Tag Archives: Prussia

The Significance of The Northern Crusades in History

Modern historians tend to overlook economic factors when investigating historical motivations. The first Northern Crusade (The Wendish Crusade), as commonly narrated, was a branch of the Second Crusade, undertaken on behalf of St. Bernard de Clairvaux’s furious pulpit outreach to retake the holy land.

Ideological motivation is difficult to overlook when analyzing historical empires: the majority of empires and religions are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. This is true of Roman Catholicism no less than for the Vedic seers who wrote the Rig Veda, the Achaemenids who patronized Zoroastrianism, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl in Aztec Mexico. Early Islam and Maccabean Judaism are virtually irreconcilable from their irredentist histories.

Another useful hermeneutic in investigating empire expansion in history could be to see the entirety of Eurasia as a network of trading points from Greenland to China.

It is one thing to view state formation as a means of “farming the farmers” in the form of tribute and taxation, but it is another to understand that the control of choke points along trade routes was a potent method of accumulating wealth, gathering reconnaissance information and learning foreign technological innovation.

It is at this point that we interject ourselves into the 12th Century, circa 1140 Latin Europe. Right now magnificent castles are being erected, the Gothic style of architecture is gaining popularity and monastic brotherhoods are spreading throughout Christendom. The mechanization of labor is making production resemble that of the clock, the moldboard plow with three-field rotation is revolutionizing agriculture, and engineering projects are creating a Europe that finally resembled a place of almost universal order for the first time in over 600 years.

Would it come as a surprise then that the per capita wealth of Latin Christendom was relatively poor compared to towns within a place known as “Scythia,” a scarcely inhabited forest region engulfed between Latin and Greek Christendom?

Primary sources and archeology tell us of trading emporiums on the Baltic of extreme wealth, and contrasted this to the relative poverty of the pious peasant in the Holy Roman Empire. Wolin, was a perfect example of these trading hubs. Although little remains today of such sites, due to the fact that the constructions were wooden instead of stone, we know that these areas were constant sources of irritation for Christendom. Not only because of their flagrant disregard for the conducts of civilized Christian warfare, but for their flaunting of untold wealth that Western Christendom did not possess.

Let us briefly mention a few salient facts of life up until this point: the Baltic region is connected to the entirety of the world through its deep-flowing river systems. This is why Egyptologists have found Baltic amber in the tombs of the Pharaohs. This is why statues of the Buddha can be found in Scandinavian silver hoards (written in Arabic), and it is also the reason why a band of pagan pirates today known as the Vikings were able to terrorize Christendom for hundreds of years prior, brandishing a flexible blade of pure steel, that’s ingots had their origin in Persia, not in Europe.

The might of Charlemagne’s Latin kingdoms were easily able to be bypassed. No empire in history has ever been established to ignore revenues, and the larger an empire gets, the more intricate and sophisticated its road system grows, largely as a means of imperial revenue collection. Persia had the first postal system, Rome the greatest road and aqueduct system, and the Vikings (and later Wends) had their boats and rivers. What did France and Germany have?

Fast forward from the Vikings (who are all now repentant and Christened) we move eastward to an area of men who still live in a similar fashion where plunder is praised, reminiscent of Homer’s Odysseus (the sacker of cities). In this world, rapine and commerce are two sides of the same coin and the ideas and customs of mercy and charity from the West are in all essence, untranslatable.

These people were called by the Germans, Wends. They were Slavic tribes of the Western Lechitic branch, similar to today’s Poles, Czechs and Slovaks. They also happened to hold the title as the most feared pirates in the North.

In border societies, despoliation is a more rational means of social mobility than agriculture and thrift. This is true of the historical Scotch-Irish no-man’s land as it was of the Limes Saxoniae: there is no purpose in tilling the field year round just to watch it be put to torch during a surprise raid by a neighboring tribe come harvest time.

Border societies tend to value bravado, skill in weaponry and an acceptance of death as an everyday fact of life. This was a time when the November frost would still cull the infirm and ill-prepared, just like during the days of Hesiod, and charitable cloisters for the unfortunate were yet to grow out of the pagan soil. It was, with all the horror that the word was imbued with, a heathen world of dark forests and evil spirits.

The Wends raided Christendom with as much fury as the Vikings. And for a longer period of time. They were less accepting of the Latin Rite then their counterparts in the North. They belonged to a competing ethnolinguistic group. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine them not being a target of the Crusader’s craft during such a time of mass hysteria as when the Second Crusade was being launched in the Holy Land and off the coasts of Portugal. For several hundred years the Wends had dipped their helmets in the Alster, as Hamburg’s denizens cowered behind stone walls, watching their meager winter supplements devoured by the voracious children of the devil.

The Crusader Creed brought together the promise of riches on earth as in heaven, and certainly the former tended to acquiesce more with certain elements of the strongmen of the West. Primary sources such as Helmold of Basau, tend to bemoan this tendency amongst his Saxon brethren, that the zeal for lucre tended to outweigh the zeal for souls.

