The Livonian Crusade succeeded where the crusade to the Holy Land had failed; though the two crusades shared several similarities, the most important was that both were expansive in their early years and evolved into defensive wars with significant periods of peace between conflicts. Prussia and Spain were different from both in that the crusaders there settled peasants and burghers in the conquered areas, so that ultimately the immigrants merged with the conquered peoples to form a new nation; meanwhile, the colonists took upon themselves a significant part of the burden of defending themselves. Livonia and the Holy Land had small groups of nobles, military orders, and mercantile settlements on the coast attempting to protect a long frontier with the lukewarm help of native subjects. The success of the Livonian crusading endeavor can be laid partly to the peculiar geography and history of the land, in that defensible frontiers existed and that many natives had a genuine fear of their powerful pagan and Russian Orthodox neighbors, and partly to the crusader state in Prussia, whence reinforcements could be drawn in moments of need. The Holy Land lacked these advantages, so that not even the great crusades sent out from France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and Italy could defend a vulnerable frontier against a strong and united foe; Byzantium, which should have been the Christian bastion comparable to Prussia, was never sufficiently strengthened by crusader armies, and it was at last fatally weakened by Christian and Moslem neighbors much in the way that Prussia was worn down by Poland and Lithuania.

 The Germans who came to rule the several states in Livonia could not long rely on military help from the Holy Roman Empire. Their new homeland was defended by a religious-military order which not only failed to command dependable support from German political rulers and the papacy, but in fact was often opposed by the leaders of Christendom. Lacking outside help except from Prussia, the Livonian Order had to rely upon good organization, careful management of resources, strong discipline, and mastery of the techniques of warfare best suited to the climate, the nature of the land, and the times.

    The knights of the Livonian Order had their faults, grievous ones. There was inefficiency and corruption, even division and treason. But for the most part their officers were as good as the average secular ruler, and whenever the order grew moribund, the membership periodically submitted to reforms that revived it. If any lesson is to be drawn from this history, it is that given by the masters, in that the castellans, advocates, and simple knights responded to the quality of leadership those officers provided. When the masters were good men, the organization, the morale, and the behavior of the membership reflected it; when they were lax or evil men, so were their followers.[1] It might be argued that the leaders reflected their men, because the highest office was elective, but the masters were always chosen from a small group of important officials, men who had been associated with the most corrupt individuals in the order; as junior officers, they could not have hoped to rise in office if they refused to obey orders; and once they had attained the mastership, they had to work with the human material on hand. Never does a reformer appear unexpectedly out of the ranks or from abroad; yet they appeared. The conclusion must be that even corrupt individuals realized the wisdom of maintaining discipline, moral behavior and piety; therefore, they had to select reasonably good men for the highest offices, even if those individuals might propose reforms that would inconvenience many officers, priests, knights and sergeants. This being the circumstance, we should be cautious about sweeping statements concerning the morality of the Livonian Knights. The tendency toward corruption and the desire for reform were apparently present at all times (and perhaps simultaneously in any one individual); time and fortune made first one, then the other dominant. Personality and character, added to experience and necessity, determined how each officer acted during his term of office.[2]

     Any man who seeks public office and desires to exercise great power is not a normal person in the sense that he can be expected to behave like other, less ambitious people when he is confronted with crises that threaten to rob him of that authority he has devoted his life to acquiring. While the hereditary monarch was occasional idle, indifferent to his duties, and willing to renounce his responsibilities, the man who earned office by a combination of industry, intelligence, flattery, corruption, back‑biting, and family influence rarely abdicated his office while still young and healthy. This is even more the case when he has worked his way up a corporate ladder where bureaucratic infighting allows one to shuffle underlings into influential posts, to trade favors with other powerful men, and where an inadvertent misstep can be ruinous. In this atmosphere not only strong men come to the top, but also fawning and weak characters; and sometimes shallow personalities are thrust into the seat of power. No man ever gave more to the acquisition of power than did the average officer of the Livonian Order: he sacrificed his youth, some of his family’s wealth, his health and comfort, his desires for family and children, and gave over his whole existence to his office. This had advantages and drawbacks.

