1.11 Grunwald – Tannenberg – Žalgiris

Giedrius Janauskas, Vitalija Kasperavičiūtė, Christian Pletzing
Edited by Małgorzata Dąbrowska

On the morning of 15th of July, 1410, at the villages of Stębark/Tannenberg and Grunwald/Grünfelde/Žalgiris, about 21,000 knights under the banner of the Teutonic Order met a 29,000 strong Polish-Lithuanian army under the leadership of the Polish king Władysław Jagiełło and the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas/Witold. In the evening of the day, the army of the Teutonic Order was defeated, the Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and 200 Knights of the Order dead. The Order had lost the nimbus of superiority; its state had passed the peak of power. The Battle of Grunwald, one of the greatest battles of the Middle Ages, lived on for centuries in the memory of Poles, Lithuanians and Germans.

In August 1914, at the beginning of the World War I, a German army commanded by Hindenburg and Ludendorff defeated a Russian army led by General Samsonow in southern East Prussia near Hohenstein/Olsztynek. The Russian commander-in-chief committed suicide in the forests of Masuria. After the battle, Ludendorff wrote in his diary: "Later I suggested that the battle should be named Tannenberg, as atonement for the battle of 1410". In 1927, near Hohenstein, the huge Tannenberg National Monument was inaugurated to commemorate the victory. It symbolised the German "victory over Slavism". Hindenburg, who died in 1934 as President of the German Reich, was buried here. In 1945, German troops blew up the monument, which was later totally demolished.

In divided Poland during the 19th century, the victory at Grunwald was commemorated as a universal victory over the German Drang nach Osten. From 1872 to 1878, the monumental historical painting The Battle of Grunwald by the Polish painter Jan Matejko was created in Kraków. The Battle of Grunwald was also the climax of the historical novel The Teutonic Knights, published by Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1900.

After 1945, the socialist government of Poland used the Grunwald myth as a symbol of German defeat. The memory of the victory at Grunwald served at the same time as national self-assurance in the western and northern regions, which had fallen from Germany to Poland after 1945. On the battlefield of 1410, a large national monument with the inscription "Grunwald 1410 – Berlin 1945" was erected in 1960. In the same year, the movie The Crusaders by Aleksander Ford came to the Polish cinemas. By 1973, 23 million people had seen the film. The film was realised with considerable financial effort and shaped the visual memory culture for many decades. Almost every Polish city has a Grunwald Street. After 1989, the Grunwald myth lost its political significance. Nowadays, Grunwald is a popular place for tourism. Each year, Grunwald is a place for the reenactment of the historical battle of 1410 in which over 1,000 people from all over Europe take part.

In 1910, the monument in Kraków commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald was built. Offended Lithuanian representatives did not attend monument's opening ceremony. After the taking of Vilnius and the Vilnius region by Lucjan Żeligowski, hostility towards Poland increased. Lithuania developed a new culture of remembrance of the battle of Zalgiris following independence in 1918. Approaching 500th anniversary of the death of Vytautas the Great (1930), it was decided to pay tribute to the duke and build a monument to him. The Vytautas the Great monument in Kaunas was created as a counterbalance to the monument in Kraków intended to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Grunwald. The Vytautas the Great monument in Kaunas is a bronze statue, standing above four military figures: Russian, Polish, Tatar and German Crusaders, and holding up the broken sword. The monument reflected the goals of ideological propaganda: easily understandable image, making it possible to identify with the heritage and thereby introduce certain moral values. The construction of the monument was mostly supported by the Lithuanian military and therefore it was decided to build a monument in the territory of the military unit of Lithuanian Army. Soviet authorities decided to demolish the monument in 1952. Kaunas citizens decided to restore Vytautas the Great monument in 1988. At that time, symbols of victory were particularly relevant, and these strengthened the birth of ideas about independence. There was a huge debate about where to build a monument, as at that time, the Soviet army was still stationed in Panemunė (a district of Kaunas). Therefore, a public survey was conducted and it offered a variety of opinions. It was obvious that the participants of the survey wanted to remove the monuments of Soviet ideology and raise the hero of the historical past.

