History of the Iron Cross


After Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign, a general uprising took place in Prussia and other German lands against his invasion. Prussians, having been under Napoleon’s rule for several years, finally saw their chance to break away from his domination. In order to boost the morale of his people and soldiers, Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia commissioned a new military decoration that carried Germanic characteristics to encourage the nationalistic spirit of the time. The design was prepared by the famous architect of the time, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. He was heavily inspired by the traditional Black Cross that was used by the Knights of the Teutonic Order in the 13th century.


The Iron Cross became the first military decoration that could be awarded to all ranks in the military, including ordinary soldiers. It was first commissioned on 10 March, the birthday of the deceased Queen Louise who had fought fiercely against the Napoleonic invasion. After the defeat of Napoleon, the Iron Cross quickly became a symbol of victory. A Cross was added to the Quadriga of the Brandenburg Gate. Schinkel also designed a monument for the liberation wars and crowned his work with an Iron Cross. A district in Berlin, Kreuzberg, was named after this monument, literally meaning Cross Hill.


Fifty seven years after its first commission, a new set of Iron Cross ribbons were commissioned for the Franco-Prussian War. Since it was the French who had declared the war, the Prussians managed to gather all German states on their side. The Cross was again used as a symbol of German nationalism against the French hegemony, even though the Germans were clearly the dominating side this time. The war ended with decisive German victory and the declaration of the unified German Empire under Prussian leadership.


At the start of the World War One, the Iron Cross was reenacted with the instruction from Kaiser Wilhelm. This time, the decoration was not merely a Prussian award but a German one. During the entire war, more than 5.000.000 combatants and non-combatants were awarded with the Cross. The trend continued as it was again reintroduced at the beginning of the World War Two. The amount of people who were awarded with the Iron Cross is estimated to be around 4.500.000 during the WWII.


The heavy use of the Iron Cross by the Nazi Government made it become associated with them, which caused it to be banned for some time after the war. However, the West German government made de-Nazified versions of the Cross and put them into use again. Today, the Iron Cross is still a controversial figure all around the world and its Prussian origins have been lost in the events of the 20th century.


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