The Teutonic Order is a religious group in Germany that is Roman Catholic. Its members have been called the Teutonic Knights because it was a military order that went on crusades in the Middle Ages and for a long time in the modern era.
The medieval Order was made at the end of the 12th century in Acre, Palestine. It played a big role in the Middle East by 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 from the Cumans. In 1225, they were kicked out because they were accused of trying to put themselves under Papal rule instead of Hungarian rule.
In 1230, Grand Master Hermann von Salza and Duke Konrad I of Masovia invaded Prussia together as part of the Northern Crusades to convert the Baltic Old Prussians to Christianity. Then, the knights were accused of trying to get around Polish rule by making a separate monastic state. When the nearby country of Lithuania converted to Christianity, the Order lost its main reason for being in Europe. Once the Order was set up in Prussia, it went to war with its Christian neighbors, 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 all over Europe to help with their feudal armies, and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea.
At the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army beat the Order and broke its military power (Tannenberg). The Order kept getting smaller and smaller until 1525, when Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg quit, became a Lutheran, and became Duke of Prussia. The Grand Masters continued to run the Order’s large holdings in Germany and other places until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its dissolution and the Order lost its last secular holdings. Through World War I, the Order was led by Habsburgs, and it still exists today, mostly to help people in Central Europe.
The Knights wore black crosses on their white surcoats. A cross pattée was sometimes used as their coat of arms. This design was later used by the Kingdom of Prussia and Germany as the Iron Cross, a military decoration and badge. Celestine II told the Knights Hospitaller to take over running a German hospital in Jerusalem. According to historian Jean d’Ypres, the hospital took care of the many German pilgrims and crusaders who didn’t speak French or Latin (patrie linguam ignorantibus atque Latinam). Even though the domus Teutonicorum (which means “house of the Germans”) was officially a Hospitallers institution, the pope said that the prior and the brothers of the domus Teutonicorum should always be Germans. This allowed a tradition of a German-led religious institution to grow in Palestine in the 1100s.
After Jerusalem fell in 1187, some merchants from Lübeck and Bremen picked up on the idea and started a field hospital for the siege of Acre in 1190. This became the core of the order, which was recognized by Pope Celestine III in 1192 when he gave the monks the Augustinian Rule. It was based on the Knights Templar, but in 1198 it became a military order, and the person in charge of it was called the Grand Master (magister hospitalis). It got orders from the Pope to go on crusades to take and hold Jerusalem for Latin Christianity and protect the Holy Land from Muslim Saracens. During the time that Grand Master Hermann von Salza was in charge (1209–1239), the Order went from being a group of pilgrims who helped each other to being mostly a military group. The Knights used to be based in Acre, but in 1220, they bought Montfort (now called Starkenberg), which is northeast of Acre. This castle protected the road between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea. In 1229, it became the home of the Grand Masters, but they moved back to Acre when the Muslims took over Montfort in 1271. The Order also owned a castle in Armenia Minor, near Tarsus. Land in the Holy Roman Empire (especially in what is now Germany and Italy), Greece, and Palestine was given to the Order.
Emperor Frederick II made Hermann von Salza, a close friend, a Reichsfürst, or “Prince of the Empire.” This gave the Grand Master the same power as other senior princes when negotiating with them. In 1225, when Frederick was crowned King of Jerusalem, he was led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Teutonic Knights. Von Salza read the emperor’s proclamation in both French and German. The Teutonic Knights, on the other hand, never had as much power in Outremer as the older Templars and Hospitallers.
In 1211, Andrew II of Hungary accepted their help and gave them the Transylvanian district of Burzenland. Andrew had been talking to the son of Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, whose vassals included the family of Hermann von Salza, about marrying his daughter. The Order, which was led by a brother named Theoderich, protected Hungary from the nearby Cumans and set up new German colonies among the people who had been living there before, who were called Transylvanian Saxons. In 1224, the Knights asked Pope Honorius III to move them out from under the control of the King of Hungary and put them directly under the control of the Papal See. Andrew was angry and worried about how powerful they were getting, so in 1225 he kicked them out and let the new colonists stay.
