Medieval Germany: Der Drang nach Osten


Figure 1.--.

Germans during the Middle Ages pushed east into lands occupied by the Slavs and Blts. Historians now use the term "Der Drang nach Osten". This term was not used in the Middle Ages. Rather the Germans at the time used the term "Ostsiedlung" or "east colonization". It was the German effort to expand their culture, language, and settlement east. The Germans had been push west by the Huns, Avars, and other nomadic warriors from Central Asia. These pressure from Central Asia subsided and Eastern Europe was settled by Slavs and Balts. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes over ran the West and established medieval kingdoms. These kingdoms, especially the ones in the east began to push east to expand their territory. After the Darl Ages the comonies of Europe began to increase as commerce quickened and agricultural technology increased yields. The result was an expanding population. German at the time was the Holy Roman Empire. Germans from the Rhenish, Flemish, and Saxon territories of Empire eastwards began tomigrate east into the less-densly populated areas of the Baltic and Poland. This population movements were supported by the German nobility and the medieval Church. It was also supported by Slavic kings and nobility. This is because the increased population and the skills of the German settlers meant increased income and taxes. Much of this migration was peaceful. There were also military campaigns launched against the Poles and still pagan Balts. This is sometimes referred to as the Northern Crusades. One of the Baltic tribes attacked was the Prussei (1018-1285) and the future state of Prussia would take on the name of the defeated tribe. The Teutonic Knights played a major role in the conquest of the Balts. Konrad of Masovia invited the Knights to northern Poland. The Teutonic Knights became a Polish vassal (1466). Der Drang nach Osten is a German term that appeared in the 19th century with the rise of German nationalism. It became a centerpiece of NAZism culminating in Germany's World War II invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union.

Germanic Tribes

The origins of the Germanic peoples are obscure. Both the ethnic and geographic origins of the people speaking Teutonic languages are not known to history with any precission. The origins of these Grermanic people is still srouded in pre-history. The Germans certainly entered Europe well before the Roman era, but the Germanic people left no written language and because they were semi-nomadic, the archeological remains are sparse. The Germanic people were probably formed from a mixture of races in the coastal region of northern Europe, perhaps especially around the Baltic Sea. They appear to have settled in the north-central plains of Europe sometime around the end of the 6th century B.C. All that is known with any prescision is that the Germanic tribes first appear in southern Scandinavia and along the North Sea and Baltic coasts south into modern Poland. These Germanic tribes then moved southward and east. The Germanic tribes pushing south encountered the Romans at a period in their history that they were expanding north of the alps, setting in motion one of the titanic confrontations in history and one which was not completely resolved until World War II. The Germanic Tribes moved into the central and southern area of modern Germany (100 BC). This brought them into contact with the Roman Empire moving north and east. At the time the Germans came in contact with the Romans they were still tribal, divided into three major groups. The western Germanic tribes are the ones who first contacted the Romans and their territory in the west and south became a province of the Roman Empire. The western Germans had settled an area from the North Sea east to the Elbe, Rhine, and Main rivers. The Rhine became an boundary between the Germanic tibes and Roman territory when Julius Caesar defeated the Suevian tribe (about 70 BC) and took possession of Gaul for Rome. Rome under Augustus continued its expansionary policy moving east and had begun to esrablish a substantial presence east of the Rhine. Then a force of almost three entire Legions under the provincial governor Varus was destroyed by Germany's first great national leader, Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD). This staggering defeat of epic proportions stoped the Roman drive east. It also helped make the Rhine River a landmark of almost mystic proportions to the Germans. The Romans used Germanic tribesmen in their army. Armenius had grown up in Rome and served in the Roman army. He was very familiar with Roman tactics and capabilities. As result of the battle, the Romans were driven west of the Rhine. The Romans built a 300-mile defensive line roughly along the Rhine during the 1st century AD.

Central Asian Nomads

Histories of the Barbaran invasions of the Roman Empire and Medieval Christianity commonly focus pn the West to the exclusion of China abd the East. Often it is the success of Chinese armies against the Central sian nomads that set in motion a movement west. Tribes close to China were driven west forcing more westerly tribes to move further west. Evetually the Germans were pushed west by tribes like the Huns, Avars, and other nomadic warriors. These pressure from Central Asia subsided and Eastern Europe was settled by Slavs and Balts.

Fall of Rome

The German tribes driven west by the Huns and Avars sought refuge within the Empire. They also were impressed with the fruits of Roman civilization. The Romans after failing to subgegate the Germnic tribes, attempted to keep them out of the Empire with varying success. The Romans built a 300-mile defensive line roughly along the Rhine River during the 1st century AD. The Roman line didnít precisely follow the Rhine. It was built miles inland. Frankfurt on the Main, for example, was east of the Rhine but still Roman). A strongly defended frontier and genrerally peaceful relations with the Germanic tribes continued in the 2nd century AD. Eventually the Germans and Huns overwealmed the Western Empire. The situation on the frontier began to deteriorate in the 3rd century. The Western emperors as the power of their armies and frontier defenses wained, began toaccept some of these Germanic tribes as allies and permitted them, as they could not bestopped, to settle within the Empitre. The Germanic tribes as early as 260 AD overun the Roman defensive line and the East and West Germanic tribes penetrated into Gaul and eventually the Italian Peninsula. The Germanic tribes were in part pushed west by the predatory Huns from central Asia.

