History of the German Order
From Acre to the Malbork Castle
The Teutonic Order, the members of which derived their name from a former German hospital in Jerusalem and called themselves „Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s hospital in Jerusalem“, was established in Acre in 1190, first of all as hospital brotherhood, and since 1198 also as knightly fighting community for protecting the pilgrims in the Holy Land.
After the Order of St. John and the Templars, the Teutonic Order was the third of the important religious Orders of Knights in the times of the crusades. Almost 100 years younger than these two, the Teutonic Order essentially followed their regulations and organisation patterns. Following the example set by the Templars, they also used a white mantle; the red cross was replaced by a black one.
Because of the predominance of the two older Orders in the orient, the territory of the Teutonic Order was restricted to the surroundings of Acre and Montfort as well as the hinterland of Tyrus. This is why the head of the Order started quite early to look for missions elsewhere. Under the leadership of the major Grand Master Hermann von Salza (1209 - 1239), a confidant of Emperor Frederick II., such mission was at first found in Burzenland in Transilvania (Siebenbürgen), and finally – following a request for support of the Duke of Masovia – in the Culm Land at the lower reaches of the river Weichsel. From here the Order succeeded in establishing a closed territory by fighting against the pagan Baltic Prussians, which temporarily extended from the border of Pomerania to the Gulf of Bothnia after the unification with the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. After the loss of Acre in 1291, the Grand Master relocated his official residence first to Venice, and then in 1309 to the Malbork Castle.
The Monastic State of the Teutonic Order
Led strictly by the Grand Master and his administrative staff in accordance with seemingly modern regulations, the Monastic State of the Teutonic Order (“Order-State”) developed to the strongest power in the Baltics. A highly developed centralized administration of finance provided sufficient earnings for the governmental and military tasks.
Settlers from all parts of the empire participated in the extension of the conquered territories; step by step they grew together with the old-established Prussian population. For the purpose of security the landscapes were provided with a network of fortresses; for the promotion of economic prosperity, the Order founded various towns and cities.
The Grand Master was assisted in his leadership of the Order-State by five high officers, the so-called Großgebietiger. While the Grand Master, the Großkomtur (deputy of the Grand Master) and the Treßler (treasurer) resided in Malbork Castle, the Spitler (head of the hospital branch) had his seat in Elbing, the Trapier (responsible for dressing and armament) in Christburg and the Marshall (Chief of military affairs) in Königsberg. The so-called Generalprokurator (representing the Order at the Holy See) of the Curia provided detailed information to the head of the Order regarding the respective situation in the empire and in Europe through a well organised messenger system.
In its early days the Order recruited its members primarily from the lesser nobility. The Order offered prospects of promotion to the sons not born first, and a better standing for the lineage from which they stem. The Brothers Knights had equal rights as the Brothers Chaplains. The latter were responsible for celebrating the offices and for the pastoral care for the lay knights, moreover the cultivation of art and sciences. Their influence of course decreased in the 14th and 15th century as compared to the Brothers Knights of the Order. Further member groups of the Order were the non-aristocratic brother sergeants in arms (lightly armed and minor office bearers), the half brothers and half sisters (in healthcare and economic services).
In the Order’s land a rather significant literature developed, which – promoted and managed by the provincialate – was adapted to the needs of the Order. The issues were primarily the history of the Order, the Holy Scripture, and the lives of the Saints. Some of these works, such as the Passional and the Book of the Fathers, continue to have an effect until today.
Disputes with the revolting classes, which occasionally formed alliances with Poland in their self-assertion against the Order, and the association of the – in the meantime Christian - Lithuania and Poland implemented in 1386 under the Grand Duke Jagiello led to a serious defeat of the Order near Tannenberg in 1410 and broke the Order’s predominant position. The conversion of the Grand Master Albrecht von Brandenburg to the Protestant faith in 1525 and the conversion of the Order’s land left after the first and second Peace of Thorn (in 1411 and 1466) to a secular hereditary duchy finally terminated the reign of the Teutonic Order in the Prussian and Baltic areas.
The Teutonic Order and the Empire: Rise and Crisis
In the empire the Teutonic Order had gained a foothold in many places already at an early stage. Thanks to numerous donations and other transfers of property the Order owned a lot of land. It was administered by commandries (Kommende) that were united in the empire (1280) in 13 provinces of the Order, the so-called bailwicks. These commandries were not at all only back area stops for the fronts of combating the pagans; they rather grew deeper and deeper into the regional network of political relations and interests. Those that were more prestigious among them were often used as accommodations of sovereigns during assemblies and travels of the upper nobility. In later times they helped the nobles to provide accommodation benefiting one's rank.
