by Chris William
Nothing is more symbolic of the German military’s “heart and soul” than the Eiserne Kreuz (Iron Cross). This small, simple, but elegant medal has exemplified the bravery, dedication, duty, and sacrifice of German soldiers since its introduction in the early part of the ninetieth century. Though going through a number of physical changes throughout the years, the award has remained the most sustainable mark of valor for German troops in combat.
THE 1813 IRON CROSS
The first Iron Crosses were designed by architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel during the Napoleonic Wars. Beginning in March, 1813, the award was presented in three classes: the Grosskreuz (Grand Cross) given to field commanders for the actions of their troops; the Eiserne Kreuz 1 Klasse (first class or “EK I”); and the Eiserne Kreuz 2 Klasse (second class or “EK II”). The latter two were awarded for individual acts of valor.
Schinkel designed the Grand Cross around a Maltese shaped iron center framed with a ribbed/flat silver rim (stamped with the silver content). The front of the cross was plain, while the reverse had a raised design of oak leaves and 4 acorns in the center with the date “1813” on the lower leg below and an “FW” and crown cipher above. This neck order was suspended by a 57mm black and white ribbon attached to the suspension ring soldered to the top of the cross frame. It was awarded only seven times.
The First Class Iron Cross consisted of a smaller, Maltese-shaped iron cross (varying from 28mm - 42mm) with an undecorated front mounted in a silver rim and fully enclosed silver back. The edges or reverse of the First Class award typically contained soldered loops meant for the permanent mounting of the award by sewing it to the left breast pocket of a uniform. The total number of First Class Iron Crosses awarded was about 650 which, when worn, took precedence over most other awards and decorations.
The Second Class 1813 Iron Cross was the same size as the First Class and had an undecorated front. The reverse contained the oak leaves, date, and cipher as found on the Grand Cross (though the oak leaves contained two acorns instead of four). This cross was suspended from a black and white ribbon and was worn with the blank front facing out, either singularly, or on medal bars mounted above the left breast pocket of military tunics. From its inception, many of the 16,000 recipients preferred to wear the cross with the decorative side showing outwardly. So, in 1838, orders were given allowing the awards to be worn in reverse.
In addition to the standard models, smaller, Prinzen forms (approximately 34mm x 38mm) were produced as variants, and continued to be made for private purchase during the following periods. As regulations were somewhat lax and manufacturing often primitive, 1813 Iron Crosses tend be found in a wide variety of sizes and materials used compared to the models that followed.
THE 1870 IRON CROSS
With the Franco-Prussian War came new versions of the Iron Crosses. The 1870 Iron Crosses were also produced in three classes: Grand Cross, First Class, and Second Class.
The 1870 Grand Crosses were more standardized in size (64mm-65mm) than the earlier version. The new Crosses bore the same oak leaves, date, and cipher on the reverse as the 1813 models. The front of the cross, though, now contained a large “W” in the center, the “1870” date on the bottom leg beneath, and a crown on the top leg. The neck order suspension ribbon increased from 57mm to 67mm, which made the crosses even more impressive when worn by the mere eightrecipients of these medals.
The First Class Iron Cross was between 41mm-43mm in size and contained the same crown, “W” and “1870” as on the front of the Grand Cross. The silver rim and back covered the remainder of the blackened iron center which was typically suspended by a pin and catch mounted on the reverse. Because of the short duration of the conflict, there were only about 1,300 First Class 1870 Crosses awarded.
The Second Class 1870 Crosses resembled the Grand Cross but measured only 42mm in size. The Crosses hung from black and white ribbons mounted on attached suspension rings. Over the course of its existence, there were more than 41,000 1870 Second Class Crosses awarded to both soldiers, and to, a lesser extent, civilians.
In 1895, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1870 Iron Cross, a celebratory device was issued to 1870 Cross recipients. The 18mm silver sprig of oak leaves with the number “25” overlaid was to be mounted on the cross ribbon.
THE 1914 IRON CROSS
The First World War necessitated updated versions of the preceding Iron Crosses. The Grand Cross remained the same as the 1870 model with the exception of the year “1914” substituted for the “1870” on the lower front arm. Only five 1914 Grand Crosses were issued over the four years of the bloody conflict in Europe.