In 1226, Konrad I, Duke of Masovia in west-central Poland, asked the Knights to protect his borders and put down the pagan Baltic Prussians. He let the Teutonic Knights use Chemno Land (Culmerland) as a base for their campaign. As the desire to go on a crusade grew in Western Europe, Hermann von Salza thought that Prussia would be a good place for his knights to train for wars against Muslims in Outremer. With the Golden Bull of Rimini, Emperor Frederick II gave the Order a special imperial right to conquer and hold Prussia, including Chemno Land, even though it was technically under papal control. In 1235, the smaller Order of Dobrzy, which had been started by Konrad, became a part of the Teutonic Knights.
It took more than 50 years and a lot of bloodshed to take over Prussia. During that time, native Prussians who didn’t get baptized were killed, enslaved, or sent away. Fighting between the Knights and the Prussians was fierce. According to the Order’s history, the Prussians would “roast captured brethren alive in their armor, like chestnuts, before the shrine of a local god.”
When the local nobility gave in to the crusaders, the Treaty of Christburg gave them many of their rights back. After the Prussian uprisings of 1260–1283, however, most of the nobility left or was moved, and many free Prussians lost their rights. The Prussian aristocracy that stayed was more closely tied to the German landowners and became more German over time. Peasants in places like Samland on the frontier had more rights than those in places like Pomesania, which had more people. The native people would often submit to the knights by getting baptized. Christianity, which was based on western ideas, slowly made its way into Prussian culture. Bishops didn’t want to bring Prussian religious practices into the new faith, and the ruling knights found it easier to rule the natives when they were mostly pagan and didn’t follow the law.
The Order ran Prussia as a sovereign monastic state with permission from the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. This was similar to how the Knights Hospitallers ran Rhodes and, later, Malta.
To make up for people who died during the plague and to replace some of the native people who died, the Order encouraged colonists from the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (mostly Germans, Flemish, and Dutch) and from Masovia (Poles), who became known as Masurians, to move to the area. There were nobles, burghers, and peasants among the colonists, and the Old Prussians who stayed were slowly absorbed into German culture. On former Prussian settlements, the settlers built many towns and cities. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Order was often at war with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. The Order built a number of castles called “Ordensburgen” from which it could stop Old Prussian rebellions and keep attacking them. Konigsberg, which was founded in 1255 in honor of King Otakar II of Bohemia on the site of a destroyed Prussian settlement, Allenstein (Olsztyn), Elbing (Elblg), and Memel (Klaipda) were also important towns started by the Order.
The English Knights of St. Thomas took on the rules of the Teutonic Order in 1236. In 1237, the Teutonic Knights took over the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The Livonian branch of the group then became known as the Livonian Order. In theory, the Teutonic Order was in charge of Prussia, Livonia, Semigalia, and Estonia. Its next goal was to turn Orthodox Russia into a Roman Catholic country. However, when Prince Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod beat the knights in the Battle on Lake Peipus (1242), this plan had to be scrapped. A group of Teutonic Knights may have fought against the Mongols at the Battle of Legnica in 1241. After the Kingdom of Jerusalem fell at Acre in 1291, the Teutonic Knights turned their attention to the pagan country of Lithuania. The knights moved their base of operations to Venice, where they planned how to get back to Outremer. Because “Lithuania Proprieta” didn’t become Christian until the end of the 14th century, which was much later than the rest of eastern Europe, many knights from western Europe, such as England and France, went to Prussia to fight against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the seasonal campaigns (reyse). Some of them fought against pagans to get forgiveness for their sins, while others did it to get more experience in the military.