Germanic Kingdoms

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes over ran the West and established medieval kingdoms. These kingdoms, especially the ones in the east began to push east to expand their territory.

Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire originated with the coronation of German King Otto as emperor (962). It survived until Francis II under pressure from Napoleon renounced the imperial title (1806). It was the medieval German state it was ruled by several dynasties before the Emperor becoming dominated by the Hapsburgs. The Holy Roman Empire of the German nation became the effective organization of Germany after the Investiture Controversy. It was not, however, an exclusively German political unit. The Empire included over time the Burgundian inheritance (the Carolingian "middle kingdom") and parts of Italy and the Netherlands, which were not German in any ethnic or linguistic sense. Nor were national loyalties and sensibilities nearly as important in Medieval Europe as would be the case in the 19th century after the French Revolution. Certainly Germany was the nucleus of the Empire. The emperors were Germans and might hve built a powerful empire in central Europe that could have dominated Europe. This did not occur although the Hapsburgs came close to it. Instead the possession of non-German possessions served to involve the Empire in foreign quarrels which drained its resources and exacerbated domestic differences. These problems would come to fruition in the Reformation.

Migration East

Der Drang nach Osten was not always violent. After the DarK Ages the population of Western Europe began to increase as commerce quickened and agricultural technology increased yields. The result was an expanding population. Germany at the time was the Holy Roman Empire. Germans from the Rhenish, Flemish, and Saxon territories of Empire eastwards began to migrate east into the less-densly populated areas of the Baltic and Poland. This population movements were supported by the German nobility and the medieval Church. These people were invited by the rulers of Russia, Poland, Hungary and Romania. The eastern migration of Germans was also supported by Slavic kings and nobility. This is because the increased population and the skills of the German settlers meant increased income and taxes. Instead of weapons they came with tools, knowledge, zand skills in short supply in Eastern Europe. This is often difficult to understand today because of our heigtened sence of nationality. In medieval times, however, many rulers reigned over people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Much of this migration was peaceful. Large groups of Germans emigrated to east and southeastern Europe. In general they turned out to be beneficial to the countries where they settled. The only thing: they remained German, sometimes for centuries. but many of them expressed their loyalty to the nations where they lived. Only after the French Revolution did sentiment begin to shift toward more etnically based nation stastes.

The Northern Crusades

The Crusades are a well known event in Medieval history. They are mostly associated with European campaigns in the Holy Land. Less well known are the Northern Crusades. There were also military campaigns launched against the Poles and still pagan Balts. This is sometimes referred to as the Northern Crusades.

The Prussei

One of the Baltic tribes attacked was the Prussei (1018-1285) and the future state of Prussia would take on the name of the defeated tribe. Prussia is today seen as the genesis of Imperial Germany and the modern German state. The original Prussians were, however, not Germans at all, but rather a Baltic tribe, the Prussi. The Prussi were eventually conquered and Christinized by the Germna Teutonic Knights and the Germans became the ruling class in Prussia. The principality was eventually obtained by the Hohenzollern dynasty which in combination with Brandeberg became the Kingdom of Prussia. Germany was later unified under the leadership of the Hohenzollerns and Chancellor Bismarck.

Teutonic Knights

The Teutonic Knights played a major role in the conquest of the Balts. Konrad of Masovia invited the Knights to northern Poland. The Teutonic Knights after a brutal 50-year campaign completed the subgegation of the Prussi (1285). Prussia thus became the bastion for the Teutonic Knights. The Prussi became peasants working the estates of the Order. The Teutonic Knights Christianized the Prussi. Dutch and Germans emmigarted into the area as priests, merchants, and artisans. Towns were established often with large German populations. The native Prussi remained the primary agrarian work force.The Teutonic Knights became a Polish vassal (1466).

The Slavs

The Prussi were a relatively small tribe. The German in the East faced a much larger group--the Slavs. German writers descrive the Drag nach Ost, the struggle between the Germans and Slavs. The most important Slacic state was at first Poland. Later it became Tsarist Russia wgich developed from Muscovy. Prussia became a prize which the Germans and Poles struggled to control. It was this historic conflict that Hitler would presue in Wirld War II.

Results

After the fall of Rome and the migrations west of the 6th century and 7th centuries, the Germans as begun by the Carolingians became increasingly concerned with the East. Both the Saxon and Salian emperors pushed east. The attraction was the growing German population and the desire for new land. As a result many of the eastern peoples they encountered became destinctive minority groups within Germany and in sime areas majority groups.

Magyars

The move east proces was begun by begun by the Otto I who defeated the Magyars on the Lechfeld (Augsburg) (955).