Vytautas the Great, as an ideological figure in national historiography, had to legitimise the interpretation of a homogeneous nation. After the discussion, it was decided to build the Vytautas the Great monument close to the main pedestrian street - Freedom Avenue - near the building of the executive and communist party committees, which was the point of intersection of several ideological positions. Today, there are discussions taking place in the press as to whether the monument is located in an inappropriate place, promotes aggression against other peoples and should be transferred to Panemunė.

The Lithuanian Sports Association Žalgiris, a public physical education and sports organization was established in 1944 during World War II. At present, the Association's official members are 99 publicly registered sports clubs and sports organizations. In addition, 108 non-registered sports clubs are actively involved in the activities. About 15,000 people are members of organizations under the flag of the Žalgiris. Many streets and squares, ships, an important basketball club and a strong alcoholic beverage bear the name "Zalgiris". 15th of July is celebrated as the official day of the Lithuanian Land Forces. The Lithuanian Land Force flag, was recreated according to the historical banner with the coat of arms of the Pillars of Gediminas, which was flown over the ranks of Lithuanian soldiers in 1410. Differences in the perception of the battle between Lithuanians and Poles can be seen in the role of the Lithuanian forces. While the Polish historian Jan Długosz accused the Lithuanians of having fled the battlefield, the Lithuanians stress that it was a simulated escape and thus a tactical manoeuvre.

On the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the battle, a feature film was made with the financial support of the Lithuanian state. While in the 1960 Polish film The Crusaders, the Lithuanians only play an supporting role, the Lithuanian film from 2010 is supposed to adequately portray the significance of the Lithuanians in the battle.

On the battlefield of Tannenberg, a memorial stone for the slain Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen was erected by the German side in 1901. It bore the inscription:

"In the fight for German nature, German right the Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen died here on 15th of July 1410 a hero’s death".

In 1919, the German General Erich Ludendorff describes in his memoirs why he named the battle of 1914 "Tannenberg":

The battle was named the Battle of Tannenberg at my suggestion, in remembrance of the battle in which the Teutonic Order was defeated by the united Lithuanian and Polish armies. Will the German allow Lithuanians, and especially Poles, to take advantage of our powerlessness and rape us, now as then? Should centuries-old German culture be lost?
- Erich Ludendorff. Mein Kriegserinnerungen 1914-1918 (My war memories 1914-1918). Berlin 1919, p. 44. Cited after Sven Ekdahl. Tannenberg/Grunwald – ein politisches Symbol in Deutschland und Polen (Tannenberg/Grunwald – a political symbol in Germany and Poland). In: Journal of Baltic Studies 22, 1991, 4. P. 271-324.

In 1933 the Realgymnasium Berlin-Lankwitz was renamed "Tannenberg-Oberschule". In 1990 the school was renamed again - this time after a resistance fighter of the World War II. In 1933 the change of name was justified as follows:

The name Tannenberg not only recalls the days of highest achievement and highest glory and is thus suited to awaken patriotic pride; it also recalls times of deepest fall caused by the national error of discord and is thus to become a warning.
- Cited from the home page of the Willi-Graf-Gymnasium, retrievable from https://willi-graf-gymnasium.de/WirUeberUns/Historie/Namensgebung

Tannenberg denkmal.png

In 1939, the German historian Erich Maschke established the connection between the battles of 1410 and 1914:

Poland, measured by its actual historical task, stood in the wrong front. [...] Poland, which itself had acquired the fame of a "wall of Christianity" against the Eastern world in its history, had remained in alliance with schismatic Russians and pagan Tatars the victor over the spiritual order state of Prussia, a pioneer of Christianity. In essence, this meant nothing other than the accusation of having left the eastern border guard for the Occident.
It was not only a Polish-German antagonism that arose following the Battle of Tannenberg. The men who fell in the Order's army on 15 July 1410 died for the freedom and independence of Prussia. In their death, however, the historical mission of the Germans in the north-east also proved its worth for two centuries: it was the bastion of the German people and their habitat; it thus guarded both the content and form of Western culture. It was precisely this last historical sense that built the bridge between the Tannenberg of 1410 and the one of 1914.
- Tannenberg. Deutsches Schicksal – Deutsche Aufgabe (Tannenberg - German fate and German task). Ed. by Kuratorium für das Reichsehrenmal Tannenberg. Oldenburg [1939]. P. 182-183.

