[ The article below is as it was published on July 17, 1910 in The New York Times. No corrections were made. ]
Five Hundredth Anniversary of Battle of Grunwald
When the newspapers printed last week the fact that on July 24 New York and surrounding cities would celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the battle of Grunwald most of their readers wondered what the battle was and why it should be celebrated. It must have been a great battle and its consequences must have been important or it would not have had life enough to be celebrated 500 years later in a nation not in existence when it was fought.
Those who read further into the news item must have been still further convinced of this when they found that the celebration , which would be held at Grant City, Staten Island, would begin with a solemn field mass at which Archbishop Farley, Bishop Rhode of Chicago, the Polish Bishop of America; Mgr. Lavelle, and many other eminent clergymen would be present; that more then 50,000 people would be present at the mass; that five sermons would be preached simultaneously at various points in the huge field where the celebration will take place; that Mayor Gaynor would review a parade of more then 10,000 men and so on.
And yet many persons who claim to be fairly familiar with the decisive battles of the world never heard more than the name Grunwald. The encyclopedias, if they mention it at all, merely allude to it in passing as “the famous battle of Grunwald,” and give no information about it whatever.
Yet it was the decisive battle in the first Polish war for independence; it made Poland a nation; it ended the strangest Government the world ever saw – a Government which was at once a republic, a theocracy, and a despotism. It may be said too, to have been the last battle of the Crusades, though it was fought on the eve of the Reformation.
Prussia was ruled and Poland under the thumb of an order of military monks known as the Teutonic Knights. The had fought in the Crusades, and on their return from the Holy Land they made war on the heathen, who still occupied a great part of Europe. Conquering their territory they established the rule of the Order over it, and the tyranny of this theocratic republic of monks lasted until the poles broke their power at the battle of Grunwald.
No Government quite like that of the Teutonic Knights has ever existed elsewhere. In its beginning the Order was one of mercy. At the siege of Acre eight German Crusaders formed themselves into a voluntary association for relieving the sufferings of the wounded.
The society grew rapidly, a hospital and a church were built for them, first at Acre, and then at Jerusalem, and the King of Jerusalem finally formed them into an order called the Knights of Our Lady of Mount Zion. It was approved in 1191 by the Emperor and the Pope.
The Knights were bound to celibacy, to the defense of the Church and the Holy Land, and to the exercise of hospitality toward pilgrims of their own nation. It was under the second clause of these statues that they established subsequently their ruinous sway over Prussia, Poland, and Lithuania. Their habit was a black cross on a white mantle, and their rule that of St. Augustine.
Their original number was a Grand Master, twenty-four laymen, and seven priests. The latter celebrated mass clothed in complete armor, with swords by their sides. They were soon raised to forty, exclusive of numerous attendants.
When the Crusaders were driven from the Holy Land the Teutonic Knights decided that they would continue their warfare on the enemies of the cross, but in Europe instead of Asia. Great areas of Europe were still populated by pagans only six centuries ago. The Knights, as yet undecided where to begin their warfare, retired temporarily to Venice and thence to Transylvania, from which they were soon banished by the suspicious King of Hungary.
Poland was then suffering from the ferocious incursions of the barbarians who lived in Prussia, and she called on the Teutonic Knights for aid against these pagans. The Knights promptly gave it, with a vengeance.
They found the swamps and wilds of Prussia occupied by wild tribes who still worshipped in sacred groves and tended an undying flame. They conquered the tribes, established the first German navy, founded towns, brought in colonists, and within half a century had established a flourishing new nation.
The republic that was thus created was made simply by the expansion of the organization of the Order. The Grand Master was what we should call the President; the Treasurer of the Order was the Minister of Finance, and its Marshal was the Minister of War.
Each Knight became commander of a small district. In 1263 Pope Urban IV issues a bull permitting them to sell commodities, but not for gain. This provision, while proper for a simple body of /Knights, was impracticable for the government of a growing nation, and the brothers soon got rid of it by forging a new bull with the provision left out.
Then their commerce grew by leaps and bounds. These monks undertook large engineering works and reclaimed great tracts of wild land.
