Formed at the end of the 12th century in Acre, Palestine, the medieval Order played an important role in Outremer, controlling the port tolls of Acre. After Christian forces were defeated in the Middle East, the Order moved to Transylvania in 1211 to help defend Hungary against the Cumans. They were expelled in 1225 after allegedly attempting to place themselves under Papal instead of Hungarian sovereignty.
Following the Golden Bull of Rimini, Grand Master Hermann von Salza and Duke Konrad I of Masovia made a joint invasion of Prussia in 1230 to Christianise the Baltic Old Prussians in the Northern Crusades. The knights were then accused of cheating Polish rule and creating an independent monastic state. The Order lost its main purpose in Europe, when the neighbouring country of Lithuania accepted Christianity. Once established in Prussia, the Order became involved in campaigns against its Christian neighbours, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Novgorod Republic (after assimilating the Livonian Order). The Teutonic Knights had a strong urban economy, hired mercenaries from throughout Europe to augment their feudal levies, and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea.
In 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order and broke its military power at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg). In 1515 at Vienna the emperor made marriage- inheritance arrangements with Sigismund I of Poland-Lithuania. Thereafter the empire failed to aid the Teutonic Order Grand Master against the same. Thus the Order steadily declined until 1525 when Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg resigned and converted to Lutheranism to become Duke of Prussia. The Grand Masters continued to preside over the Order's considerable holdings in Germany and elsewhere until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its dissolution and the Order lost its last secular holdings. The Order continued to exist, headed by Habsburgs through World War I and was outlawed by Hitler in 1938. After 1945 they resumed and today operates primarily with charitable aims in Central Europe.
The Knights wore white surcoats with a black cross. A cross pattée was sometimes used as their coat of arms; this image was later used for military decoration and insignia by the Kingdom of Prussia and Germany as the Iron Cross.
The full name of the Order in Latin is Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Ierosolimitanorum, or "Order of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem". Its corresponding name in German is Orden der Brüder vom Deutschen Haus St. Mariens in Jerusalem. It is commonly known in German as the Deutscher Orden, or "German Order".
In 1143 Pope Celestine II ordered the Knights Hospitaller to take over management of a German Hospital in Jerusalem, which, according to the chronicler Jean d’Ypres, accommodated the countless German pilgrims and crusaders who could neither speak the local tongue (i.e. French) nor Latin (patrie linguam ignorantibus atque Latinam). However, although formally an institution of the Hospitallers, the pope commanded that the prior and the brothers of the domus Teutonicorum (house of the Germans) should always be Germans themselves, so a tradition of a German-led religious institution could develop during the 12th century in Palestine.
After the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, some merchants from Lübeck and Bremen took up the idea and founded a field hospital for the duration of the siege of Acre in 1190, which became the nucleus of the order; Celestine III recognized it in 1192 by granting the monks Augustinian Rule. Based on the model of the Knights Templar it was, however, transformed into a military order in 1198 and the head of the order became known as the Grand Master (magister hospitalis). It received Papal orders for crusades to take and hold Jerusalem for Latin Christianity and defend the Holy Land against the Muslim Saracens. During the rule of Grand Master Hermann von Salza (1209-1239) the Order changed from being a hospice brotherhood for pilgrims to primarily a military order.
Originally based in Acre, the Knights purchased Montfort (Starkenberg), northeast of Acre, in 1220. This castle, which defended the route between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea, was made the seat of the Grand Masters in 1229, although they returned to Acre after losing Montfort to Muslim control in 1271. The Order also had a castle near Tarsus in Armenia Minor. The Order received donations of land in the Holy Roman Empire (especially in present-day Germany and Italy), Greece, and Palestine.
Emperor Frederick II elevated his close friend Hermann von Salza to the status of Reichsfürst, or "Prince of the Empire", enabling the Grand Master to negotiate with other senior princes as an equal. During Frederick's coronation as King of Jerusalem in 1225, Teutonic Knights served as his escort in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; von Salza read the emperor's proclamation in both French and German. However, the Teutonic Knights were never as influential in Outremer as the older Templars and Hospitallers.