     The exercise of power changes men. Some become better; some become worse. The task of choosing a leader is always a gamble. The risk can be reduced, as the Teutonic Order sought to do, by giving individuals authority at lower levels and observing their performance, then establishing an election process that allowed many members to express their feelings about the qualifications of the candidates. But the number of candidates in any organization is limited, because only a few dozen personalities can be widely known at one time; and each man is such a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses that often a choice is difficult. No matter what system of selection is chosen, there will be mistakes.

     The knights, sergeants and priests of the Livonian Order made mistakes in their choice of leaders. In the appointment of lesser officers, the number of bad choices must have been great indeed, requiring the masters to weed these out later. Nevertheless, when one considers the tasks which faced the men who held offices in the military order, one is struck not so much by those who failed to measure up to their responsibilities as by the success they had in winning the confidence and trust of their subordinates, their peers, and, from time to time, the estates of the Livonian Confederation. The masters became accepted as mediators, allies, rulers. Primus inter pares in the Livonian constitutional system, they allowed extensive self‑government and freedom—more than was to be found after the dissolution of the military order in 1562. Never was an acceptable alternative available for the defense and governing of Livonia.[3]

     This was true even as the military order became a repository for unneeded extra sons of the minor nobility. This may have been welfare for the upper classes, but it did provide administrators and officers who would otherwise not have been willing to live in the Baltic on the wages being offered. There were immigrants coming from the Holy Roman Empire, especially from Westphalia, but their interest was in owning estates and commerce, not in warfare.[4]

     In these terms, then, the Livonian Crusade was a success. For two and a half centuries the Livonian Knights fulfilled their responsibility to defend, to govern, and to assist the prelates in Christianizing their lands. Its failures were temporary and fleeting compared to its triumphs. It kept its faith, performed its duties, and maintained its ideals to the last moment that such a religious endeavor could be sustained. It did so with considerable honor.

     It also contributed to the conversion of the Lithuanians to Roman Catholicism, though the acceptance of Christianity did not occur at the time or in the way that the crusaders planned. It can be forcefully argued that the military campaigns slowed a process that would have occurred in any case, but one can also argue that the Lithuanians came to see that adopting the western religion was the best way to convert Roman Catholic crusaders into allies.[5] Personal opinions may differ regarding this even as public opinion shifts back and forth on the question of using armed force to achieve any political or moral goal.

     Much less successful were the policies aimed at the native peoples. Although the converts were apparently better treated and more carefully protected by the Livonian Order than by the secular vassals in the episcopal lands and in Estonia, they were kept in a subjugation that allowed little opportunity for personal advancement or improvement. In one sense, however, the secular vassals achieved an integration of cultures that was impossible for celibate knights: in the early years native elders retained considerable influence, gave daughters to immigrant knights and a few learned the German language and customs well enough to merge into the dominant feudal elite. The common people fared less well; from being military allies of great importance, especially in irregular warfare and scouting, they were eventually reduced to carrying supplies and hauling cannons. Their descendants have not forgotten the centuries of oppression and humiliation.[6] While acknowledging that the crusaders brought protection from foreign invasion and law and order at home, they believe that those advantages were purchased at too high a price.[7]

     Serfdom came later to Livonia as it did to most of Eastern Europe. The immediate impact of the Drang nach Osten was to give peasants more freedom and fewer obligations, but in the long run it resulted in less of the former and more of the latter; moreover, the migration of western peasants did not reach into the Baltic, only the movement of merchants and artisans. Even in Prussia and Poland, as lords found their rent income limited by the cessation of immigration, they could not adopt the policies available in the west¾namely, adopting more efficient herding and farming practices and expelling farmers who were inconveniently in the way. Instead, limited in their options by geography, climate, the spirit of the age, and treaty obligations to native peoples, they could only heap on new obligations year after year and pass legislation designed to prevent their workers from fleeing. This process was speeded up by warfare, as landlords found it impossible to attract free peasants to settle in devastated regions. Landlords, including the order's castellans and bailiffs, found it not only more profitable to buy serfs¾often prisoners-of-war¾for manors in endangered regions, but also discovered that it was the only choice they had other than bankruptcy.[8]

     Religious instruction for the native peoples—the foremost reason for the crusade that brought the Germans to Livonia—was minimal until the Reformation. Most likely, Orthodoxy would have eventually made an impact on the region, despite the monks’ preference for a regime of prayer, fasting and contemplation in austere monasteries rather than the adventuresome life of missionaries; Orthodoxy appears in the pagan borderlands between the Narva and Neva Rivers only in the 16th century,[9] and even then the priests and monks seemed to have worried more about schismatics and pagans luring pious Russians into heresy than about the souls of the non-believers.