The top most office-bearer of the empire used to be the so-called Deutschmeister. The bearers of this office tried in the 15th century to unite the territories for which they were responsible to a closed governance and thus to establish their own “state” with a tendency to demarcate spatially from the dominions in the East. Already in 1494, the Deutschmeister was ennobled to become a Prince of the Empire by the Emperor Maximilian. This facilitated the later reconstruction of the Order after the looming heavy crisis.
The 15th and early 16th century brought hard times for the Order. Apart from the drastic power loss in the East as of 1466, the Hussite attacks imperilled the continued existence of the bailwick of Bohemia. In Southern Europe, the Order had to renounce important outposts - such as Apulia and Sicily. After the coup d’état of Albrecht von Brandenburg, the only territory of the Order remained were the bailwicks in the empire. Additionally, the power of the Order was shaken by Peasants’ Wars, which destroyed the Order’s heartland – the South-West of the empire, and the fortress Horneck on the Neckar, the seat of the Deutschmeister. As the reformers rejected the monastic life as something unnatural, the new teaching also challenged the inner life of the Order. Numerous Brothers Knights and particularly Brothers Priests took off their habits, since in the past few decades the other branches of the Order had already been given up.
Consolidation and Internal Regeneration after the Reform
Under the leadership of the Deutschmeister Walther von Cronberg (1525 - 1543) the consolidation of the Order to the outside succeeded. The Emperor authorized him in 1527 to bear the title "Administrator of the Grand Mastery" and thus to maintain a claim for possession with respect to Prussia. From this designation the short title “Hoch- und Deutschmeister“ [Grand Master and Deutschmeister] developed later on. The general chapter (Generalkapitel) of Frankfurt (1529) passed the “Constitution of Cronberg“: The future constitutional law of the noble corporation. Mergentheim was chosen as residence of the head of the Order and at the same time the seat of the central authorities of the areas that are directly under the command of the Grand Master. Outside this newly establishing Order-State, which continually developed its sovereignty, the bailwicks administered by the Landkomtur (province commanders) developed to largely independent structures; some of them ranked as imperial estates and were listed in the Matrikel registers in the prelate groups. They often became dependent from neighbouring aristocratic families, who traditionally sent their sons to the Order. In Thuringia, Saxony, Hesse and Utrecht, where the new teaching had fixedly established, there were also Lutheran and reformed brothers of the Order, who – following the corporate thinking of the nobility – were loyal to the Grand Master, were celibate and only replaced the solemn promise formula by a vow. –In 1590 for the first time and later ever more often the Hoch- und Deutschmeister was chosen from the leading noble houses of the catholic territorial states, particularly from the House of Austria. This established new interbreed and political interconnections with the German upper nobility, however, in such a manner the Order became more and more the object of the Habsburg policy.
Against this background, the inner reorganisation of the Order began in the course of the 16th century. Following the drastic changes of past times, it was its task to newly determine its position and put the original requirements of the rules of the Order in relation with the changed relations of the present The Catholic reform thus reminded the Order of its theological obligations. There was a lot to be done especially in this field. The class consciousness of the nobility that rather put a focus on exclusivity pushed aside the significance of the mostly non-aristocratic priests. In the general chapter they had neither a seat nor a vote in these modern times. The pastoral care in the commandries was often in the hands of the members of other Orders. Ever since laymen with a legal training worked in the offices of the Order, this service was also barred for the priests. For all of the above reasons the number of Brothers Priests decreased significantly.
The provincialate decided to follow the requirements of the Council of Trent and establish seminaries: The first seminary in Cologne in 1574, the second one in Mergentheim in 1606. The founder of the latter seminary was Grand Master Archduke Maximilian of Austria (1590 - 1618), whose initiative helped keeping Tyrol Catholic. From that time onwards the branches of the Order in the meanwhile Protestant cities played an important role when it came to pastoral care for transient Catholics or the few believers who remained there. In some commandries the idea of hospitality gained importance again, as can be seen from the erection of a three-storey hospital in Sachsenhausen in 1568.
However, the Order saw its most important task in the preparedness to fight of the Brothers Knights, who also called themselves “cavaliers“ since the 17th century, when it came to serve the Emperor and the Empire, particularly in battles that served the defence of faith. The most important field of activity was during the Ottoman Wars. In spite of financial straits the Order rendered significant contributions to the Turkish danger levy. Brothers Knights served as officers in troops of Catholic princes of the empire and in the imperial army. As of 1696 the order provided the regiment "Hoch- und Deutschmeister" which was later the home regiment in Vienna. All young Brothers Knights had to perform their exercitium militare: they had to serve as officers in a fortress at the border for three years before they took over an office in the Order. Many have distinguished themselves in the battle, many were killed in action.
