July 15, 2007


Understanding Matejko's painting The Battle of Grunwald (Poland in the Classroom)

The July 15, 1410 battle fought between the villages of Grunwald and Tannenberg - as the village of Stębark was then called - was an epochal event. It was a battle between the Teutonic Knights, a mounted Military Order that had created its own German state along the Baltic Sea north of Poland, and the combined forces of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, recently joined through their ruler, King Własysław Jagiełło. It was a massive encounter pitting 24,000 men at arms on the Teutonic side against 39,000 on the Polish-Lithuanian side. Arguably, it was thus the largest battle of the Middle Ages, dwarfing the battle that took place on October 25, 1415 at Agincourt between the English and French forces that numbered 5900 and 20-30,000 respectively.

The battle, which in Germany continues to be referred to as the Battle of Tannenberg, has very much continued to live on in the consciousness of both Poles and Germans. In Poland, Grunwald remains a rallying cry for Polish patriotism. There is hardly a major town without its Grunwald Avenue, Square, Street or Cinema. The battle is viewed as having stemmed, for a time at least, the German "Drag nach Osten" (Push to the East), the Eastward quest of lands for settlement and trade, and thereby also to have prevented the otherwise likely Germanization of the country. In Germany also, Tannenberg has not been forgotten. Thus, for instance, when in late August 1914 in East Prussia the German Army faced 100,000 strong Russian Second Army, General, later Field Marshal, von Hindenburg is reputed to have said to General Ludendorf "Come on Ludi, let's get our own back for 1410" or words to that effect. The Russian army was duly annihilated in what is considered the most spectacular and complete German victory of the First World War. Thereafter, the encounter became known in Germany as the Second Battle of Tannenberg, presumably viewing it as a reprisal for the defeat suffered 500 years earlier at the hands Poles/Lithuanians, also Slavs.

When viewing the painting, it is well to be aware of the historical context of the time when it was created. To start with, over time, the Teutonic State morphed into the Kingdom of Prussia, an entity that participated in the 18th Century partition of the Polish State, annexing 20% Poland's territory in the process. Then the decade of the 1870s saw the rise of Prussia to unprecedented power. First, in 1970, the year in which Majeko conceived the painting The Battle of Grunwald, a coalition of German states led by Prussia defeated the Armies of France and besieged Paris. The following year, saw the successful culminations of Bismark's efforts to unify Germany, a process that led the King of Prussian becoming the German Emperor. Meanwhile the efforts to germanize the areas of Poland in the German partition intensified significantly. The can be little question that in deciding to create a painting of the ancient battle, Matejko had political motives in mind, wanting to remind his fellow Poles of their former success and thereby to give them both hope and incentive to resist the germanization efforts.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 15, 2007 6:20 PM

minor typo. It's 1870. Today some of the last painters in the West who paint like this are in places like Krakow.

Posted by: JAB at July 15, 2007 10:45 PM

A popular theme of military anthologies is consideration of what the authors or editors identify as the most decisive battles of world history.

Again and again, Poland appears. Grunwald, 1410; Vienna, 1683; the Miracle of the Vistula, 1920--all pitted the sons of freedom against the alien hordes.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 16, 2007 3:58 AM

Lou, how and why did the Poles become Jew haters who mounted pogroms against them? It goes against everything I've recently in read in Henryk Sienkiewicz's books about Polish society.

Posted by: erp at July 16, 2007 8:31 AM

erp, I think it is easy to hate someone who isn't part of you and yours. In a time of limited mobility, when people stayed close to their homes and kin it would be easy to take askance at those who were amongst you, but didn't share everything with you - the same religion, the same families, the same traditions. In good times the majority would ignore that minority; in bad times, when looking for a scapegoat, it would be easy to look for these 'outsiders' and declare them the problem ("I'm not saying it's your fault; I'm just blaming you!").

Do not forget greed, either. Henry VIII had a lot of supporters who were willing to ignore a lot in order to buy those monastic lands at fire-sale prices. A merchant or local gentry could be persuaded to go along with a pogrom if they could acquire the personalty or stock-in-trade of their Jewish neighbors for a song.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 16, 2007 3:10 PM

Jews are both wrong and failed to assimilate. It doesn't justify violence towards them, but does explain it.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 3:26 PM

oj, failure to assimilate? What about Germany? German Jews felt themselves Germans. That's why so many of them refused to believe what was happening and didn't leave when they had the chance.

Mickey, reading thousands of pages of Polish history through Sienkiewicz's novels shows them far ahead of the then closed societies. Jews and Tartars (Moslems) and Turks and even Protestants were allowed to live in peace throughout Polish lands which were much more extensive at that time. Poles even elected their kings way back when.

The turnaround from this open free society to the pogroms and ghettos makes no sense.

Posted by: erp at July 16, 2007 5:16 PM

Yes, in Germany it was just about Applied Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 8:12 PM

This is all just a giant "circle jerk"!
The participants, the battle (bloody as it may have been, look at Cercy, equally as bloody, but, historically, along with Agincourt, more important to Western civilization)are almost irrelevant to Western Civilization. The comparisons to the Jewish Holocaust of 20th Century Germany are, at best, ridiculous.
If you want a REALLY good story from the Medieval Days, go read Orrin's deservedly highly recommended "Falls the Shadow", Simon de Montefort is the greatest unsung hero of the Anglo world!

Posted by: Mike at July 16, 2007 9:05 PM

Erp: A fair question. Sienkiewicz writes mostly of of the szlachta, the minor nobility, and somewhat of the magnates.

These people were for the most part welcoming of Jews who were needed to do the work, including professional work, the nobles considered beneath them. This is why so many Jews wound up in Poland, being better treated there than in the rest of Europe.

Peasants could lapse into vulgar xenophobia, which is what peasants do.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 16, 2007 9:51 PM

Lou, are you saying peasants took it upon themselves to terrorize Jews without direction from their masters or advantage to themselves? That seems unlikely given the control their lords had over every aspect of their lives.

The CW I've read is Jews were murdered when those who borrowed money, often in very large amounts, couldn't or wouldn't pay it back and in order to justify the murders, accused Jews of ridiculous bloody religious practices which in turn led to European anti-Semitism and culminated, one would hope, in Hitler's "final solution."

I haven't finished "Falls the Shadow," so I'll give Simon benefit of the doubt even if he is a Frenchman.

Posted by: erp at July 17, 2007 8:44 AM