Teutonic Knights have such a compelling history…their story has all the makings of a great mini-series. In its first 200 years, the Teutonic Order was invincible. Its heavy cavalry of ordained Catholic monks, clad in white surcoats with black crosses, numbered some 3000 men. They were the best in Europe and formed the core of an outstanding larger military machine. Sworn to serve God, they gave up all worldly goods upon joining and lived a celibate and modest life. Food was basic and meals were eaten in total silence. Prayer was frequent as was training in military arts. Unlike the Templar Knights who were murdered and robbed by their French King, these Teutonic Knights were helped by their German Emperor. The Teutonic Knights and their descendants, the Baltic Germans, prospered for 700 years in north eastern Europe.
The German Order of Teutonic Knights was established in 1190, during the Third Crusade which was led by the German Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa) and which included King Richard I (Lionheart) of England, and King Philip II of France. During the siege of Acre in the Holy Land, a German hospital for injured crusaders and pilgrims was established by donations from wealthy German crusaders from Bremen and Lubeck and supported by Duke Frederick Hohenstaufen of Schwabia (son of Frederick Barbarossa).
Duke Frederick, in the name of both the Pope and the Emperor, was appointed the first Grand Master of the Hospital Order. After this humble beginning a close link arose between the hospital institution and the German Holy Roman Empire. The Order developed into a dual purpose organization…to care for the sick and injured and to fight as a crusading military order.
Eight years later, in 1198, the Order of Teutonic Knights received the Bull “Roman Sacrosanct” by Pope Innocent III, the official confirmation of the new order. It was decreed that the Order obey both the Pope and the German Emperor. The Order stayed in the Holy Land for another 100 years but simultaneously also began a 200 year long “Northern Crusade” in northeastern Europe. In the process they established their own government, the powerful Monastic State of the Teutonic Order, situated all along the Baltic Sea.
The Monastic State was a meritocracy, a government outside the boundaries of the German Holy Roman Empire, administered by a core group of roughly 3000 ordained priests and warrior monks. Grandmasters, who were equivalent to a head of state, were voted into office by a panel of 13 representatives of the whole organization: 9 from the knights and 4 from the lower ranks. Grandmasters were thus elected based upon their merit, resulting in a leadership that was sophisticated in governance and military prowess. The Teutonic Knights’ entire leadership group was sworn to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, thus avoiding the usual intrigues of royal succession and the risk of weak leadership. Attrition was no problem because the fame of the Order ensured a steady flow of new leaders from noble families of the Empire. As a result of all these factors combined, the Teutonic Knights were usually victorious in battle and considered the best armed force in Europe.
The Teutonic Order also built castles, among them the largest brick fortress in the world, the Marienburg Castle in Prussia. They built large cities, among them Königsberg (Prussia), Riga (Latvia), Memel (Klaipeda, Lithuania), Reval (Talinn, Estonia) and Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). They also drained marshes and created an agricultural breadbasket for Europe and controlled trade of all types in conjunction with the Hanseatic League. German colonists were recruited to populate the wilderness and build up the economy. For a least 200 years the Teutonic Order fought continuous brutal battles every year, assisted by temporary volunteer crusaders and mercenaries from all over Germany and Europe. The Teutonic Grandmasters sent out recruiters who had no problem finding temporary crusaders from the German Empire, England, France, Scotland, Italy and others places. The volunteers were either faithful Christians or men who fought for personal glory and the forgiveness of sins, or a combination of all three. Grandmasters conducted their main crusades each year in the dead of winter, using frozen rivers as highways, until all Baltic pagan populations were converted to Christianity.
The vast Teutonic Baltic States government lasted 300 years, always gaining more power until reaching their high point after 200 years. To appreciate how long this was, compare it to the USA’s first 200 years, 1789 to 1989. As a side note, there are other similarities to US history, like warfare against the indigenous pagans, colonizing by Europeans, and building cities and farming estates in the wilderness.
By 1400, with their crusader mission successfully completed, the Teutonic State began to gradually diminish. In 1525, Grandmaster Albrecht von Hohenzollern dissolved the Monastic State, converted to Lutheranism and secularized his remaining territory as the Duchy of Prussia.
The groundwork was thus set for the future Kingdom of Prussia, which in turn was to play the pivotal role in creating modern Germany. A Prussian led effort to re-unite all German Kingdoms, Duchies, and Free Cities into one new Empire succeeded in 1871 and modern Germany was born.