On 15 July 1410 Polish-Lithuanian forces fought against the Teutonic Order in the Battle of Grunwald (also known as the First Battle of Tannenberg). It happens that tomorrow marks the 607th anniversary of one of the biggest battles which took place in medieval Europe.
There is no one from Poland who wouldn’t know about this battle, probably no German either, but I decided to spread the word of it to the other side of the pond, so here it is:
The causes of the battle are complex and built up for many years before it started, but the simplest and easiest way to explain it would be: the Teutonic Knights were causing trouble in Europe and were particularly interested in Lithuanian lands. Previous conquests were justified as bringing Christianity to the pagans, but Lithuania had converted. The Teutonic Knights wanted to invade anyway. They wanted Poland to keep out of this. We didn’t. We never do.
In theory, this was a quarrel between the Polish-Lithuanian alliance and the Teutonic Knights, but in truth, there were way more parties involved. On the Polish-Lithuanian side stood i.a. Serbian, Moldovan and Russian vassals; Czech, Silesia and Moravia mercenaries; and even Tatar’s Khan of the Golden Horde, Jalal al-Din. The Teutonic Order was supported by various knights from western Europe such as the Danish and French, as well as Czechs, Silesians, and the Duchy of Pomerania.
Grunwald wasn’t a planned battlefield. Both armies arrived there at more or less the same time. The difference was that the allies under the command of Władysław II Jagiełło stopped in the shadows of the forest, while Ulrich von Jungingen’s Teutonic Knights set up a camp in the sunny open field. So no wonder that Władysław took his time, listened to two full masses and waited until high noon before he gave final orders to his commanders.
A lesser-known fact is that Ulrich wanted to conduct a surprise attack on the right flank of the Polish-Lithuanian forces and while performing the manoeuvre he encountered a small group of horsemen. He didn’t know that he found Władysław’s detachment with Władysław himself watching the battle from the hill. The King’s banner-carrier dropped the flag to avoid detection and he suicide-charged into the enemy. Ulrich chose to disregard this small group. The German knight Dypold von Kökeritz ignored Ulrich’s orders, singled out the knight in the most fabulous-looking armour, and attacked. Little did he know that it was the Polish king. Władysław II Jagiełło injured Kökeritz in his face with his spear and the King’s secretary Oleśnicki finished him off.
After a hard day’s fighting, the Polish-Lithuanian alliance won the battle, Ulrich von Jungingen was dead, and they reclaimed lands the Order had seized, but the battle hadn’t finished the Teutonic Knights. In order to do that, the army needed to move as quickly as possible over 100km to Malbork (Marienburg) and gain control over the castle. It took too long, and some of the allies had already returned to their homes, depleting the army’s strength. The siege was unsuccessful, and the Teutonic Knights continued to wreak havoc in Europe for the next couple hundred years.
What I find fascinating about the battle of Grunwald is the fact that during the centuries following the event, Grunwald was used as a propaganda tool by both sides – German and Polish.
In 1871, the German Empire used the Teutonic Knights’ lost fame and defeat at Grunwald as an excuse to “reclaim” Polish lands.
After Malbork castle was restored in 1902, German Emperor Wilhelm II gave a speech where he rumbled about the “conceited” Polish and their resistance to be germanized. From this point on, the Polish (still under the Austrian Partition) started eagerly celebrating every anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald.
During WWI Paul von Hindenburg defeated the Russian army near Tannenberg and announced that the Grunwald defeat was avenged. He clearly confused all Slavic people with each other.
After WWII, the Order’s legend lived mostly through Polish communist propaganda with lots of myths and exaggerated “facts” about Grunwald. The event was put on a pedestal as “that time when we defeated those bad Germans”.
Now there are a lot of young people who are eager to learn solid facts about the Battle of Grunwald and even recreate the battle itself (every year – check out youtube!). We are still proud of it – that’s right – but for very different reasons. We started to celebrate our great leaders (not many of them in modern times) and our victories. And I think that’s good, because (I hope) it means that we are starting to slowly shake off the feelings of injustice and victimhood from WWII and the events that followed.