The Livonian Crusades is one of those topics in history that I’m sure was never covered in school. I’m guessing that’s something that’s true for most people.
To be honest, I wouldn’t even bring it up if it wouldn’t allow you to play this cool trick.
After reading this article, if anyone ever asks you why Germany entered World War I, you can say, “Because Hartwig II, Archbishop of Bremen, invaded Livonia with the Brothers of the Sword in 1198.”
Now that you’ve read that sentence, I have a feeling you’re going to want to say it as much as possible. It sounds that cool.
Like a lot of things on this blog, this period in history is best understood in context, which means we’re going to have to go back in time a little bit and talk about completely different people.
In 1148, Pope Celestine II, who was Pope for less than six months, suggested that the Knights Hospitaller form an all-German branch which would take over the administration of a hospital in Jerusalem. The Crusades were in full swing at this time, and the Pope was the nominal head of the invasion force.
This all-German brand of the Knights Hospitaller would eventually become the Teutonic Order, a military group, after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the group in 1187, and a reorganization in 1198.
That’s an interesting year because it’s the same year that Archbishop Hartwig II was trying to put together a mercenary army.
You might be asking why an archbishop in Northern Europe is putting together a mercenary band, and you might also guess that he was planning to crusade in the Holy Land.
You’d be wrong. Pope Celestine III, the guy who confirmed the Teutonic Knights as a military order, suggested a crusade against pagans in Northern Europe in 1193.
This happened because Archbishop Hartwig had appointed a series of bishops over Lithuania. The first was Meinhard, who had begun preaching in the area on his own, and was only later appointed Bishop. At some point, it’s unclear who threw the first stone, but both Meinhard and the local pagans were apparently perfectly content to fight each other, instead of resorting to a peaceful exchange of ideas.
The Christians built stone fortifications, which kept them safe from the local pagans.
When Meinhard died in 1196, Hartwig chose Berthold of Hanover as his successor. He decided that it was time to end the resistance in the area and in 1198 he recruited a band of Saxons to send with Berthold to effectively conquer the area.
Berthold inherited a crummy situation, and the entirety of his short time as Bishop was spent in open warfare, or truces that neither side felt especially beholden to. He died in 1198, when his horse panicked and ran into a band of pagans, who killed him.
Albert, who would found the town of Riga in 1201, would spend the next three decades of his life conquering Livonia and the surrounding areas. In 1202, his band of Saxons was formally consecrated as The Livonian Brothers of the Sword.
While not all crusades were ultimately successful, this band of warriors effectively subdued the region, and converted a lot of people to Christianity. They made great territorial gains, and while their victory in the region wasn’t complete, they did manage to carve out a significant amount of territory for themselves.
Albert of Riga died in 1229. Seven years later the Livonian Brothers of the Sword lost a major battle against the Samogitians and Semigallians, Lithuanian tribes. Afterward, they felt they were too weak to maintain their hold on the area.
Enter the Teutonic Order.
The Prussian Crusade had started in 1217, though the Teutonic Order joined the fray in 1230. They were more successful than other crusaders, who had not been able to defeat the pagan Prussians. By 1233, the Teutonic Order was leading an army of 10,000 men, and generally winning wherever they went.
So, when the Livonian Brothers of the Sword fell on hard times, they offered to become vassals of the nearby, much larger and more successful Teutonic Order. They reformed into the Livonian Order, which was semi-autonomous, though their Grandmaster ultimately answered to the Teutonic Grandmaster. Their combined territories covered much of Prussia and Livonia, and made them a respectable force in the region.
Now begins the long march to the German Empire of World War II.
Albert of Prussia was the 37th Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order.
He converted to Protestantism in 1522, and later met Martin Luther, converted to Lutheranism, and encouraged Luther to spread his religious beliefs in Prussia. Luther also encouraged Albert to marry, and also to turn his Catholic military order into a secular fief of his own. Albert did so in 1525, creating the duchy of Prussia.
In 1871, William I became the emperor of a unified Germany. He was a direct descendent of Albert, and the current King of Prussia.
His grandson, William II, was Emperor of Germany when it entered World War I. He favored wars of aggression, and fired Otto von Bismarck, who was in favor of a more peaceful path. While William didn’t start the war, his policies helped lead to the entangled foreign policy deals that led so many countries to the brink all at once.
So, I overstated earlier. You can’t say that the Livonian Crusades led directly to World War I. However, the threads are there.
If those Crusades had failed miserably, it’s possible that the Prussian Crusades would never have taken place. If the Livonian Brothers of the Sword hasn’t suffered a crippling defeat, their resources may never have been added to those of the Teutonic Order. That certainly would have made it harder for Albert of Prussia to become a duke, his descendants to become king, and for later descendants to become Emperor.
And then, World War I doesn’t happen. History is weird.