The Iron Cross (German: Eisernes Kreuz (help·info)) 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 10 March 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.
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. 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.
The Iron Cross is a black four-pointed cross with white trim, with the arms widening toward the ends, similar to a cross pattée. Frederick William III commissioned the neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design the Iron Cross after a royal sketch. It reflects the cross borne by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century.
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 EKII 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.
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. (A similar award was made in 1914 but was quite rare, since there were few in service who held the 1870 Iron Cross.) For the 1st Class award, the Spange appears as an eagle with the date “1939” that was pinned above the Cross. Although they are 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.
On 17 March 1813, Frederick William III – who had fled to the non-occupied Breslau – established the military decoration of the Iron Cross, backdated to March 10, late Queen Louise’s birthday. The Iron Cross was awarded to soldiers during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. It was first awarded to Karl August Ferdinand von Borcke on 21 April 1813. 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.
The Iron Cross was reauthorized by Emperor Wilhelm II 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 (German: Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse, or EKII)
- Iron Cross 1st Class (German: Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse, or EKI)
- Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (German: 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 1st Class was worn on the left side of the recipient’s uniform. The Grand Cross and the Iron Cross 2nd Class were suspended from different ribbons.
The Grand Cross was intended for senior generals of the Prussian or later 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.
The Iron Cross 1st Class and the Iron Cross 2nd Class were awarded without regard to rank. One had to already possess the 2nd Class 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 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 were 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 held the rank of Gefreiter. Hitler can be seen wearing his EKI on his left breast, as was standard, in most photographs.
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 enactment (Reichsgesetzblatt I S. 1573) of 1 September 1939 Verordnung über die Erneuerung des Eisernen Kreuzes (Regulation for the Re-introduction of the Iron Cross). 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 (mostly the Third Reich flags) in the upper left corner. The edges were curved, like most original iron crosses.
of the Iron Cross
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 was worn in one of two different methods:
- When in formal dress, the entire cross was worn mounted alone or as part of a medal bar.
- For everyday wear, only the ribbon was worn from the second button hole 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.
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 Catalan double-agent Joan Pujol Garcia, 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.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross
The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Ritterkreuz) recognized extreme battlefield bravery or successful leadership. The Knight’s Cross was divided into five degrees:
- Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes)
- Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves (mit Eichenlaub)
- Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern)
- Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds (mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten)
- Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds (mit Goldenem Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten)
In total, 7,313 awards of the Knight’s Cross were made. Only 883 received the Oak Leaves; 160 both the Oak Leaves and Swords (including Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (posthumously)); 27 with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds; and one with the Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds (Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel).
Recipients of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds
- Colonel (Oberst) Werner Mölders (15 July 1941)
- Lieutenant General (Generalleutnant) Adolf Galland (28 February 1942)
- Colonel (Oberst) Gordon M. Gollob (3 August 1942)
- Captain (Hauptmann) Hans-Joachim Marseille (3 September 1942)
- Colonel (Oberst) Helmut Lent (7 July 1944)
- Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer (14 October 1944)
- Major Walter Nowotny (19 October 1943)
- Colonel (Oberst) Hans-Ulrich Rudel (Diamonds: 29 March 1944, Golden Oak Leaves: 1 January 1945)
- Major Erich Hartmann (8 August 1944)
- Colonel (Oberst) Hermann Graf (16 September 1942)
Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring never held the Diamonds. He, being one of the first soldiers presented with the Knight’s Cross in 1939, was presented with the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross in 1940.