When the Order and the Lithuanians went to war, it was especially bad. Non-Christians were thought to lack rights that Christians had. At the time, it was okay to enslave people who weren’t Christians, and the defeated native Prussians wanted land or money, so the Knights often forced pagan Lithuanians to work. The modern Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt wrote about how the Knights treated pagans that he saw:
Women and kids were taken as prisoners; What a happy mix of things to see! Many women had two children tied to their bodies, one in front and one in back. They rode here barefoot on a horse without spurs, and the heathens were made to suffer. Many of them were captured, and in every case, their hands were tied together. They were all tied together and then led away, just like hunting dogs. At the start of the fourteenth century, the Order was in more trouble because of a disagreement about who should be the next Duke of Pomerelia. After King Wenceslaus of Poland died in 1306, the Margraves of Brandenburg acted on their claims to the duchy. Duke Wadysaw I the Elbow-High of Poland also wanted the duchy because he was Przemysaw II’s heir, but some Pomeranian nobles were against him. They asked Brandenburg for help, and in 1308, Brandenburg took over all of Pomerelia except for the citadel of Danzig (Gdask). Since Wladyslaw wasn’t able to help Danzig, the Brandenburgers were kicked out by the Teutonic Knights, who were led at the time by Hochmeister Siegfried von Feuchtwangen.
Teutonic Knights in Prussia
The Order, under Prussian Landmeister Heinrich von Plotzke, evicted the Brandenburgers from Danzig in September 1308. Von Plotzke gave Wadysaw a bill for 10,000 marks of silver for the help of the Order, but the Polish duke would only pay 300 marks. After this, the Teutonic Knights took over all of Danzig, which made the people there even more unhappy. The next month, the knights put down an uprising by killing a lot of people, especially German merchants in the city, although the exact number of people who died is still debated. In the Treaty of Soldin, signed on September 13, 1309, the margraves sold the castles of Danzig, Schwetz (wiecie), and Dirschau (Tczew) and the land around them to the Teutonic Order for 10,000 marks. The Order was able to connect their monastic state to the borders of the Holy Roman Empire when they took control of Pomerelia. From the Imperial territory of Hither Pomerania, reinforcements and supplies for crusaders could travel through Pomerelia to Prussia, while Poland couldn’t get to the Baltic Sea. Poland was mostly on the knights’ side when they were fighting the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, but when they took Pomerelia, Poland became a fierce enemy of the Order.
The Teutonic Knights’ history moved on to a new point when they took Danzig. The persecution and end of the powerful Knights Templar in 1307 worried the Teutonic Knights. However, because they controlled Pomerelia, they were able to move their headquarters from Venice to Marienburg (now called Malbork) on the Nogat River in 1309, away from the reach of secular powers. The job of Landmeister in Prussia was combined with that of Grand Master. The Pope started to look into what the knights had done wrong, but the Order was defended by smart lawyers. In addition to fighting the Lithuanians, the knights had to deal with a vengeful Poland and legal threats from the Pope.
The Teutonic Knights and Poland were at war until 1343, when they signed the Treaty of Kalisz. Poland got Kuyavia and Dobrzy Land from the Knights, but Danzig kept Culmerland and Pomerelia. In 1337, it is said that Emperor Louis IV gave the Order the imperial right to take over all of Lithuania and Russia. During the time of Grand Master Winrich von Kniprode (1351–1382), the Order was at the height of its fame around the world, and many European crusaders and nobles stayed there.
King Albert of Sweden gave Gotland to the Order as a pledge, which is like a fiefdom, with the agreement that they would get rid of the pirates known as the Victual Brothers from this important Baltic Sea island base. In 1398, the island was taken over by an army led by Grand Master Konrad von Jungingen. The Victual Brothers were forced to leave Gotland and the Baltic Sea.
In 1386, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania was baptized as a Roman Catholic Christian and married Queen Jadwiga of Poland. He changed his name to Wadysaw II Jagieo and became King of Poland. This made a personal bond between the two countries and gave the Teutonic Knights a possible tough opponent. The Order was able to turn Jagiello and his cousin Vytautas against each other at first, but this plan failed when Vytautas found out that the Order wanted to take over some of his land.