In 1977 the journalist Karl-Heinz Janßen criticised the naming of barracks in West Germany after Tannenberg:

But which values, which virtues, which historical ideas should be taught to the young recruits? For example, the pride in the "Germanic sword" with which "Siegfried" alias Hindenburg struck "the Slavs" on the head? Those who still honour Tannenberg and Hindenburg today must know what they are doing. [...] Teutonic Order Cross, Tannenberg Memorial, Hindenburg myth, old regiment flags - for most soldiers these symbols mean nothing anymore. The chain of tradition was torn in 1945 - anyone who wants to tie in with it of good will exposes himself to misunderstandings. Why not finally establish a new tradition directed towards the future?
- Karl-Heinz Janßen. Tannenberg - ein deutsches Verhängnis. Wofür stehen die Kasernennamen und Regimentsfahnen? [Tannenberg - a German doom. What do the names of the barracks and regiment flags stand for?]. In: Die Zeit 39/1977 (16.9.1977).


In the first days of September 1939, a huge canvas was hurriedly removed from the gallery wall and wound on a roller together with Kazan Skarga, also by Matejko. The box with Matejko's paintings was transported to Lublin. First, the chest in the museum building was hidden, and before being taken over by the Germans, they were buried underground, where it survived until 1944. Propaganda of the Third Reich defined the painting as a lampoon and painter's provocation. The reward offered for its disclosure amounted first to two million, then later ten million marks.

Grunwald monument.png

In 1966, Polish Education Minister Henryk Jabłoński said in looking back on the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald in 1960:

As previously indicated, the Grunwald anniversary was conceived as a great national manifestation which referred to a particular event of great historic significance viewed against the wider background of history. […] we see this wider background extending to Polish-German relations in general, to the struggle for the western and northern borders of Poland and to the efforts to preserve the Polish character of the territories held by Germany at various periods. Such an approach, fully shared by the authors of the programme of the celebrations, links these issues not only with the Grunwald anniversary, but also with the origins of Polish statehood, the history of the national liberation struggle, and also People’s Poland as state which enabled Poland to recover the territories seized by a foreign power.
- Henryk Jabłoński. “Poland’s Millennium as reflected in the Work of Polish Scientists”. In: The Review of the Polish Academy of Sciences 12 (1967), 3. P. 1-13, here p. 6. Cit. after Sven Ekdahl. “Tannenberg/Grunwald – ein politisches Symbol in Deutschland und Polen”, In: Journal of Baltic Studies 22, 1991, 4. Pp. 271–324.

In 1987, the programme of the "All-Polish Grunwald Committee", which organised the annual celebrations on the battlefield, stated that in 1410 two ideologies had struggled against each other:

[...] on the one hand an ideology of dominance, subordination, suppression or annihilation of other peoples, on the other hand an ideology of the right to one's own identity, good neighbourly relations between peoples and nations, tolerance and peace. If the first served as a justification for conquest, expansion of German territories at the expense of other peoples, to make aggression a right [...], the second stood up for the defence of human rights, demanded the recognition of peaceful methods of solving international problems, and justified armed conflict only when other means of defending the right to one's own exit, justice and peace were insufficient.
- Program Ogólnopolskiego Komitetu Grunwaldzkiego. In: Rzeczpospolita 161 (13.7.1987). Cited after Sven Ekdahl. “Tannenberg/Grunwald – ein politisches Symbol in Deutschland und Polen”. In: Journal of Baltic Studies 22, 1991, 4. P. 271–324.