     Historians tend to see Orthodox-Roman Catholic relations in the context of the Latin occupation of Constantinople in the thirteenth century, an unhappy event that was condemned even by Pope Innocent III, who had organized the Fourth Crusade to attack Egypt, not Byzantium. Not even Innocent's fertile mind saw much good coming from attempting to impose western practices on the Greeks. In addition historians have read the Rus'ian and Livonian chroniclers from the late fifteenth century on, when the grand dukes of Moscow were expanding their borders steadily. Historians have read into this their understandable repulsion for later tsarist autocratic repression of free thought and private enterprise.

     In the perverse manner that history often takes with those who wish to see a consistency of ideas and practices, Orthodoxy and Roman Christianity often co-existed happily in Livonia. As Christiansen commented, “too much Catholicism was bad for business.”[10]

     Similarly, one might have expected that Livonians and Estonians would have been treated well, because their military aid was indispensable. Perhaps so in the thirteenth century, after the bloodbaths of the conquest were over;[11] but in the end they were worse off than the native peoples in Finland or Prussia. Christiansen suggests that this might be the result of not having immigrant peasants who could be counted upon to support the government; given the overwhelming numbers of natives, the only way that the handful of German knights, priests and burghers could maintain power was by refusing to share it with the undependable descendants of the Livs, Letts, Ests, Semgallians and Kurs.[12]

     In short, the native peoples had little reason look back on the crusading era as doing anything good beyond keeping them out from under Russian rule¾that is, Russian rule as typified by Muscovite tsars, not the more lenient policies of Novgorod, Pskov and Polotsk.[13] Since the tsars later ruled Livonia through the German barons, these were not good centuries, either.

     The dour folk-memory of Latvians and Estonian, not to mention Lithuanians, is understandable. But neither did the German‑speaking nobles and burghers remember the military order fondly. Too long the masters, castellans and advocates had kept them from positions of leadership and restricted their activities; too many times those foreign warrior-monks had governed in ways that these long‑established families knew to be bad for the country. When they had dared oppose the Livonian Knights, they had done so; when they were unable to fight, they resorted to petty ridicule. Only in moments of direst danger, when they saw that their fate was inextricably interwoven with that of the crusaders, did they stand shoulder to shoulder with the knights of the military order.[14]

       The German estates managed to survive the Great Livonian War, the Swedish occupation, the Polish occupation, and, eventually, even the Russian conquest that made the Baltic litorial part of the tsarist empire.[15] They succumbed at last, only in the 20th century, first, to Estonian and Latvian nationalism, then, to the Hitler-Stalin treaty. The first stripped them of power, the latter their homes and property, their very right to live in the lands their families had dwelt in for seven hundred years. Even so, the influence they had upon Baltic culture will perhaps never be eradicated. They fostered religion, learning, science, and commerce; they endorsed the Enlightenment, the ideals of good government, modern farming, and served their new rulers with skill and distinction. These are the positive achievements; the negative side of their class and ethnic (race, in 19th century terminology) discrimination is well known. Individuals among the native peoples could learn German and move into the dominant community, though community and family memories were long; it was harder to rise above one=s class, and in the eastern Baltic class and ethnicity were closely bound together.[16]

     The baneful actions of the past have not been forgotten, though by the end of the twentieth century few Baltic Germans remained alive who were mature adults at the time the German-speaking population was evacuated; their descendants have little interest in returning to Latvia and Estonia. Their good influences are little recognized, though undoubtedly they were very important in making it possible for Latvians and Estonians to resist long efforts at Russification by tsars and commissars. Nationalism is a part of modern culture; it seems unavoidable even when unnecessary. Victimization is another matter.[17]

     Nationalism has had its effect on the histories which sit, often dust-covered, on western university library shelves. Although the first chronicles were written by the Teutonic Knights, the nineteenth century histories were composed by descendants of German burghers and nobles.[18]   The future: youths dancing in the streets of Tallinn. 1992.

