When there is a talk about the Crusades, people usually think only of the wars against the Muslims in the Holy Land in the 11th through 13th centuries. But there were another Crusades going on in same time in North Eastern Europe – the Baltic Crusades.
The topic about Crusades against Baltic people is still very poorly presented by the European history. Probably because the real meaning of Crusades was forced expansion and subsequent occupation of Baltic lands and not the “bringing of light and culture” to the pagan “low lifes”. This occupation was performed by so called ”bigger and richer”‘ European nations and they were never keen to speak about such shameful things on pages of history books, especially some time ago. No big heroic deeds were accomplished here, nor legendary battles fought in name of freedom and honour and better future by invading crusaders.
For many centuries there was given explanation of what happened in Baltic region – that purpose of Crusades was to bring a culture to degenerated pagan tribes of Balts, who lived almost like animals and were finished down only for their own good.
If our two Baltic nations (Latvians and Lithuanians) had not a power to survive through the centuries, it’s possible that topic of Baltic crusades would not be examined and talked at all, or it would be presented then in a different view, far from historical truth.
My personal opinion is that when the European nations swapped their pagan traditions for Christianity and were forced to baptize by power–hungry leaders, they also lost and destroyed much of their own traditional cultures. The result of it was Roman-Judaic-European hybrid culture, in remains of which we still live today.
The Baltic lands were the last citadel of this old European culture, where it remained untouched for so long due to the regions’ natural isolation. The Baltic people had been traditionally very conservative in their beliefs and practices, and it was difficult to make them change simply because the new religion of Christianity was spreading around so rapidly.
It was the Crusades against the Baltic region which put an end to this way of life, its traditions and legacy of ancient wisdom through a baptism of fire and sword from the Catholic Church.
Following the public obsession of the Holy Wars and Crusades in Central Europe, along with a few failed missions in the Far East, the Catholic Church and ruling military forces soon discovered that there were still unchristianized Pagan lands. What’s more, these countries were nowhere else but in North Eastern Europe, close to their own borders!
Europe were flooded with soldiers, mercenaries and simple fortune seekers, who were ready to fight wherever the luck and money could be found. Also there were military factions like the Teutonic Order, who had not achieved much success in the Holy Land as compared to the Templars or Hospitallers, and now they were looking for an opportunity to get a new place of establishment.
This entire time Baltic pagan tribes were separated from the rest of Europe behind thick forests and swamps and still lived by their own old ways handed over from generation to generation. Though armed conflicts and invasions did often occur, they had no any significant impact on culture and life in general.
During many decades Vikings tried to conquer and establish their control over the Baltic shores. However, their endeavours had not much of success as they were soon either overthrown and driven away, or stayed on to mix in with the local tribes.
Other outsiders who had their sights set onto the North Eastern lands were the Russian Orthodox Church which attempted to christianize the Baltic pagans and convert them to Orthodoxy, though this mission ended poorly. There were also some Russian warlords who wished to subjugate pagan Balts to collect more tax money, but this too had failed.
Also there were the Polish dukes, who made attacks against the Old Prussians in order to expand their lands, adding some feeble attempts to convert pagan Prussians to Catholicism at the same time.
All in all, battles and conflicts between the Baltic people and invaders were ongoing long before the Crusades against them had begun. Local tribes were also fighting each other in raids to plunder wealth and slaves. They even went as far as to aggravate surrounding countries: reports exist of Estonian and Curonian pirates launching assaults on lands like Denmark and Sweden, not only to attack merchant ships but also taking part in local Scandinavian wars for power. The Old Prussians too would constantly strike counter-raids against the Poles, while Lithuanian and Latvian tribes plundered Russian borders.
CRUSADE AGAINST LATVIA
The first Catholic preachers arrived in present-day Latvia in 1180, accompanied by German merchants who followed old Viking trading routes along the river Daugava (Duna). Immediately, they started their missions of preaching and performing baptisms among the local Livonian people, where they began to establish their communities and building first churches.
Initially, these “Holy” men behaved in a friendly manner which led them to be met with warm welcomes from the pagan tribes. However, when the Livonians refused to convert to the new religion, the priests revealed their true colours and called up armed forces to aid their goals.
In 1199, Albert of Buxhoeveden was then appointed by the Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen to Christianize the Baltic countries. He gathered crusaders in Germany and arrived with the clear purpose of conquer these lands. To support his plans, a new military faction, Brothers of the Sword, was founded in 1202.
It was around the start of the 14th century, following many countless, bloodied battles, that the lands of present-day Latvia and Estonia were captured by German forces and officially converted over to Catholicism. For the next few centuries, they were known under the name “Livonia”.
Yet despite this official status, the locals continued to follow their ancient traditions almost up until the beginning of the 20th century! Since Christianity wasn’t fully introduced to the Baltic tribes, they were able to persist with practicing their pagan customs and beliefs. Though they were baptized by force, very little was actually done by the priests to explain the basic teachings and values of this foreign religion to them; all of the Holy texts and ministrations that were essential to the cause were written and spoken in Latin, the official language of the Church, rather than the local tongue of the Latvian peasants.
A lot of Semigallian, Curonian and Sellonian people, who didn’t gave up their pagan religion, moved to the yet unconquered neighbouring Lithuanian land and from there continued their resistance fights against Christian invaders.
CRUSADE AGAINST OLD PRUSSIA
In 1226, after Old Prussians destroyed Polish Order of Dobrin which were formed with a purpose to subdue the Prussians, Polish duke Konrad asked for help to German Teutonic Order and offered them some of his lands as foothold for expansion to Prussia.
The conquest of Prussia was accomplished in course of more than 50 years of continuous bloodshed. During this time native Prussians who remained unbaptized were subjugated, killed or exiled. Fights between the Knights and the Prussians were ferocious; some lands were totally exterminated to such extent that there were no people left at all!
Similarly as Latvian and Estonian tribes, Prussians were not easy giving up their religion and lifestyle – in many cases they rather choose to die than surrender.
Those of Prussians, who still tried to resist, again went off to newly established pagan Kingdom of Lithuania and continued to fight invaders among Lithuanians.
The empty Prussian lands were soon inhabited by German settlers and remaining Old Prussians were turned into peasants or slowly assimilated with Germans and thus vanished from the pages of history. Later German settlers started to name themselves as Prussians and formed Kingdom of Prussia which was completely eliminated after World War II.
CRUSADE AGAINST LITHUANIA
In a meantime, while Latvian, Estonian and Prussian tribes in bloody battles stood against Crusaders, neighboring Lithuanians had a chance to form their own pagan kingdom. Soon it emerged as a great power and serious opponent to the European invaders.
After many armed conflicts with Teutonic and Livonian Orders, some of the Lithuanian Grand dukes allowed to baptize themselves into Catholicism in a hope to cease bloodshed. Nevertheless the attacks didn’t stop! Now Lithuanians realized how hypocritical were Christian promises and what they really wanted were their lands, not saving their souls!
Grand dukes like Mindaugas and Gedeminas in disgust threw away new religion and turned back to paganism.
The Teutonic Knights failed to subdue pagan Lithuania, which officially converted to (Catholic) Christianity in 1386 as Grand Duke Jogaila married the 11-year-old Queen Jadwiga of Poland.
Lithuanians formed alliance with Poland and finally defeated Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald (also known as Battle of Žalgiris or Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410, thus putting an end to Crusades against Baltic people.
The failure of Baltic people to stand against Crusaders were not because they were weak, poorly armed or disorganized, but because they had limited manpower while Crusaders always got constant supply of fresh forces from all over Europe joining their ranks.