Iron Cross

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

The Iron Cross is a cross symbol typically in black with a white or silver outline that originated after 1219 when the Kingdom of Jerusalem granted the Teutonic Order the right to combine the Teutonic Black Cross placed above a silver Cross of Jerusalem.

The military decoration called the Iron Cross which existed in the Kingdom of Prussia, and later in the German Empire and Third Reich, was established by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia and first awarded on the 10th of March in 1813 during the Napoleonic Wars. The recommissioned Iron Cross was also awarded during the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II. The Iron Cross was normally a military decoration only, though there were instances of it being awarded to civilians for performing military functions. Two examples of this were civilian test pilots Hanna Reitsch and Melitta Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg, who were awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and 2nd Class respectively for their actions as pilots during World War II.

Various iterations from 1813 to 1870.

The Iron Cross was used as the symbol of the German Army from 1871 to March/April 1918, when it was replaced by a simpler Greek cross. The Iron Cross was reintroduced as an award in the German Army in 1939 with a Swastika added in the center during the Third Reich in World War II. In 1956, the Iron Cross resumed its German military usage, as it became the symbol of the Bundeswehr, the modern German armed forces. The traditional design is black and this design is used on armored vehicles and aircraft. A newer design in blue and silver is used as the emblem in other contexts.

War flag of Prussia.

The Black Cross (Schwarzes Kreuz) is the emblem used by the Prussian Army, and by the army of Germany from 1871 to present. It was designed on the occasion of the German Campaign of 1813, when Frederick William III commissioned the Iron Cross as the first military decoration open to all ranks, including enlisted men. From this time, the Black Cross also featured on the Prussian war flag alongside the Black Eagle. The design is due to neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, based on a sketch by Frederick William. The design is ultimately derivative of the black cross used by the Teutonic Order. This heraldic cross took various forms throughout the order’s history, including a simple Latin cross, a cross potent, cross fleury and occasionally also a cross pattée.

German Cross.

When the Quadriga of the Goddess of Peace was retrieved from Paris at Napoleon’s fall, the Goddess was re-established atop Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. An Iron Cross was inserted into her laurel wreath, making her into a Goddess of Victory. In 1821, Schinkel crowned the top of his design of the National Monument for the Liberation Wars with an Iron Cross, becoming name-giving as Kreuzberg (cross mountain) for the hill it stands on and – 100 years later – for the homonymous quarter adjacent to it.

The Balkenkreuz introduced in 1916.

The Black Cross was used on the naval and war flags of the German Empire. The Black Cross was used as the symbol of the German Army until 1915, when it was replaced by a simpler Balkenkreuz. The Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic (1921–35), the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany (1935–46) and the Bundeswehr (1 October 1956 to present) also inherited use of the emblem in various forms. The traditional design in black is used on armored vehicles and aircraft, while after German reunification, a new design in blue and silver was introduced for use in other contexts.

Modern Variation of the Bundeswehr.

The ribbon for the 1813, 1870 and 1914 Iron Cross (2nd Class) was black with two thin white bands, the colors of Prussia. The non-combatant version of this award had the same medal, but the black and white colors on the ribbon were reversed. The ribbon color for the 1939 was black/white/red/white/black.

Since the Iron Cross was issued over several different periods of German history, it was annotated with the year indicating the era in which it was issued. For example, an Iron Cross from World War I bears the year “1914”, while the same decoration from World War II is annotated “1939”. The reverse of the 1870, 1914 and 1939 series of Iron Crosses have the year “1813” appearing on the lower arm, symbolizing the year the award was created. The 1813 decoration also has the initials “FW” for King Frederick William III, while the next two have a “W” for the respective kaisers, Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II. The final version shows a swastika. There was also the “1957” issue, a replacement medal for holders of the 1939 series which substituted an oak-leaf cluster for the banned swastika.

Emblem of the Bundeswehr since 1956.

