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The Beginning of the End of the Teutonic Order?,
This review is from: Tannenberg 1410: Disaster for the Teutonic Knights (Paperback)As I'm more interested in political and intellectual history than military history, I probably do not appreciate this book as its target audience, presumably military history aficionados, do. For me this is a double introduction: this is the first of Ospery's 'Campaign' series books I've read, and a rare detailed look into the tormented history of Poland, known to its people as the 'Christ of the nations'.
The Teutonic Order, originally ser out to battle crusades against the infidels, became a Prussian state, and its battles against the Poles, although dressed up in religious rhetoric were actually grabs for territories and power, as became increasingly apparent after the 1386 conversion of Lithuania, which the Teutonic Knights conveniently dismissed as a sham.
The session of hostilities between Poland and Lithuania, and Lithuania's Grand Duke Vytautas acceptance of the rule of Polish King Jagiello, led to increased confrontations with the Teutonic order, culminating in a Teutonic declaration of war and a Polish/Lithuanian invasion in 1410. The approximately 27 thousand Teutonic Knights out of whom, Turmbull estimates, only 250 were heavily mounted and armored knights (p.29) were defeated by the 39 thousand soldiers on the Polish/Lithuanian side near the village of Tannenberg on July the 15th, 1410.
Turnball's book begins with an introduction, tracing the events since the foundation of the Teutonic order in 1190 to the outbreak of the war. This part of the narrative was as exciting as high school history, a long list of Kings and campaigns, with very little description or analyses. I suppose it explains the background for the struggle - but that is all it does.
Next Turnbull gives a short description of the main protagonists, and a discussion of the troops constituting the Teutonic and Polish/Lithuanian armies. Even though the book is full of (sometimes marvelous) illustration, this part is strangely bereft of them, so the reader gets no pictures of either side's weapons or armor.
The description of the battle itself I found hard to follow. The great colored so called three dimensional maps of the battlefield are often put several pages away from the text's description of the events of the field, and (possibly because I'm not familiar with the format) I found them overcrowded and not clear. For example, Turnbull writes that the Teutonic may have dug pits in the battleground, but they are nowhere to be found on the maps.
The best parts of the book are the ones following the battle, detailing the Teutonic Order's recovery from the disastrous defeat, and the continuation of the war (sometimes through other means), until the second treaty of Thorn, in which the order essentially capitulated, and all that was left of the once vast Teutonic state was a small independent entity centered around Riga. The author then briefly considers the evolution of the Tannenberg myth until the Second World War, and how it was used for Propaganda purposed by Germans, Russians and Poles.
Turnbull writes that "the battle's true historical significance remains mired in controversy". Indeed, Turnbull's declaration that the Teutonic defeat "undoubtedly proved fatal in the long term" seems arguable to me. Were the Teutonic Knights fighting a desperate battle in the 1450s really doomed from the start? And if they were, was it because of a single battle defeat 40 years past?
I think Turnbull fails to consider the option that the collapse of the Teutonic order came not from the battlefield defeat, but from the changed political climate. The Teutonic Knights, invited to Poland by the Polish King to battle usurpers, now found against them a relatively united front of Poles and Lithuanians. And the conversion of Lithuania made it increasingly difficult to describe the wars as crusades, and to draw foreign guest crusaders.
The dim memory of the Teutonic Knights still reaches us through the centuries. But were they defeated on the battleground or by the changing of the times. How was it that the Teutonic world came to an end, in a bang or in a whimper?