After the misery of the Thirty Years’ War the Order started with brisk construction activities. Gorgeous castles, often involving rich castle churches, and representative commandry offices were erected: In Ellingen, Nuremberg, Sachsenhausen, Altshausen, Beuggen, Altenbiesen and in many other places. Along with that a large number of new, richly equipped village and town churches as well as functional buildings such as hospitals, town halls, schools and community centres, industrial buildings, mills, bridges and others. They attest to the significant cultural endeavours of the Order in the Empire.
French Revolution and Napoleon’s Diktat
The French revolutionary wars at the end of the 18th century introduced the second major crises of the Order. With the assignment of the left Rhine riverbank to Napoleon, the bailwicks Alsace and Lorraine were completely lost as well as large parts of Koblenz and Biesen. The Peace of Pressburg of 1805 determined that the possessions of the Teutonic Order and the Office of the Grand Master and Deutschmaster should be hereditarily passed to the Austrian lineage. The Emperor Franz indeed left the Order, the Grand Master of which was the Emperor’s brother Victor, untouched; however, the office and the Order were in the future connected to the sovereignty of Austria. On 24 April 1809 Napoleon declared that the Order was dissolved in the states of the Rhine Confederation; the Orders possessions were assigned to the princes of the Rhine Confederation. The Order only kept its possessions in Silesia and Bohemia as well as the bailwick of Austria except for the commandries assigned to the Illyric provinces (Krain). The bailwick "An der Etsch“ (Tyrol) fell to the kingdoms of Bavaria and Italy. Although in the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Krain and Tyrol were returned to Austria – and thus were the possessions that have not been sold yet also returned to the Order. However, a restoration of the own small sovereignty of the meanwhile decreased Order could not even be considered.
The Teutonic Order under the Protection of the House of Habsburg
It was Emperor Franz I of Austria, who – after years of uncertainty regarding the future of the Order – opened up new paths. In the year 1834 he renounced all rights from Article 12 of the Peace of Pressburg and thus reinstated the Order with all former rights and obligations. The Order was released from the supervision of the authority of the prince of the empire and was given the status of an independent clerical institution, which was linked with the empire only through the liege. This wise legal concept prevented for instance 100 years later, when the Danube Monarchy was dissolved, that the Order was understood as Austrian order of honour the properties of which would be owned by the House of Habsburg and could have thus been collected by the succession states. Upon the imperial decision, the general chapter of the Order accepted a new constitution, the “Charter of the Teutonic Order of Knights“ and had them confirmed by the Emperor in 1840.
The upswing of the Order in the following decades was primarily due to two persons: The Grand Master Archduke Maximilian (1835 – 1863), a man of great godliness and strict conduct of life, and Father Peter Rigler, professor of theology of Trent, who in 1842 took the Order’s vows in Bolzano and became the driving force of the Order reform together with Grand Master Maximilian. In order to bring the Order closer to its original purpose, the medieval institution of the Sisters of the German Order was reanimated in 1840, and in 1842 the attempt was initiated to gather the priests of the Order, who had until then lived scattered in their respective parishes, the so-called convents.
In 1854 Pope Pius IX. confirmed the Sisters’ institution and the “Rules of the Sisters of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem”. By the decision of the general chapter it was accepted to the German Order of Knights in 1855. Back then the institution already counted 120 members, divided into 3 mother houses in Lanegg, Troppau and Freudenthal with their branches. Further mother houses were established in Friesach (Carinthia) in 1880, and in Friedau (today's Yugoslavia) in 1889. In 1855 the first convent of priests was established in Lana under the supervision of Father Rigler, in 1858 the second convent of priests was built in Moravia (in Troppau since 1866). Their rules were acknowledged by the general chapter in 1865, and by the Emperor in 1866; in 1871 Pope Pius IX. confirmed the “Rule of the Brothers of the Convent of the German House”. A great number of priests came from both convents, which the Order needed for its parishes and the spiritual guidance of the Sisters. Further convents were established in Laibach in 1897 and in Gumpoldskirchen in 1924.
