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History of the Iron Cross and Order of Louise

After Prussia’s crushing defeat at Jena during the Napoleonic wars, its King issued some drastic military reforms. One of the most crucial reforms was the fact that individual merit was valued much more than social status and whether someone was of noble descent or not. An order by the Prussian King from 1806 encapsulated this sentiment by stating that ‘All social preference is terminated in the military – everyone, whatever his background, has the same duties and same rights.’ One of the ways this sentiment was invigorated was by issuing new military decorations. These decorations were meant for men who distinguished themselves in bravery during wartime, whether a prince, an officer or a soldier. Today we’ll have a look at Prussia’s, and honestly, I’d say one of history’s most popular decorations, namely the Iron Cross and another lesser-known similar decoration: the Order of Louise. 

The Iron Cross

As we have seen in the previous video, after Napoleon defeated the Kingdom of Prussia in 1807, the Prussian King was forced into an alliance with France. When Napoleon’s troops retreated after the terrible Moscow-campaign in 1812, the Prussians saw their chance and switched sides. The Iron Cross was thus issued during the German Wars of Liberation against Napoleon in 1813. The idea behind this new decoration may seem pretty simple but was somewhat unheard of for that time.

Iron Cross 1st Class of the Napoleonic Wars, in its original form of 1 June 1813.

In order to recognise soldiers for their bravery and service to the fatherland, the Iron Cross was the first decoration that was to be awarded to soldiers of every rank. Generals and soldiers could earn the same award, something pretty revolutionary for that time. After all, it encouraged men of whatever class they were from to perform and excel. On March 10th 1813, this small Maltese cross-like medal was introduced. The King’s initials are engraved around the iron, and in the centre, it is adorned with oak leaves. It is said the King designed it himself, although other sources point to the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. All crosses ever issued don engravings of both the year of the campaign and the then-ruling Prussian King’s initials. As such, it became a sort-of self-renewing medal. Different campaigns bore different years in its engraving, and an Iron Cross earned during the Napoleonic Wars bore other initials than an Iron Cross awarded during the First World War. Soldiers wore the cross in the second buttonhole of their tunics. Up until 1838, the undecorated side of the cross faced forward, but after that, it became more acceptable for the engraved side to do so. 

Now, the design of the cross wasn’t completely random. As we have seen, the Teutonic Order colonised Eastern Prussia back in the 11th and 12th century – and the Hohenzollerns had to thank their ancestor Grand Master Albrecht for the hereditary possession of these territories. The Iron Cross was more or less a copy of the cross Teutonic Knights bore back then. Decorations of cast iron were something new during the early 19th century, but it wasn’t purely limited to military decorations. During this period women exchanged their silver and gold jewellery for the so-called Eisenschmuck, or Berlin Iron. The King put it fittingly in 1813 – while the Napoleonic wars were waging on: “It was a “time of iron” where only “iron and determination” would ensure Prussia’s victory.” 

Variations of the Iron Cross (1813-1870)

The King went so far that awarding any other military decorations during the Napoleonic wars were halted. The iron cross thus became a symbol for the era and the German campaign. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Iron Cross was incorporated into all Prussian flags and ensigns. It truly became a Prussian symbol, or rather, it was reemphasised as a symbol. There were three grades of the cross: the Grosskreuz for commanders, and the first and second class for personal courage during battle. The first class could be sewn onto a uniform while the second class could be worn with a black ribbon bar with silver lines.

The history of the Iron Cross saw three great hiatuses. Following the battle of Waterloo where Napoleon suffered his final defeat, the Iron Cross was not to be awarded until after the Franco-Prussian war that unified Germany in 1871. Interestingly enough the Iron Cross was redesigned in 1870 – the backside was unaltered but a crown was added to the side facing forward, including the initial “W”, after the Prussian King (and soon to be German emperor) Wilhelm I. Following the German unification, the cross ended up more or less forgotten again. After all, it was one of the longest periods of peace on the European continent. It was not until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that the decoration was revitalized. 

Iron Cross (World War I)

On August 5th 1914, the new Iron Cross design was made public. It was more or less similar to the 1870 design, aside from the apparent change in date to 1914. An interesting detail is that later during the First World War the materials, iron and silver, used for the cross were often supplemented because of the iron- and silver shortages. Ingredients such as aluminium and silver-paint were used. As the Iron Cross’s popularity pattern isn’t too difficult to follow, following the First World War, the decoration faded to the background. But when it was revamped in 1939 some substantial changes were made.

In 1939 Hitler had risen to power in Germany, and by September that year, Germany invaded Poland, signalling the beginning of the Second World War in the European theatre. As for the Iron Cross, that same month it was expanded to having four grades. The traditional first and second class and Grosskreutz still existed, but another variant was added. This was the Ritterkreuz, or Knight’s Cross variant. This military decoration had a swastika and the corresponding year engraved on it. Throughout the Second World War, multiple additions to the Ritterkreuz were issued. 

Ritterkreuz (1939)

First, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds was awarded 27 times during the Second World War. 

With Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds

During the final years of the Second World War, the prospects of Germany winning were close to non-existent – and in a desperate last attempt to up the morale, Hitler ordered the issuing of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. This last award, issued in 1944, was meant for the twelve most distinguished German servicemen once the war had ended. Eventually, just six were manufactured, and only one was awarded; to Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Germany’s legendary ground-attack pilot. Before the others could be manufactured and issued the war had already ended, and the Nazis had lost the war. There’s a photograph online of Hans-Ulrich Rudel displaying his Ritterkreuz with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds in later life. The United States army seized the remaining five sets of rare Knight’s Crosses.

The Luisen-Orden

Alright, so earlier this video I mentioned women and the early 19th-century trend to exchange silver- and gold jewellery to Eisenschmuck, which was basically iron jewellery. Well, in line with this development, in August 1814 the Prussian King introduced a decoration for women, of any background, that had contributed to the Prussian war effort. It was named the Louisen-Orden, or Order of Louise, named after the King’s late wife, greatly loved by the Prussian population and the King himself.

Order of Louise, 1st class.

The King’s wife, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had passed away in 1810, four years before the order was issued. She was incredibly well-loved in Prussia, and although the royal couple had only been married for 13 years before she passed away, the couple had nine children. The love of the Prussians was, among other things, caused by her brave attitude towards Napoleon when he negotiated the cutting-up of Prussia with Tsar Alexander during the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. Perhaps you’ll remember her meeting Napoleon and attempting to convince him to reconsider his treatment of Prussia. 

And it was in her honour the order of Louise was issued, an award in iron-cross shape but with a medallion bearing the “L” in the centre, surrounded by Prussian Blue. Here too the King made sure the decoration could be given to any woman, whatever status she had, as long as she contributed to the Prussian war effort. So both the military decorations issued during the Napoleonic Wars were relatively progressive for their time, since no social classes enlisted in the army were excluded.

  After Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the Order of Louise too was more or less forgotten. It was not until 1865 that King Wilhelm I reinstated it, although there are sources that state the order was handed out after the violent revolutions of 1848 by King Frederick Wilhelm IV. I cannot emphasise this enough, but both the Iron Cross and Order of Luisa were testament of the integral importance of civilians of Prussia contributing to their state’s success. Whether you were a nobleman or not mattered less than it did during Medieval times – in essence, these decorations were the symbol of recognition that any man, rich or poor, noble or peasant, could significantly contribute to the state. That is not to say Prussia itself was an egalitarian society, however. After all, Junkers still dominated large rural parts of the state. There was a sharp distinction between nobility and commoners, but perhaps an even more considerable distinction between the military and civilians in terms of social status.

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