The real impetus towards affixing technical apparatus of crusading – vow, cross, indulgence, and so on – to Christian conquest in the Baltic came when attention shifted from the western Slavs of the southern Baltic to the heathen tribes further east, in Livonia, Estonia, Finland, and Prussia, the theatres of crusading operations that dominated the period from the 1190s. While defence of the missionary churches established in Livonia or Estonia around 1200 were relatively easily justified, support for extensive conquests in either region, still less in Prussia, demanded these areas acquire a new holy status. Each answered this need in different ways. The campaigns of the kings of Denmark along the southern Baltic coast and the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland in northern Estonia attracted sporadic papal grants of crusade privileges familiar elsewhere, while the monarchs surrounded themselves with the useful aura of Christian warriors, ‘active knights of Christ’, to justify foreign conquest and internal authority. The pagans were to be rooted out by force and Christendom expanded. Here the conquerors were performing holy tasks and thus their conquests, by incorporation into Christendom, became ipso facto holy.
Away from the muddled but powerful religiosity of Christian monarchy, the consecration of crusade targets followed more precise lines. From c.1202, the missionary bishop of Riga recruited a religious order of knights, the Militia of Christ or Sword Brothers, to defend and extend his diocese in Livonia centred on the River Dvina. A few years later his colleague on the Polish-Prussian frontier assembled a similar body, the Militia of Christ of Livonia against the Prussians, also known as the Knights of Dobrin (or Dobryzin) after their original headquarters on the Vistula. Again, the status of the conquests was defined by that of the conquerors, bishops, and sworn professed, as well as professional, knights of Christ. The dedication of the Christian settlement created at Riga by the missionaries and merchants to the Virgin Mary allowed Livonia to be depicted as the land of the Mother of God, her dowry, allowing crusade apologists in the region to describe crusaders there as pilgrims or ‘the militia of pilgrims’. This brought them further into line with crusaders elsewhere; even crusaders against the Albigensians were called pilgrims by some, almost as a sine qua non of legitimacy. The first two churches built in the new town of Riga before 1209 were dedicated to Mary, the patroness, and Peter, the guarantor of ecclesiastical privileges. When the Teutonic Knights took over war and government in both Prussia and Livonia in the 1230s, absorbing the other military orders in the process, and from 1245 the direction of a permanent crusade in the region, the identification with the Virgin Mary was complete, as she was the patroness of the German order. In Livonia the knights bore her image as a war banner. With the papacy designating Prussia a papal fief (as part of its anti-Imperial policy) in 1234, the Teutonic Knights’ territory was doubly sanctified. In the absence of a historic justification for war, a late thirteenth-century rhyming chronicle from Livonia, probably by a Teutonic Knight, insinuated a transcendent context. Beginning his work with accounts of the Creation, Pentecost, and the missions of the Early Church, the author admitted that no apostle reached Livonia, unlike the myth of James converting Spain. Instead, a higher mission was being pursued in the wastes of the eastern Baltic, the holy task begun by the Apostles of proselytizing the world now carried forward through service and death in the armies of the Mother of God in defence of Her land.
Such literary devices could reassure participants and attract recruits while not fully reflecting the nature of war in Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia. Not all enemies were pagan. In Estonia, the Teutonic Knights competed for power with fellow crusaders, the Danes. In 1242 an attack on the Orthodox Christians of Russian Pskov ended in the famous defeat on Lake Peipus/Chud by Alexander Nevsky, evocatively imagined in Eisenstein’s memorable propagandist film. In Prussia, especially in the west, German and Flemish settlement appeared substantial; in Livonia and Estonia, only accessible by a tricky and expensive sea voyage when the water was free of ice, negligible and almost exclusively limited to the fortified religious trading posts on the main rivers. Prussia witnessed a slow process of acculturation similar to that between the Elbe and the Oder. Slavs became Germans, an uncomfortable thought for later racial nationalists on both sides of the linguistic divide. The judicial pluralism and segregation familiar from other crusading fronts did not prevent the Prussians adopting elements of German inheritance laws. Over generations, the brutality of forced conversion, occupation, alien settlement, and discrimination against natives transformed Prussia into a distinctively German province. By contrast, only a small military, clerical, and commercial elite survived in Estonia and Livonia, where the Teutonic Knights remained until 1562, 37 years after the order’s secularization in Prussia. In the shadow of this past, Hitler, with his obscenely warped historical squint, rejected the loss of any part of Prussia from the Reich, demanding Memel, established by the German invaders in 1252, from the Lithuanians in March 1939, an act that provoked Britain’s guarantee to protect Poland. Yet a few months later, he consigned the Baltic states to the lot of the Russians as if they were less ‘German’.
However, the link from the Teutonic Knights to the SS and the nationalized racism of the Third Reich, lovingly traced by Himmler and his historically illiterate ghouls, relied on rancid imagination not fact. The crusades did not drive the expansion of German power, nor the expansion of Spain. Wider cultural, economic, demographic, social, and technological forces did that. In so far as these impulses were articulated in religious terms, crusading offered a particular vocabulary, both practical and inspirational, that could service self-referential ideologies and self-righteous policies of domination. Holy symbols achieved cultural and political significance, the Catholic churches and churchmen transmitted a distinctive western culture, yet, for all their importance, in the expansion of Latin Christendom across its frontiers, the grammar and syntax remained resolutely secular.