After the Germanic Military Orders conquered the north, a three hundred year reign of Teutonic trading supremacy would begin in the Baltic in the name of the Hanseatic League. Monopoly markets were established in the commodities of amber, resins, cod, and timber. Lübeck, once a tiny Wendish outpost became the political epicenter of the league, and the pagan emporia of olden year became a thing of legend until the arrival of modern archeology.


My First Peer-Reviewed Article

I received notification this morning that my first Peer-Reviewed article has been accepted for publication.  It is an annotated bibliography of Frederick the Great for Oxford University Press (OUP) Online and it has taken me awhile to write it up.  The process of writing it is pretty interesting in and of itself and I am going to describe how that went.

I was first contacted by OUP last November asking if I had any interest in writing an article.  The initial contact had the proposed subject and that Dr. Dennis Showalter is the Editor-in-Chief for the project. Because I get blog related spam and fishy requests and offers all the time  emailed Dr. Showalter to find out if it was for real and he assured me that it was whereupon I agreed to the project and started researching and writing.  Writing the first draft took me about 4 months between researching, writing, and doing all the other stuff I have simultaneously going on.  Once I submitted the initial draft it took about 6 weeks for the initial edits and peer-reiew and then another two weeks for me to make revisions and re submit it.

Finally, this morning I got the notification that it has been accepted for publication.  It is milestone for me as it is my first academically peer-reviewed paper.  Not something I though I would ever actually accomplish.  If you look at the OUP page for forthcoming articles mine is scheduled for Spring 2013.

The Battle of Jena-Auerstädt: 14 Oct 1806

The Battle of Jena-Auerstädt was fought in Germany on 1806 between the French Imperial Army and the Prussian Royal Army. It is actually two separate battles separated by about twenty miles. Both the French and Prussian armies were split leading to two separate engagements one was fought by Napoleon and Davout commanded the French Corps at Auerstädt. The battle at Jena was the larger of the two as far as forces involved are concerned but the action at Auerstädt was operationally the more decisive. Combined, the Prussians suffered a devastating defeat that they could not recover from and led to the virtual surrender of the kingdom in the face of Napoleons demands at Tilsit a little over three months later. It is simpler to look at the two engagements separately and then talk about the way the twin defeats affected the Prussians and French. One of the important things about the battle is the impetus to reform given to the Prussians after their defeat. They went to war against Napoleon in 1805 with an army that was essentially unchanged in structure and doctrine from the one Frederick II had used fifty years previously during the invasion of Silesia and Seven Years War.

Relative locations of the engagements on 14 Oct 1806

I will discuss the Battle at Jena to begin with. Not only were there more forces engaged there, that was where Napoleon was in command. Some sources claim Napoleon displayed his typical brilliance at Jena, I am not so sure. The fighting at Jena began early in the morning and continued through the afternoon. The Prussians pressed attacks home but they were continually thrown back by French artillery fire. The Prussians also suffered from the effect of the fire from French skirmishers.1 The decisive moment at Jena was when several commanders of the Prussian left were killed or wounded. This led to the collapse of that flank and after that it was all over except for the crying as the saying goes. The French pressed their advantage and this led to a Prussian retreat all along their front that quickly started to look like a rout, especially once the French cavalry started attacking and pursuing the retreating Prussians.

The battle at Auerstädt some 12 Kilometers north of the main battle at Jena was a slightly different affair but the results in the end were the same. At Auerstädt, the Prussians actually had numerical superiority and could have perhaps avoided complete defeat if their senior commanders had actually worked together instead of at cross purposes. Marshall Davout commanded the French forces and he handled his troops extremely well. He was also assisted by the overall greater unity of command in the French army. Davout achieved a defensive victory and then followed it up with an offensive late in the day that caused the Prussian army to essentially rout and leave the field in a rush.

The Prussian army was pretty much destroyed as a fighting force after Jena-Auerstädt. The French literally had their way with Prussia over the next two months as the remnants of the Prussian army fought several small delaying actions as the bulk of the army attempted to escape to the east and safety in Russia along with the Prussian king. That destruction, wand the consequent elimination of Prussia from the Second Coalition was the greatest effect of the battle. The long-term consequence was that Prussia significantly reformed their army and was in a position less than seven years later to be instrumental in the final coalition to defeat napoleon both in the 1813 campaign and again at Waterloo at the end of the Hundred Days.


A good resource with driving guides if you happen to visit the battlefield can be found at www.Napoleon.org

One of these days, I am going to actually take the time to drive the hour and a half from my house to the battlefield and do an in-depth analysis with photos. Nevertheless, like everything else, I am hampered by time. When I do, I will be sure to post an update to the relatively broad, operational/strategic analysis presented here. My real love is the tactical side of military history anyway.