The First Class Iron Cross was similar to the 1870 model with the exception of the date being changed to “1914.” The first issues had silver rims, but due to the lack of materials, silver-plated rims were used later in the war. Other variations (such as convex Crosses or screw back attachments) became more common. New medals typically came in a box or leatherette case and were presented with an award document. There were an estimated 218,000 First Class Iron Crosses issued to the officers and men of the German forces during WWI.
The Second Class 1914 Iron Cross was widely issued during WWI with more than 5,200,000 given to soldiers and some civilians. This Cross remained the same as the earlier Cross with only the date changed from “1870” to “1914.” Initially, the medal featured a silver rim and iron center, but because of war shortages, silver plated-rims and a variety of non-iron center alloys became the norm. Second Class Crosses were issued in a variety of cases accompanied by an award document. If the recipient was a non-combatant, the ribbon colors were reversed with larger white stripes and narrower black stripes than on the standard Second Class medal.
THE 1939 IRON CROSS
When the Nazi regime began its march across Europe, it introduced further change to the Iron Cross. It also produced the most diverse examples of the Cross.
The Iron Cross of 1939 was awarded in four distinct forms: Grand Cross, Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross), First Class Iron Cross, and Second Class Iron Cross. In addition, two Spange zum Eiseren Kreuz (Clasps to the Iron Cross) with eagles, swastikas, and the date “1939” were issued to recipients who had earned either First or Second Class Iron Crosses the First World War then again during Hitler’s wars across Europe and Africa.
The Grand Cross was issued only once — to Hermann Göring. The reverse of the 63mm cross had only the “1813” date in the lower cross leg. The front bore a canted swastika in the center above the “1939” date on the foot of the cross. Göring wore his Cross suspended from a 57mm-wide red, white, and black ribbon.
The Knight’s Cross was one of the most sought-after awards of the German military. It was presented to given to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and members of the Waffen-SS This 48mm cross consisted of an iron center with “1813” on the lower reverse and a canted swastika and “1939” on the front. The two-piece silver rim was soldered around the entire edge. A round, extended ring was attached parallel to the upper rim. A loop ran through this ring and suspended the neck order from a 45mm-widered, black, and white ribbon with ties at the ends (often changed to snaps or hooks by the recipients). The Cross was presented in a black leatherette case with a beautifully embossed award document.
As the war progressed, more awards were required for soldiers who had already earned the Knight’s Cross. A series of oak leaves, swords, and, eventually, diamonds were added to the top of the cross for corresponding achievements of valor.
By the end of the war, there were more than 7,300 Knight’s Crosses awarded. When in the field, recipients would sometimes wear a copy (which they had commercially purchased) or a Second Class Iron Cross as a substitute for their original award.
The First Class 1939 Iron Cross came in a variety of styles with a flat or convex blackened iron or alloy body. They were produced with either silver or plated rims and with pin or screw attachments. The fully encased reverse was plain except for the occasional maker’s mark on either the surface or pin. The more than 300,000 First Class Iron Crosses issued came in black leatherette covered cases with a silver facsimile of a cross on the lid andaccompanied by an elaborate award document.
The Second Class Iron Cross was identical in construction to the Knight’s Cross with the exceptions of being smaller (43mm), having the suspension ring mounted at a 45-degree angle to the top of the rim, and with a rim almost always plated rather than solid silver. The Second Class Crosses were typically awarded in a paper envelop with an extra long piece of ribbon, accompanied by an award document. Second Class Iron Crosses became quite common as the war progressed. Because they were awarded to military personnel and civilians alike, more than 4,500,000 Second Class Crosses were distributed to Germans and their allies by the end of the war.
POST-WWII IRON CROSSES
After Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich were finally defeated in 1945, the allied occupiers made it illegal for anyone to wear any Third Reich decorations. This changed by 1957, when a law passed allowing veterans to wear their WWII military awards if the swastikas were removed. Medal producers soon began to manufacture the “1957” Iron Crosses, which were similar to the Third Reich Knight’s, First, and Second Class Crosses, but with a sprig of oak leaves substituted for the canted swastika on each of the front centers.
For more than two hundred years, the Iron Cross has remained the most recognized military award of the German armed forces. With so many varieties of the more commonplace crosses readily available and the challenge of finding scarcer examples, Iron Crosses remain a fascinating cornerstone of many military collections.