Re-enactment of the Grunwald battle

  • 2010-04-01
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

WATCHING THE BATTLE: Each year, some 100,000 spectators observe the re-enactment of the Grunwald battle. This year, the numbers should be higher.

VILNIUS - On March 15-16, Vytautas Umbrasas, Lithuanian defense vice minister, visited Poland and met with Piotr Zuchowski, Polish vice minister of culture and national heritage, to discuss the re-enactment of the battle of Grunwald. This year, Lithuania celebrates the 600-year anniversary of the battle of Grunwald, which Lithuanians call Zalgiris (it is a translation of Grunwald, from German into Lithuanian which means “Green Forest”).

On January 14, 2010, people walking  the streets of Warsaw’s Old Town could see medieval knights on horses from the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, led by a herald who loudly announced the beginning of the preparations to the great battle at Grunwald. This was a demonstration showing that the year 2010 is very special for Poland and Lithuania due to the Grunwald battle anniversary.

“On July 15, 1410, the two biggest armies of medieval Europe, Polish-Lithuanian (Central European) and Teutonic (West European), clashed on the fields of Grunwald. After a half-day long struggle, the Polish and Lithuanian knights prevailed,” wrote Zuchowski, who is also the chairman of the Polish committee for the preparations to the celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the Grunwald battle, in the special Web site created to mark this anniversary.

The original battle took place near the villages of Grunwald and Tannenberg. This is why this battle, in Germany, is known as the battle of Tannenberg. The joint army of Lithuania and Poland achieved a crushing victory against the army of the Teutonic Order at that battle. Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas led the Lithuanian forces in the battle. His cousin and Polish King, Jogaila, observed the battle from a distance. Earlier, Lithuanian Jogaila (Poles call him Jagiello) married Jadwiga, a teenage girl who owned Poland’s throne. In 1387, Jogaila and Vytautas officially converted Lithuania to Christianity. The official reasoning for the Teutonic Order’s attacks against pagan Lithuania, i.e. the spreading of Christianity, lost its meaning. The Teutonic Order’s official mission was to spread Christianity in the Baltics. It managed to occupy all Baltic countries except Lithuania.

According to estimates by various historians, from 25,000 to 85,000 men took part in the battle, and from 15,000 to 40,000 perished during the battle. Ulrich von Jungingen, grand master of the Teutonic Order, was killed in the battle of Grunwald.
The battlefield of Grunwald is situated in Poland. The field occupies 400 hectares and is some 26 kilometers south of the Polish town of Ostroda. The re-enactment of the battle is held each year. More than 1,000 knights take part in the re-enactment, which is usually observed by some 100,000 spectators. This year, Lithuania and Poland celebrate the 600th anniversary of the battle. Organizers expect many more spectators this year.

There will be several hundred more knights than in previous years. The knights are expected to come from Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and other countries. People from a majority of those countries took part in the original battle 600 years ago. The battle had international importance and both rivals had multinational legions in their armies. The majority of participants are enthusiastic civilians who are fans of Middle Age history and for whom such battles are a hobby, though some soldiers of the Lithuanian army will take part in the battle’s re-enactment as well.

The victory of Grunwald was an extremely important event in the history of Lithuania. It blocked the German ‘Drang nach Osten’ policy for a long time. Lithuania, having secure borders in the west, could expand further eastwards and southwards. The eastern border of the Lithuanian state was 105 kilometers from Moscow. The present day city of Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, was Lithuania’s seaport.
The name of Zalgiris became a symbol of resistance to foreign domination over Lithuania. The leading Lithuanian basketball team is called Zalgiris, to commemorate the battle. Vytautas, who is referred by Lithuanians as Vytautas the Great, is associated for a majority of people with this battle.

“The battle of Zalgiris, and picture of Vytautas related to that battle, became a long-lasting symbol of the nation’s self-identity,” reads the decision by the Lithuanian government, which was signed by Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene. The decision states that Lithuania will actively participate in the re-enactment of the battle in Poland, while a special coin and a postage stamp will be issued in Lithuania in 2010 to commemorate the battle of 1410.

The battle of Grunwald, unlike medieval battles between Lithuania and Russia, was also officially rather positively estimated in Soviet times because it fit into the Soviet official version of history: the battle was portrayed as Lithuania’s battle against the West, mentioning participation of ‘Russians’ on the side of Lithuanians. However, that was simply not true: those ‘Russians’ were Russians ethnically, but in the times of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, ethnicity didn’t have much meaning - all loyal citizens of Lithuania considered themselves as Lithuanians and were patriots of Lithuania.

This year, the re-enactment of the battle will be held on July 14 - 18. Tourists will be able to observe the life of the military camp of the 15th century, the fair in style of that period, and to participate, on July 17, in the Mass called De Divisione Apostolorum, which will be organized in the style of 1410. The re-enactment of the battle will start after the Mass on July 17.

The supporters of Lithuanian troops should carry not Lithuanian tricolors, which are an invention from the beginning of the 20th century, but the historical flag of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy instead. The historical flag was adopted officially by Lithuanian institutions in 2004. It is the same flag as Lithuania’s flag back in the 1400s. It was the flag of Lithuania for several centuries. The historic flag has a slightly lower official rank than the tricolor now, but it is widely used during official commemorations. A white armor-clad knight on horseback holding a sword and shield, which is decorated with a double cross, is in the center of this historical red flag. The flag’s knight is also the coat-of-arms of modern day Lithuania. It is known as Vytis (“the chaser” in Lithuanian).

“Lithuanians in Poland are recognized by the flag with Vytis,” Filomena Kavoliute, professor of geography at Vilnius University, told magazine Veidas, giving advice to those who plan to include the battle of Grunwald in their summer vacation schedule.

The Lithuanians on the battlefield can also be distinguished by the Columns of Gediminas, one of the old Lithuanian coats of arms, on their shields and flags while the Poles decorate their shields and flags with their coat of arms, the White Eagle. Some other, now less popular, historical and regional symbols could be also noticed on the shields of the Lithuanians.
There is no industry around the field of Grunwald. The region has many farmsteads arranged for rural tourism. It is better to exchange money before traveling to Poland because it may be difficult to do so in that rural area.