In 1211, Andrew II of Hungary accepted their services and granted them the district of Burzenland in Transylvania. Andrew had been involved in negotiations for the marriage of his daughter with the son of Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, whose vassals included the family of Hermann von Salza. Led by a brother called Theoderich, the Order defended Hungary against the neighbouring Cumans and settled new German colonists among those who were known as the Transylvanian Saxons, living there before. In 1224 the Knights petitioned Pope Honorius III to be placed directly under the authority of the Papal See, rather than that of the King of Hungary. Angered and alarmed at their growing power, Andrew responded by expelling them in 1225, although he allowed the new colonists to remain.
In 1226, Konrad I, Duke of Masovia in west-central Poland, appealed to the Knights to defend his borders and subdue the pagan Baltic Prussians, allowing the Teutonic Knights use of Chełmno Land (Culmerland) as a base for their campaign. This being a time of widespread crusading fervor throughout Western Europe, Hermann von Salza considered Prussia a good training ground for his knights for the wars against the Muslims in Outremer. With the Golden Bull of Rimini, Emperor Frederick II bestowed on the Order a special imperial privilege for the conquest and possession of Prussia, including Chełmno Land, with nominal papal sovereignty. In 1235 the Teutonic Knights assimilated the smaller Order of Dobrzyń, which had been established earlier by Konrad.
The conquest of Prussia was accomplished with much bloodshed over more than 50 years, during which native Prussians who remained unbaptised were subjugated, killed, or exiled. Fighting between the Knights and the Prussians was ferocious; chronicles of the Order state the Prussians would "roast captured brethren alive in their armour, like chestnuts, before the shrine of a local god".
The native nobility which submitted to the crusaders had many of their privileges affirmed in the Treaty of Christburg. After the Prussian uprisings of 1260-83, however, much of the Prussian nobility emigrated or were resettled, and many free Prussians lost their rights. The Prussian nobility which remained were more closely allied with the German landowners and gradually assimilated. Peasants in frontier regions, such as Samland, had more privileges than those in more populated lands, such as Pomesania. The crusading knights often accepted baptism as a form of submission by the natives. Christianity along western lines slowly spread through Prussian culture. Bishops were reluctant to have Prussian religious practices integrated into the new faith, while the ruling knights found it easier to govern the natives when they were semi-pagan and lawless.
The Order ruled Prussia under charters issued by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as a sovereign monastic state, comparable to the arrangement of the Knights Hospitallers in Rhodes and later in Malta.
To make up for losses from the plague and to replace the partially exterminated native population, the Order encouraged the immigration of colonists from the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (mostly Germans, Flemish, and Dutch) and from Masovia (Poles), the later Masurians). The colonists included nobles, burghers, and peasants, and the surviving Old Prussians were gradually assimilated through Germanization. The settlers founded numerous towns and cities on former Prussian settlements. The Order itself built a number of castles (Ordensburgen) from which it could defeat uprisings of Old Prussians, as well as continue its attacks on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, with which the Order was often at war during the 14th and 15th centuries. Major towns founded by the Order included Königsberg, founded in 1255 in honor of King Otakar II of Bohemia on the site of a destroyed Prussian settlement, Allenstein (Olsztyn), Elbing (Elbląg), and Memel (Klaipėda).
In 1236 the Knights of St Thomas, an English order, adopted the rules of the Teutonic Order. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword were absorbed by the Teutonic Knights in 1237; the Livonian branch subsequently became known as the Livonian Order. The Teutonic Order's nominal territorial rule extended over Prussia, Livonia, Semigalia, and Estonia. Its next aim was to convert Orthodox Russia to Roman Catholicism, but after the knights suffered a disastrous defeat in the Battle on Lake Peipus (1242) at the hands of Prince Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod, this plan had to be abandoned. A detachment of Teutonic Knights allegedly participated in the 1241 Battle of Legnica against the Mongols.
In 1242, the Teutonic Knights invaded the Republic of Novgorod (in modern-day Russia), but were defeated at Lake Peipus and pushed back by the forces of Russian prince Alexander Nevsky. This battle is known in Russia as the Battle of the Ice.
