April 18, 1242 - Battle of Lake Peipus, the "Battle on the Ice"
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 18, 1242. Alexander Nevsky and his Russian militia stand on the frozen shores of Lake Peipus, facing the assault of the German Teutonic Knights. At this legendary "Battle on the Ice," Europeans are about to learn for the first time that Russians and winter are a deadly combination.
The Teutonic Order (or, The Order of Brothers of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem, their official name which no one uses for obvious reasons) was a German brotherhood of knights founded in the waning days of the Crusades. Formed in 1189 as a German counterpart to the Templars or the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights wandered across Europe after the fall of the Holy Land, looking for new skulls to knock in now that Arab skulls had proved too thick.
In 1226, the Order was called by Polish noblemen to come help them defeat an resilient pagan tribe known as the Old Prussians, who lived on the southern Baltic Sea. The Order happily complied and thus became the primary force in the series of wars known as the Northern Crusades. The areas of northern Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia were by the 1200s the last major unChristianized parts of Europe. These Baltic Pagans still worshipped old deities such as Parkuns and Occopirmus, and Polish Catholics viewed them with revulsion.
The Knights overran Prussia by 1234 and established major German-dominated cities such as Danzig and Konigsberg in the new territory. To the dismay of the Poles, who thought they would gain the new territory, the Knights created their own state in the region henceforth known as Prussia. In 1236, a fellow crusading order that had conquered Latvia, the Livonian Brothers, lost a major battle to the Estonian pagans at Saule and most of its leaders were killed. This allowed the Teutons to fold the Livonians into their order, and all of a sudden an aggressive Crusader superstate had appeared in the Baltic.
Its targets for expansion were ample and often irrespective of religion. The Catholic Poles to the south resented the Knights, along with the Baltic pagan Lithuanians to the east - the last pagan Kingdom left in Europe. The richest target, though, looked like Novgorod: the great center of late medieval Russia. Many ambitious crusaders were soon bearing down on this town, including the Teutonic Knights.
Medieval Russia was a complex of small feudal states centered on major towns, with the exception of Novgorod, a merchant republic ruled by elected Princes. One of the oldest cities in Russia, Novgorod had been established by Viking explorers as a trading post. For a long time it played second fiddle to Kiev, the capital of early Russia, and from Kiev it inherited the religious tradition of Christian Orthodoxy that Kiev had absorbed from the Byzantine Empire.
In the 1230s, though, disaster struck medieval Russia. As I described on the 11th, the Mongols swept in and sacked most of the major cities of Russia including Kiev. Novgorod only survived because of its location far to the northwest, near modern-day St. Petersburg. Because of this disaster, however, they were the only independent Russian state left standing. The Teutonic Knights, along with a band of Swedish crusaders, saw an opportunity to bring the Russian Church under their domination and readied plans to attack Novgorod.
The Prince of Novgorod was the magnetic, confident, 19-year old Alexander Yaroslavich. Alexander quickly rallied the Novgorod militia and dealt the Swedes a dramatic defeat on the Neva River in 1240. Alexander became a sudden hero, earning the nickname "Nevsky" for this victory and quickly becoming Russia's only leader of note. His popularity troubled the merchant nobles of the city, though, and they soon forced him into exile.
In 1241, the Teutons - mostly Livonian Brethren with Estonian conscripts - finally arrived, and pillaged the major Novgorodian city of Pskov on the southern shore of Lake Peipus. The enormous Lake Peipus today divides most of Estonia and Latvia to the west from Russia to the east, and it was the border in 1241 as well. The city fathers summoned Alexander Nevsky back to save them, and he arrived in time to take command of the frightened militiamen. He retook Pskov from the Knights, but knew the war was not over. He knew the Germans would come back, and knew where to head them off.
In 1242, the Teutons and Livonians made to cross Lake Peipus at its narrowest point, making a direct beeline for Novgorod. It was a late winter, and this portion of the lake was still frozen over. Around 2600 battle-hardened men advanced with the Knights' force, including 900 of the heavy Teutonic Knights. They met an advanced Novgorodian force on the west shore, and when this force retreated they pursued - just as Alexander wanted.