     Most twentieth-century histories have been written by Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians; and by Baltic Germans in exile or their descendants, or by Germans, Britons and Americans with no ancestral ties to Livonia. Our understanding of the crusade today reflects their varying views of a common past. Happily, as the potential for historical studies affecting current politics fades away, so too does the partisanship.[19] More important in the West today are our own preconceptions of what the terms “crusade” and “imperialism” mean, and a widespread preoccupation with the evils of the past that becomes at times a cult of victimization.[20]

     I hope that this book will add to our historical perspective by seeing the Livonian Crusade as a movement in its own right, with its own goals and own justification. A medieval movement with few ties to the driving forces of the modern era, nationalism in particular, it created a Baltic society which has survived, for better or worse, depending on one’s viewpoint, into the twenty-first century and which still has an enduring influence on the much changed Baltic world of today.

    We may disapprove of the past, but we cannot ignore or change it. What we have to do, when we cannot build upon it, is to get past it.

[1] Philosophers may recognize this as the teaching of Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801), a German philosopher whose ideas are not usually as applicable at those of Machiavelli, but who should nevertheless not be ignored.

[2] The problems of governing any northern state in this era are clearly presented in Northern Europe, 97-106, which uses Sweden as the example. Christiansen comments on the various paths taken in the Baltic to a common end—the sharing of power between authoritarian rulers and colonial interest groups. Northern Crusades, 208.

[3] Christiansen, in his usual wise and terse manner, balances the Livonian Knights’ failure to act as patrons of art or literature with ironic praise: “They were dumb dogs, but at least they were able to bite.” Northern Crusades, 241.

[4] Von der Grafschaft Mark, 621, 629-637; see Prussian Society for the evolution of the Teutonic Order in Prussia into the male equivalent of a nunnery for spoiled upper-class girls.

[5] Otherwise, the conversion would most likely have been to Orthodoxy, which would have turned Lithuania to the east. Some nationalists argue that conversion was a historical mistake that put Lithuania under Polish domination for centuries to come. Since Lithuania encompassed Belarus, that nation’s history was affected, too. Andrew Wilson, “National history and national identity in Ukraine and Belarus,” Nation-building in the Post-Soviet Borderlands. The Politics of National Identities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 25-47; William Urban, “The Teutonic Order and the Christianization of Lithuania”, La cristianizzazione della Lituania, 105-135.

[6] See the well-balanced pamphlet, Towards a New History in the Baltic Republic. Historical Perspectives at the Time of the Recovery of Independence (ed. Magnus and Aare Mörner. Gothenburg, 1993) [Skrifter från Historika institutionen i Göteborg, 2], 12-13; also Juhan Kreem, “The Teutonic Order in Livonia: Diverging Historiographic Traditions”, Crusades and the Military Orders, 467-479.

[7] Northern Crusades, 200-206, provides an excellent overview of the peasantry throughout the Scandinavian Baltic.

[8] Robert Brenner, “Economic Backwardness in Eastern Europe in Light of Developments in the West,” The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe. Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages Until the Early Twentieth Century (ed. Daniel Chirot. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 42f; Northern Europe, 17-21, 38-39.

[9] Sozialgeschichte der Ostgrenze, 532-533.

[10] Northern Crusades, 218.

[11] Some historians will surely disagree with this. But the evidence is thin for determining what people thought, and the historian must balance off the price of increased taxes and services against other gains. Clearly some peoples were better off in being protected against outside attack; those who believed they had a natural right to raid their neighbors were worse off. Some benefited from commerce more than others. Some crossed the ethnic line into the dominant group, but that hardly guaranteed them prosperity and freedom—peasants and artisans in Germany, France and England were oppressed, too. Lastly, at that time Christians believed that salvation was of paramount importance—how could our short earthly existence compare to the glories of eternal life? Modern scholars usually see this differently, which may not equate to more correctly. For what archeology can tell us about native life, see ?valds Mãgurevi?s, “Wechselbeziehungen der Deutschen und Ostbaltischen Kulturen im Lettland des 13. bis 16. Jahrhunderts,” Lübecker Schriften zur Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte, 12(1986), 229-39, and “The Culture of Inhabitants of Medieval Settlements in Latvia in Livonian Period (the End of the 12thCthe [first] half of the 16th Century,” Fasciculi Archeologiae Historicae, 2(1987), 57-70.

