14.9.06

PEREGRINUS EXPECTAVI PEDES MEOS IN CYMBALIS. It is difficult to conceive of there being a Star Wars series without Sergei Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevsky, in which the Order of Teutonic Knights play the part of a real-life Evil Empire that is stymied by a plucky if less well-equipped Russian army, and the Force assists by causing the ice to give way at the right time, all to a Prokofiev score.

The Teutonic Knights were, along with the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and the Knights Templar, the last-named alleged in a recent best-seller to be protecting a secret that could shake the foundations of Christianity, the principal Crusader orders. Most of the Teutonic Order's crusading, however, took place in the lands east of the Elbe. They had some successes. A Prussian, after all, is a Pole with a von in front of his surname, e.g. von Blaskowitz, von Czudnochowski. They also had their failures. Their defeat by Aleksandr Nevsky at Lake Peipus in April 1242 ended their aspirations in Russia. Eight score years later, their ambitions in Poland and Lithuania were checked near Willenberg. That story provides the first part of Geoffrey Evans's Tannenberg 1410/1914, which is Book Review No. 32. Poland's King Wladislaw Jagiello, in alliance with Lithuania's Grand Duke Witold, managed to out-maneuver and surround a better-equipped army of Teutonic Knights.

Five hundred years later, a large Russian force moved against Germany's eastern border as a real threat against Berlin as well as to distract German efforts against Belgium and France. In the ensuing battle of Tannenberg, German commanders were able to make more effective use of captured Russian movement orders than, say, General McClellan was able to make at Antietam. The Russians suffered from poor command and control, rivalries between the army commanders, and poorer equipment than the Germans. A Russian army was surrounded and captured, and General Aleksandr Samsonov took his own life not far from Willenberg.

The Russian efforts were not completely in vain, as the Germans diverted forces intended to complete the Schlieffen Plan in the west to reinforce East Prussia. Author Evans argues that the subsequent Russian collapse, however, rendered Russia ineffective as an ally (that without any speculation about revolution) as well as freeing additional German troops for the war of attrition that ensued on the Western Front.

Adolf Hitler was instrumental in destroying two battle monuments. An equestrian statue of King Jagiello commissioned by Polish prime minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski in Krakow on the 500th anniversary of the defeat of the Knights was destroyed early in the German occupation in 1939. The Poles built a replacement and dedicated it in 1976. The German war memorial at Tannenberg, which became German commanding general, later Reich President Paul von Hindenburg's tomb, was destroyed with Hindenburg's body relocated to Berlin as the Red Army closed in in 1945.

Why this book review, and my focus on Willenberg? A relative recently located, concealed in a dresser drawer, a baptismal record of my great-grandfather in the Evangelical Church of Willenberg. Willenberg is currently Wielbark, Poland. The Evangelical Church still stands.


That appears to be a Lutheran rooster on the steeple, consistent with the official seal of the church on the certificate. One version of the family's migration from Prussia to Volhynia to Wisconsin is that they were offered land grants in Volhynia that included exemptions from the military draft, and they left for the States when word that the Tsar was considering ending the exemptions. Another version has the East Prussians in Volhynia leaving as a reaction to a Russification campaign as Aleksandr III cracked down on liberal elements generally. Whatever the story, they did leave, by 1905. But the records that have come into my possession suggest that my grand-uncle Jan may have been born in Willenberg. He was conscripted into the Allied Expeditionary Force and killed in action in France, possibly by an East Prussian.

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