On April 17 [or April 5 depending on the source] the Knights' force began to cross the frozen surface of Lake Peipus but soon came to a halt. Alexander Nevsky faced them with almost 3,000 lightly armed Novgorod militia, 1,000 Russian noblemen including refugees from the Mongols, and a squadron of horse archers.
The Germans charged across the frozen surface and the battle ensued. The slippery ice caused the Knights in their heavy armor to lose control of their mounts, but they were a fearsome fighting force and made gradual headway against their foes. Even as the Novgorod militia began to fall back and began to run, though, the young Nevsky and his cavalry circled around and struck the Germans from both sides.
The Crusaders and their men were already exhausted from the long trek across the lake, and lost their way, snowblind in the vast expanse of white. They began to retreat in panic. What happened next is a matter of some dispute; it is an article of Russian legend about the battle that the heavy German knights cracked through and drowned in the icy lake, though most accounts of the time do not mention it. It seems to have been a later invention by authors and - note - filmmakers.
The battle was, if a large affair for a medieval fight, relatively light in actual losses: some records report only 20 knights killed. It had enormous consequences in the long term. The Teutonic expansion to the east was halted for good, and never resumed; from that point on and even to this day, Lake Peipus is the dividing line between Catholicism and later Protestantism to the west and Orthodoxy to the east. The border that Alexander Nevsky reaffirmed in 1242 remains in roughly the same shape in 2020. West and East - NATO and Russia - still square off on this border.
The Teutonic Knights spent the next two centuries trying to conquer Lithuania, even after its conversion to Catholicism in 1387. When the Poles and Lithuanians finally united in 1410 to beat the Teutons at Grunwald, they saw their star begin to fall. The Teutonic Grandmaster converted to Protestantism in 1525 and turned his land into the Duchy of Prussia. When this property was inherited by a weak German state called Brandenburg some years later, it laid the seeds for the mighty Kingdom of Prussia that eventually became the German Empire.
In a way, the battle meant far more to future generations than to the people of its own time.
For Germans, the defeat at Lake Peipus became part of a general obsession with eastern conquest. As the German Empire and later Nazi Germany began to look more and more to the potential conquest of the Baltic States, Ukraine and Russia, they found historical backing in the Teutonic Knights' quest to "civilize" the "Asiatic east." This cultural mythos of "drang nach osten" - the "drive to the east" - had its roots in the Teutonic quest.
The Knights became symbols of German nationalism and imperialism, and found particular use in Nazi hands, where the notion of "lebensraum" could be given historical precedent. Himmler even referenced his SS as heirs to the Teutonic Knights. Ironically, the Nazis banned the actual Teutonic Knights in 1938. Having become a purely religious order with no military associations, Hitler viewed the Teutons as a suspicious symbol of Catholic and Papal influence.
For Russia, Alexander Nevsky became a great hero and later a patron saint of the Orthodox Church. While his stature only grew with time, his glory covered up his less savory side - especially his dealings with the Mongols, paying tribute and essentially serving as the leg-breaker to get other Russian states to pay up. Nevsky rationalized it as a way of preserving Russia by acknowledging reality.
The best-known depiction of the Battle on the Ice is Sergei Eisenstein's groundbreaking 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky." Blatant propaganda commissioned by the Soviet government, it all but transformed the Teutonic Knights into Nazis and depicted the Teutonic infantry wearing Stahlhelms. It also displayed anti-religious overtones, with the Catholic priests wearing swastika regalia, and turned Nevsky into a "man of the people" deliberately resembling Stalin. Communist rhetoric and ideology seeps through the film, which is nevertheless one of the greatest works of early cinema.
"Alexander Nevsky" vanished from Soviet theaters after Stalin signed his infamous 1939 pact with Hitler dividing up Poland, since the Germans had of course always been their friends. ("We have always been at war with Eastasia.") It suddenly reappeared after the Germans invaded in 1941. Funny, that.
Eisenstein's film was a huge inspiration to generations of future filmmakers. Its most familiar incarnation to the modern audience may be from The Empire Strikes Back, where the Rebels' battle against the Empire on the ice planet Hoth is a direct allusion to Eisenstein's depiction of the Battle on the Ice.
No word on whether Alexander Nevsky carried a lightsaber.