The Teutonic Knights began to direct their campaigns against pagan Lithuania (see Lithuanian mythology), especially after the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at Acre in 1291. The knights moved their headquarters to Venice, from which they planned the recovery of Outremer. Because "Lithuania Propria" remained non-Christian until the end of the 14th century, much later than the rest of eastern Europe, many knights from western European countries, such as England and France, journeyed to Prussia to participate in the seasonal campaigns (reyse) against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some of them campaigned against pagans to obtain remission for their sins, while others fought to gain military experience.
Warfare between the Order and the Lithuanians was especially brutal. Non-Christians were seen as lacking rights possessed by Christians. Because enslavement of non-Christians was seen as acceptable at the time and the subdued native Prussians demanded land or payment, the Knights often used captured pagan Lithuanians for forced labor. The contemporary Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt described treatment he witnessed of pagans by the Knights:
"Women and children were taken captive; What a jolly medley could be seen: Many a woman could be seen, Two children tied to her body, One behind and one in front; On a horse without spurs Barefoot had they ridden here; The heathens were made to suffer: Many were captured and in every case, Were their hands tied together They were led off, all tied up — Just like hunting dogs".
The Order, under Prussian Landmeister Heinrich von Plötzke, evicted the Brandenburgers from Danzig in September 1308. Von Plötzke presented Władysław with a bill for 10,000 marks of silver for the Order's help, but the Polish duke was only willing to offer 300 marks. After this refusal, the Teutonic Knights occupied the entirety of Danzig, increasing discontent in the city. The following month the knights suppressed an uprising with a highly disputed amount of bloodshed, especially of the German merchants in the city. In the Treaty of Soldin, the Teutonic Order purchased Brandenburg's claims to the castles of Danzig, Schwetz (Świecie), and Dirschau (Tczew) and their hinterlands from the margraves for 10,000 marks on 13 September 1309.
Control of Pomerelia allowed the Order to connect their monastic state with the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading reinforcements and supplies were able to travel from the Imperial territory of Hither Pomerania through Pomerelia to Prussia, while Poland's access to the Baltic Sea, was blocked. While Poland had mostly been an ally of the knights against the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, the capture of Pomerelia turned the kingdom into a determined enemy of the Order.
The capture of Danzig marked a new phase in the history of the Teutonic Knights. The persecution and abolition of the powerful Knights Templar which began in 1307 worried the Teutonic Knights, but control of Pomerelia allowed them to move their headquarters in 1309 from Venice to Marienburg (Malbork) on the Nogat River, outside of the reach of secular powers. The position of Prussian Landmeister was merged with that of the Grand Master. The Pope began investigating misconduct by the knights, but the Order was defended by able jurists. Along with the campaigns against the Lithuanians, the knights faced a vengeful Poland and legal threats from the Papacy.
In 1337 Emperor Louis IV allegedly granted the Order the imperial privilege to conquer all Lithuania and Russia. During the reign of Grand Master Winrich von Kniprode (1351-1382), the Order reached the peak of its international prestige and hosted numerous European crusaders and nobility.
King Albert of Sweden ceded Gotland to the Order as a pledge (similar to a fiefdom), with the understanding that they would eliminate the pirating Victual Brothers from this strategic island base in the Baltic Sea. An invasion force under Grand Master Konrad von Jungingen conquered the island in 1398 and drove the Victual Brothers out of Gotland and the Baltic Sea.
In 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania was baptised into Roman Catholic Christianity and married Queen Jadwiga of Poland, taking the name Władysław II Jagiełło and becoming King of Poland. This created a personal union between the two countries and a potentially formidable opponent for the Teutonic Knights. The Order initially managed to play Jagiello and his cousin Vytautas against each other, but this strategy failed when Vytautas began to suspect that the Order was planning to annex parts of his territory.
The baptism of Jagiello began the official conversion of Lithuania to Christianity. Although the crusading rationale for the Order's state ended when Prussia and Lithuania had become officially Christian, the Order's feuds and wars with Lithuania and Poland continued. The Lizard Union was created in 1397 by Prussian nobles in Culmerland to oppose the Order's policy.