1. Cark, Christopher, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press 2006. 296-298


Book Review – Iron Kingom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark

This massive tome lays claim to being a complete history of Prussia, and if he doesn’t achieve it, he doesn’t miss it by much. It is fairly large at over 700 pages but Dr. Clark has a pleasant writing style that makes the book easy to read. He is not so much recounting events as using the historical events to tell the story of Prussia.

The book opens with the retelling of the Allies abolishment of Prussia as a political unit in 1947 then goes right to the beginning of Prussia with the establishment of Prussia as a political unit under German sovereignty under the Great Elector in the years just prior to the Thirty-Years War. He follows the history of Prussia from its initial conquest by the Teutonic Knights to its incorporation as part of Brandenburg during the Reformation and the conversion of the Knights to Lutheranism. He then traces the the way in which the Elector of Brandenburg got the rights to call himself King in Prussia to King of Prussia and eventually Emperor of Germany.

Almost half the book covers the history of Prussia from the Napoleonic Wars onward. This makes it a little unbalanced in my opinion, but it is also understandable as there are many more records from then forward and it is easier to know what happened. I especially like that the author refuses the temptation to speculate on the might-have-beens as I call them. He points out events that he thinks were pivotal but does not devote space to discussing the what-ifs had different decisions been made. He presents a straightforward recitation of the events of Prussian history in an entertaining manner that also lets the reader make up his own mind about causes because the retelling of events themselves are extremely well balanced.

In conclusion, Dr. Clark has written what is perhaps the best one-volume history of Prussia I have found. I especially liked it’s focus on Prussia as being the dominant factor in German history, and it was. This is an extremely readable book that is useful to both academics and non-academics alike. It should be on the bookshelf of anyone who considers himself a student of German history.

Battle Analysis-Sedan, 1870

The Battle of Sedan, fought on 1 September 1870 displayed the superiority the Prussian Army had attained over the French in the nearly sixty years since their devastating defeat at Jena in the Napoleonic wars. The battle was notable for several developments in warfare, which were showcased by the Prussian and French army’s different abilities to effectively utilize the new technologies and methods existing. The most dominant military technologies of the time were railroads, repeating rifles, and modern cannon.

Map of Battle of Sedan - Image Courtesy: http://www.marxists.org/glossary/events/f/pics/sedan.gif

While the French had at their disposal the Chassepot rifle which was superior to the Prussian needle-gun, their artillery was inferior in both quantity and quality to the Krupp guns deployed by the Prussians. The Prussians made superior use of the railroad in the deployment of their armies but that had little to do with their successful encirclement of the French army at Sedan, as the Prussians had largely been road bound and foot marching since crossing the French frontier at the beginning of August. The French failures of command and poor planning prevented them from retreating from Sedan thus forcing them to stand and fight the numerically superior Prussian army.

The Germans under Moltke proved to be energetic in their attacks and ruthless in the use of their superior artillery to bottle up the French and prevent their movements within the Sedan pocket. As the German armies approached Sedan, Moltke ordered his corps to probe the French and begin to march to encircle the French in the city. The Prussian armies quickly attacked to force crossings of the Meuse at Bazailles and Donchery. After the Prussians forced the crossing of the Meuse on 31 August, they moved rapidly to complete the encirclement of the French Army of Chalons and by that evening, the French were surrounded.

Like many battles of the war, the Prussians joined battle on the next morning not through any plan but through the actions of a lone commander acting on his initiative. At around 0430 on the first, the I Bavarian Corps mounted an attack to retake the bridge at Bazailes. As the Saxons moved up on the Bavarians flank in the early morning, they emplaced their artillery and began to attack also. The engagement rapidly spread from there to become a general attack on the surrounded French Army.

The Prussians made excellent use of their artillery to force the French to halt movement within the pocket. The effectiveness of Prussian artillery was a foretaste of what modern quick-firing artillery could accomplish. The Prussian army continued to make frontal infantry assaults even in the face of the tremendous casualties inflicted by the French using their superior rifles. The Prussians could have just as easily dominated the pocket with their artillery and thus saved themselves many of the 9,000 casualties they suffered during the battle.

Strategically the Battle of Sedan was a masterstroke for the Prussians as it removed the last trained French field army from the war. There were operational errors committed by Prussian generals who ignored or imperfectly followed orders but overall The Elder Moltke was shown to have a superior grasp of strategy than his French opponents. The major errors on the part of the Prussians were in their tactical use of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. They suffered needless casualties by not using their larger gun-line equipped with superior weapons to dominate the French before committing their infantry to battle. They were saved by their larger numbers and the yeoman’s effort put forth by the better-trained gunners of the Prussian army.

The battle could have been won more cheaply if Moltke had had better control of his subordinates and thus better control of the timing for beginning the battle, the impulsiveness of the Prussians cost them needless lives. The Prussian army did not use true combined arms tactics but with a larger and more disciplined army, their mistakes were not as detrimental to success as were the mistakes of the French.