It happened today - February 17, 2016

Where are they now? I’m thinking partly of the Teutonic Knights, who got handed their armour in the Battle of Grunwald on February 17 back in 1410. But I’m also thinking of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which did the handing.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Lithuania is right where it always was, on the Baltic, the western- and southernmost of the Baltic states, right on one of history’s highways of trouble. All you have to do is Google it. But don’t go confusing Lithuania with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was a lot bigger.

Even Grunwald, whose name seems boringly to mean “Green Forest” as opposed to I know not what, perhaps a black, blue or purple one, is some ways off, in Poland. But that was just peanuts to the Grand Duchy, which at its greatest extent under Vytautas the Great (don’t worry, only the self-consciously Lithuanian know who he was) after the semi-union with Poland and conversion to Catholicism stretched all the way to the Black Sea and contained much of the late lamented Kievan Rus’. So what happened?

Not the Teutonic Knights, who apparently targeted the thing because it was pagan and the Christian thing to do was to whack them with bits of hard sharp metal until they adopted your gentle, enlightened ways. They lost the battle and never really recovered their former glory. Rather, there was this apparently irresistible tendency of Eastern European powers to disintegrate, stuck somehow in a kind of borderland between the frightening dynamism of the West and the grim relentless Asiatic onslaught of the Mongols then post-Mongol Russia.

In a way it’s too bad. Some kind of cohesive polity on the eastern frontier of the German-speaking lands, especially one with the usually tolerant attitude of the Grand Duchy in matters of religion and ethnicity, would have been a great improvement on the gradual Russian/Prussian division of the whole area, with hapless Hapsburg Austria playing divide and conquer while gradually itself decaying from within.

In the end it couldn’t be done. The Grand Duchy, like Poland, gradually ebbed away and was ultimately gobbled up by Prussia, Austria and mostly Russia. The re-emergence of a genuinely independent Lithuania, now a NATO member, is a happy footnote to the story provided Putin’s Russia doesn’t manage to sneak up and swallow it again.

As for the Teutonic Knights, well, they sort of hung in there as a charitable order after being disbanded by Napoleon, and had the honor of being banned by Hitler. Which beats their buddies at Grunwald, the Livonian Order, which packed it in for good back in 1561.

Still, it’s odd to think that names to conjure with in those days would now have this distinctly Duck Soup feel to them while places like England and France are still major factors in history. It can’t be mere coincidence or pure accident of statesmanship; England and especially France had more than their share of bad leaders.

So, another Robson’s rule of history. Don’t put your country in Eastern Europe. Fate won’t be kind to it.