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Useful Notes: The Teutonic Knights

Throughout the history of the Deutschritter the German genius is very evident, romantic idealism implemented with utter ruthlessness.
—Desmond Seward, The Monks of War

The Deutsche Orden (Latin, Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum (OT) or the "Order of the House of St. Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem") is a Roman Catholic religious order, more commonly known as "The Teutonic Knights." Traditionally founded c. 1190 A.D. by merchants from Bremen and Lübeck in Acre as a hospital service for Germans in the Holy Land, by 1198 it imitated the older crusading orders, the Hospitallers and Templars, in acquiring knightly brothers whose original mission was to protect pilgrims, but who soon expanded their activities to include military actions against Muslim enemies of the Crusading states. Like the Templars, whose rule they substantially adopted, they wore as their habit a white mantle with a cross, but a black rather than a red one. (It would be some time before the form was standardized into the „Tatzenkreuz‟ or "Cross patée" version borne today;)

After the decline of the Crusader States in the early thirteenth century, they sought other fields of operation. Under the most important of the early Grand Masters („Hochmeister‟, literally "High Master"), Hermann von Salza (1209-1239), a Thuringian knight who was a favorite of both Pope Gregory IX and of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the Order expanded first into the so-called „Burzenland‟ of Transylvania, and then, after their expulsion therefrom by the King of Hungary, into the Baltic area at the request of Conrad, Duke of Masovia, to crusade against the heathen Pruzzi (a people speaking a now-extinct language related to Lithuanian and Latvian) — after Hermann had carefully made sure that all lands conquered by the Order were to be administered by it. This was the foundation of the so-called „Ordensstaat‟ (or "Order-state"). After the fall of Acre in 1291, the Grand Masters moved their residence first to Venice, and then in 1309 to the Marienburg (now Malbork in Poland).

The Livonian Brothers of the Sword were an originally unrelated crusading group, but were eventually absorbed into the Teutonic Knights as the Livonian Order. Consequently this article (like many others) tends to lump them in together, but an important distinction is that the Livonian Order ruled the northern territory of Latvia-Estonia, whereas the Teutonic Knights controlled East and West Prussia — conquering Lithuania would have united the two. The Pope turned the Knights' attention to fighting not just the pagan Lithuanians, but also the Russian "schismatics" (hence their appearance as stand-ins for the Nazis in Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky).

As the various Prussian tribes were conquered, the Order settled the land with German colonists, developing a powerful and sophisticated civilization outside the borders of the Holy Roman Empire (though at least at first under nominal suzerainty of the Emperor), which was controlled wholly by the representative of the Order in each particular territory — the „Landmeister‟) and gradually integrating the natives into it. After the conquest of Prussia had been completed, the Order expanded eastward, throughout the 14th and 15th centuries — or at least tried to.

The very success of the Order brought about its downfall. Having substantially converted the heathen populace of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, they came into jurisdictional conflict with the now converted natives, particularly after 1386, when Jogaila, the leader of the Lithuanians, was baptized and became the Christian King Władysław Jagiello of Poland. Recriminations and open warfare between the Order and the Poles were the result, with the latter gradually gaining the upper hand. The defeat in the battle of Grunwald (German name: Tannenberg, 15 July, 1410) and a rebellion by the local nobility and cities aided by a Polish intervention (1455-1466) resulted in the Order sustaining large territorial losses and having to accept Polish suzerainty over the part of East Prussia they retained. Due to the loss of Marienburg, the Order had to move its residence to Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad).

The worst challenge to the Order, however, came with the Protestant Reformation. In 1525, the Grand Master, Albert of Brandenburg, having converted to Lutheranism, repudiated his vows and seized upon the lands of the Order, doing homage for them to his uncle, King Sigismund I of Poland, and making himself the first Duke of Prussia. Many of the knightly brethren followed suit, while others remained faithful to Catholicism. The Grand Mastership thereafter reverted to the Landmaster within the Kingdom of Germany, who became known as the „Hoch- und Deutschmeister‟ thenceforth.

Outside Germany, the Kingdom of Prussia is often seen as a direct successor of the Order State, which overlooks that after Reformation the the Duchy became an unremarkable principality, that the nucleus of what became the Kingdom of Prussia lay in Brandenburg (the kingdom was named "Prussia", because it was inherited by the rulers of Brandenburg in the 17th century and lay outside the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, which allowed the Margrave of Brandenburg to declare himself "King in Prussia"). "Prussian militarism" also only came about as a consequence of the devastation of the country during the Thirty Years' War; up until then Brandenburg and Prussia had actually been less militaristic than some of its neighbors, most notably Sweden, Poland, and Bavaria.

