Mass suicide at Pilenai: Lithuanian Defenders Choose Death over Enslavement
The Crusades are best known as a series of military campaigns launched by Western European states, and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, aimed at reclaiming the Holy Land from the Muslims. Less well-known, perhaps, are the other wars sanctioned by the papacy, such as the Spanish Reconquista, the Albigensian Crusade and the Northern Crusades. It was during the Northern Crusades that a rather horrific episode in Lithuanian history occurred – the mass suicide at Pilenai, which is the largest known mass suicide in history.
The hill fort bearing Margiris name in Punia, one of the many suggested locations of Pilėnai. Wikimedia Commons
The Northern Crusades (also known as the Baltic Crusades) were carried out between the 11 th to the 15 th centuries. On one side of the conflict were the Christian powers, including Denmark, Poland, Sweden, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the Teutonic Order. On the other side were the pagans of Northern Europe, including the Livonians, Estonians, Wends, Lithuanians and Samogitians.
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By the 13 th century, the crusaders in the Holy Land were losing ground to the Muslims, and the German Teutonic Order decided to bring the crusades back to their homes in Northern Europe, where there was still a significant pagan population. In 1230, the Teutonic Order began their conquest of pagan Old Prussia, resulting in the creation of the State of the Teutonic Order.
In 1309, when all hope for further crusades in the Holy Land was lost, the seat of the grandmaster of the Teutonic Order was moved from Venice to the Order’s castle in Marienburg (known also as Malbork in Polish) in present day Poland. From there, the Teutonic Order planned their conquest of their pagan neighbors.
Extent of the Teutonic Order in 1300. Wikimedia Commons
In 1336, the Teutonic Order set its eyes on the fortress of Pilėnai, located in present day Lithuania. On the 25 of February, the Teutonic Knights began besieging the fortress. Leading Pilėnai’s defence was Margiris, the Duke of Samogitia.
When the defenders and inhabitants realized that they were outnumbered and stood no chance of attaining victory, they decided to take drastic action. Instead of surrendering to the knights, the people of Pilėnai chose to commit mass suicide. After burning their possessions and the fortress, the men, women and children committed suicide. By doing so, the people of Pilėnai hoped to prevent the knights from gaining anything from their victory.
According to written sources, the number of men, not including the women and children, who were in the fortress was said to be 4000. If the sources are true, then this would be the biggest mass suicide known in history, dwarfing the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish defenders at Masada in A.D. 73, and the 1000 residents of Demmin, Germany, towards the end of WWII in 1945.
For the Lithuanians, this event has been deemed heroic, as the people of Pilėnai chose to destroy their possessions and sacrifice their lives rather than surrender to their enemies. This event has even been romanticized by the poet Władysław Syrokomla in his poem Margier, and in Vytautas Klova’s opera Pilėnai.
While the mass suicide at Pilėnai is an episode well-known in Lithuanian history and even celebrated in the poetry and opera, no one knows the exact location of the fortress. Several places in the country have been suggested as the site of the fortress, though the question remains unresolved.
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Archaeological study may prove to be an effective method to solve the mystery. Charred remains and human bones often leave a distinct mark on the archaeological record, and archaeological surveys may be able to help discover the actual site of Pilėnai.
After the legendary mass suicide at Pilėnai, the Teutonic Order continued their military campaigns against Lithuania. Although the Lithuanians converted to Christianity under Grand Duke Jogaila in 1387, the Teutonic Order continued their war with them. It was only after the alliance forged between Lithuania and Poland, and the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by a coalition of Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Tatars and Czechs at the Battle of Zalgiris in 1410, that and end was brought to the Teutonic threat in the region.