In 1525, the rule of the Teutonic Knights over Prussia came to an end. Most people identify ‘Prussia’ with the Germany of Frederick the Great and Bismarck, for the good reason that Frederick’s father had himself crowned ‘King in Prussia’ at Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in 1701. In 1525, though, Prussia was a Polish appendage. Its original population, the heathen Borussi, had been pretty much wiped out by crusading Knights, so that by the sixteenth century the Knights had pretty much lost their purpose. In 1525, their last Grand Master, Albrecht, became a Lutheran, disbanded the order, and, you might say, slipped a duchy into his pocket. Thus the sovereign property of a monastic order fell into the Hohenzollern patrimony, and eventually gave its name to the most redoubtable power in Europe.
Like the Templars and the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights were fighting monks. Founded about 1190 at Acre, they took the monastic vows of poverty and chastity, but they also waged war against the infidel: their monasteries were barracks. This meld of incompatible ideals - personal austerity and military prowess - has inspired boys (and Boy Scouts) ever since. Understandably, it proved difficult to achieve in the peacetime conditions that were an almost unwanted byproduct of the Knights’ success .
In about 1229, the Teutonic Knights were redeployed from Palestine to the Baltic, where they took over the missionary work of two local organizations. What the they brought to this enterprise that their predecessors lacked was the wealth of endowments scattered throughout Europe (although concentrated in Germany), and an international prestige. Their yearly campaigns afforded a venue for aristocrats in search of glory. In 1391, Henry Bolingbroke spent nearly £5000 campaigning in Prussia, more like a sportsman on safari than the English king he would become.
In Palestine, the First Crusade (1096-9) met with the kind of lightning success that so often prefigures a very long war. By the Fourth Crusade (1204), the crusading spirit had been co-opted by opportunists of every stripe, and the Venetians, prominent among what we would call the service providers, persuaded the Western host to prey upon Constaninople instead. Richer, weaker, and more convenient than the original target, Egypt, Byzantium might be Christian but it did not recognize the Pope. Ironically, the last serious medieval crusade was promoted by the Duke of Burgundy after Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. The famously lavish Banquet du voeu at Lille the following year was, however, this crusade’s only beau geste.
What distinguished the Northern Crusade, and produced far more lasting effects, was the Teutonic Order’s vigorous colonization program. Following a pattern already venerable along the borders between German and Slavic lands, the Knights offered colonists attractive, feudal deals on wilderness lands. Every conquest was followed by the establishment of a town pursuant to German (Magdeburg) law. It’s worth noting Prussia, like the other so-called Crusader States, was run as a corporation. The Order, exercising sovereign power, replaced the dukes and bishops of settled Europe with elected officers – officers elected, that is, by the Knights – and the impersonal power of bureaucratic regulation. Finally, whereas the Palestinian Crusades remain famous for bringing silks and spices to Europe, the Baltic exported vital non-luxuries such as timber.
It would be incorrect to say that the Northern Crusade in Prussia fell victim to its own success. In 1386, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello acceded to the Polish crown as Ladislaus II and was converted to Christianity. With the inauguration of the ensuing Polish-Lithuanian alliance, the Teutonic Knights’ mission against heathens evaporated even as it lost its military edge. In the fifteenth century, the Prussian campaign was a matter of battles among Christians, and therefore something of a scandal. Increasingly prosperous burghers and junkers, no longer needing the Knights’ protection, were anxious to throw off their suzerainty, and in the last years of Knightly rule, Lutheran ideas gained popularity in the towns. Albrecht’s final act as Grand Master was initially outlined by Luther himself, at a meeting at Wittenberg in 1522. Diehards joined the burgeoning Hapsburg cause.
