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The Iron Cross is perhaps the most well known and historically rich German award. Its tradition began when, in 1813, King Friedrich Wilheim III of Prussia first instituted it during the War of Liberation against Napoleon. Though it was supposed to be a campaign medal, it was reinstituted in 1870 for the Franco-Prussian War, and again in 1914 for World War I. The defeat of Germany in that war did not diminish military pride in the long term, and the Cross continued to be a symbol of prestige in the inter-war years.

Iron Cross 1939

In the opening hours of World War II, Hitler introduced his political imagery to the memories that the Cross invoked; gallant Prussian warriors, the great victories of the Bismark era, and the brave soldiers of World War I. As a new generation of Germanys fighting men were moving into Poland on September 1st, 1939, Hitler issued the Order of Reinstitution of the Iron Cross. The Iron Cross then interlaced with the Third Reich, and became one of the most visually powerful and recognizable military award of all time. The Cross, which retained its original form as designed by Karl Frederich Schinkel, became for the first time a German award (in previous years it been an exclusively Prussian award).

Initially four grades were implemented; 2nd Class, 1st Class, Knights Cross to the Iron Cross, and Grand Cross to the Iron Cross, though this number had increased to eight by 1945. To recognize those who had already received the Iron Cross 2nd and/or 1st Class in World War I and again distinguished themselves in battle, the “Spanges” to the Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Classes 1939 were introduced. Though the first two grades and Spanges were widely distributed in the five years of war, they were only presented to those whose actions truly earned that privilege. The Knights Cross and its successive upgrades were very frugally awarded, and its recipients were made almost immediate national celebrities by the Ministry of Propaganda.

In accordance with tradition , it was necessary to have the lower grade in order to obtain the next, though the 2nd and 1st Classes were occasionally, though rarely, awarded at the same time. All Iron Crosses earned could be worn simultaneously. Recipients could, and most often did, purchase official copies of the award at their own expense for everyday wear allowing them to keep the original safe, away from the dangers of the combat zone.

The Iron Cross was awarded not only for bravery in the face of the enemy, but also for successful war planing and general merit. In addition, it was awarded for outstanding leadership skills and many officers received the award for the achievements of the men under their command. It was presented to all branches of the German Wehrmacht and their Axis allies, and though originally meant only for bravery in combat action, it was also bestowed on uniformed civilian organizations such as police, firemen, railway employees and Hitler Youth. The non-combatant ribbon to the Iron Cross was omitted from this reinstitution with the creation of the War Merit Cross compensating for this loss. Actually, the ribbon on the War Merit Cross had the colors of the Iron Cross reversed, as was the tradition of the non-combatant version of the Iron Cross.

The Knights Cross was much sought after by members of the armed forces, wearing it meant that they had been crowned as aces and their peers gave this distinction the appropriate respect. There was little leeway for political manipulation, and the Cross was distributed evenly among the ranks of the Wehrmacht, though it is generally true that those members of elite divisions had a better chance to receive the award.

Knights Cross winners were given maximum publicity by the Third Reich propaganda machine, with announcements being printed in popular newspapers and ceremonies covered by newsreels. Picture postcards of them were produced in quantity and were widely collected in wartime Germany, a practice that is continued today as these cards are avidly sought after by modern collectors.

The achievements of Oak Leaves and Oak Leaves and Swords recipients were of course duly celebrated. Receiving these decorations would open a great deal of doors in the upper social circles for men of humble backgrounds, opportunities that would have been otherwise inconceivable. Diamond recipients were household names, with only the most ingenious German Officers and bravest soldiers receiving this honor.

The recipients’ ranks range from General Staff officers to front line soldiers where the Knights Cross was earned at the cost of great personal sacrifice. From the menu at the bottom of this page you will find pages which tell some of their stories.

The awesome appeal of the Iron Cross and Knights Cross has only grown with the passage of time. It is today studied, collected, and treasured by generations that reach back in time drawn by its history, and a desire to learn about the people who lived through those turbulent years.

In the aftermath of the war the swastika was outlawed and its public display prohibited, with all military and political awards that included this symbol being outlawed along with it. In 1957, however, legislation was passed which allowed those who earned the Iron Cross in World War II to once again wear it, this time with all vestiges of Nazi symbols removed. This act, of significant importance, ratified the Iron Cross as Military bravery and not a political award. As such, those few remaining individuals who today wear it deserve our full respect and admiration.

Please follow the links below to the different pages of this section, which contain detailed information on each grade of the Iron Cross. The 1957 re-edition of the Cross and Spanges are also covered in these sections.

Iron Cross 1939

2nd Class Iron Cross II and Letter Oak Leaves
1st Class Swords
Knights Cross Golden Diamonds
Diamonds Grand Cross

Iron Cross Recipitents

2nd Class Recipients Oak Leaves Recipients
1st Class Recipients Swords Recipients
Knights Cross Recipients Golden Diamonds Recipient
Diamonds Recipients Grand Cross Recipient

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