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The Conversion and Destruction of the Wends
By E.L. Skip Knox

Chapter 5

In 1169 the last bastion of Wendish paganism, the temple of Svantovit at Arkona on the island of Rügen, fell to King Waldemar I of Denmark. The struggle against paganism and piracy did not end with this victory; it continued for decades, but neither practice after 1169 had any sure refuge. The year 1169 also marked the entry of Denmark into the affairs of Slavia. After 1181 the Danes began extending their control, first over Norlalbingia, then over Rostock and Mecklenburg, and finally over Pomerania.3 The year 1181 was a watershed year for Germany in many respects, for it was in that year that Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, conqueror of the Obodrites, was deposed by a council of nobles and was stripped of his duchies. The fall of the Lion spelled the end of the stem duchy of Saxony. It was divided into parts and never rose again, thus ending what was, for one historian, the last, best hope for the Empire.5 It is certain that the division of Saxony removed the one power strong enough to overwhelm any opposition in east Germany. What succeeded Henry the Lion was a patchwork of smaller states under a variety of rulers, which was exactly what the various enemies of the Duke had desired. Of all the political events within the Empire in the twelfth century, the fall of Duke Henry was the most momentous for Slavia. King Waldemar of Denmark received Nordalbingia from Emperor Frederick. Also in 1181, Vorpommern fell under German rule, following the death in 1180 of Duke Kazimir. Pomerellia remained independent, however, because its people did not want to be under imperial rule.7 Pribislav was confirmed in his position as Prince of Mecklenburg, and his dynasty ruled until 1918.8

All of Slavia was thrown into disorder by the Lion's demise, and a number of princes sought to expand their power at the expense of the Wends.9 The Danes were the biggest winners, because Denmark possessed greater resources and had a strong leader in Waldemar. Slavia became the theater where a generation of princes vied with one another for power. Waldemar's successor, Cnut, fought with Otto of Brandenburg for years for control of Pomerania.10 By 1200 the Wends had become irretrievably embroiled in the feuds of their neighbors. It was not uncommon to use them as pawns, sending them against one's enemies, much Henry the Lion had done with Denmark in 1169. Many Wends died in these battles, which perhaps caused more damage in Slavia than the invasions of the previous generation.11

 Coupled with rapidly changing conditions in the Empire, a new order of affairs soon emerged in Slavia. The first signs came from the middle of the twelfth century, but the making of Lubeck into an imperial city in 1188 was the first important development after 1181. Ideally sited to take advantage of the Baltic trade, and blessed with numerous privileges bestowed by its successive patrons, Lubeck experienced phenomenal growth in its first century of existence. Forming a network of alliances with other towns on the North Sea and Baltic coasts, by the early thirteenth century Lubeck was emerging as a major northern power. At Bornh'oved in 1215, Lubeck and her allies dealt a major defeat to the Danes, securing control of the Baltic that would last for centuries. The power of Brandenburg prevented expansion of power southward, but the Hansa of the Towns, later the Hanseatic League, was the real successor to Saxony.

The Drive to the East slowed in the fourteenth century and was all but spent by 1400. The fourteenth century was essentially a period of consolidation, with minor victories and minor reversals. In the fifteenth century the rise of nation-states in the east, particularly of Russia and Poland, destroyed the Teutonic Order and sealed off German merchants from eastern markets. The changes occurring in western Europe by this time were so profound that the whole course of expansion, when it was renewed in the east in the seventeenth century, was of a very different nature.

