by Michael Durnan
In the summer of 1991 I spent two weeks touring Poland. One of the most impressive places on my sightseeing itinerary was the medieval castle of Malbork located in Pomerania east of Gdansk on the River Nogat. This massive building is the largest castle by surface area in the world and the largest building made of brick in Europe. Why was this massive fortress constructed and by whom?
Malbork castle was built on the orders of the Teutonic Knights, or to give them their full and proper title, the ‘Order of Brothers of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem.’ (In German, ‘Orden der Bruder vom Deutschen Haus St. Mariens in Jerusalem.’)
The Knights were one of the military religious orders established in Catholic Europe during medieval times. Other leading military religious orders of the time included the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallers of St. John.
The Teutonic Knights, and the other military religious orders, were founded to give aid, assistance, and protection to Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, as well to establish and run hospitals.
The German Travelers in the Holy Land
They were founded at the end of the 12th century in Acre, in the Holy Land, or as that region was known, the Levant. The Order’s origins go back to the year 1143 when Pope Celestine II ordered the Knights Hospitaller of St. John to take over the running and management of a hospital that accommodated countless German-speaking pilgrims and crusaders who spoke neither the local language, nor Old French, nor Latin.
Although the hospital belonged to the Knights Hospitaller, the pope commanded that the Prior and the brothers of the Domus Theutonicorum, (‘House of Germans’) always should be German speakers. Thus the tradition of a German-led institution was established in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
After the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, some merchants from Lubeck and Bremen took up the idea of a field hospital during the siege of Acre. This field hospital became the nucleus of the future Order formally recognized in 1192 by Pope Celestine III.
Becoming a Military Order
At first its brothers followed the Augustinian Rule, but in 1198 it developed into a fully-fledged military religious order based on the Knights Templar, with its head known as the ‘Grand Master.’ The Order was granted papal orders to participate in crusades to retake Jerusalem as well as to defend the Holy Land from attacks by Muslim Saracens. Under Grand Master Hermann von Salza, the order made the final transition from being a hospice brotherhood for pilgrims to being primarily a military order.
Emperor Frederick II raised his friend, von Salza, to the rank of Reichfurst, or Prince of the Empire. When Frederick was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1225, the Teutonic Knights provided his escort in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In spite of this honour and recognition, the Teutonic Knights never became as influential in the Holy Land as the Templars and the Hospitallers. Events nearer home would provide a new crusade and role for the Teutonic Knights and would shift their focus to the Baltic and Eastern Europe.
The Knights in the Baltic
This new opportunity came in 1226 in north-eastern Poland, when Duke of Masovia, Konrad I, appealed to the Knights for military assistance to defend his borders from attack and to subdue the pagan Baltic Prussians. During the next fifty years the Teutonic Knights engaged in a fierce and bloody crusade to conquer Prussia and to subjugate, kill, or expel any native Prussians who remained unbaptized. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor issued charters granting the knights Prussia as a sovereign monastic state, similar to that of the Knights Hospitallers on Malta.
The Knights encouraged immigration from the Holy Roman Empire to boost the population, which had been reduced severely by the war. The settlers established new towns on the site of Old Prussian ones and the knights built several castles from which they could defend attacks by Old Prussians.
Having conquered Prussia, the Knights turned their attention to pagan Lithuania, and it took 200 years before they conquered and converted Lithuania to Christianity. Other conquests included the city of Danzig, (in Polish, ‘Gdansk’) and the region of Pomeralia along the Baltic which provided a land bridge to the Holy Roman Empire. The capture of Danzig in 1307 marked a new phase in the Knights’ development, and it was after this they moved their headquarters from Venice to Malbork Castle.
The Decline Sets In
In 1410, after the Knights were defeated at the Battle of Grunewald by a combined Polish-Lithuanian army, the Teutonic Order went into decline, losing lands, military strength, and power. Eventually the Teutonic Order was expelled from Prussia after a war with Poland and Lithuania. In 1525 Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg converted to Lutheranism and secularized the remaining Prussian territories. The Teutonic Order suffered further losses of its lands that remained in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1555, after the Peace of Ausberg, the Teutonic Order allowed its first Lutheran members, though it still remained largely Catholic.
The military history of the Teutonic Knights ended in 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its dissolution, giving its secular holdings to his own vassals and allies. The Knights continued to exist in Austria, out of Napoleon’s grasp. In 1929 the Order was transformed into a purely spiritual Catholic religious order and renamed the Deutscher Orden, or German Order.
Teutonic Knights in Modern Times
Hitler was not a fan of the Knights. After Austria’s annexation by the Nazis in 1938, the Order was suppressed throughout his Greater German Reich, although it continued to function in Italy. With the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the Order was reconstituted in Austria and Germany.
The Teutonic Knights are divided into three branches, one Catholic and two Protestant. The Protestant branches are based in Utrecht, The Netherlands and in Brandenburg, Germany. The Catholic branch of the Teutonic Knights now includes 1,000 associates, including 100 priests, 200 nuns, and 700 associates, with the priests providing spiritual guidance and the nuns caring for the sick and aged. The associates are active in Belgium, Austria, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
Many of the Order’s priests provide pastoral care for German speakers outside of German-speaking lands, especially in Italy and Slovenia. In this way the Teutonic Order has returned to its original spiritual roots of providing aid and assistance to German speakers outside of their homelands.