A Brief History
On February 25, 1336, the 4,000 defenders of the medieval Lithuanian fortress of Pilénai thought they had no other choice but to make the horrible decision to kill themselves and their families after torching and destroying everything they had of value to deny their Teutonic besiegers the spoils of victory and the opportunity to kill or enslave them.
The number of women and children sacrificed is unknown, but even just the number of defenders, recorded at 4,000, is more than enough to rank as history’s largest mass suicide, eclipsing the 900+ dead at Masada in 37-31 B.C. and the 900+ dead at Jonestown in 1978.
These brave defenders are remembered in an epic poem by Wladyslaw Syrokomla titled Margier, in reference to the Duke of Margiris who commanded the defenders, and also in a 1956 opera by Vytautas Klova (with J. Mackonis) titled Pilénai.
Although Lithuanians remember the event as a glorious part of their history, the exact location of the fortress is disputed, with a few different locations laying claim to be the hallowed ground. As for the Teutonic Knights (Germans), they were Crusaders who were back from the Holy Land, and in their march across Europe, attempted to convert Pagans, such as those they found in Lithuania, to Christianity.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were the defenders of Pilénai correct in choosing to die by their own hands? Should they have possibly saved their families and selves by submitting to the Teutonic Knights? Should suicides ever be glorified, or does this only encourage such behavior? Feel free to add your comments and observations, and if you are aware of larger mass suicides please share those with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cochrane, Ms. Lydia G. and Mr. Georges Minois. History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture (Medicine and Culture). The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.