The Iron Cross, the highest German decoration, was created by the King of Prussia in 1813 during the Befreiungskrieg ("War of Liberation") from Napoleon. Drawing its inspiration from France's Legion d'honneur (oh, taste the irony, pun intended), the new decoration could be awarded to officers and men for acts of heroism in battle and to senior commanders who won victories.

As authorized, the Iron Cross was awarded during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 and during the Waterloo campaign in 1815. It was not authorized for award during the Revolutionary War of 1848-1849, for either of the Schleswig-Holstein Wars, or the Seven-Weeks-War with Austria. Apparently because these wars were at least partially civil wars rather than genuine foreign conflicts. The decoration was revived during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and again for World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). During the two world wars the Iron Cross was awarded rather liberally, however Hitler gave them away like candy. Sometimes they were distributed faster than they were minted.

As it was first conceived, the Iron Cross had only three grades: 2nd class, 1st class, and Grand Cross, and it remained thus until the Second World War. During the war Hitler, who had won the 1st and 2nd class Iron Cross in World War I, added five additional grades, mostly as a morale booster. As a result, by the end of the war there were eight grades to the award.

In ascending order:

  • Iron Cross, 2nd Class
  • Iron Cross, 1st Class
  • Knight's Cross
  • Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves
  • Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
  • Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds
  • Knight's Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds
  • Grand Cross

The Grand Cross has been awarded only three times, twice to unquestionably deserving commanders, Marshals Gebhard von Blusher, who helped beat Napoleon at Waterloo, and Paul von Hindenburg, who led Germany's armies to striking victories in the Russian Front in World War I, and finally to the wholly undeserving Hermann Göring.

During the Second World War awards of the 1st Class and 2nd Class ran into the tens of thousands, and there were 7,377 awards of the Knight's Cross in its various versions.

Hitler also decorated 29 women with the Iron Cross, of whom the most famous was Hanna Reitsch, Hitler's favorite female pilot, who received both the 1st Class and 2nd Class crosses for her services as a test pilot. Only one other woman received the 1st Class Iron Cross, the rest having to be satisfied with the 2nd Class.

Although the Iron Cross has not been awarded since the end of the Second World War, a supply of them was struck in West Germany (when the nation was still divided) so that recipients could trade their hard earned Swastika-Iron Crosses from the Nazi regime for the more traditional design which was used prior to the Nazi rise to power. Although these men fought for the Nazis, their acts of heroism should still be recognized. Remember that civilians make policy, the military is just the instrument of that policy; "a soldier's duty is to do and die, not to question why."

Source: "Hitler and Nazi Germany" and "The World Wars" as taught by Bob Welsh at Westminster College; "Dirty Little Secrets of World War II" by James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi

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