by Stephen Thomas Previtera ©

History and Introduction 

The Iron Cross generates an image in most people’s minds of its inescapable association with the Third Reich.  Indeed, Adolf Hitler was responsible for adding a “marching swastika” front and center, to the decoration’s black core in 1939.  However, the simple curves of this silver and iron award for bravery can be credited to the instincts of an architect, and the inspiration of a king over 120 years before the advent of Nazi Germany.

Instituted by Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm III on March 10, 1813, the Iron Cross was intended as a temporary award for efforts against Napoleon.  Three classes of the award were created ­ Second, First and Grand Cross ­ with the awarding process supposedly blind to Prussia’s then very class conscious society.  This non-distinction of social rank is what set the Iron Cross apart from contemporary awards issued by other royal houses.  It was considered that a general and private both affected the outcome of a battle, parted only by their individual realms of responsibility.  This rare logic of the time dictated that the Iron Cross would be awarded democratically, with all ranks eligible for a one-in-the-same class of awards.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a 31 year-old Berlin architect, was commissioned by the king to design this symbol for what was to become known as Prussia’s “Eiserne Zeit” ­ Iron Time.  Friedrick Wilhelm required that the concept include the Prussian Crown, his royal cipher, the date of institution (1813), and a representation of oak leaves, the sacred tree of Germany.

Schinkel’s main influence while working on the design came from the Teutonic Knights of the Third Crusades.  The Order had incorporated large crosses on their uniforms and smaller enameled variations for awarding to their Hochmeisters, or High Priests.  Schinkel delivered a design for approval on March 21, 1813.  Prince Karl von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, influential brother-in-law to King Friedrick Wilhelm, suggested a modification to the appearance that was adopted.  Whereas Schinkel’s design had a cross with straight arms extending from the center, Mecklenburg-Strelitz’s input modified the final form by adding distinctive arcs to the arms, giving the award its famous shape as we know it today.  In numismatic nomenclature this form is known as a cross Patté.

The final design incorporated a stamped silver frame (typically of 800-900 parts silver) with a cast iron center.  These metals, while appearing to be an aesthetically pleasing match on paper, created massive headaches in initial production.  They simply could not be soldered to one another.  A number of prototypes were painfully manufactured during 1813 and 1814.  Finally a system was devised that allowed for a two-part silver frame that sandwiched the iron core between them. Iron Crosses from that point onward were of three-part construction, and this remained the rule through World War II.

Generally speaking, the 1813 Iron Cross Second Class has two silver frames that are opened on either side to reveal ­ on the original obverse ­ a plain black iron core, and on the reverse, the Prussian Crown on the upper arm, with an “FW” for Friedrich Wilhelm directly beneath it.  Centered on the iron core is a motif, or spray of oak leaves, with the institution date 1813 located on the bottom arm.  The cross itself measures between 41 to 42mms in height and width, and has an appending loop on the upper arm for attaching a ribbon.  Three-quarter size versions of the Iron Cross First and Second Classes exist and are known as “Prinzens” for the fact they were typically awarded to royalty whom, one would suppose, sported an overabundance of decorations upon their chests.

Civilians, (typically influential statesmen) could be awarded a derivative of the award for meritorious duty known as the non-combatant’s version.  This distinction was most evident with the 1813 Iron Cross Second Class and its attached ribbon.  For combatants, the ribbon was a majority black with two wide vertical white bands.  With non-combatant’s ribbons, the colors were reversed, the greater extent of background color being white, the bands, black.  These were the national colors for the Prussian Kingdom.  The ribbon was utilized for hanging the Second Class from the tunic’s second highest button hole.  In 1838, after it became known that most recipients preferred wearing the Second Classes’ ornamented reverse facing outward, Friedrich Wilhelm modified the royal sanctions to reflect popular sentiment.

The 1813 First Class is a breast badge and therefore is ribbonless.  It has a closed solid silver backing with attached loops ­ numbering one to two for each arm ­ for wear upon the recipients left breast. Measurements fall in line with those of the Second Class.  Later in the 1840s and 1850s a hinged pin was added for easy attachment.

Five high-ranking commanders including the renown Field Marshal Gebhard Fürst Blücher von Wahlstatt, earned the distinction of receiving the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.  Similar in appearance to the basic Iron Cross Second Class, the Grand Cross measured a gargantuan 56.5mm across.  Its ribbon alone measured 55mms in width.

Today most collectors are hard-pressed to find an original 1813 Iron Cross of any class.  Numbers awarded total approximately 16,938 Second Classes, 638 first Classes and five Grand Crosses.  The award was earned in succession, with a lower class being a prerequisite for the next level.

One final addition to the 1813 Iron Cross family was added by Friedrich Wilhelm on June 26, 1815, when the Star of the Grand Cross was awarded to Blücher for his timely arrival on the field of Waterloo and his assistance to Wellington in the defeat of Napoleon.  The last known example of this award was in Berlin’s Zeughaus until 1945. Its fate is unknown.

After 1815, official awarding of the Iron Cross for the Napoleonic period was suspended until the Franco-Prussian War, although bestowals were continuously being made as new stocks of Iron Crosses were produced for those who had not received an example during the war.

