organization, gaining thereby not only a substantial pool of manpower but also a much larger territorial presence in the Baltic region.

This was not entirely a good thing for the Order. This growth extended its reach to the borders of Russia, and in 1242, the Order undertook an invasion, only to be beaten soundly by Aleksandr Nevskiy at Lake Peypus. The defeat did not cripple the order, however, and by 1300, it had solidified its control of Prussia and Livonia. So secure were the German knights that in 1309 they transferred their center of operations from Venice to Marienburg in Prussia, hoping to avoid the kind of reversal of fortune that had destroyed the Templars. They focused their energy on building up their control of their own territory, establishing what is known as an Ordenstaat, that is, an organization that becomes a state unto itself.

Their neighbors did not remain static in this period, either. While Poland had originally been an ally, it became increasingly hostile as the fourteenth century wore on, especially after the German Order took the city of Danzig. Poland’s own fortunes took a significant turn in 1386, when the Lithuanians converted to Christianity and the merger of Poland and Lithuania began under Wladyslaw II. Poland-Lithuania gathered allies against the German Order, and in 1410, they dealt a powerful blow to the German knights at the original Battle of Tannenberg.

The Prussian and Livonian branches of the order largely separated after this defeat. The Livonian branch of the order again turned its attentions toward Russia, enjoying some success until it was crushed by Ivan the Terrible’s invasion in 1558. The Prussian branch saw its power whittled away even earlier, facing the multiple challenges of a hostile King of Poland-Lithuania, of disaffected Prussian subjects and even of difficulties with the Church.

While the Prussian branch lost its autonomy sooner than the Livonian branch, it would prove to make a more lasting contribution to future generations. In 1511, the Markgraf Albrecht of Brandenburg was elected Grand Master. He converted to Lutheranism in 1525, divesting the Order of its religious character and accepting feudal control over Prussia as a Duke under the King of Poland. His descendants, the Hohenzollern family, would shepherd this Duchy into a Kingdom, and then into the nucleus of the German Empire, over the next 350 years.

As an order of chivalry, the German Order has maintained a limited existence even to the present day, enduring several reorganizations.


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