When Conrad, Regent of Poland, asked their aid against the infidels he had promised them the fortress and territory of Dobrzyn if they conquered the Prussians. Their success was so much beyond what he expected that he allowed them, for temporary use during the war, the territory of Culm and all the country between the Vistula, the Mokra, and the Druentsa.
This temporary occupation proved as permanent as such things usually are. In the reign of Ladislas IV the Knights took possession of Dantzic and held it in spite of the protests of the Poles.
In theory the Knights were holding their territory simply so that they could carry out their vow to make war on the heathen. In pursuit of this theory they made constant war on the pagan Lithuanians. But toward the close of the fourteenth century this became the mere shadow of a pretense.
The old days when the Knights slept on the bare ground and stuck strictly to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were gone. Magnificent feasts were given at their great castle of Marienburg; banquets lasted for two days at a time, with all the medieval accompaniments of trumpeters, ropedancers, fiddlers, tame bears, and other amusements that represented a great spree in the Middle Ages.
Grand Master Conrad, who tried to restore the Order to its old simplicity, found satirical verses written on the walls of Marienburg advising him to become a nun. The court jester styled him “Madam Abbess,” and threw an image of the Virgin Mary into the ditch because she had not, he said, graced the orgy with her presence.
The expeditions against the Lithuanians had now become mere hunting parties. When some great Prince was a guest at the castle the Knights would organize for his pleasure a hunt for men instead of for beats. Scouts or pathfinders were used in place of dogs to track the game. The Knights, with their guests, would cross into Lithuania, descend upon some quiet village “flushed” by their pathfinders, kill the men, and carry off the women and children. A great banquet would follow the hunt.
This was all that remained of the pretense that they were holding the land so as to make war on the heathen. This skeleton of an excuse vanished in 1386 when Prince Jagiello of Lithuania married the heiress of Poland, made the two countries one, and proclaimed the Christian religion. Under the wing of Poland the oppressed Lithuanians were in position to take vengeance upon their tyrants.
Prior to this time the defrauded Poles had been unable to make headway against the Knights. Once, in 1328, King Ladislas had laid waste the palatinate of Culm, but had not damaged the rule of the Knights in the least.
He had ordered his men to spare neither age nor sex, and to perpetrate ever excess they could think of. The ferocious command had been strictly carried out, but the sufferers were the innocent peasantry; the Knights outnumbered in the field simply retired into their castles and laughed at the invaders.
But now the situation had changed. Grand Master Conrad saw what was coming, sought to avoid war, and on his deathbed enjoined the Knights to beware of making his warlike brother Ulrich his successor.
They disregarded his warning, and in 1410 Ulrich led the Knights to their Waterloo. On the field of Grunwald, on the Polish frontier, the Knights’ army met Poles, brining with it the largest cannon ever yet seen in Germany. The Knights were crushed; Ulrich himself was killed, and 50,000 of his men said to have been slain, though this was undoubtedly an exaggeration.
This was not the last battle of the war, though it was as decisive as Gettysburg. Fortress after fortress surrendered, and the Poles failed in nothing except in the capture of Marienburg itself.
Count Henry of Plauen, throwing himself into it, repulsed the Poles, and his brethren rewarded him for it by imprisoning him for life. There is still in existence a letter of his from his prison in which he begs his successor in the Grand Mastership for food. The anger of the degenerate Knights had been kindled against him because he sought to restore the strength of the Order by drastic reforms.
The descent of the Order was swift. Its poverty became so great that it had to beg alms. Its wealth had been so vast that posterity could not believe that so much treasure had vanished, and search for it became as common as the hunt for Capt. Kidd’s treasure in America.
At last the Prussians rose against the Knights and called in the aid of the Poles. The country was completely devastated; in a war of thirteen years the Poles captured every castle in the land, and annexed all Western Prussia absolutely, allowing the Knights to hold Western Prussian as vassals.
In 1520, by a treaty between Sigismund of Poland and Albert of Brandenburg, the fallen Order was formally abolished, most of its Knights having become Protestants.