Antoni Wiwulski's (1877–1919) original masterpiece in Kraków was, not surprisingly, destroyed by the occupying Nazis during World War II and the copy that now stands in its place dates from 1976, having been faithfully reproduced using sketches and models of the original. At the top, on his horse, is the King of Poland Władysław Jagiełło, his sword pointing downwards in his right hand. At the front is his cousin the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas (Vitold), who is flanked on either side by victorious soldiers from the joint army. The dead man at the front is Ulrich von Jungingen, the Teutonic Order’s Grand Master, who lost his life during the battle.

Lithuanian sculptor Vincas Grybas (1890–1941) created the monument to Vytautas the Great in Kaunas. The monument was built in High Panemunė in 1932. The monument was destroyed by Soviet government in 1952. The copy that now stands in its place dates from 1988, having been faithfully reproduced using sketches and models of the original. The Bronze statue of Grand Duke Vytautas with sword. On the corners of the pedestal are defeated soldiers, supporting the higher part of pedestal on which Vytautas is standing: Ruthenian soldier, with a shield showing St. George slaying the dragon. German Crusader, with a broken sword and a shield with the German eagle at his feet. Tartar soldier and Polish solder, each with a shield with an eagle at his feet.

Between text and dates is a medallion with a map of Lithuania in the 14th century.

Professor Mečislovas Jučas in his book The Battle of Žalgiris (1960) argued with Stefan Kuczyński's study of the Battle of Grunwald. M. Jučas criticised his attempt to diminish the role of Vytautas and clearly demonstrated that it was not at all consistent with source data. The Lithuanian manoeuvre was initially contradicted by M. Jučas. On the one hand, he pointed out that the defeat of Lithuanians in the Battle of Grunwald is the fiction of Jan Dlugosz, while the chronicle of the Continuer of John of Posilge and the Cronica conflictus “distinguish two concepts - retreat and flight" and the latter concepts do not apply to Lithuanians. But later, M. Jučas did not doubt that “the retreat of the Lithuanians was a Lithuanian manoeuvre that had the purpose of scattering the enemy troops so that they could be suddenly attacked from behind. It is difficult to explain the return of Lithuanians to the battlefield in any other way, especially because Lithuanians had used this kind of fighting manoeuvre more than once ”. Here we see one novelty - the manoeuvre of a deceptive retreat is explained by the not-so-traditional idea that it is a Tatar tactics and is considered a normal Lithuanian manoeuvre.
- Tomas Baranauskas. “Žalgirio mūšis Lietuvos istorikų darbuose”. In: Viduramziu Lietuva site, retrieved from http://viduramziu.istorija.net/socium/zalgiriomusis-istoriografija.htm

Prof. Sven Ekdahl found in archives the letter written to the Grand Master of Teutonic Order which gives quite a clear and highly reliable explanation of what happened at Tannenberg.

Dear Master, if divine Providence should arrange that you come together with your enemies to fight, and you line up and arrange your forces against your enemies, our advice would be that you take the war guests and mercenaries, which you have with you, that you take those of them, which you regard as able, and settle with your commanders that they be obedient when they are lined up for fighting, so that they stay in formation. It might happen that your enemies intentionally let one or two banners withdraw or flee: this would be on purpose, for they hope they might break your battle formation that way, because the people usually like to take up pursuit, as seen in the Great Battle. Thus make sure, if this should happen, as strictly as you can, and insist, that your men stay in their arrays: because when a group of soldiers or an array becomes too sure of victory, it is not so easy to bring the people back, because everybody wants to take up pursuit, and thinks that the victory has been won, and they do not know that it may be half lost. And for this reason we advise you in the most forcible manner, that you hold your men together in their battle formations as severely as you can, and never let them leave the others, until you have seen how the enemy formations behave behind those who flee. And thus arrange this carefully with your commanders, so that it will be firmly kept, because it can be seen in such an undertaking, when 20 or 30 soldiers take up pursuit, that they sometimes cause many battle formations to be broken, for they sometimes hope to get profit, but instead suffer great harm.
- Sven Ekdahl. “The Turning Point in the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald/Žalgiris) in 1410. In: Lituanus, Volume 56, No. 2 - Summer 2010, retrieved from: http://www.lituanus.org/2010/10_2_06%20Ekdahl.html

