Jan Žižka at Grunwald: from mercenary to Czech national hero

Jan Žižka

The Battle of Grunwald, where 600 years ago the Polish and Lithuanian armies defeated the mighty order of the Teutonic Knights, changed the map of central Europe. The legendary Czech 15th century general Jan Žižka took part in the battle on the side of the Poles. But Žižka was yet to become the leader of the Hussite movement and a Czech national hero. When the armies clashed at Grunwald on July 15, 1410, Jan Žižka was a ruthless mercenary ready to fight for whichever side hired him.

The 15th century chorale ‘Ktož sú boží bojovníci’, or ‘Ye, Who Are Warriors of God’, evokes Jan Žižka’s Hussite armies driving out crusaders from Bohemia and Moravia in defence of the religious reform championed by Jan Hus.

Today, Jan Žižka is considered one of the greatest Czechs, and is admired as a brilliant commander and defender of his nation. But the reality was rather more complex.

A few years before the Battle of Grunwald, he was a bandit in southern Bohemia. He then became a mercenary – but when Žižka, then around 50, offered his services to the Teutonic Knights, he was rejected. Robert Rác is the secretary of the Teutonic Knights for Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia.

“Jan Žižka was hired by the Teutonic knights before the Battle at Grunwald and after it; ahead of the battle, he offered his services to the Grand Master of the order who rejected him. That’s why he joined the Polish side, and he ended fighting for the Polish king at Grunwald. But he fought for the Teutonic order as well – he was a mercenary.”

Alfons Mucha - 'The Battle of Grunwald'
Historians assume that at Grunwald Žižka might have seen the war wagon, a weapon he later brought to perfection during the Hussite wars. But the makeover from mercenary to leader of the Hussite army happened later – during Žižka’s stay in Prague. Historian Martin Nodl is a leading Czech expert on mediaeval history.

“During his stay in Prague, where he was a mercenary at the court of King Wenceslas IV, he probably underwent some kind of spiritual awakening under the influence of reform theology. Žižka himself was uneducated and he could only understand an extract of these teachings designed to appeal to uneducated laymen.

“But he was probably influenced by the reform thought and later became one of the most zealous and most radical leaders of the movement.”

The 19th century Czech national revival considered Žižka a great hero for fighting off the Germans, an interpretation adopted by communist ideologues a century later. Even today, the chorale ‘Ye, Who Are Warriors of God’ is popular with all kinds of Czech nationalists. Martin Nodl again.

The statue of Jan Žižka on Prague's Vítkov Hill
“Czech society lacks great military leaders, and when you look for them in the past, the most likely figure is Žižka, and perhaps another Hussite warrior, Prokop the Great.

“The appeal might also have to do with the 19th century interpretation of Žižka as a great Czech nationalist, although I do think that for today’s extremists, he’s more attractive for his decisive and radical leadership.”