When the Iron Cross was reauthorized for World War I in 1914, it was possible for individuals who had previously been awarded one in 1870 to be subsequently granted another. These recipients were recognized with the award of a clasp featuring a miniaturized 1914 Iron Cross on a metal bar. The award was quite rare, since by this time there were few in service who held the 1870 Iron Cross. In World War II, it was also possible for a holder of the 1914 Iron Cross to be awarded a second or higher grade of the 1939 Iron Cross. In such cases, a “1939 Clasp” (Spange) would be worn on the original 1914 Iron Cross. For the 1st Class award, the Spange appears as an eagle with the date “1939”. This was pinned to the uniform above the original medal. Although they were two separate awards in some cases the holders soldered them together.

A cross has been the symbol of Germany’s armed forces (now the Bundeswehr) since 1871.

Prussia, the Iron Cross 1st Class of the Napoleonic Wars, in its original form of 1 June 1813.

On 17 March 1813, King Frederick William III of Prussia – who had fled to non-occupied Breslau – established the military decoration of the Iron Cross, backdated to 10 March (the late Queen Louise’s birthday). The Iron Cross was awarded to soldiers during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. Before a soldier could be awarded with the Iron Cross 1st Class, he needed to have been decorated with the Iron Cross 2nd Class.  It was first awarded to Karl August Ferdinand von Borcke on 21 April 1813. The first form of the Iron Crosses 1st Class were stitched in ribbon to the left uniform breast. By order of 1 June 1813, the 2nd form was created in cast iron with silver borders, and 8 loops on the reverse, to be fixed to the left uniform breast. In 1817, a total of 670 chevaliers had received the Iron Cross 1st Class.

Prussia, the Iron Cross 1st Class of the Wars of Liberation, in its original form of 1 June 1813. Reverse with 8 loops for stitching the award to the left side of the uniform breast.

King Wilhelm I of Prussia authorized further awards on 19 July 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. Recipients of the 1870 Iron Cross who were still in service in 1895 were authorized to purchase and wear above the cross a Jubiläumsspange (“Jubilee clip”), a 25-year clasp consisting of the numerals “25” on three oak leaves.

World War I Iron Cross, 2nd Class.

World War I

Emperor Wilhelm II reauthorized the Iron Cross on 5 August 1914, at the start of World War I. During these three periods, the Iron Cross was an award of the Kingdom of Prussia, although — given Prussia’s pre-eminent place in the German Empire formed in 1871 — it tended to be treated as a generic German decoration. The 1813, 1870, and 1914 Iron Crosses had three grades:

  • Iron Cross 2nd Class (Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse, or EKII)
  • Iron Cross 1st Class (Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse, or EKI)
  • Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (Großkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Großkreuz)

Although the medals of each class were identical, the manner in which each was worn differed. Employing a pin or screw posts on the back of the medal, the Iron Cross 2nd Class was worn on the left side of the recipient’s uniform. The Grand Cross and the Iron Cross 1st Class were suspended from different ribbons.

The Grand Cross was intended for senior generals of the Prussian or (later) the German Army. An even higher decoration, the Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (also called the Blücher Star), was awarded only twice, to Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher in 1813 and to Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg in 1918. A third award was planned for the most successful German general during World War II, but was not made after the defeat of Germany in 1945.

Certificate of award to a musketeer in the Royal Prussian Landwehr, October 1918, a month before the end of the World War I.

The Iron Cross 1st Class and the Iron Cross 2nd Class were awarded without regard to rank. One had to possess the 2nd Class already in order to receive the 1st Class (though in some cases both could be awarded simultaneously). The egalitarian nature of this award contrasted with those of most other German states (and indeed of many other European monarchies), where military decorations were awarded based on the rank of the recipient. For example, Bavarian officers received various grades of that Kingdom’s Military Merit Order (Militär-Verdienstorden), while enlisted men received various grades of the Military Merit Cross (Militär-Verdienstkreuz). Prussia did have other orders and medals which it awarded on the basis of rank, and even though the Iron Cross was intended to be awarded without regard to rank, officers and NCOs were more likely to receive it than junior enlisted soldiers.

During World War I, approximately 218,000 EKIs, 5,196,000 EKIIs and 13,000 non-combatant EKIIs were awarded. Exact numbers of awards are not known, since the Prussian military archives were destroyed during World War II. The multitude of awards reduced the status and reputation of the decoration. Among the holders of the 1914 Iron Cross 2nd Class and 1st Class was Adolf Hitler, who served as an Austrian citizen in the Bavarian Army with the rank of Gefreiter (lance-corporal). Most photographs of Hitler show him wearing his EKI in standard fashion on his left breast. It has been stated that his achievement was owed more to his ties with his superiors than his actions of bravery.

German soldiers who had been awarded the Iron Cross.

World War II

Adolf Hitler restored the Iron Cross in 1939 as a German decoration (rather than Prussian), and continued the tradition of issuing it in various classes. Legally, it is based on the “Enactmennt for the re-introduction of the Iron Cross” (Verordnung über die Erneuerung des Eisernen Kreuzes) of 1 September 1939. The Iron Cross of World War II was divided into three main series of decorations with an intermediate category, the Knight’s Cross, instituted between the lowest, the Iron Cross, and the highest, the Grand Cross. The Knight’s Cross replaced the Prussian Pour le Mérite or “Blue Max”. Hitler did not care for the Pour le Mérite, as it was a Prussian order that could be awarded only to officers. The ribbon of the medal (2nd class and Knight’s Cross) was different from the earlier Iron Crosses in that the color red was used in addition to the traditional black and white (black and white were the colors of Prussia, while black, white, and red were the colors of Germany). Hitler also created the War Merit Cross as a replacement for the non-combatant version of the Iron Cross. It also appeared on certain Nazi flags in the upper left corner. The edges were curved, like most original iron crosses.

Iron Cross 1st Class,

The standard 1939 Iron Cross was issued in the following two grades:

  • Iron Cross 2nd Class (Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse – abbreviated as EK II or E.K.II.)
  • Iron Cross 1st Class (Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse – abbreviated as EK I or E.K.I.)

The Iron Cross was awarded for bravery in battle as well as other military contributions in a battlefield environment.

The Iron Cross 2nd Class came with a ribbon and the cross itself was worn in one of two different ways:

  • From the second button in the tunic for the first day after award.
  • When in formal dress, the entire cross was worn mounted alone or as part of a medal bar.

Note that for everyday wear, only the ribbon itself was worn from the second buttonhole in the tunic.

The Iron Cross 1st Class was a pin-on medal with no ribbon and was worn centered on a uniform breast pocket, either on dress uniforms or everyday outfit. It was a progressive award, with the second class having to be earned before the first class and so on for the higher degrees.

Iron Cross 2nd Class.

It is estimated that some four and a half million 2nd Class Iron Crosses were awarded during World War II, and 300,000 of the 1st Class. Two Iron Cross 1st Class recipients were women, one of whom was test pilot Hanna Reitsch. One of the Muslim SS members to receive the award, SS Obersturmführer Imam Halim Malkoć, was granted the Iron Cross (2nd Class) in October 1943 for his role in suppressing the Villefranche-de-Rouergue mutiny. He, together with several other Bosnian Muslims, was decorated with the EK. II personally by Himmler in the days after the mutiny. Because of his Muslim faith, he only wore the ribbon, and not the cross. Two Jewish officers of the Finnish Army and one female Lotta Svärd member were awarded Iron Crosses, but they would not accept them. The Spanish double-agent Juan Pujol García, known to the Germans as Arabel and the British as Garbo received the 2nd Class Iron Cross, and an MBE from King George VI four months later. William Manley is possibly the only recipient of both the Iron Cross and the Victoria Cross. He was awarded the Iron Cross for service with an ambulance unit in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – Please See the Page on the Website for this Information.

