On a recent walk through Central Park, I stumbled upon a statue of a warrior, mounted on a horse, brandishing two swords. The monument bore the following inscription:

King Jagiello – Founder of a Free Union of the Peoples of East Central Europe — Victor Over the Teutonic Aggressors at Grunwald — July 15, 1410

Change the name of the aggressors and of the battle, give the warrior a green T-shirt and replace his swords with smartphones, and you could replace the medieval warrior-king, Wadyslav II Jagiello, with the President of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Last month marked the 612th anniversary of a legendary medieval battle, one of the most unexpected military victories in European history. At Grunwald, on July 15, 1410, the tenacious Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, led by the brilliant and talented warrior-king, Wadyslav II Jagiello, and aided by a ragtag coalition of recruits from much of the rest of eastern Europe, vanquished the Teutonic Knights, one of the most highly sophisticated, powerful, and menacing civilizations in medieval Europe. Their victory ushered in the Polish Golden Age, which would provide an anchor of relative stability in eastern Europe for centuries.

So, who was King Wadyslav Jagiello (pronounced Ya-Guy-Lo)? Who were the Teutonic Aggressors? And how did a statue of Jagiello end up in Central Park? What can we take away from a king and a battle that occurred more than six centuries ago?

Jagiello was born sometime in the 1350s, one of 13 sons of Lithuania’s Grand Duke. In 1377, upon the death of his father, Jagiello ascended the throne as co-regent with his uncle, Kestutis. Kestutis was mysteriously murdered in 1382 while in prison where Jagiello had sent him.

Catholic Poland and Lithuania shared a common enemy in the Teutonic Knights. While his mother, Russian by birth, encouraged him to marry a Russian princess to forge a stronger alliance with Russia, Jagiello instead married a Polish princess, Jadwiga, converted to Catholicism, and was crowned King of Poland in 1386. Lithuania and Poland would henceforth operate as separate states under one crown, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Jagiello established what remains one of the oldest universities of Europe, Jagiellonian University, whose distinguished alumni include both Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. But Jagiello was best known as a skilled military leader and masterful diplomat, most remembered for his surprise victory at Grunwald.

The Teutonic Knights were a crusading military order founded in 1198, under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire, to help retake Jerusalem from Saladin in the failed Third Crusade. After the decline of the Crusader states in the early 13th century, the Knights took aim at other territories—first Transylvania, then the Baltic states, and later much of Prussia. They developed a sophisticated and powerful civilization—perhaps the most advanced state Europe—and developed into the malevolent European super-power of their day.

In 1409, Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on Jagiello’s Commonwealth under the false pretense of spreading the Christian faith (Poland had been Christian since 966). On July 15, 1410, following the end of a ceasefire mediated by Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, Jagiello launched a surprise invasion at the German town of Grunwald. Under his leadership, within hours, a ragtag coalition of Catholic Poles, pagan Lithuanians, Muslim Tatars, and Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians crushed the Teutonic Knights. Eight thousand aggressors, including most of the knights, were killed, and 14,000 were taken prisoner.

The peace treaty that resolved most of the territorial issues imposed heavy reparations on the Teutonic Knights, from which they never recovered. They were never a credible fighting force again. Jagiello’s victory ushered in Poland’s Golden Era of commerce, education, arts, and literature. Jagiello and his progeny became one of the most influential dynasties in Central Europe and reigned for centuries.

A bronze statue of Jagiello mounted on his horse was erected in Krakow in 1910 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald. A replica of this statue sits across from Belvedere Castle, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Central Park today.

The Central Park monument was created for the Polish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. The statue symbolically guarded the pavilion as a not-so-subtle reminder to Nazi Germany of the fate of its Teutonic ancestors. On September 1, 1939, four months after the opening of the pavilion, Germany invaded Poland. And tragically, the original Krakow statue of Jagiello was removed by the Nazis and melted down to manufacture bullets.

The New York statue was put into storage when the World’s Fair closed in 1940. It was recovered from storage and unveiled in Central Park in 1945, on the 535th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, two months after V-E Day.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s personal history, path to power, and governing system could not be more different from King Wladislaw II Jagiello’s. Jagiello was no democrat, and Zelensky did not descend from European royalty. However, a victory by Ukraine over the Russian aggressors could be as significant and lasting for Central and Eastern Europe today as was Jagiello’s six centuries ago. Just as Jagiello, one of the most skilled diplomats and military leaders of his day, formed an international coalition of diverse powers to fight his sworn enemies in their trumped-up war on his country, Zelensky has skillfully aligned most of the civilized world in his defense of his homeland and countering of Russian fabrications. 

Zelensky could serve as similar inspiration well beyond Ukraine, to the Baltics, the Czechs, and Poles—even the Taiwanese—and to free people around the world, in our day and for generations to come.

The civilized world’s tangible support, however, has not matched its rhetoric. Its military support, while improved since the early days of the war, has been begrudging and inconsistent. The United States and its allies must do more, and they must do it swiftly and aggressively. The Ukrainians are not only fighting for themselves; they are fighting for the rest of Europe and for us, and perhaps for the entire world.

Jagiello stood up to outside invasion, and inspired generations of eastern Europeans to oppose tyranny, including the spiritual liberator of Eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II. Likewise, with proper support, Zelensky could serve as similar inspiration well beyond Ukraine, to the Baltics, the Czechs, and Poles—even the Taiwanese—and to free people around the world, in our day and for generations to come.