In 1407 the Teutonic Order had reached its greatest territorial extent and included the lands of Prussia, Pomerelia, Samogitia, Courland, Livonia, Estonia, Gotland, Dagö, Ösel, and the Neumark, pawned by Brandenburg in 1402.
In 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald (also known as the Battle of Tannenberg), a combined Polish-Lithuanian army, led by Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas, decisively defeated the Order in the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and most of the Order's higher dignitaries fell on the battlefield (50 out of 60). The Polish-Lithuanian army then besieged the capital of the Order, Marienburg, but was unable to take it owing to the resistance of Heinrich von Plauen. When the First Peace of Thorn was signed in 1411, the Order managed to retain essentially all of its territories, although the Knights' reputation as invincible warriors was irreparably damaged.
While Poland and Lithuania were growing in power, that of the Teutonic Knights dwindled through infighting. They were forced to impose high taxes in order to pay a substantial indemnity but did not give the cities sufficient requested representation in the administration of their state. The authoritarian and reforming Grand Master Heinrich von Plauen was forced from power and replaced by Michael Küchmeister von Sternberg, but the new Grand Master was unable to revive the Order's fortunes. After the Gollub War the Knights lost some small border regions and renounced all claims to Samogitia in the 1422 Treaty of Melno. Austrian and Bavarian knights feuded with those from the Rhineland, who likewise bickered with Low German-speaking Saxons, from whose ranks the Grand Master was usually chosen. The western Prussian lands of the Vistula River Valley and the Brandenburg Neumark were ravaged by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars. Some Teutonic Knights were sent to battle the invaders, but were defeated by the Bohemian infantry. The Knights also sustained a defeat in the Polish-Teutonic War (1431-1435).
In 1454 the Prussian Confederation, consisting of the gentry and burghers of western Prussia, rose up against the Order, beginning the Thirteen Years' War. Much of Prussia was devastated in the war, during the course of which the Order returned Neumark to Brandenburg in 1455. In the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), the defeated Order recognized the Polish crown's rights over western Prussia (subsequently Royal Prussia) while retaining eastern Prussia under nominal Polish overlordship. Because Marienburg Castle was handed over to mercenaries in lie of their pay, the Order moved its base to Königsberg in Sambia.
The Order was completely ousted from Prussia when Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg, after another unsuccessful war with Poland, converted to Lutheranism in 1525, secularized the Order's remaining Prussian territories, and assumed from King Sigismund I the Old of Poland, his uncle, the hereditary rights to the Duchy of Prussia as a vassal of the Polish Crown in the Prussian Homage. The Protestant Duchy of Prussia was thus a fief of Catholic Poland.
Although it had lost control of all of its Prussian lands, the Teutonic Order retained its territories within the Holy Roman Empire and Livonia, although the Livonian branch retained considerable autonomy. Many of the Imperial possessions were ruined in the Peasants' War from 1524-1525 and subsequently confiscated by Protestant territorial princes. The Livonian territory was then partitioned by neighboring powers during the Livonian War; in 1561 the Livonian Master Gotthard Kettler secularized the southern Livonian possessions of the Order to create the Duchy of Courland, also a vassal of Poland.
After the loss of Prussia in 1525, the Teutonic Knights concentrated on their possessions in the Holy Roman Empire. Since they held no contiguous territory, they developed a three-tiered administrative system: holdings were combined into commanderies which were administered by a commander (Komtur). Several commanderies were combined to form a bailiwick headed by a Landkomtur. All of the Teutonic Knights' possessions were subordinate to the Grand Master whose seat was in Bad Mergentheim. Altogether there were twelve German bailiwicks: Thuringia, Alden Biesen (in present-day Belgium), Hesse, Saxony, Westphalia, Franconia, Koblenz, Alsace-Burgundy, An der Etsch und im Gebirge (Tyrol), Utrecht, Lorraine, and Austria. Outside of German areas were the bailiwicks of Sicily, Apulia, Lombardy, Bohemia, "Romania" (Greece), and Armenia-Cyprus. The Order gradually lost control of these holdings until, by 1810, only the bailiwicks in Tyrol and Austria remained.