Submarine captains of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine):
- Captain (Kapitän zur See) Wolfgang Lüth (11 August 1943)
- Commander (Fregattenkapitän) Albrecht Brandi (21 November 1944)
General Field Marshals
General Field Marshals (Generalfeldmarschälle):
- Erwin Rommel (11 March 1943)
- Albert Kesselring (19 July 1944)
- Walter Model (17 August 1944)
- Ferdinand Schörner (1 January 1945)
Generals and state officials
- Brig. General (Generalmajor) Adelbert Schulz (9 January 1944)
- Waffen-SS Lt. General (SS-Obergruppenführer) Herbert Otto Gille (19 September 1944)
- Lt. General (General der Fallschirmtruppe) Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke (19 September 1944)
- Maj. General (Generalleutnant) Theodor Tolsdorff (18 March 1945)
- Maj. General (Generalleutnant) Dr. Karl Mauss, DDS (15 April 1945)
- Lt. General (General der Panzertruppe) Dietrich von Saucken (8 May 1945))
- Lt. General (General der Panzertruppe) Hermann Balck (31 August 1944)
- Lt. General (General der Panzertruppe) Hasso von Manteuffel (18 February 1945)
- Maj. General (Generalleutnant) Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz (15 April 1944)
- Waffen-SS General (SS-Oberstgruppenführer) Sepp Dietrich (6 August 1944)
- General (Generaloberst) Hans-Valentin Hube (20 April 1944)
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.
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 (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. (See Spring Offensive.) 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 Order 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.
It should be noted that, like much World War II memorabilia, the Iron Cross is being counterfeited. It is recommended that purchases be made only from known dealers.
Post-World War II
Emblem of the German Armed Forces
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The Iron Cross is the emblem of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, marked on armored vehicles and aircraft, based on the 1916-March 1918 design at its core, with a matching quartet of flared “flanks” inherited from the Balkenkreuz present.
German Military Decoration
Modern German law prohibits the wearing of a swastika, so in 1957 the West German government authorised replacement Iron Crosses with an Oak Leaf Cluster in place of the swastika, 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 Ehrenkreuz der Bundeswehr für Tapferkeit (Cross of Honor for Bravery) was instituted on 10 October 2008. However, it does not have the traditional form of the Iron Cross (resembling instead more the Prussian Military Merit Cross), but is seen as a supplement of existing awards of the Bundeswehr.
The Iron Cross was used as the symbol of the German Army until 1915, when it was replaced by a simpler Greek cross. On 1 October 1956, the President of Germany, Theodor Heuss, gave directions to use the Iron Cross as the official emblem of West Germany’s Bundeswehr. Today, after German reunification, it appears in the colors blue and silver as the symbol of the “new” Bundeswehr. This design does not replace the traditional black Iron Cross, however, which can be found on all armored vehicles, planes and helicopters of today’s German forces.
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.
In post-war pop culture
The Iron Cross has been popular with many bikers, hot rodders, skinheads and others, using German iconic militaria to promote a tough-guy image, or as a symbol of rebellion or non-conformity. In the 1960s, the Iron Cross was adopted by American surfers, who started wearing medals plundered by their fathers. Cal Look, Volksrod and other Volkswagen enthusiasts often use the Iron Cross as a symbol that reflects the car’s country of origin. Ed Roth created accessories for surfers, hot rodders and bikers derived from German World War II trophies, which included the Surfer’s cross and the Stahlhelm (also popular with the VW scene). There is an American hardcore band called Iron Cross. Roy Orbison has been filmed wearing an Iron Cross necklace while performing. Metallica lead singer and guitarist James Hetfield has a custom version of the ESP Eclipse (based on the Gibson Les Paul) with the Iron Cross emblazoned on it. This version is known as the “ESP JH-6 Iron Cross”. Mortuus, the singer of the Swedish black metal band Marduk, is seen in many promotional and live photos wearing an iron cross on a choker chain. The Cult incorporated Iron Cross medals and imagery extensively for their Electric and Sonic Temple albums. Motörhead lead singer and bassist Lemmy can be seen wearing an Iron Cross live, and often in interviews as he owns a very large collection of Nazi memorabilia. WWE wrestler Triple H (Paul Levesque) has made a variation of the Iron Cross his logo since the early part of the 2000s; the symbol appears six times on his wrestling attire (front and back of trunks, on both elbow pads and on the sides of his boots).
- Cross pattée
- List of military decorations
- Orders, decorations, and medals of Imperial Germany
- Orders, decorations, and medals of Nazi Germany
- Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
- Oxalis tetraphylla (a common name is Iron Cross)
Similar-looking awards or crosses
- Biker Cross
- Krzyż Powstania Warszawskiego (Cross of the Warsaw Uprising)
- Marksmanship Badge (United States)