Jonas Mačiulis-Maironis (1862-1932) - one of the most famous Lithuanian poets and was also a Catholic priest and professor. Maironis wrote numerous poems. Some of them are contained in his most famous collection of poems, Pavasario Balsai (The Voices of Spring). Poem News has come was created in St Petersburg in 1902. His poems helped to shape Lithuanian national self-awareness, promoted the aspirations of freedom and independence. There is no doubt that the authority of Maironis as the author of Lithuanian textbook of Lithuanian history (1891) at that time played a significant role in consolidating the name of Žalgiris.

Eina Garsas
Poem and Folk song
Author Jonas Mačiulis-Maironis
News has just come in from Prussia:
Saddle up your horse!
Knights are heading for our country
With a mighty force.
Don't you worry, little sister! Please be of good cheer:
I'll return live, hale and hearty to my homeland dear.
Great are the Crusaders' riches:
Spires of beaten gold
Grace the towers of their cities,
Silks their coffers hold.
I'll bring back a Prussian sword. A silken scarf I'll bring.
Sister dear, you'll have the scarf, a golden belt and ring.
Spring has come again already.
Hear the lark in flight!
But there's no news of the fellow
Who went off to fight.
When the sun set, battle raged. A lot of blood was shed.
There my love fought for his country, there my love fell dead.
All my friends are singing blithely,
Dressed in silks that gleam.
As for me, I'm always crying
And of graves I dream.
Dear love, no endearments shall I hear you whispering.
On my slender finger you shall set no golden ring!"
Translated by Peter Tempest
Retrieved from: https://allpoetry.com/News-Has-Come

There is a 500 litas coin to commemorate 600 years anniversary of Žalgiris battle (metal: gold Au 999, diameter 33 mm, weight 31.1 g). It was designed by an artist Rytas Jonas Belevičius. Stylised on the edge of the coin in the 15th century. It was released in 2010 (edition 5,000 pcs). The coin was minted at UAB Lithuanian Mint.

The obverse of the coin shows the majestic seal of Vytautas the Great. The reverse of the coin depicts the scenes of the Grunwald battle, illustrated by the details of horsemen and infantry clothing, armour weaponry typical of that time. The Battle of Grunwald 1410-2010 is written in a semicircle.

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. Why were and are the battles of 1410 and 1914 so important in Poland, Lithuania and Germany?
  2. Should roads in Poland, Lithuania and Germany still be named after Zalgiris/Grunwald/Tannenberg? Should streets bearing this name be given a different name?
  3. How could one adequately remember the events of that time on the battlefield of 1410 today?

Further reading

  1. Sven Ekdahl. “The Turning Point in the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald/Žalgiris) in 1410.” In: Lituanus, Volume 56, No.2 - Summer 2010. http://www.lituanus.org/2010/10_2_06%20Ekdahl.html
  2. Sven Ekdahl. Grunwald 1410. Studia nad tradycją i źródłami. (Grunwald 1410. Studies on Tradition and Sources). Avalon, 2015.
  3. Mečislovas Jučas. Žalgirio mūšis (The battle of Žalgiris). Vilnius, Lietuvos dailės muziejus, 2009.
  4. D. Mačiulis, R. Petrauskas, D. Staliūnas. Kas laimėjo Žalgirio mūšį? (Who won the battle of Žalgiris?) Vilnius, Mintis, 2012.
  5. W. Paravicini, R. Petrauskas. Vercamer G. Tannenberg - Grunwald - Žalgiris 1410. Krieg und Frieden im späten Mittelalter. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012.
  6. Stephen Turnbull. Tannenberg 1410 Disaster for the Teutonic Knights. London, Osprey Campaign, 2003.