From the time of the Reformation to the end of World War I, the Teutonic Order was largely a preserve of the Habsburg monarchy. Notable (and generally temporary) Grand Masters would include the Archduke Maximilian III of Austria, Archduke Maximilian Francis of Austria, and Archduke Charles of Austria-Teschen. After the abdication of the last Holy Roman Emperor, many of the holdings of the Order in Germany were seized by Napoleon and his allies, though some were regained after his fall in 1815, particularly in lands ruled by the Habsburgs. After the fall of the Austrian monarchy, Archduke Eugene of Austria-Teschen, in order to preserve the Order, resigned his position as the last secular „Hoch- und Deutschmeister‟ and reconstituted it as a purely religious body, rededicating it to its original purpose of hospital work. In this form, the Teutonic Order has survived up to the present day, though its crusading days are long over.

The Teutonic Knights, who were actually an organization dedicated to conversion rather than colonization (even if they did mix the two together), were later appropriated by the most radical of German nationalists as representatives of the fabled „Drang nach Osten‟ ("Drive to the East"). (Note that in some older works, this is actually viewed as a positive characterization.) This has led to the real Teutonic Knights, nasty people as they may have been, like most mediæval warriors, being subjected to a Historical Villain Upgrade or worse, as an example showing that All Germans Are Nazis.

Ironically, despite the Nazis appropriating the Teutonic Order's symbols for its propaganda, the Order itself, which, by 1930s, was dedicated purely to peaceful endeavors, was violently suppressed during the Third Reich. It was reconstituted only with the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 and currently has about 1,000 members providing spiritual guidance and care for the physically infirm, mostly in German speaking lands.

Tropes Associated With The Teutonic Knights

  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The Battle of Grunwald (a.k.a. Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410, in which the Teutonic Knights were defeated by the allied Poles and Lithuanians, was one of the largest battles of the European Middle Ages.
  • Church Militant: Among the trope codifiers.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Almost everywhere east of the Oder/Odra river they're known as some variety of the Cross-Bearers, i. e. "Crusaders".
    • In Russia and some other post-Soviet states, they are also known under the moniker "Dog-knights" (Псы-рыцари). This name springs from Joseph Stalin failing his history lessons and not recognizing a typo when the German word "Rittersbunde" (knight unions) was mistyped as "Rittershunde" (broken: knight dogs). Everyone in the USSR repeated the same mistake after him.
  • Expy: As explained above, they are frequently used, after Eisenstein, as Nazis By Another Name.
    • No Swastikas: They are partially responsible for Eisenkreuz, the substitution.
  • Faceless Goons: Like most later knights, they had concealing headgear, used to invoke Spikes of Villainy by Eisenstein.
  • False Friend: The nations opposing the Knights tend to remember them as such. Theirs' and the Knights' versions of the same deals not matching each other and stuff.
  • Feudal Overlord: Of course.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Or not. (Generally more of a Tin Tyrant.)
  • Knight Templar: Possibly a better example than the trope namer.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Nazis stole some of their imagery, such as a stark black-and-white cross, leading to Older Than They Think. Eisenstein also put their foot-soldiers in rather World War I-looking helmets.
  • The Sound of Martial Music: After the mastership of the Knights became a Habsburg preserve, one of its most senior regiments (Infantry Regiment No. 4) traditionally had the master as its colonel-in-chief and was thus named the „Hoch- und Deutschmeister‟ (famous particularly for its band). The name was later continued to be used for tradition's sake by various formations of the two Austrian republics (and the Wehrmacht) to this day. Moreover, the very last secular Hochmeister of the Deutscher Orden, Archduke Eugen von Österreich-Teschen, was a field marshal of the Royal-and-Imperial army
    • During the reign of Wilhelm II, there were some attempts to revive the traditions of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, leading to the formation of the Deutsch-Ordens-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 152 in 1897 and the field artillery regiments Groß-Komtur (Nr. 71) and Hochmeister (Nr. 72) in 1899.
  • Warrior Monk: A rare western example.

Works Associated with the Teutonic Knights:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • On Axis Powers Hetalia the character Prussia was the Teutonic Order before becoming Brandenburg-Prussia. At least one strip shows him and several Teutonic Knights in battle with Poland. He "grows up" having gained Baltic territory — his child-form interacts with Hungary and gallivants around the Burzenland.
  • First Squad borrows its ghostly German knights from Alexander Nevsky, so there's probably some Teutonic influence in there.
  • Bleach: The Quincies are very heavily influenced by the Teutonic Knights. When Uryuu first shows up in his Quincy uniform, he's compared to a priest and his attacks and magical chants are performed in German. Although Uryuu states the Quincies favour archery, he's been well-trained in swords. The Quincies also end up Putting on the Reich, becoming a highly organised, highly efficient and very ruthless military organisation led by a Grand Master who serves a holy Emperor. The last Quincy free of the Vandenreich is a Hospital Director, a callback to the original leadership of the early Teutonic Knights being Hospital Masters instead of Grand Masters.

