Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle: A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)

To get to the essence of the beginning and end of an empire, kingdom or nation it is instructive to look towards the periphery. It is not at the most famous or populated places, such as a capital city or a king’s palace, where the essence of a polity’s early rise and final fall are to be found. Instead, it is in those less obvious places, on forgotten frontiers where the outlines of faded foundations are slowly succumbing to nature and irreparably eroded by time, that the beginnings of greatness or the final, fatal death throes of decrepitude can be detected. And so it is with Prussia, a name that evokes aristocratic Junkers, the resplendent coronation city of Konigsberg, German militarism and crusading Teutonic Knights.

From a Grand Order to a Duchy, then a Royal province turned into a Kingdom until exploding into an Empire, from subjugation to emasculation to complete and total annihilation. The withered remnants of a polity that had such a pronounced and lasting effect on seven centuries of history spread across the canvas of northeastern Europe and the Baltic region is now to be found in overgrown lots, the outskirts of a once great city now encased in concrete and a scattering of ruins barely recognizable that once were fortress Castles. These might have stood the test of time if not for the horrors of war. To discover a lasting essence of the eastern part of Prussia that no longer exists. an armchair historian or off the beaten path adventurer could do a whole lot worse than the ruins of Balga Castle.

Natural Wonder - The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located

Natural Wonder – The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located (Credit: Usadboved)

Conquered By Nature – A Forest Of Foliage Off The Frisches Haff
On the surface, the shattered ruins of the castle seem a strange place to investigate the rise and ultimate fall of what will forever be known as Prussia. The ruins of Balga are found far from modern Germany, amidst a forest of foliage, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Located far from the main roads, near no major towns, accessed on foot and better yet by the imagination. The ruins are as separated from the modern world, as they are from those days when Balga was a Teutonic Knights fortress. The castle has once again been largely overtaken by nature, a constant thread in both its medieval and modern history.

The ruins of Balga occupy a hilltop, but water was just as much a determining factor in its situation.  The castle was about a hundred yards off the shoreline of what was long known to the Germanic Prussians as the Frisches Haff (Vistula Lagoon), a relatively shallow body of water segregated from the Baltic Sea by a thin barrier of sand and forest known as the Curonian Spit. Not only was it close on the Frisches Haff, the castle also stood on swampy ground that turned it into a morass for many an attacking force.  It was this ground where the Teutonic Knights first set foot in 1237, attempting to subdue the fortress of Honeida, held by a clan of the pagan natives known as the Warmians. The Warmians, along with other clans in the Baltic region, were known as the Prusai (Old Prussians).

Balga Castle - where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme

Balga Castle – where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme (Credit: Christina Golubenko)

Old Prussians – A Northern Crusade
Ironically the name Prussia derives from those indigenous peoples who inhabited the region when the Teutonic Knights first arrived in the area during the first half of the 13th century. They were brought in on a crusade to Christianize the last pagan peoples in Europe. The Prusai were fierce warriors whose livelihood was largely dependent on plundering and raiding their neighbors. The Knights were invited to the area with a mission to bring the Prusai to heel. Following a decade of extremely violent warfare, the Knights were slowly making inroads in their battle with the Prusai. In 1237 their efforts focused on another strategic point of potential conquest, the fortress of Honeida. Taking it would be no easy task. The fortress stood on a veritable island due to the marshy ground which surrounded it. A raiding party first sent against the fortress was slaughtered down to the very last man. In 1239 Dietrich von Bernheim, Grand Marshal of the Knights, led a substantial force to avenge the previous defeat. A first assault on Honeida was violently repulsed. That is not surprising since the wooden walls were reputed to have been twenty-six stories in height. The Knights then decided to try starving out the defenders.

Under a flag of truce, one of the fiercest Warmian warriors, by the name of Kodrume, met with the Knights. Von Bernheim offered safe passage to the defenders if they surrendered and agreed to convert to Christianity. Kodrume returned to his fellow warriors and suggested that surrender was the best option. He was accused of betrayal and murdered. After this, von Bernheim decided another attempt to storm the fortress would be made. This time the Knights were successful, either killing or taking all the defenders prisoner. The Knights then set about transforming Honeida into a much more substantial and permanent base of operations. This roused the fury of the natives who soon revolted. They realized much too late that the Knights were not in the area to raid or plunder, instead they were setting up a continuous presence. Prusai efforts to retake Balga were defeated.

An example to all - Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

An example to all – Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

Order Of The Sword – Conquering Forces
It was through campaigns such as the one which conquered Honeida that the Teutonic Knights methodically expanded their presence in the region. Once their rule was established in an area, immigrants were brought in from Germany. The land was then broken up for cultivation and tied into a thriving trade network.  The military and economic prowess of the Knights was such that by the late 14th century the order had conquered what is today northeastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The East Baltic Sea became an avenue for their mercantile interests. Balga’s main function under the knights was to control naval traffic on the Frisches Haff. Balga had to be substantially built up, both for defensive purposes and to make an impression, causing those with designs on the region to think twice before attacking it. The Prussians were always good at making impressions. That was until modern times when the Soviet Union made not only an impression, but a deadly imposition. One from which the likes of Balga and Germanic Prussia would never recover.

Click here for Order of the Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia