The Teutonic Order and Genocide in the Baltic

Written by Nathaniel Robinson. Edited by Bradley Bosson.

The Teutonic Order fuelled by a need to spread Catholicism through conquest has grown into an unrivalled military power on the shores of the Baltic. The Teutonic Order centres its attention on the destruction of Eastern European Paganism and the Orders religious fervour comes at a great cost to the lives of their Pagan and Orthodox neighbours, but even their fellow Catholics are not exempt. The Kingdom of Poland looks on with fear, concerned where the fervent expansion of the Order will take them. The Orthodox people of Novgorod, mindful of the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Order are also weary of its increasing power. The Holy Roman Empire meanwhile watches the Order’s actions like a proud parent, but the knights are forging their own great empire which may soon turn parent against son. It is the pagans of Lithuania, however, that feel the full force of the Order’s zeal and the sting of their swords as they face either conversion and slavery or extermination.

The Northern/Baltic Crusades is a term used to cover various crusades and military conflicts which were undertaken by the Christian kings of Denmark, Poland, Sweden, the German Livonian and Teutonic military orders, and their allies against the Pagan and Orthodox peoples around the shores of the Baltic Sea from the Second Crusade to the fifteenth century. The official starting point for the Northern Crusades was Pope Celestine III’s call in 1193; but Christian kingdoms in the region had already started to subjugate their Pagan neighbours as the Church had called for the complete destruction or conversion of the Pagans, and forbade making peace for tribute or payment.

The Northern Crusades provided a rationale for the growth and expansion of the Teutonic Order which had been founded in Outremer. Due to Muslim successes in the Holy Land, the Order sought new missions in Europe. Konrad I, the Polish Duke of Masovia, had unsuccessfully attempted to conquer Pagan Prussia. Konrad appealed to the Order to defend his borders and subdue the Baltic Pagans in 1226 and so the Teutonic Order relocated to Marienberg. After the subjugation of the Prussians and Livonian Order and its failed attempt to conquer and convert Orthodox Russia at the Battle of Ice in 1242, the Teutonic Knights turned their attention to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The King of Lithuania was baptised after his coronation in 1253 hoping that this would help stop the Crusaders’ attacks. It did not. The ensuing war between the Order and Lithuania would devastate Paganism in the Baltic. Documents state that men and women, young and old were killed indiscriminately during the campaign however the norm was arguably far worse, slavery. Most Pagans were taken into slavery, in particular women and children as men were killed to prevent possible insurgence in captivity. However, poor conditions and the deep snows of the Baltic meant that many prisoners never became slaves but were killed during transportation. The Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt writes how ‘The heathens were made to Suffer: Many were captured and in every case…They were led off, all tied up – Just like hunting dogs.’

Many assume the Pagan tribes were all victims of the crusading invaders and frequently compare the Baltic Crusades to the conquest of North America by Europeans. Controversially some historians have advanced an argument portraying the Lithuanians behaviour as no different from the Teutonic crusaders. They state that crusaders captured faced slavery, death by fire or other forms of martyrdom such as sacrifice to Pagan gods. They argue that when the Pagan tribes are viewed purely as victim’s history becomes distorted. The Baltic Crusades consisted of winners and losers, and many of the Pagan tribes were winners such as the Letts and Livs who increased their power through military and financial support from the Crusaders. The Pagan tribes had traditional enemies, and the arrival of the Crusaders provided another tool to use against them in their ongoing power struggle, and the tribes that capitalised on this opportunity fared well. As much as the Crusaders were spreading Christianity, the pagan tribes were using these Crusaders to defeat their rivals.

The Order’s failure to subdue Pagan Lithuania, which officially converted to Catholicism in 1386, meant the rationale for the order’s existence was threatened. But the Teutonic Order continued to pose a serious threat to surrounding countries. Poland, having originally requested the Knights to deal with Lithuania, regretted their decision, seeing the destruction brought by the Order. Wanting to right their wrong, war breaks out and a Polish-Lithuanian army finally defeated the Order in the decisive battle of Grunwald in 1410 and this was the beginning of a long decline for the Order.

The Teutonic Order and their legacy is still a controversial topic within the region today. There can be no doubt that genocide and atrocities occurred in the conflict, we must however be careful when attributing blame to a particular side and instead recognise that atrocities were committed by all sides. The Teutonic Order has largely become a symbol of a just cause and glory. In the modern world the memory of the Order was invoked by Hitler in his war against Eastern Europe in the Second World War. Therefore, the legacy of this chilling period of history can still be felt in the region today.