The Great War and Prussia’s Early Beginnings

Many reasons and paths led to the outbreak of World War One. One of these paths was the growth of Prussia, the state that became the most important part of Germany. In this article, Robert Van Ness tells us of Prussia’s role in the Crusades.


The Great War, perhaps better known today as World War One, turns 100 this year. It has been overshadowed for some by events happening after 1918, which is understandable. Yet a travesty all too often occurs when history teachers or students skip over this watershed historical moment in favor of studying World War Two or events thereafter. World War One was a beginning and ending at the same time. It was a culmination point of nineteenth century nationalistic idealism, but by 1918 that nationalist pride had been all but shattered. Indeed, World War Two would put the final nails in the nineteenth century’s coffin, but World War One created the coffin, and put the corpse therein. How did such a war come about? By 1914, man was supposed to be in a belle epoque, a time when war was unthinkable, especially in highly civilized Europe. But that’s just where the war was centered. Many theories have been postulated such as anti-god philosophies, imperialist expansion, economic blunders, and arms races. None of those theories are wrong, but when any of those theories stand alone, they miss the broader spectrum. This article cannot paint the entire picture alone, but it would like to trace events leading up to June 1914 through one of the major players, Prussia.

Prussia by 1914 was wholly incorporated into the Second German Reich (Empire). Its rise to power was nothing short of breathtaking considering the relatively short period in which the province rose from nothing to world power. And this rise can be traced back to the Crusades.

The Great War and Prussia’s Early Beginnings

Pope Honorius III.


Prussia’s fight for existence actually begins in part with the Catholic Crusades. Many Germans answered the Pope’s call for a Holy Land adventure in which killing infidels was favorably viewed by God. Germany during this era was part of the Holy Roman Empire, thus when God’s man came calling for help, loyal soldiers came willing to serve. Many knightly orders were founded in the Holy Land such as the Hospitallers and Templars. Their goals included protecting pilgrims, offering medical care, and establishing Christian states. The Teutonic Order, though small, was one of the most important orders in accomplishing these many ambitions.

The Ordo Domus Sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum was established around 1190 in Acre, one of the main crusading kingdoms, but their time in Acre was quite short lived. After controlling import/export tolls for the region for about 20 years, the Teutonic Knights, as well as other Crusaders, were pushed out of the region by a stern Islamic backlash. The Teutons fled mostly to Transylvania, where they were invited by King Andrew II. While there, the Knights participated in campaigns against the Cumans. The Knights, however, began organizing plans to establish a state of their own.



Hungarian King Andrew II would not tolerate such a force in his lands unless it obeyed him. The Knights stated that their cause was a Christian cause, not solely Hungarian. That being the case, they refused to submit to Andrew, who foolishly expelled his greatest fighting force. Invading Islamic armies would soon overrun a rather hapless Hungary, and remain close by for about 400 years. The Teutons, though, were invited to invade a here-to-for ‘pagan’ region by Pope Honorius III, Emperor Frederick II, and Duke Konrad I of Masovia.

The Golden Bull of Rimini, issued by Frederick II, formally established set lands for the Order at Culm (Chelmo). The Knights simply had to wage war against the pagan inhabitants and win. Many Imperial and Church officials signed the Bull, including Konrad, who churlishly attempted to take the promised lands for himself. His actions almost undid the entire operation, and even threatened to destroy his very own Imperial Duchy of Masovia.

The Great War and Prussia’s Early Beginnings

Emperor Frederick II called for Teutonic Crusades into the Baltic.

Amid such instability, the Teutonic Knights made light work of the campaign. By 1230, after four years of fighting, the Teutonic Knights forced Konrad into signing the Treaty of Kruszwica. Grand Master Hermann von Salza then assumed control of Chelmo and all lands won during the Prussian Campaign. Four years later Pope Gregory IX sent out the Golden Bull of Rieti, restating the order’s claims that they were subject only to the Pope. Thus the newly established Prussian kingdom was subject to no one but God, and the region became a province of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Teutonic Knights organized their new lands into a monastic state soon after the lands were secured. As such a state, the Teutonic purpose was to stage crusades into pagan northeastern European lands such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Poland.

To further aid the cause, the Knights brought the Order of Dobrzyn and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword under their sway. Both groups had been unsuccessfully crusading against the pagans for decades. Their inclusion into the Teutonic state added considerable lands along the Baltic coast, thus ensuring Teutonic, and later Prussian, conflict with Poland and Russia for centuries to come.

Much work was done during this period. The Knights drew from their Germanic homelands, and an influx of German immigrants from all over the Holy Roman Empire migrated into rapidly fortifying cities all along the region’s rivers and Baltic coastline. Together, the immigrants and Knights irrigated the swamplands, built new cities, and began forging a solid, productive state in what was a foreign, unwelcoming land.

These medieval Germans laid the foundation for modern Prussia and Germany. What they did not know at the time was that they were doing much more than that. They were also laying the foundation for future wars including World Wars One and Two.  But to get to that point one must walk through the events leading to the Great War of 1914 – of which Prussia played a huge part.


Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world! Like it, tweet about it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below.