[12] Northern Crusades, 205-206, with a negative assessment of the natives' conditions.

[13] The role of chroniclers, novelists and journalists is important in creating and maintaining this view of the past. See the special issue of the JBS, 31/3 (fall 2000) devoted to Jaan Kross, the Estonian novelist. In this context the study of foundation myths by Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations. The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002) might provide additional insights. Although most of the text deals with the “barbarian” tribes faced by Rome, the principles have a wide application: most medieval states consisted not of new peoples, but realignments of old tribes that adopt a foundation myth (usually associated with the genealogy of the ruler) and later become more linguistically and culturally alike; the modern nation is, as Benedict Anderson argues, a nineteenth century construction, and is as often as not an artificial creation of the linguists. We know relatively little of the medieval peoples in the Baltic region, other than through archeology (which can be misleading: do Toyotas prove the existence of Japanese?). Should we talk about pre-Latvians and pre-Lithuanians? Should we assign dissertations inquiring into medieval multi-culturalism?

[14] The pastor Balthasar Russow was the most critical. Russow, 2-5; Elert Kruse and Heinrich Tiesenhausen, write that Russow was wrong in some judgments, off the point in others, and, in sum, not to be taken seriously. Russow, 236-289; Kettler’s close associate, Salomon Henning, referred all judgments to the deity (providence). Henning, 3, 16, 166-167; Johannes Renner, another government employee, limited his criticisms. Renner, 12; Maruta LietiÃa Ray, “Recovering the Voice of the Oppressed: Master, Slave, and Serf in the Baltic Provinces,” JBS, 34/1(2003), 1-21; also see The Town and its Lord, 9-16.

[15] “Autonomie und Selbstbehauptung der baltischen Stände”, 41-48; the nobles under Polish administration did especially well. Jürgen Heyde, “Zwischen Kooperation und Konfrontation: Die Adelspolitik Polen-Litauens und Schwedens in der Provinz Livland 1561-1650”, ZfO, 47/4(1998), 544-567.

[16] See Klaus Zernack, “Im Zentrum Nordosteuropas,” JBS, 33/4 (Winter 2002), 369-383.

[17] Norman Davies has some wise if politically unpopular recommendations for historians. God=s Playground, II, 3B5, 9B11, 512, 525-535, 634; see Kaspars K·aviÃÓ, “The Baltic Enlightenment and Perceptions of Medieval Latvian History,” JBS, 29/3 (Fall 1998), 213-224.

[18] See biographies of two outstanding nineteenth-century historians: Norbert Angermann, “Friedrich Georg von Bunge,” and Thomas Bohm, “Theodor Schiemann,” Ostdeutsche Gedenktage 1997, 93-96, 141-146; also the article by Indrek Jürjo, “Das nationale Erwachen der Esten im 19. Jahrhundert—ein Verdienst der deutschenbaltischen Aufklärung?” Nordost-Archiv, IV (1995), 409-430 [special issue on Estonia and its minorities], with an endorsement of Herder’s belief that each people had a god-given culture which should be appreciated on its own grounds and preserved.

[19] The author remembers what should have been a memorable celebration, the bestowal of an honorary degree upon Ces»aw Milosz at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas in 1992. The Nobel prize winner spoke for a recognition of their common Polish-Lithuanian heritage. However, it was too soon after the recovery of national independence for Lithuanians to be reconciled with that aspect of their troubled past.

[20] William Urban, “Victims of the Baltic Crusade,” JBS, 29/3(Fall, 1998), 195-212 [which was awarded the Vitols prize by the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies]; William Urban, “Rethinking the Crusades,” Perspectives [Newsletter of the American Historical Association], (October 1998), 25-29; Thomas Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades (New York, etc: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 11-14.

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