The Teutonic Knights: A Military History was published in London by Greenhill Press. At 300 pages, it is somewhat shorter than Urban’s most recent books, but it covers much more material—370 years—and explains why Chaucer’s readers would be impressed that the chivalrous knight of the Canterbury Tales was chosen to head the Table Round while fighting in Lithuania.
The Teutonic Order was founded at the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade (1189) as a hospital order to care for German crusaders who were being ignored by French and English caretakers; this was among the reasons for Germans to hate Richard the Lionheart, so that the duke of Austria later took him prisoner and held him for ransom—the start of every Robin Hood and evil King John story. A few years later observers saw that skilled knights were performing unskillfully nursing duties that others could do better, at a time when warriors were desperately needed. A petition was sent to the pope, who approved assigning these men to combat.
The book moves from the foundation era to the first battles against European non-Christians in Transylvania, which resulted in the German immigration that one sees in the Dracula stories, then to a border war in Prussia, fighting against pagans who were attacking Poland. Next came the crusade in Livonia (modern Latvia and Estonia), fighting against pagan Lithuanians and Orthodox Russians, then returning to Prussia, where competing claims on conquered lands ultimately culminated in the battle of Tannenberg (1410). This was one of the greatest confrontations of large armies in the Middle Ages and later became a symbol of national feelings both in Poland, which won, and Germany, which lost in the sense that the German Order (a more accurate translation of the order’s title than Teutonic Order) represented the German nation of the Holy Roman Empire.
From Tannenberg the long road led downhill for the military order, to the ultimate transformation of its Prussian lands into a secular duchy and the loss of Livonia to Ivan the Terrible and the order’s Polish and Swedish allies. The German convents survived, supplying troops for the Habsburg wars against Turkey until the age of Napoleon. Today the Teutonic Order provides hospital services and priests to German-speaking communities; Urban has visited its headquarters in Vienna and attended its anniversary celebration in Nuremberg in 1989.
Urban has been writing about the crusades in the Baltic for thirty years. He says that the term crusade has lost its original meaning, so that no one today can imagine Christendom warring for the protection of pilgrimage routes and access to the holy places; today we use the word crusade either in a completely secular sense or as a renewal of religious commitment. In contrast, Jihad also has several meanings, but its significance as a call for armed struggle for the faith remains significant; Moslems often see Israel as today’s equivalent of the crusader states and America as a cultural and religious threat. In this sense, the medieval crusades are important in modern politics.
This emphasis on armed struggle need not last forever. In the nineteenth century Polish and German historians used the memory of Tannenberg for national ends, and in the twentieth century communist histories used it to foster anti-western feelings. Today this animosity is fading away, thanks to historians of several nations who understand that history can be misused and that medieval organizations such as the Teutonic Knights should be understood and judged by standards appropriate to their time, not made to stand for the deeds and misdeeds of modern politicians.