Waffen-SS Sturmbannführer Ernst Dehmel in 1943 displaying the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Grand Cross of the Iron Cross 1939

Like the Knight’s Cross, the Grand Cross (Großkreuz) was also worn suspended from the collar. The only recipient of the Grand Cross during the Second World War was Reichsmarschall, or “Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich”, Hermann Göring, who was awarded the decoration on 19 July 1940. The medal is in effect an oversized Knight’s Cross. It had the same overall characteristics as the Knight’s Cross but was much larger, measuring 63 mm (2.5 in) wide as opposed to about 44 mm (1.7 in) for the Iron Cross and 48.5 mm (1.9 in) for the Knight’s Cross. It was originally intended to have outer edges lined in gold, but this was changed to silver before the award was presented.

1914 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.

The Grand Cross was worn with a 57 mm (2.2 in) wide ribbon bearing the same colors as the Knight’s Cross and 2nd Class ribbons. The award case was in red leather with the eagle and the swastika outlined in gold.

The Grand Cross was not a bravery award. It was reserved solely for General Staff officers for “the most outstanding strategic decisions affecting the course of the war”. Göring received the Grand Cross for his command of the Luftwaffe during the successful 1940 campaigns against France, Belgium, and the Netherlands (at the same time as he was promoted to Reichsmarschall of the Greater German Reich).

The original Grand Cross that was presented to Göring (personally by Hitler) was destroyed during an air raid on his Berlin home. Göring had extra copies made, one of them with a platinum frame that he was wearing at the time of his surrender to the allies in 1945.
Several times in official photographs, Göring can be seen wearing his Pour le Mérite, Knight’s Cross, and Grand Cross around his neck at the same time.

Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.

Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross 1939

The Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (also called Iron Cross with Golden Rays) was meant to be worn like the Iron Cross 1st Class (pinned to the breast). Like the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, this award was not intended to be bestowed for bravery. Rather, it was bestowed upon the most successful General officer at the conclusion of a war.

The first Star of the Grand Cross was presented to Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher for defeating Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. That medal is called the Blücherstern (“Blücher Star”). The second version of the Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross was presented to Paul von Hindenburg for the German victories over the British in the German offensives in March and April 1918.  A Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross was manufactured for World War II, but it was never awarded. The only known example was found by Allied occupation forces at the end of the war, and was eventually added to the West Point military collection. It is generally believed that Reichsmarschall Göring was the intended eventual recipient. The design was based on the 1914 version of the Star of the Grand Cross, but with the 1939 Iron Cross as the centerpiece.

Side Features of the Iron Cross and Entitlements

Officers awarded the Iron Cross were given entitlements and often wore signifying articles, such as an Iron Cross signet ring or cloth Iron Cross which could be affixed to clothing. Also, during the Nazi period, those attaining more than one award, for example, an officer who had attained an Iron Cross 1st Class, an Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with the Oak Leaves, were entitled to wear a pin which exhibited three Iron Crosses with an exaggerated swastika, thereby consolidating the awards. In some cases, Minox miniature cameras were given to people together with an Iron Cross.

Honor Cross of the Bundeswehr for Bravery.

Post–World War II

As modern German law prohibits the production of items containing Nazi insignia, the West German government authorised replacement Iron Crosses in 1957 with an Oak Leaf Cluster in place of the Hakenkreuz, similar to the Iron Crosses of 1813, 1870, and 1914, which could be worn by World War II Iron Cross recipients. The 1957 law also authorised de-Nazified versions of most other World War II–era decorations (except those specifically associated with Nazi Party organizations, such as SS Long Service medals, or with the expansion of the German Reich, such as the medals for the annexation of Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Memel region).

Since German armed forces began seeing active service again, first in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, there has been a campaign to revive the Iron Cross and other military medals, since Germany currently has no awards specifically for active military service. In 2007, a petition to the German parliament to revive the Iron Cross decoration was initiated, quickly receiving over 5,000 signatures.

The parliament decided on 13 December 2007 to leave it to the Ministry of Defence to decide on the matter. On 6 March 2008, President Horst Köhler approved a proposal by Minister of Defense Franz Josef Jung to institute a new award for bravery. The Ehrenzeichen der Bundeswehr series was instituted on 10 October 2008. However, it does not have the traditional form of the Iron Cross (instead more closely resembling the Prussian Military Merit Cross), but is seen as a supplement of existing awards of the Bundeswehr.

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German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History