The knights of the Order turned to the field of war medical services since the 1860ies, also in memory of the birth of the Order in a field hospital near Acre in 1190. This was motivated by the overall horror in view of the misery of those injured in the Battle of Solferino (1859). The Order established field hospitals several times already in the 19th century, but first and foremost in World War I. In order to raise the necessary money all knights of the Order were obliged to pay annual contributions; in the year 1866 the institution of the Knights of Honour and in 1871 the institution of the Marian Fathers of the Teutonic Order were established.
The Clerical Teutonic Order
The breakdown of the Danube Monarchy in 1918 tore the Teutonic Order apart and divided it into four provinces, separated by national borders: Austria, Italy for South Tyrol, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Only in Austria some chances for a survival of the Order seemed to exist. In the other succession states the Order was at first regarded as Order of Honour of the House of Habsburg, and the confiscation of all property as alleged ownership of the House of Habsburg threatened. Thereupon, Grand Master Archduke Eugen renounced his office in 1923, had the Order’s priest Norbert Klein (back then bishop of Brunn) elected coadjutor and abdicated at the same time. Bishop Klein thus became Grand Master. Until the end of 1927 all succession states of the Danube Monarchy acknowledged the Teutonic Order as clerical Order. According to the new rules, which were approved by Pope Pius XI. in 1929, the general supervision of the Order was in the hands of priests, priors or matrons took over the administration of the provinces. In 1936 the Pope gave the Order the privilege that the congregation of the Sisters of the German Order would be made subject to the direct supervision of the Grand Master and the general chapter of the Order.
The starting development work was smashed by the National Socialists. In 1938 the Teutonic Order was prohibited in Austria, and in 1939 it was prohibited in Czechoslovakia, which was annexed by Hitler. In Yugoslavia, the Order was persecuted as a consequence of the war and post-war events, in South Tyrol it suffered because of the prevalent fascism.
Reconstruction after World War II
The reconstruction after World War II proved difficult. Only in Austria the abolition decree was annulled in 1947 and returned the property to the Order. There and in South Tyrol the Order got back to its original tasks since the end of the 1940ies, which the National Socialists and the War took away from them: Nursing for the sick, working in kindergartens, (professional) schools, pupils' and students' clubs and old people's homes, establishing and developing corresponding facilities, supplying to parishes, training of young members of the Order. In 1957, a house was bought in Rome as seat of the Generalprokurator of the Order; at the same time it served as pilgrims’ house.
In Yugoslavia, the brothers and sisters succeeded with a modest new beginning after the years of suppression; however, they were expelled from Czechoslovakia. These expellees brought the Order back to Germany, its actual country of origin, after 140 years. The brothers established a convent in Darmstadt in 1949, took over the parish Deutschorden in Sachsenhausen in 1963, and got active in the curates of the Diasporas Wetter and Industriehof near Marburg. In 1964 they even dared to establish a mission; they took over a Diaspora parish in Lidköping in Sweden; unfortunately, due to lack of personnel they had to abandon it again in 1983. The sisters found new fields of work in many places in professional schools, kindergartens, homes, hospitals as well as the care for the old-aged and poor. In 1953 a mother house was built for them in Passau.
Although in the new version of the Rules of 1929 the institution of Knights of Honour and Marian Fathers ceased to exist, laymen still participated in the Order and showed their preparedness to stand up for its goals. The first recommencements of such cooperation were interrupted by the interference of National Socialism. In the 1950ies the institutions of the Knights of Honour and the associates were speedily developed. Their Charter was confirmed by Pope Paul VI. in 1965. Ever since its association this branch of the Order consisting of clerics and laymen dynamically supported the Order’s pastoral and charitable efforts. It particularly managed to reconstruct the commandry Frankfurt-Sachsenhausen destroyed in the War.
The German Order today
The German Order with the official title “Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s hospital in Jerusalem” is a clerical order. Therefore, its main members are priests with solemn vows; the community also comprises lay brothers with simple eternal solemn promises. The congregation of the Sisters of the Teutonic Order with simple eternal solemn promises is assigned to this male branch in such a manner, that the Grand Master and the general capital are at the same time their heads. The institution of associates which generally consists of laymen theologically affiliated to the Order; however, its members do not take the Order’s vow.
The brothers and sisters are spread on five provinces each: Austria, South Tyrol-Italy, Slovenia, Germany and Czech Republic/Slovakia. The associates are subdivided into the bailwicks Germany, Austria, South Tyrol and "Ad Tiberim" in Rome as well as the independent Komturei [commandry] "Alden Biesen" in Belgium; moreover, there are some associates spread throughout many other countries. The German associates formed the incorporated association "Deutschherrenbund e.V. "