The Baltic Crusades and Nationalist History

November 28, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on The Baltic Crusades and Nationalist History

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her book “Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History,” Margaret MacMillan warns readers about the threats posed by nationalism to the study and understanding of history. Nationalism, MacMillan argues, has a tendency to force history to fit the narrative of the nation. This argument has a rather sinister underpinning, bringing up thoughts of doctored photographs and expunged personalities. In truth however, most nationalistic tendencies on history are far less insidious, but nonetheless can be harmful if unchecked. A prime example of this comes from a series of wars that ended over 600 years ago: the Baltic Crusades. 

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For those not familiar, the Baltic Crusades was a series of wars undertaken in the Baltic Region of Europe (now encompassing Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) between the 12th and 15th Centuries. The crusades were called by the Catholic Church as a drive to convert and civilize the Baltic, then the last bastion of tribal paganism. Like most wars, the Baltic Crusades were complicated by a number socioeconomic factors, and the cause was as much economic as it was ideological. While the entire conflict is too complex to fit into a short article (I recommend “the Northern Crusades” by Eric Christiansen for those interested), the crusades left a legacy of forcible conversion, displacement, and colonization. 

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Among the actors in the Crusades, none have stirred more controversy than the Teutonic Order. Originating in the Holy Land, this German paramilitary order spearheaded many of the major expansions into the Baltic and eventually carved out a crusader-state for themselves in the conquered region. Being highly militaristic by nature, the Teutonic Order was controversial even during their own time; historical writings of the knights have ranged from praises of their valor to criticism of their aggression. At their height, the Teutonic State stretched along the Baltic Coast from parts of modern-day Poland all the way into Russia. After a major defeat by the combined Polish-Lithuanian army, and the willing conversion of Lithuania (the last independent Pagan state) to Christianity, the Order lost its momentum in the crusades. From that point on, the Teutonic State entered a period of stasis which eventually led to its decline and disappearance. 

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 So how do the Baltic Crusades tie into the earlier discussion of the problems of nationalist history writing? Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the legacy of the crusades, and particularly the Teutonic Knights, have stirred up quite a lot of nationalistic sentiment. In 1862, Heinrich von Treitschke, a prominent German historian, published an essay titled Treitschke’s Origins of Prussianism. A strong proponent of German nationalism, Treitschke’s essay (while well-researched admittedly) displayed a noticeable reverence of the Teutonic Knights. In short, Treitschke argued that the Teutonic Order was in a sense a forerunner for the eventual Prussian Empire of his time. More interestingly, Treitschke even denounced the less-than-flattering depictions of the knights as being tinged by “national hatred.” Less than a century later, the image of the Teutonic Knight would become a favorite Icon of Nazi party, particularly as the German army expanded eastwards into the Teutonic Order’s former territories. 

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The Teutonic Order was hardly a tool for just German nationalism; the Teutonic campaign into Eastern Europe sparked nationalistic movements in many nations. Under Polish nationalism, the Teutonic Knights were branded as hostile invaders. Joachim Lelewel, a prominent Polish historian and contemporary of Treitschke, described the Teutonic State as “an insult to both humanity and morality.” In 1900, Henryk Sienkiewics, a famous Polish writer, produced the Teutonic Knights, a historical novel that used the Baltic Crusades as a device to push for Polish nationalism. Even the U.S.S.R. found a use for the Teutonic Knights when they depicted them as the villains in the 1938 historical drama Alexander Nevsky, a movie that made parallels between the crusades and the heightened tensions of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich at the time.  

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 There is little doubt that the crusades and their actors have left a lasting impact on Central and Eastern Europe. It’s worth noting that national pride isn’t necessarily bad for a nation, and in many cases can be a uniting factor. When nationalism uses history for a narrative that divides rather than unites, problems tend to occur, as the troubles of the late 19th and early 20th Century will show. It’s for that reason that the Teutonic Order’s coat of arms, a black cross on a white field, invokes a very different reaction depending on who sees it. 


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