King Wilhelm I ­ Friedrich Wilhelm’s son and the man who would become Germany’s first kaiser ­ reinstituted the Iron Cross, again in three classes, for the 1870-1871 conflict.  Design elements for the cross changed very little.  For the Second Class, the obverse again became the reverse, keeping the exact same details.  Now however, the plain smooth side became host to the Prussian Crown on the upper arm, a “W” for Wilhelm I in the center, and the date “1870” on the lower arm, signifying the beginning of conflict between France and Prussia and her German allies. The Grand Cross of 1870 was affected likewise while the First Class Iron Cross had the details of a Prussian Crown, “W” and “1870” added to what was formerly a plain iron obverse.  Sizes began to move into the 42 to 43mm range for the First and Second Class and the 60mm arena for Grand Crosses.  The number of crosses award are as follows: 47,244 Second Class, 1,304 First Class, and nine Grand Crosses, a number of which went to royalty, with an honorary bestowal upon the elderly King Wilhelm I.  With this conflict concluded, Prussia finally united all the German states into one entity, with herself at the helm. King Wilhelm was now Germany’s Kaiser.  His grandson would attempt to reach for even greater glory.

The most economically available Iron Crosses come from the next period of reinstitution, during the reign of Wilhelm II. Now the Iron Cross became a matter of nostalgia, and with the outbreak of World War I, Wilhelm II reached back into history and grasped the one special symbol that had bolstered the causes of his grandfather and great grandfather.  World War I was also the symbol’s first defeat.  Awards are always more plentiful when they are relied upon for a certain sense of desperate inspiration.  While substituting the 1870 of the Franco-Prussian period with the new date of 1914, we see very little change in the general appearance of all three classes of World War I Iron Cross from their predecessors.  The major exception for the 1914-1918 period is the incredible explosion in numbers awarded.  By most estimates almost 4,000,000 Second Classes and 145,000 First Classes found their way into soldier’s haversacks.  Only the Grand Cross was awarded less, with five total.  Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg received the Star to the Grand Cross, its only recipient of World War I, and second only to Blücher’s 1815 bestowal.

Today these are the most common variety of Iron Cross available.  Many were brought back from the war by practically every doughboy who set foot on European soil.  As well, they were still very common in Germany during the Second World War and thus, were brought home by another generation of fighting man, the G.I. Prices at militaria fairs, fleamarkets and antique shops should reflect the commonality of this particular cross.  A 1914 Second Class can be had relatively inexpensively, and therefore is a common impetus for future hoarding among budding collectors.

First Class 1914s are a wonderful diversion for the incredible plethora of fastening devices that can be found on the reverse.  A collector could gather a lifetime of examples and still discover a latch, pin, screwback, hook combination never before seen.

Finally, we arrive at the legacy that every Iron Cross must bare to its final day.  On September 1, 1939, as panzers crossed the Polish frontier, Adolf Hitler reinstituted the Iron Cross in its original three classes, with the addition of the Knight’s Cross. All bore the swastika on the obverse’s center and forever changed Schinkel’s symbol, ironically first concepted as a motivational tool against tyranny.

Hitler increased the award’s sizes exponentially by at least 2mm. Next he created a bridge for the common soldier between the Iron Cross First Class and the formerly unobtainable Grand Cross. At 48mm in width and height, the Knight’s Cross is the premier Iron Cross collectable. Although there is no direct correlation in the U.S. Army, for the sake of argument we could term it Germany’s Medal of Honor. It is the most faked and copied of all crosses in the family. Commanding huge sums, recent prices reflected on ebay and in auction catalogs have skyrocketed. Unfortunately, by this author’s estimate, eight out of ten crosses seen today are post-World War II production.

The 1939 Iron Cross Second Class was awarded practically 5,000,000 during the Second World War. 450,000 is a good estimate for the number of First Class decorations awarded. Compare these with the Knight’s Cross, whose award estimate is just over 7,300. There are even higher levels of the Knight’s Cross, including additions of the Oak Leaves (890 recipients), Oak Leaves & Swords (160 recipients), Diamonds (27), and Golden Diamonds (one to Stuka pilot Hans Ulrich Rudel). The Grand Cross went to Hermann Göring for the 1939 French Campaign. There also exists a Star to the 1939 Grand Cross. It was never awarded, but a prototype was discovered in a castle just outside Salzburg, Austria, by the Americans. It now resides in the West Point Museum, New York.

Hitler always proudly displayed the 1914 First Class he had earned on his otherwise simple uniform. For a corporal, this was a rare award. Interestingly, Hitler never bragged about having received it to anyone.  In fact, he never mentioned it accept in passing. Was he modest? On the contrary.  As with any story on the Iron Cross, this one has a twist.  Hitler was recommended for the award by his unit commander, Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann.  As the most esteemed award of the young corporal’s military career, Hitler could never talk about it.  Hugo Gutmann was Jewish.

In 1956, NATO established the West German Armed Forces as the bulwark against Soviet expansionism. Wehrmacht veterans in uniform in the newly formed Bundeswehr were given permission to wear certain of their World War II decorations.  One of these was a reincarnated and denazified Iron Cross, today known as the 1957 variety.  Those charged with the redesign took inspiration from Imperial Germany.  The classic cross Patté shape was kept but three oak leaves replaced the swastika, bringing full circle this adornment as center motif.  This design change affected only the Iron Cross First and Second Class, as well as the Knight’s Cross.  Devices higher than the Knight’s Cross remained the same as their Nazi German counterparts for two reasons; no swastika needed to be removed, and a very limited number of the highest decorated individuals returned to serve with the Bundeswehr.

Today, grizzled veterans of the Wehrmacht gather in dwindling numbers to rekindle past associations with comrades in their former units.  Occasionally these old soldiers can be found with the distinctive black cross with silver rim dangling about their necks.  The other veterans still look to them for leadership with an air of envy and respect that is palpable.  After all, it is the man, not the medal.  Still, this long lost symbol or iron and silver created by an architect haunts the halls and gathering places of old men who remember when they were young.

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