The Drive had far-reaching consequences for Germany as well as for Slavia. The reasons why Frederick Barbarossa finally turned on the powerful Henry the Lion and drove him from the Empire has been a matter of controversy, but is it not possible that the tremendous increase in Henry's power due to his conquests in Slavia played a major role in the Emperor's change of heart? Whatever the causes, the division of territories after Duke Henry's fall had a major impact on German history. The economic consequences of the Drive were if anything even more important than the political ones. The Drive to the East created the Ostseeraum as an economic and cultural region, and tied it to the North Sea region which was reaching the height of its economic vigor. All these factor, served to shift the balance of power in Germany to the east. BY 1182, nine of the seventeen lay principalities of the Empire were located east of the German boundaries of 919s: Bohemia, Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Brandenburg, Meissen, Isusit&, Anhalt and Moravia.l3 Of these, four were created in the twelfth century as a direct consequence of the Drive to the East: Bohemia, Brandenburg, Lausitz, and Meissen.

It is because of the dominance of the towns and the crusading orders, which arose out of the wreck and ruin of the fall of Duke Henry and of the two interregna (1197-1198 and the more serious one 1250-1273), that we end our investigation with the thirteenth century. By then the three forces of the sword, the cross, and the plough were definitely welded into a single force, a Drang nach Osten. By 1181 the actual territory won was still rather modest in comparison with later acquisitions: Holstein and Brandenburg were the main regions.

The phrase "Drive to the East" normally has a much broader connotation than it has had in this paper. It usually includes the whole eastern frontier of the Empire, and can extend chronologically from the ninth century to the twentieth.14 In the medieval period it i8 common to call the tenth century expansion the "first wave" in the Drive to the East.15 What has emerged from the present study is the fact that the tenth and eleventh century expansion, and the twelfth and thirteenth century expansion, were fundamentally different movements. Prior to the twelfth century the political aim of expansion was to preserve the borders of the Empire as they stood, not to extend them. The goal of missions did not change, but the wedding of secular and spiritual interests in the eleventh century gave birth to a wholly new way to spread the faith, the crusade. Finally, the settlement that went on before 1100 was usually in conjunction with military foundations, quite unlike the large-scale colonizing efforts of the twelfth century. It was not until each form of expansion was substantially altered and then united into a single conscious effort did the Drive to the East truly begin.

We began this paper with two questions. The first was: why did the Drive to the East fail for so long, and then so suddenly and completely succeed? The answer, plainly, is that the Drive to the East did not fail prior to 1100, for before that century there was no Drive to the East. What there was was an attempt to secure the eastern frontier from Wendish depredations. This was what failed-not an aggressive, but a defensive endeavor. It failed because it was virtually impossible to prevent piratical raids without diverting most of the resources of the Empire to the frontier. The Germans lacked the military and the political resources they needed. The absence of feudalism in Saxony was the reason for this lack. This meant that at the frontier line itself there were only peasants, subject to a levy, instead of numerous castles manned by knights. It also meant that there was almost no administrative machinery to put into place once an area was conquered, so that the usual practice of the victors was to impose a tribute and then disband the army. We have see how ineffective this was. We have seen also how ideas about conquest and subjugation, and the primitive level of the political and military machinery, were mutually reinforcing.

In the attempt to convert the Wends the goal was the same throughout, but the methods employed changed radically. In the first phase missions were almost wholly in the hands of the Church, while the State took an interest only occasionally. Missionaries went alone among the pagans, and only under Otto I were missionary efforts and military efforts co-ordinated. There can be no doubt that this was due to the character and predilections of the Emperor himself. Without close secular support at all other times, churchmen in Slavia could only suffer martyrdom in the repeated Wendish revolts. The growth of the idea of Christian knighthood marked the crucial unification of secular and spiritual goals that made crusades possible, but again in northern Germany real progress had to await the feudalization of the society; for until there were knights, the idea of Christian knights could make little headway.

The first union of the three forces for expansion, then, was the union of the sword and the cross. This union was achieved in Poland under Boleslav III, but as we have seen, it did not lead to a Drang nach Westen. One crucial reason why is because the third force, the plough, was missing. Only in Saxony and the Low Countries did events coincide to produce an excess population in need of land. There was no ostsiedlung before the twelfth century in Slavia in part because colonization had not yet acquired political significance. Once Slavia came to be conceived of as a pagan land to be converted by force in order to occupy and settle it, then only can we speak of a Drive to the East.

