We’ve all heard of the Knights Templar and maybe the Knights Hospitaller – but there were other equally fearsome orders of knights in the Middle Ages fighting in the Crusades. Step forward the Teutonic Knights – scourge of north east Europe.
Why north east Europe? You might ask! Well, incredible though it may seem – some areas of what we call the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) had not converted to Christianity by the 13th century. And of course in medieval Europe, not accepting Christ was a serious and deathly matter.
With the blessing of the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire (the Germanic kingdom that ruled most of central Europe), the Teutonic Knights charged into the Baltics to bring the Catholic faith on the point of a sword. This crusade of Christian against pagans carried on until 1387 – well after the Knights Templar had been crushed in 1307.
The insignia of the order was a black cross on a white background. That distinctive design would form the basis centuries later for Germany’s Iron Cross.
Interestingly, the order managed to carve out its own state state, which by the year 1410 was vast. It covered the modern Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as well as parts of Russia, Poland and even Sweden. One of the conspiracy theories about the fall of the Knights Templar is that they were seeking to establish their own independent state – possibly based within the borders of France. The fact the Teutonic knights managed to carve out their own territory might seem to lend credence to this theory.
Their state eventually formed the basis for the Kingdom of Prussia and the Protestant Reformation saw the order lose its final lands. But the memory of a German military presence on the border of Russia proved to have massive resonance in the 1930s as I detail below.
The Teutonic Knights continued as a Catholic religious association ditching its armour from the 16th century onwards. In the 20th century, its imagery was increasingly appropriated by German nationalists and of course – the Nazis. In one poster, Adolf Hitler appeared in the garb of a Teutonic Knight. Before him, the Kaiser of Germany posed in Teutonic armour!
But – while Hitler and Himmler dreamt of recreating an Arthurian Camelot from the SS and indulged in crusader mythology, they had no time for the real Teutonic Knights association. The descendants of the knights were disbanded in 1938 because Hitler had an intense suspicion of organisations linked to the Vatican. Anything the Nazis couldn’t control – couldn’t exist. This was, after all, a totalitarian state.
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The Soviet Union also found a way to use Teutonic Knight imagery. In an incredibly powerful movie – Alexander Nevsky – the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein depicted the heroic struggle of Russia against the encroaching Teutonic Knights. Everybody would have been aware that the reference was to the growing power of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
There is an incredible scene in this Stalin-era propaganda movie where the Russians and Teutonic Knights square off against each other in what was called The Battle of the Ice. It’s a chilling watch – pardon the pun. And with a stirring music score by the composer Sergei Prokofiev. Ironically, Stalin – the Soviet dictator – pulled the film at the last minute because he wanted to open negotiations with Hitler.