Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Teutonic Knights: A Military History

The typical historical education of an Englishman used to go like this:

Greece, Rome, Alfred the Great, 1066, Sir Francis Drake, Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Rommel, El Alamein, Winston Churchill, ...errr... that's about it.

Although not always completely xenophobic - with an open admiration for characters such as the plucky Rommel, an Englishman fighting for the wrong side* - in more modern times, the British History curriculum has been updated somewhat to reflect a greater humanitarian empathy with the oppressed masses. It now goes something much more like this:

The Peasants Revolt, The French Revolution, Underlying Social Conditions of the Peruvian Basket-Weaving Industry, Das Kapital, The Evil of Adolf Hitler, The Magnificence of the Welfare State, How Mankind has destroyed the Planet, Hairstyles of the 1960s

Either way, there is very little most Englishmen know about how Switzerland drew itself out of the Holy Roman Empire, or what the Holy Roman Empire was, or even why the Third Reich was called the Third Reich, as opposed to being called the 27th Reich**.

As a student of Mises, these things matter, because wondering how his German Jewish family ended up in Galician Lemberg, a Polish enclave of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which for complicated reasons is now a major city in the Ukraine, greatly informs your understanding of how he came to write so great a treatise as Human Action.

Part of that understanding is enhanced by learning about the Teutonic Knights, the German Order crusading division of the Catholic Church, which spent much of its time slaughtering pagans in Prussia and the Baltic area, until it started dwindling after the monstrous Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. (Harry Potter fans may like to note that this was also known as the Battle of Grunwald.)

The Teutonic Knights eventually became the seed around which the state of Prussia was formed, with their last Grand Master, Albrecht of Hohenzollern-Ansbach, also becoming the first Duke of Prussia, that most modern of states, whose formation led eventually to the inspiration behind Herr Karl Marx, the Prussian court philosopher, Hegel.

Although the Wikipedia pages on the Teutonic Knights are very good, to get a fuller flavour of their 400 year crusading adventure, you really need a much fuller book, such as the excellent one by William Urban depicted above. If the Teutonic Knights have ever fascinated you, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Along its magnificent roller-coaster ride, you encounter several Hermanns, quite a number of Habsburgs, and as many Ottos as you would ever wish to meet in a single lifetime. There is blood, gore, pity, hatred, anger, love, and as much human destruction and humiliation as any soap-opera fan could ever wish for; it's certainly far better than any Indiana Jones film (except perhaps the Last Crusade).

There are also tax insurrections galore, peasants revolts, and as many monarchist intrigues as it is possible to have within the myriad of castles and kingdoms discussed. At times, the book's writing style almost reminded me of Uncle Murray's magnificent Conceived in Liberty quadrumvirate of books detailing the American Revolution, with intense detail where it was necessary, and broad sweeps where it wasn't.

Just to give you a flavour of how important the Teutonic Knights were, if you've ever wondered where the Prussian Iron Cross came from then look no further than the main emblem of the Teutonic Knights, a black cross pattée upon a white background, a form which even Indiana Jones was familiar with, on his quest to find the road to Alexandretta.

Even to this day, each vehicle of the German armed forces still bears this infamous legend of the Teutonic Knights:

As a former "Young Hegelian" myself (which is a cool socialist way of avoiding the blood-stained hands of Marx), I had never thought before about where Prussia came from, so to finally find out was quite a revelation.

If you want to know more yourself, William Urban's book is the place to go. However, if like me you sometimes find reading too much of a chore, you can always get the upgrade pack of Medieval II: Total War: Kingdoms, which has a playable Teutonic Knights faction. That way, if you don't like the way history panned out, you can always change it.

Learning history by playing blood-thirsty computer games really is the way to go.

* You can always tell when 'foreigners' are English heroes regarded as secret Englishmen under the skin; they will be played in films with completely straight English accents, surrounded by nincompoop cod-speaking compatriots, hence why the most English-sounding man the world has ever known, James Mason, played Rommel in an age when every other German character would otherwise sound like Auric Goldfinger drinking Kriek-schnapps at the Munich leder-hosen festival.

** The Holy Roman Empire was the First Reich (or the first empire - a direct descendant of the original Roman Empire) and the Bismarckian "German Empire" was the Second Reich. Interestingly, the last of the Holy Roman Emperors was an Austrian Habsburg, and the name of Austria itself, Österreich, is an anglicised corruption meaning "Eastern [Part of the Holy Roman] Empire".

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