The second question with which we began asked why there was so much violence associated with the Drive to the East. We have been at some length to show that the facile explanations offered by most historians up to now, concerning Saxon avarice and the so-called natural bigotry and greed of the Christian Church,l6 are inadequate and misleading. First of all, it is difficult to say if the violence between the Germans and Wends was exceptionally bloody. The tales of massacres, treachery, and tortures related in the chronicles could easily be matched by chronicles concerning wars between people who were both Christians and countrymen. We do not need to explain the level of violence. It appears to have been normal for border warfare, and no more bloody than border wars elsewhere in medieval Europe. The second point is that the conflict between the Wends and Germans was due largely to the deep differences between their two cultures. The Wends were raiders, The Saxons were farmers; the Wends were polytheistic, the Saxons monotheistic; and from about 1100 the Saxons lived in a feudal society while the Wends continued to live in a tribal one. These historic differences led inexorably to clashes, which in turn only exacerbated relations. Bloodshed was unavoidable.

The Wends were the losers in the contest between the German and Wendish culture because their resources were unequal to the task. German society by the later twelfth century was fairly sophisticated and flexible, and it was able to overcome Wendish resistance. Wendish society, on the other hand, did not develop, or rather, its development was interrupted. In the early twelfth century some Wendish leaders, like the Obodrite Pribislav and the Pomeranian Wratislav, appeared to recognize that fundamental changes in their society were necessary if the Wends were to survive as a people. Events in the West, the colonization movement and the crusading fervor, overtook these tentative beginnings. Moreover, the weak political system of the Wends failed to produce political innovators consistently. It produced what it was meant to produce: war leaders. m e rapid colonization during the mid-twelfth century and after thoroughly disrupted traditional Wendish society, removing any chance that the Wends could construct their own state. The result was that the Wends were faced with the soclo~a~fca~e~'~=f '~omwe~'D'~e~;~rvr~t~ir=," Many took to their weapons in desperation, choosing death. Others, however, chose submission, and only through them have faint traces of Wendish culture survived into the twentieth century.


1. Ann. Magd., an. 1169, p. 193.

2. Annales Ryenses, c. 105 (1181), ed. Johann M. Lappenberg, MGH, SS 16, p. 404.

3. Arnold, III, 4 and 7, pp. 75-76 and 82-84.

4. See Arnold, II, 20-22, pp. 61-67.

5. Thompson, Feudal Germany, pp. 276-78.

6. It is a measure of the Lion's success in Slavia that the Holzatians and Wends stayed loyal to him and fought against Frederick Barbarossa at Lübeck in June, 1181. Arnold, II, 21, p. 64.

7. ". . . defecerunt ab eo Cazimiri Sclavi, quia frater eius Buggezlaus, imperator coniunctus, hominium ac tribute ei persolvit." Arnold, II, 17, p. 58. See also Dvornik, Slavs, p. 317.

8. Dvornik, Slavs, P. 307.

9. Arnold, III, 4-5, pp. 75-79.

10. For instance, the two clashed in 1198 over this issue. The Wends usually resisted the Danes and supported the Germans. See Arnold, VI, 9, pp. 229L30.

11. See, for example, Arnold, VI, 10 and 13, pp. 230 and 237.

12. Barraclough, Origins , pp. 188-89; Thompson, Feudal Germany, pp. 278, 287, and 290.

13. Barraclough, Origins, p. 250 and n. 1.

14. This is the way two of the greatest German historians of the Drive to the East define it: R. Kotzschke and W. Ebert, Geschichte der ostdeutschen Kolonisation (n.p., 1937), pp. 1-14.

15. For example: Francis Dvornik, "The First Wave of the Drang nach Osten," Cambridge Historical Journal 7 (1943): 129-145.

16. Thompson, Feudal Germany, pp. 449-50.


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The Conversion and Destruction of the Wends
By E.L. Skip Knox



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