    Comic Books 
  • Thurim in Requiem Chevalier Vampire used to be one, though he was already evil then.
  • Heinrich Himmler creates the New Teutonic Order (essentially a Badass Army that rivals the SS) in the Alternate History comic book Block 109. The Castle of Marienburg is used as the HQ of this Order, just like during the Middle Ages in real life.


  • Alexander Nevsky is a film by Sergei Eisenstein (which ironically is just the sort of surname you'd expect one of the Knights to have). Wildly historically inaccurate, especially since it was created in Russia during the Stalinist era, it is also full of Soviet propaganda (The Knights' helmets even resemble those of 20th century German soldiers). It nevertheless has dominated the contemporary conception of the Teutonic Order, and is a damn fine film.
  • The 1960 film adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Krzyżacy. (See Literature, below.)


  • The Russian heavy metal band Ariya has a song about the Battle of Lake Peipus, called The Ballad of the Ancient Russian Warrior. The song describes the events in a quite supernatural light, with weeping icons, Hell promising help to the Grand Master, and the titular warrior still lingering on the lake shores as a ghost.

    Tabletop Games 

  • Warhammer: Inner Circle Knights of the Empire. They even sport the same insignia - black cross on white.
  • In Warhammer 40,000 the Black Templars are some kind of futuristic Teutonic Order. They are dressed in black and white with crosses of the same color. They love to fight with Swords, have sometimes altered, more mediæval looking helmets and are very fanatic. One of their High Marshals is called "Sigismund" and they've got other German names like "Gervhart" or "Helbrecht." Even among the other Space Marines they're the best example of Warrior Monks as they are constantly crusading around the galaxy, have rules which enforce them using extremely aggressive close-combat tactics and are famously known for charging into suicidal situations to avenge their fallen brothers in arms. For comparison, another Space Marine chapter known for maddened melee fighting are the Blood Angels, who have a flaw to their Bio-Augmentation that makes them susceptible to falling into two examples of Unstoppable Rage... the Black Templars however lack such a tangible reason behind their ferocity.
  • Pan Oceania has recreated this and other knightly orders as elite crack teams. The Teutonic Order is known for being particularly brutal close up, even in a game which focuses on ranged combat.

    Video Games 
  • In the Kingdoms expansion of Medieval 2: Total War, the Teutonic Order is a full-fledged faction in one of the campaigns. They definitely follow Eisenstein's portrayal of the Order, with their most powerful units, the Ritterbrüder, wearing scary looking armor and their sole presence frightening nearby enemy units.
  • The Teutons are a playable faction in Age of Empires II. Teutonic Knights are their faction-specific unit. They kick ass in melee combat, but they'll get destroyed by archers due to their movement speed being slightly greater than a crawl.
  • Assassin's Creed has them — even though all of the major targets, Muslim and Christian, are actually secret Templars. They can be found harassing street people in German, as opposed to the French spouted by Hospitallers.
  • The Teutonic Order appears in Crusader Kings when the player starts fighting the Baltic pagans, but isn't a playable nation.
    • Within the sequel they are one of three "Holy Orders" available to Catholics in vanilla, functioning as elite mercenaries, but limited to fighting heathens and heretics, and costing piety rather than gold. With the expansion Sons of Abraham, they can gain land as can all Holy Orders, and now may request favors. However, they seem very prone to administrating land taken in crusades, perhaps reflecting on their Real Life role.
  • It also appears in Europa Universalis, in which it is a playable nation and one of the more popular. The Livonian brothers are vassals and allies of the Teutonic Order.
    • It's also possible that if you play long enough, the option becomes available to become Prussia.
  • Medic's Polycount Set in Team Fortress 2 makes him into one of these, comprised of a helmet, a Healing Shiv crossbow, and a bonesaw with a Taunt effect similar to the Buff Banner. It's either a play on his German heritage and/or a reference to his Knight in Sour Armor attitude towards his job.
  • The Teutonic Knights appear in the Red Alert 3: Paradox mod as part of the Order of the Talon along with the Knights Templar and The Knights Hospitallers, and specifically are represented by the Chevalier unit. In the Paradox timeline, the Teutonic Knights were virtually extinct until Talon heroine Lady Maria revived them as an Amazon Brigade comprised of her handpicked students.
  • They are featured as one of the best armored swordsman units in Knights of Honor, but are only limited available to Catholic nations ruling specific provinces.

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alternative title(s): The Teutonic Knights
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