The official change of Lithuania to Christianity began with the baptism of Jagiello. When Prussia and Lithuania became officially Christian, the crusading reason for the Order’s state ended. However, the Order’s feuds and wars with Lithuania and Poland kept going. In 1397, Polish nobles in Culmerland made the Lizard Union to fight against the policies of the Order.
In 1407, the Teutonic Order controlled the most land. This included Prussia, Pomerelia, Samogitia, Courland, Livonia, Estonia, Gotland, Dago, Osel, and the Neumark, which Brandenburg had given up as a pawn in 1402. In the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War, the Order was defeated at the Battle of Grunwald (also called the Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410, which was led by Wadysaw II Jagieo and Vytautas. Most of the most important people in the Order, including Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, died on the battlefield (50 out of 60). The Polish-Lithuanian army then laid siege to Marienburg, the capital of the Order, but could not take it because Heinrich von Plauen fought back. When the First Peace of Toru was signed in 1411, the Order kept almost all of its lands, but the Knights’ reputation as unbeatable warriors was ruined forever.
While Poland and Lithuania were getting stronger, the power of the Teutonic Knights was going down because they were fighting among themselves. They were forced to raise taxes in order to pay a large indemnity, but they didn’t give the cities as much say as they wanted in how their state was run. The authoritarian and reforming Grand Master Heinrich von Plauen was forced out of power, and Michael Küchmeister von Sternberg took his place. However, the Order’s fortunes did not improve under the new Grand Master. After the Gollub War, the Knights gave up their claims to Samogitia in the Treaty of Melno, which was signed in 1422. Austrian and Bavarian knights fought with knights from the Rhineland, and knights from the Rhineland fought with Low German-speaking Saxons, who were often chosen as the Grand Master. During the Hussite Wars, the Hussites caused a lot of damage in the Vistula River Valley and the Neumark, which are in western Prussia. The Bohemian infantry beat the Teutonic Knights who were sent to fight the invaders. During the Polish-Teutonic War, the Knights also lost (1431-1435).
In 1454, the gentry and burghers of western Prussia formed the Prussian Confederation. They rebelled against the Order, which started the Thirteen Years’ War. During the war, a lot of damage was done to Prussia, and in 1455, the Order gave Neumark back to Brandenburg. In the Second Peace of Toru, the defeated Order gave up its claim to western Prussia, which became Royal Prussia, but kept eastern Prussia under nominal Polish control. Since the Order lost Marienburg, it moved its base to Konigsberg in Sambia.
After another failed war with Poland in 1525, Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg converted to Lutheranism, secularized the Order’s remaining Prussian territories, and took from King Sigismund I the Old of Poland the hereditary rights to the Duchy of Prussia as a vassal of the Polish Crown in the Prussian Homage. Eastern Prussia was also lost to the Order at this time. So, Poland was in charge of the Catholic Duchy of Prussia. Even though it had lost control of all of its land in Prussia, the Teutonic Order still had land in the Holy Roman Empire and Livonia, though the Livonian branch had a lot of freedom. During the Peasants’ War, which took place from 1524 to 1525, many of the Imperial possessions were destroyed, and Protestant territorial princes then took them.  During the Livonian War, neighboring powers split up the Livonian territory. In 1561, the Livonian Master Gotthard Kettler took the Order’s southern Livonian lands and made them into the Duchy of Courland, which was also a vassal of Poland.
After the Teutonic Knights lost Prussia in 1525, they focused on their holdings in the Holy Roman Empire. Since they didn’t have any land that joined together, they made a three-tiered system for running things: Commanderies were groups of holdings that were run by a commander (Komtur). A Landkomtur was put in charge of a bailiwick that was made up of several commanderies. The Grand Master, whose seat was in Bad Mergentheim, was in charge of everything the Teutonic Knights owned. 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. The bailiwicks of Sicily, Apulia, Lombardy, Bohemia, “Romania” (Greece), and Armenia-Cyprus were outside of German areas. The Order slowly lost control of these holdings until, by 1810, only the bailiwicks in Tyrol and Austria were left.
