As, in a limitless universe, any point may be taken as center, so, in the pageant of civilizations and states, each nation, like each soul, interprets the drama of history or life in terms of its own role and character. North of the Balkans lay another medley of peoples—Bohemians, Poles, Lithuanians, Livonians, Finns; and each, with life-giving pride, hung the world upon its own national history.
In the earlier Middle Ages the Finns, distant relatives of the Magyars and the Huns, dwelt along the upper Volga and Oka. By the eighth century they had migrated into the hardy, scenic land known to outsiders as Finland, and to Finns as Suomi, the Land of Marsh. Their raids upon the Scandinavian coasts induced the Swedish King Eric IX to conquer them in 1157. At Uppsala Eric left a bishop with them as a germ of civilization; the Finns killed Bishop Henry, and then made him their patron saint. With quiet heroism they cleared the forests, drained the marshes, channeled their “10,000 lakes,”17 gathered furs, and fought the snow.
South of the Gulf of Finland the same ax- and spadework was accomplished by tribes akin to the Finns—Borussians (Prussians), Esths (Estonians), Livs (Livonians), Litva (Lithuanians), and Latvians or Letts. They hunted, fished, kept bees, tilled the soil, and left letters and arts to the less vigorous posterity for whom they toiled. All but the Estonians remained pagan till the twelfth century, when the Germans brought Christianity and civilization to them with fire and sword. Finding that Christianity was being used by the Germans as a means of infiltration and domination, the Livonians killed the missionaries, plunged into the Dvina to wash off the stain of baptism, and returned to their native gods. Innocent III preached a crusade against them; Bishop Albert entered the Dvina with twenty-three men-of-war, built Riga as his capital, and subjected Livonia to German rule (1201). Two religious-military orders, the Livonian Knights and the Teutonic Knights, completed the conquest of the Baltic states for Germany, carved out vast holdings for themselves, converted the natives to Christianity, and reduced them to serfdom.18 Heartened by this success, the Teutonic Knights advanced into Russia, hoping to win at least its western provinces for Germany and Latin Christianity; but they were defeated on Lake Peipus (1242) in one of the innumerable decisive battles of history.
Around these Baltic states surged an ocean of Slavs. One group called itself Polanie—“people of the fields”—and tilled the valleys of the Warthe and the Oder; another, the Mazurs, dwelt along the Vistula; a third, the Pomorzanie (“by the sea”), gave its name to Pomerania. In 963 the Polish prince Mieszko I, to avoid conquest by Germany, confided Poland to the protection of the popes; thenceforth Poland, turning its back upon the semi-Byzantine Slavdom of the East, cast in its lot with western Europe and Roman Christianity. Mieszko’s son Boleslav I (992–1025) conquered Pomerania, annexed Breslau and Cracow, and made himself the first King of Poland. Boleslav III (1102–39) divided the kingdom among his four sons; the monarchy was weakened; the aristocracy parceled the land into feudal principalities, and Poland fluctuated between freedom and subjection to Germany or Bohemia. In 1241 the Mongol avalanche came down upon the land, took Cracow, the capital, and leveled it to the ground. As the Asiatic flood receded a wave of German immigration swept into western Poland, leaving there a strong admixture of German language, laws, and blood. At the same time (1246) Boleslav V welcomed Jews fleeing from pogroms in Germany, and encouraged them to develop commerce and finance. In 1310 King Wenceslas II of Bohemia was elected King of Poland, and united the two nations under one crown.
Bohemia and Moravia had been settled by Slavs in the fifth and sixth centuries. In 623 a Slavic chieftain, Samo, freed Bohemia from the Avars, and established a monarchy that died with him in 658. Charlemagne invaded the land in 805, and for an unknown period Bohemia and Moravia were parts of the Carolingian Empire. In 894 the Přemysl family brought both lands under their enduring dynasty; but the Magyars ruled Moravia for half a century (907–57), and in 928 Henry I made Bohemia subject to Germany. Duke Wenceslas I (928–35) brought prosperity to Bohemia despite this intermittent dependency. He had been given a thoroughly Christian upbringing by his mother, St. Ludmilla; and he did not cease to be a Christian when he became a ruler. He fed and clothed the poor, protected orphans and widows, gave hospitality to strangers, and bought freedom for slaves. His brother tried to assassinate him as lacking the vices desirable in a king; Wenceslas struck him down with his own hand, and forgave him; but other members of the conspiracy murdered the King on his way to Mass on September 25, 935. The day is annually celebrated as the feast of Wenceslas, Bohemia’s tutelary saint.
Warlike dukes succeeded him. From their strategic castle and capital at Prague, Boleslav I (939–67) and II (967–99) and Bratislav I (1037–55) conquered Moravia, Silesia, and Poland; but Henry III forced Bratislav to evacuate Poland and resume the payment of tribute to Germany. Ottokar I (1197–1230) freed Bohemia, and became its first king. Ottokar II (1253–78) subjected Austria, Styria, and Carinthia. Eager to develop industry and a middle class as counterweights to a rebellious nobility, Ottokar II encouraged German immigration, until nearly all the towns of Bohemia and Moravia were predominantly German.19 The silver mines of Kutna Hora became the ground of Bohemia’s prosperity, and the goal of her many invaders. In 1274 Germany declared war against Ottokar; his nobles refused to support him; he surrendered his conquests, and kept his throne only as a German fief. But when the Emperor Rudolf of Hapsburg interfered in the internal affairs of Bohemia, Ottokar raised a new army and fought the Germans at Dürnkrut; again deserted by the nobles, he plunged into the thickest ranks of the enemy and died in desperate combat.
Wenceslas II (1278–1305) won peace by renewed vassalage, and laboriously restored order and prosperity. With his death the Přemyslid dynasty came to an end after a rule of 500 years. The Bohemians, the Moravians, and the Poles were the only survivors of the Slav migration that had once filled eastern Germany to the Elbe; and they were now subject to the German power.