Exactly 200 years ago, on March 10, 1813, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III established the Iron Cross. It was supposed to be only awarded for brave actions during the War of Liberation against Napoleon that started later after the king’s proclamation “An mein Volk” which was published on March 20, 1813. The text was written on March 17, 1813, by the way. What a coincidence I’m born on March 17…
Anyways, Napoleon got defeated in 1815 when the allies fought him at Waterloo. The Iron Cross became the symbol of a new era. It became a symbol for equality. Equality because it was the first award that was for everyone. The Pour Le Mérite was only for officers, but the Iron Cross was for the lower ranks and for the officers. But it was also a symbol for the military reforms that are still the basis for the current German military: Conscription was implemented, but it was a short conscription to create many reservists. The military reformers Gneisenau, Boyen, and Clausewitz, wanted to bring the army and the population closer to increasing patriotism. Another new feature was a significant change in the officer corps. Non-royals were allowed into the higher officer ranks, and promotions/demotions depended on actual performance. Although not everything worked out as planned, it was important.
In 1870 the award was handed out again during the Franco-Prussian war that ended in 1871 and united the German nations to the German Empire. From 1871 on, it was also the insignia of the German military.
World War I is the next chapter in the history of Das Eiserne Kreuz and the first war that resulted in defeat. While it was still a Prussian decoration, it became more or less a German award. This changed though in World War II when Hitler made this a German decoration. WW2 is definitely the darkest chapter in the Cross’ history. No doubt, most of the recipients had great skills, but most of them were also brutal murderers and fascists. Hitler added the Knight’s Cross with multiple degrees (the Iron Cross from 1813 – 1918 had three degrees) to the Iron Cross and the guys that earned these awards are prominent names, for example, Rommel, Marseille, Rudel, Mölders, von Manteuffel, Galland, and Nowotny.
Germany rebuilt its military in the 1950’s and in 1956 the Iron Cross became the emblem of the new Bundeswehr. For more than 50 years the German military had no award for bravery, and in 2007 a petition came up for a new Iron Cross. Of course, there was opposition against an Iron Cross and a year later the Ehrenkreuz für Tapferkeit (Cross of Honor for bravery) was invented. It’s not like the traditional Iron Cross, but at least the cross is formed like an Iron Cross. Before there were several variations of the Cross of Honor for exemplary and meritious service but the cross to the right with the oak leaves was important. Since 1999 Germany sends men and women to countries like Kosovo and Afghanistan and they do a hell of a job. It was the time that they get some recognition because the Bundeswehr’s reputation is more of a beer-league football team whose officer don’t order, they ask their subordinates politely to do something. This time is gone.
Nowadays nobody remembers the history of the Iron Cross. It’s sad because it has a long history, as you see. Most think it was a product of national socialism. But it is a symbol that defined Germany and Prussia in both ways, good and bad. Of course whatever happened in WW2 was wrong and cruel. WW1 wasn’t solely our fault, and 1870 wasn’t very right either but could we please not forget 1813? Could we please remember the men that fought for freedom and the cross that became a symbol of hope and bravery? A symbol of the uprising against Napoleon who scarred Germany for years?
200 years later this symbol stands for hope and bravery again.