After Albert of Brandenburg stepped down as king, Walter von Cronberg took over as Deutschmeister in 1527 and Grand Master in 1530. In 1531, Emperor Charles V put the two jobs together and made the title Hoch- und Deutschmeister, which was also a Prince of the Empire. During the Peasants’ War, the town of Mergentheim in Württemberg was attacked. After that, a new Grand Magistery was set up there. Charles V also got help from the Order when he was fighting the Schmalkaldic League. After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, Protestants could join the Order, though most of the brothers were still Catholic.  There were Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed bailiwicks in the Teutonic Knights’ organization.
The Grand Masters, who were often from the most powerful German families and, after 1761, from the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, still ran the Order’s large holdings in Germany. During the Ottoman Wars in Europe, the Habsburg Monarchy hired Teutonic Knights from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia to lead mercenaries on the battlefield. The military history of the Teutonic Knights ended in 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered them to be dissolved. The Order’s remaining secular holdings went to Napoleon’s vassals and allies. The Order kept going in Austria, where Napoleon couldn’t reach it. It wasn’t called the Deutscher Ritterorden (German Knightly Order) again until 1834, even though it had most of the world’s wealth by that time. It was run by members of the Habsburg family from 1804 until 1923, when Archduke Eugen of Austria stepped down as Grand Master.
Teutonic Knights in recent history
In 1929, the Teutonic Knights stopped fighting and became a strictly spiritual Roman Catholic religious order. They changed their name to Deutscher Orden (“German Order”). After Nazi Germany took over Austria, the Teutonic Order was banned throughout the Großdeutsches Reich from 1938 to 1945, even though the Nazis used pictures of the medieval Teutonic Knights in their propaganda. The Order did not die out in Italy, though. In 1945, it was brought back together in Germany and Austria.
By the end of the 1990s, the Order had grown into a charity with a number of clinics as part of it. It gives money to projects in Israel and the Palestinian territories that involve digging and tourism. In 2000, the German branch of the Teutonic Order said it was broke, and its top leaders were fired. A special committee of the Bavarian parliament did an investigation in 2002 and 2003, but it didn’t find any answers. About 1,000 people are part of the Order right now. This includes 100 Roman Catholic priests, 200 nuns, and 700 associates. The priests are divided into six provinces (Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia) and mostly help people with their spiritual lives. The nuns, on the other hand, take care of the sick and elderly. Associates work in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Austria. Many of the priests take care of German-speaking communities outside of Germany and Austria, especially in Italy and Slovenia. In this way, the Teutonic Order has returned to its roots from the 1100s, when it took care of the spiritual and physical needs of Germans living in other countries. Bruno Platter is the General Abbot of the Order right now. He is also called the Grand Master.
The Deutschordenskirche in Vienna is where the Grand Master lives and works right now. The Central Archive of the Teutonic Order and the Treasury of the Teutonic Order are both open to the public and are near the Stephansdom in the capital of Austria. The Teutonic Knights’ old castle in Bad Mergentheim, Germany, which was the home of the Grand Master from 1525 to 1809, has been a museum since 1996. German nationalism often used images of the Teutonic Knights, especially when it came to taking land from Germany’s eastern neighbors and fighting with countries with Slavic roots, which German nationalists thought were less developed and had a worse culture. Heinrich von Treitschke, a German historian, used images of the Teutonic Knights to say things that were good for Germany and bad for Poland. Many Germans from the middle class who believed in German nationalism used these kinds of images and symbols. During the Weimar Republic, these kinds of groups and organizations helped set the stage for the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1902, German Emperor William II climbed the stairs of the rebuilt Marienburg Castle while dressed as a monk from the Teutonic Order for a picture. This was meant to show the policy of the German Empire. During World War II, the Nazis often used images of the Teutonic Knights in their propaganda and ideas. They did this to show that the Knights’ actions were similar to what the Nazis did to get Lebensraum. Heinrich Himmler tried to make the SS look like the knights of the Middle Ages in the 20th century.