On July 15, 1410, the alliance between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania decisively defeated the Knights of the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald, which marked the rise of the Polish–Lithuanian union as the dominant political and military force in Central and Eastern Europe.
Originally founded during the Crusades in the Holy Land, the Teutonic Order led a series of 13th-century campaigns to subdue the pagan Baltic Old Prussians. By the end of the century, the Teutonic Knights had established control over Prussia from where they mounted more crusading campaigns against their non-Christian neighbors, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1386, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania converted to Christianity and married Queen Jadwiga of Poland. He was crowned King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland, thus creating a personal union between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Teutonic Knights defeated by the rising Polish-Lithuanian alliance
But the Teutonic Knights, supported by Hungarian King Sigismund, contested the sincerity of Jogaila’s conversion and, in 1409, their choleric Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen, declared war on Poland and Lithuania. Underrating the joint power and unity of the newly conjoined states, the Teutonic Knights hoped to defeat Poland and Lithuania separately and began by invading Greater Poland.
But by December 1409, King Jagiełło of Poland and Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania had agreed that their armies would unite into a single massive force and marched together towards Marienburg, capital of the Teutonic Knights, in the summer of 1410. Serving among the Moravian and Bohemian mercenaries fighting on the side of Poland and Lithuania, was probably Jan Žižka, future commander of the Hussite forces.
Although outnumbered, the Knights were confident in the strength of their disciplined armored cavalry and confronted the invaders between the villages of Grunwald and Tannenberg, in what is now northern Poland.
But under the boiling summer sun, the Knights cooked inside their armor and were eventually outnumbered by the mass of Polish knights and advancing Lithuanian cavalry. Grand Master von Jungingen was killed by a lancethrust through the throat as the rest of the Knights made a fighting withdrawal to their camp.
By the end of the day most of the Teutonic Knights’ troops were either dead or prisoners. Despite the scale of their victory, the Polish-Lithuanian army failed to take Marienberg and peace was made the following year.
The significance of the Battle of Grunwald
The Teutonic Knights never regained their dominance and the financial burden of war reparations caused internal conflicts and an economic downturn in the lands under their control. As a result, the balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe shifted and marked the rise of the Polish–Lithuanian union as the dominant political and military force in the region.
One of the largest battles in medieval Europe, the Battle of Grunwald, known as the Battle of Tannenberg in German, is regarded as one of the most important victories in the histories of Poland and Lithuania, and has been used as a source of romantic legends and national pride, becoming a larger symbol of struggle against foreign invaders.
In August 1914, during World War I, German forces almost completely annihilated the Russian Second Army near the site of the Battle of Grunwald. Realizing its propaganda potential, Hindenburg named the victory the Battle of Tannenberg, despite it having actually taken place much closer to Allenstein, and framed it as revenge for the Polish–Lithuanian victory 500 years earlier.
The battle was also later used in Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns, with Nazi Germany portraying their Lebensraum policies as a continuation of the Knights’ historical mission and Soviet historiography styling the battle as an ethnic struggle between Slavs and Germanics and as the medieval counterpart to the Battle of Stalingrad.
The largest painting in Warsaw’s National Museum’s collection, measuring over four metres in height and nearly ten in width, Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald, depicts the culmination of the Polish-Lithuanian victory.
The painting’s significance within Polish culture is evidenced by the fact that during World War II, the Nazis offered a reward of two million Marks, eventually increased to ten million, for information leading to the location of the canvas. Fortunately, even with such a high sum, the painting never fell into Nazi hands.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.