Prussia was one of two fronts in the Northern Crusade, the other being Livonia, beyond the swampy and unruly land of the Samogitians. (On today’s maps, Livonia is occupied by Estonia and Latvia, Samogitia by Lithuania, and Prussia by – careful, now – the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia.) Livonia, whose native population of Finns and Balts persisted as a majority, eventually fell to the emerging Russian state, and by 1525 the southern half of Prussia had been absorbed by Poland. The northern half, however, remained solidly German until the end of World War II, when more than a half million civilians perished in the Russian invasion, most remaining Germans being subsequently deported. There may be nothing German about the original Prussia any more, but at the end of the eighteenth century, Königsberg, famous for the puzzle of its seven bridges, was home to perhaps the greatest of all German philosophers, Immanuel Kant.
The history of Prussia, at least in outline, has this interest for Americans: it shows not only that Europeans had mastered the mechanics of colonization long before Columbus but also that their expansionist impulse was nothing new in 1492. We know now, of course, that Columbus was not the first European to reach the New World; that honor goes to the Vikings who spent a winter or two at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland five hundred years earlier. Leif Ericsson’s settlers, however, lacked the institutional resources that made Prussia viable - the charters, the companies, the recognition of Popes and princes – and so the colonization of Vinland was stillborn. The first attempt to settle Virginia, at Roanoke Island in 1585, was also abortive, but it was quickly followed up by the success at Jamestown in 1607 and, incidentally, on Bermuda, which boasts the oldest English-speaking Parliament outside of Europe, in 1609. What distinguished the New from the Old World was its distance over the Atlantic and its relatively merciless climate. Otherwise, it provided just the latest venue for a seasoned European practice.
The American historian, photographer, and traveler, James Charles Roy, has come out with a book that will interest anyone curious about Prussia, especially somebody like me who wants to get to the bottom of the myth called 'Prussia.' The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia (Westview Press, 1999) combines historical sketches of the distant past with an account of the author's travel throughout the former duchy, and concludes with intriguingly contrasted interviews with survivors of the devastation wrought by the Nazis (upon Jews and others) and the Russians (upon Germans and the landscape). Mr Roy writes in an admirably conversational style that perfectly suits the weaving together of such disparate materials.
A statue of Markgraf Albrecht stands in the outer courtyard of Marienburg Castle, a place he probably never set foot in [because it had been lost to the Knights, of which he was the last Grand Master, some years before]. A Russian bullet hole decorates his right breast, a kinder fate than other notables of the order, also immortalized in bronze, suffered when the Soviets stormed the place in 1945. ... Despite the mutilation, Albrecht still has an air of power and resolve about him, ill befitting a career in which he staggered from one crisis to another in sly and devious fashion. The most fundamental question about him revolves around motivation: Did he assume his new title to rescue the order or to subvert it entirely to his own family's ambitions? Given the religious and political chaos of the times and the dangers they presented, the truth of this matter will forever be obscure.
Although Prussia - East Prussia as it came to be called after the Elector Frederick I had himself crowned 'King In Prussia' in 1701 - is an unprepossessing stretch of marsh, forest, and flat farmland, it's very much on the way to livelier spots, and both Napoleon and Hitler launched their invasions of Russia from the province. Of Suwalki, now a town in northeastern Poland near the Lithuanian border, Mr Roy writes that in the early nineteenth century it was a coach stop on the way from Warsaw to St Petersburg, complete with a governor's mansion at which Russian nobles would be entertained en route to Europe. It had passed out of Prussia proper, centuries before, to Poland, and Poland, of course, had been gobbled up by its neighbors in three eighteenth-century bites. There is no way to write about any part of Prussia without registering the other sovereignties to which it has been attached; currently none of it belongs to Germany, even after the reunification of East and West. Mr Roy mentions a slew of half-baked schemes to sell the northern part (the Kaliningrad Oblast) back to Germany, and reports that the Poles are not happy about German investment in the southern, Polish, part. But the reappearance of Prussia on modern maps strikes me as awfully unlikely. I came away from Vanished Kingdom suspecting that even blacks and whites in the United States are more deeply bonded in American life than the Germans, the former masters in Prussia, and the Poles, their laboring serfs, have ever dreamed of being in their old corner of Europe. (March 2001)
Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press