An Overview of the History and Legacy of the Baltic and German Prussians

In 1871, the various German-speaking states of Western-Central Europe unified to form the German Empire. The largest and most powerful of these states—and the one that initiated this Unification of Germany—was known as Prussia. The "Prussians" were well known as a fierce and highly militaristic people that conquered large amounts of territory from the Baltic to the Rhine. However, this description is more accurately applicable to the aforementioned imperialistic German state that spearheaded the formation of the German Empire. These so-called Prussians were actually descendants of Christian German crusaders known as the Teutonic Knights or Teutonic Order. They called themselves "Prussian" only because it was the name of a nation that they conquered and proceeded to take the territory of. The original inhabitants of Prussia, also known as the "Old Prussians" or "Baltic Prussians" were by this point in history wiped out and unlike the German-speaking Christian "Prussians," they were a Baltic people with pagan beliefs.

The Baltic Prussians

The Prussian language (often called "Old Prussian" or "Baltic Prussian" to differentiate it from the German dialects of Low Prussian and High Prussian), is a member of the Baltic language family, and thus related to the three or four extant Baltic languages—Latvian, Lithuanian, Latgalian, and (depending on the criteria) Samogitian; cognates can be observed in examples including but not limited to rānkan (hand), which is ranka in Lithuanian, and galwo (head), which is galva in Lithuanian. Although Prussian is extinct, the language is being reconstructed and revived by linguists and enthusiasts in Lithuania, Germany, Latvia, Poland, and Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast (the original homeland of the Baltic Prussians); the recent publication of the novel The Little Prince in Prussian is one of the results of these revival efforts ( ., 2015). Because the only sources of complete sentences in Prussian are the Catechisms and other Christian texts, the grammar of Prussian is mainly reconstructed from these. However, because it is a Baltic language, the grammar is thought to be similar to Lithuanian and Latvian, albeit with significant German lexical and grammatical influence due to the Teutonic Conquest, an example of this being the placement of a verb at the end of a complex sentence; a possible result of "enlightened" Germanized Prussians translating from German to Prussian (Klussis, 2007. p. 17-19.). The main difference from Latvian and Lithuanian comes from the fact that Prussian was a West Baltic languages whereas the former are East Baltic languages and thus has a far more divergent lexicon even though the base source is the same Proto Indo-European; an example of this being the Proto Indo-European root *swep- being rendered as sapnis in Latvian, sapnas in Lithuanian, and *supnas in Prussian (Klussis, 2007. p. 8-9.). The alphabet is quite similar to that of Latvian as it shares the elongated vowels (ā, ē, ī, ū) but lacks the letters č and ļ and instead has the letters ḑ, ŗ, ţ, and ź. In the 20th Century, more research on the Prussians and their language was conducted by German and Lithuanian researchers and this has lead to both the creation of many reliable sources for the language (such as Prūsiska Chrestōmatija (Prussian Chrestomathy)) and the rise of a revivalist movement in historical Prussia ( ., 2015; Klussis, 2007. p. 5-6.).

The Prussians lived in the area currently spanning Kaliningrad Oblast and a part of Northeastern Poland (specifically the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship). This area was originally known as Prussia but became known as East Prussia after the formation of the German Kingdom of Prussia (Bibliotheca Baltica, 1995. p. 24-27). The landscape was filled with thousands of swamps, rivers, and lakes that effectively isolated the Prussians and other Baltic peoples and is ultimately the reason the Baltic language family is one of the most archaic in Europe. By the end of the 1st Century, Prussians were divided into tribes differentiated only by their names that each ruled over domains known as laūks and villages called kāims (Arellis & Klussis, 2007.p. 69-70). The fact that the Prussians never formed a common political/territorial organization severely weakened them and made it difficult for them to survive wars with Poland and the Teutonic Knights (ironically, Germany was in a very similar situation during the Middle Ages and this made the German states weak until they were unified by German Prussia) (Dzenis, 2016).

Teutonic Order

The roots of the Teutonic Order are deeply intertwined with the expansion and protection of Christianity and are connected to conflicts dealing with the Holy Land. During the reign of Baldwin II of Jerusalem, a French knight, Hugh de Payen, and eight companions took oaths of regular canons and began serving as police escorts for pilgrims on the road from the coast to the Holy City (Tierney, 1983. p. 259). They were consequently granted a house near the Temple of Solomon and allowed to establish an order that came to be known as the Knights of the Temples. In 1128 the pope and a church council formally established the Knights of the Temple as a military religious order, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux drew up a rule for them based on that of the Cistercians; they thus were allowed to became a monastic order, the chief function of which was to fight the Muslims (Tierney, 1983. p. 259). The Templars provided a model for three Spanish military orders-the Orders of Calatrava, Alcantara, and Santiago-that were formed to carry on the struggle against the Saracens in Spain and this example was eventually followed by the men serving the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. Although they continue to operate their hospital, they became a military order as well. This eventually led to the foundation of another order some years later in 1198, known as the Teutonic Knights (Tierney, 1983. p. 260).