Following the abdication of Albert of Brandenburg, Walter von Cronberg became Deutschmeister in 1527, became Administrator of Prussia and Grand Master in 1530. Emperor Charles V combined the two positions in 1531, creating the title Hoch- und Deutschmeister, which also had the rank of Prince of the Empire. A new Grand Magistery was established in Mergentheim in Württemberg, which was attacked during the Peasants' War. The Order also helped Charles V against the Schmalkaldic League. After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, membership in the Order was open to Protestants, although the majority of brothers remained Catholic. The Teutonic Knights now were tri-denominational, and there were Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed bailiwicks.
The Grand Masters, often members of the great German families (and, after 1761, members of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine), continued to preside over the Order's considerable holdings in Germany. Teutonic Knights from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia were used as battlefield commanders leading mercenaries for the Habsburg Monarchy during the Ottoman wars in Europe. The military history of the Teutonic Knights ended in 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered their dissolution and the Order lost its remaining secular holdings to Napoleon's vassals and allies.
The Order continued to exist in Austria, out of Napoleon's reach. Beginning in 1804 it was headed by members of the Habsburg dynasty until the 1923 resignation of the Grand Master, Archduke Eugen of Austria.
In 1929 the Teutonic Knights were converted to a purely spiritual Roman Catholic religious order and were renamed Deutscher Orden ("German Order"). After Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany, the Teutonic Order was suppressed throughout the Großdeutsches Reich from 1938-1945, although the Nazis used imagery of the medieval Teutonic Knights for propaganda purposes. The Order survived in Italy, however, and was reconstituted in Germany and Austria in 1945.
By the end of the 1990s, the Order had developed into a charitable organization and incorporated numerous clinics. It sponsors excavation and tourism projects in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 2000 the German chapter of the Teutonic Order declared insolvency, and its upper management was dismissed. A 2002-03 investigation by a special committee of the Bavarian parliament was inconclusive.
The Order currently consists of approximately 1,000 members, including 100 Roman Catholic priests, 200 nuns, and 700 associates. While the priests are organized into six provinces (Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia) and predominantly provide spiritual guidance, the nuns primarily care for the ill and the aged. Associates are active in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Italy. Many of the priests care for German-speaking communities outside of Germany and Austria, especially in Italy and Slovenia; in this sense the Teutonic Order has returned to its 12th century roots — the spiritual and physical care of Germans in foreign lands. The current General Abbot of the Order, who also holds the title of Grand Master, is Bruno Platter. The current seat of the Grand Master is the Deutschordenskirche in Vienna. Near the Stephansdom in the Austrian capital is the Treasury of the Teutonic Order which is open to the public, and the order's Central Archive. Since 1996 there has also been a museum dedicated to the Teutonic Knights at their former castle in Bad Mergentheim in Germany, which was the seat of the Grand Master from 1525-1809.
German nationalism often invoked the imagery of the Teutonic Knights, especially in the context of territorial conquest from eastern neighbours of Germany and conflict with nations of Slavic origins, who were considered by German nationalists to be of lower development and of inferior culture. The German historian Heinrich von Treitschke used imagery of the Teutonic Knights to promote pro-German and anti-Polish rhetoric. Such imagery and symbols were adopted by many middle-class Germans who supported German nationalism. During the Weimar Republic, associations and organisations of this nature contributed to laying the groundwork for the formation of Nazi Germany. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany posed for a photo in 1902 in the garb of a monk from the Teutonic Order, climbing up the stairs in the reconstructed Marienburg Castle as a symbol of the German Empire's policy. During World War II, Nazi propaganda and ideology made frequent use of the Teutonic Knights' imagery, as the Nazis sought to depict the Knights' actions as a forerunner of the Nazi conquests for Lebensraum. Heinrich Himmler tried to idealize the SS as a 20th century incarnation of the medieval knights.