This slim volume--eighty pages of text--each page greatly shortened by citations--investigates the concept that the Wendish Crusade of 1147 was conducted on the basis of "baptism or death." First, the author follows this slogan from Bernard of Clairvaux through the commentaries of churchmen and through popular movements to a conclusion that, whereas Bernard meant only the death of the Slavic state, not the massacre of the population of that state, the mass of crusaders interpreted it more literally and were as ready to apply it to the Abodrite Slavs as to the Jews. Second, in reviewing the previous German attempts to conquer the Slavs along the Elbe, he concludes that by 1147 the Abodrites had only the alternatives of being conquered--and thereby being submerged politically and culturally--or becoming a Christian state within the Church and the Empire. This was the choice offered by Bernard. In choosing Christianization, the Abodrite leaders made possible an end to the ancient hostilities between German and Slav in Mecklenburg and Pomerania.
The book was written for the specialist who is already familiar with the literature and history of the German eastward migration, and secondarily for those interested in the thought of St. Bernard. For the nonspecialist Friedrich Lotter offers only a readable style, a concise organization, a thorough bibliography, and some small insight into the minds of twelfth-century German scholars, nobles, and common men. The volume is a typical German monograph, aimed at a handful of scholars, thoroughly footnoted, and issued in an unattractive paperback format. Consistent with this, there is not even a map to assist the non-expert and the introduction is perfunctory.
The strength of the book lies in the author's singleminded concentration on the two themes. He refuses to be distracted long by the competing political ambitions of the principal figures of the era, the process of German immigration, or the controversies of the Drang nach Osten. The slogan Tod oder Taufe was not humanitarian, he emphasizes, but it did succeed in ending long and bloody warfare, in controlling both the ambitions of the nobles and the passions of the mob, and therefore in saving the Abodrite state from subjugation and destruction. If Christianization was not achieved immediately, at least that country was opened to an ultimately successful missionary activity.