After its establishment, the Teutonic Order was first instructed with defending the Holy Land. However, the knights eventually found it more profitable to expand into Eastern Europe and forcefully convert the inhabitants to Christianity, particularly the Slavs (Tierney, 1983. p. 377). Although attempts were made by Poland to Christianize the Prussians since the 10th Century, none of these were successful and the Prussians responded by raiding Poland and executing missionaries. In 1226, Poland enlisted the aid of the Knights of the Teutonic Order (who were recently extirpated from Hungary) and launched a Crusade against Prussia in 1230. Although most of the Prussian tribes had been conquered by 1240, in 1242 the Prussians launched a rebellion that was crushed after seven years of fighting. The Teutonic Knights seemingly held supremacy in the Baltics until the Battle of Durbe on July 13th, 1260, wherein the Samogitians decisively defeated them. This inspired the Prussians into instigating an even bigger rebellion known as the Great Prussian Uprising in 1260 that lasted until 1274 and was nearly successful in reestablishing Prussian independence but ultimately failed due to not all of the Prussian tribes participating and lead to the forced assimilation of the Prussian population, the reduction of rights for Prussians, an increase of German colonists, and many Prussians fleeing to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which had supported the uprising). Herkus Monte, the leader of the Prussian rebellion, was captured and hanged by the Teutonic Knights.

Even after the conquest by the Teutonic Order, Prussian was still tolerated and widely used as the Order knew that forced Germanization would lead to more rebellions; even traces of the Old Prussian religion remained extant as late as the 16th Century in remote villages (Dzenis, 2016; Klussis, 2007.p. 4). Because the Teutonic Knights were mainly concerned with Christianizing the pagan Prussians, they translated parts of the Bible as well as the Catechisms into the local language ( ., 2015; Dzenis, 2016). These translations would become essential in the eventual reconstruction of the language as they're the only surviving fragments apart from minor pieces of Prussian literature such as the Basel Epigram and the Elbing Vocabulary (Bibliotheca Baltica, 1995. p. 9. ; ., 2015). However, the loss of sovereignty to the Teutonic Knights and the imposition of Christianity and German culture which lead to the eventual Germanization of the Prussian nobility, the settlement of German colonists, as well as mass immigration of settlers and refugees from Lithuania, Poland, and other countries due to the Protestant Reformation which further marginalized the use of Prussian and encouraged the Prussians to adopt the languages of others (particularly German), combined with the famines and Bubonic Plague epidemics that ravaged the Prussian countryside from 1709 to 1711 led to both the Prussian nation and language eventually becoming extinct by the early 18th Century (Dzenis, 2016; Klussis, 2007. p. 4-7). The assimilated descendants of these people started to speak dialects of German, Polish, and Lithuanian albeit with traces of the Prussian language (bjornfjorarluff, 2011; Klussis, 2007. p. 19-23.).

Prussian Revivalism Today

After the Prussian nation and language was wiped out, traces of the language and culture continued to survive in the form of place names, personal names, and loan words in the local German dialect of Low Prussian (such as kurp, which means shoe and comes from Baltic Prussian kurpi as opposed to Standard German Schuh) (bjornfjorarluff, 2011; . 2015; Klussis, 2007. p. 5-9.). These traces, unfortunately, have mostly vanished as the area of Prussia was annexed by Poland and the USSR after World War II and the Communist authorities purged the area of its local heritage. However, the most prominent legacy of the Prussians is their name as the Teutonic Knights later used it as the name of their own powerful state, which would unify Germany and dominate Europe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The prominence of the name "Prussia" as well as the Neo Prussian Revivalist Movement can still be observed in modern day lands that were part of historical Prussia.