Austria

Next Austria was Germanized up to the Leitha River.

Holstein

The Germans in the north moved into Holstein.

Slavs

Further east the Germans moved to the Oder river and exercised some influence there. A Slav revolt there pushed them back (982). Gradually antagonism between the Germans and Slavs grew. The Germans saw the Slavs as a subject oeople. The very name Slav means serf in German. The German attitudes were displayed in the savage Wendish Crusade (ll47). German migration east was for many yeats more peaceful (1150-l400). Many Slavs actually welcomed the Germans for the technology they brought with them (the steel plow, mining techniques, and animal husbandry). The Germans coming from the West had more open political and economic attitudes in comparison to the Polish aristocracy. Many Slavs actually referred the Germans to the Polish aristocracy. A major factor involved hgere was there was greater evonomic opportunity in the east, allowing for greater social movement.

Pomerania and Prussia

The German move east into Pomerania and Prussia varied greatly in different rgions. The Saxons forcibly Christianized the Sorbs (Wends) (about 990). The Sorbo-Wend population in the Spreewald of Lusatia retained its destinctive identity and can still be noted today. The Teutonic Knights virtually exterminated the Prussians. The Masurians, a Polish tribe, in south Prussia, however, also retained their identity. Gradually the Slavs began to resist the Germans more stronly. As population increased and ecomnomic opportunities decreased the Germans began to become more rpressive. This was the beginning of the German Prusian aristocratic military class that would play such an important role in the unification of Germany and the subsequent history of two world wars. The growth of a strong Polish state in the l3th century and the conquest of Galicia and Lithuania blocked the Germans in the eadt. The Teutonic Knights which were the primary German force in the East were defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg (l4l0). As a result Poland obtained Pomeralia (20th century Polish Corridor). Some Germans merchanbts migrated to Courland, Livonia, and Estonia. Prussia itself, however, was isolated from the rest of Germany. Only the decline of the Polish Kingdom in the 17th and 8th century alowed the Germans to unite Prussia with the rest of Germany . Even so, the Germans in much of the East were a small governing elite ruling over a much more numerous slavic population. There was no effort to Germanize the peasantry.

Bohemia

Germans also moved into Bohemia. The Bohemian kings again at first welcomed the German technology to help increase economic production in both towns and mines. A German merchant community was active in Prague during the 13th century. Gradually tension began to grown between the Germans Czechs. Rudolf Hapsburg, the firt Hapsburh emperor, defeated a Czech army trying to seize German lands. Bohemia became a Czech state (1436). The Hapsburgs inherited Bohemia and Moravia (the modern Czech Republic) (1526). The Germans achieved a major victory in the 30 Years war at the Battle of the White Mountain (1620).

German Nationalism

Germans during the Middle Ages pushed east into lands occupied by the Slavs and Balts. Historians now use the term "Der Drang nach Osten". This term was not used in the Middle Ages. Rather the Germans at the time used the term "Ostsiedlung" or 'east colonization'. It was the German effort to expand their culture, language, and settlement east. The Northern Crusades was the most notable aspect of this. Often it was a less overt trend, more Germans desiring to improve their economic circumstances by moving east. Here the extensdion of German cilture and people was more a side affect and not the actual purpose. Only after the French Revolution did the modern phenomenon of nationalism rise to the surface. The experience of military defeat and control by the French as in other countries heightened the sence of national ideentity. The rise of German nationalism in the 19th century lead to a unified German nation state--the German Empire (1871). Germant was unified by the militaristic Prussian monarchy which would have a significant impact on both German and European history. Germans at this time began to think about all the diffused pockets of ethnic Germans around Europe. These Folk Deutsch as they were called were for the most part a plotical. Many blived in multi-ethnic empires (the Audtro-Hungarian and Russian Empires). This changed with World War and the demiose of these empires and the formatuion of nation states based on nationalities. There was more concern in Germany for Germans living outside Germany and some of these German populations (especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland). Der Drang nach Osten is a German term that appeared in the 19th century with the rise of German nationalism. It became a centerpiece of National Socialism. Hitler saw the cissue as a convient tool to gain support domestically and obscure aggression internationally. Even before Hitler and the Nazis, Germans began talking about Lebensraum in the East. Hitler sketeched out what he planned for the East in Mein Kampf (1924). Once in command of the German state, Hitler now had the powerbase to finalize the historic Drang nach Osten. Hitler and Himmler had determined where they thought previous German leadewrs had gone wrong. They were determined not to repeat those mistakes. Hitler's vision culminated in Germany's World War II invasion of Poland and then the Soviet Union. And once in possession of much of the historic East, Hitler ordered the activation of Himmler's Generaplan Ost. The Holocaust of the Jews was just the beginning of what Hitler and Himmler had in mind. They were determined to once and all definitively resolve the coinfklict between Slavs and Germans.






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Created: 5:00 PM 9/15/2006
Last updated: 11:54 PM 5/31/2011