In November of 2017, I went to Lithuania myself and my main objectives were to meet members of the Neo-Prussian revivalist movement, collect resources on Prussian language and culture, and observe traces of Baltic Prussian culture and history. During my trip I stayed with a Neo-Prussian couple in Vilnius and practiced Prussian everyday with them. The man told me that the Prussian language was something he finds a sense of identity in and hopes for it to be revived and is in contact with more serious revivalists who are raising children in the language. In Vilnius, I observed several monuments and museums dedicated to traditional Baltic deities and the Baltic religion Romuva (Rāmawa in Prussian) and also managed to purchase several books written in or about the Prussian language including Etteikātas Prūsiskas Billas Wirdeīns (Dictionary of Revived Prussian) by Mikkels Klussis, Prūsiska Chrestōmatija (Prussian Chrestomathy) by Mikkels Klussis and Prāncis Arellis, and Primoji Prūsų Knyga (The First Prussia Book), which was published by Bibliotheca Baltica in 1995. All of these books were offered in a bookstore catering to students and sold quite cheaply, especially to students (as I found out when I presented my student card). This may indicate that Prussian revival is becoming popular or that research into Prussian is extensive in Lithuania. In Klaipėda, traces of the Baltic Prussians were especially prevalent, oweing to the city's history of being Baltic Prussian territory and a significant part of German Prussia as well. The local history museum contained a plethora of exhibits and information pertaining to both the Baltic Prussians and the later German state of Prussia and a statue of Herkus Monte was also located within the city. Overall, within Lithuania at least, the legacy of Prussia, both Baltic and German, remains prominent.


Ultimately, Prussia has had a massive influence on the history of Europe and its legacy can still be seen. This legacy is most prevalent in the territory of the original Baltic Prussians that eventually became an integral part of the much larger German state. Prussia is therefore an integral part of the cultural heritage of many nations.


Hello Kaīls

Thank you Dīnkun

You're welcome Madlimai

Excuse me As etwinūja

Where is the toilet? Kwēi ast tualatti?

Goodbye Deiwūtiskan

How are you? Kāi tebbei ēit di?

I don't understand As ni izpresta stan

How do you say _ in Prussian? Kāigi bilītun _ Prūsiskai?

My name is…. Majs emmens ast….

Nice to meet you Mīlai tin pazinātun

Can you speak Prussian? Bilāi tū Prūsiskai?
English Ēngliskai
Japanese Japāniskai
German Miksiskai

Lithuanian Laītawiskai

I don't speak Prussian (well) As ni bilāi (labban) Prūsiskan

Yes/No/And/Certainly Jā/Ni/Be/Akiwīstai

I am… As asma…

Happy Birthday! Deiwūtan gīmsenes dēinan!

I/We/You (Plural)/He/She/It/They As/Mes/Tū (Jūs)/Tāns/Tenā/Di/Tenēi

Good/Bad Labs/Wārgs

What are you saying? Ka tū bilāi?

1 Aīns 6 Uššai

2 Dwāi 7 Septīnjai

3 Trijan 8 Astōnjai

4 Keturjāi 9 Newīnjai

5 Pēnkjāi 10 Desīmtan


Arellis, P., & Klussis, M. (2007). Prūsiska Chrestōmatija (Prussian Chrestomathy). Kaunas, Lithuania: Lithuanians' World Center for Advancement of Culture, Science and Education.

Bibliotheca Baltica. (1995). Primoji Prūsų Knyga (The First Prussia Book). Vilnius, Lithuania: Bibliotheca Baltica.

bjornfjorarluff. (2011, October 27). I Am Prussian. Retrieved from Experience Project: www. experienceproject stories/Am-Prussian/1853356

. (2015, February 17). Little Prince Published in Prussian. Retrieved from : culture. pl/en/article/little-prince-published-in-prussian

Dániel, B., Tímea, B., Milán, D., Tamás, F., Márta, F., Gergely, K., et al. (2009). Dinasztia, hatalom, egyház Régiók formálódása Európa közepén (900-1453) (Dynasty, Power, Church Formation of Regions in the Center of Europe ). (M. Font, Ed.) Pécs, Baranya, Hungary: Pécsi Tudományegyetem.

Dzenis, A. (2016, March 2). THE OLD PRUSSIANS: THE LOST RELATIVES OF LATVIANS AND LITHUANIANS. Retrieved December 7, 2017, from DEEP BALTIC: deepbaltic 2016/03/02/the-old-prussians-the-lost-relatives-of-latvians-and-lithuanians/

Klussis, M. (2007). Etteikātas Prūsiskas Billas Wirdeīns (Dictionary of Revived Prussian). Kaunas, Lithuania: Bibliotheca Klossiana: Lingva Borvssica Nova, Ile.

Tierney, B. (1983). Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300-1475 (4 ed.). New York: Cornell University.