The Iron Cross (or Eisernes Kreuz in German ) is a military decoration of the Kingdom of Prussia, and then later of Germany. It was established by King Frederick William III of Prussia and first awarded on 10 March 1813, in the Napoleonic Wars. The Iron Cross was awarded during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the First World War (1914-1918), and the Second World War (1939-1945). It was abolished along with the German armed forces in 1945 and has not been revived in postwar Germany.


The Iron Cross (a black four-pointed cross with white trim, with the arms widening towards the ends) was designed by the neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and reflects the cross borne by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century, which was also the emblem of Frederick the Great. The cross design (but not the specific decoration) has been the symbol of Germany's armed forces since about 1870.


Since the Iron Cross was issued over several different periods of German history, it was annotated with the year indicating the era in which it was issued. For example, an Iron Cross from the First World War bears the year "1914", while the same decoration from the Second World War is annotated "1939". The reverse of the 1870, 1914, and 1939 series of Iron Crosses have the year "1813" appearing on the lower arm, symbolizing the first year the award was created.

Iron Cross and Bar

It was also possible for a holder of the 1914 Iron Cross to be awarded a higher grade of the 1939 Iron Cross. An award of the first or second class was also possible. In such cases a "1939 Clasp" (Spange) would be worn on the original 1914 Iron Cross. (A similar award was made in 1914 but was quite rare, since there were few in service who held the 1870 Iron Cross.)

World War I

The Iron Cross was reauthorized by Emperor William II on 5 August 1914, at the start of the First World War. During these three periods, the Iron Cross was an award of the Kingdom of Prussia, although given Prussia's preeminent place in the German Empire formed in 1871, it tended to be treated as a generic German decoration. The 1813, 1870, and 1914 Iron Crosses had three grades:

Although the medals of each class were identical, the manner in which each was worn differed. Employing a pin or screw posts on the back of the medal, the Iron Cross First Class was worn on the left side of the recipient's uniform. The Grand Cross and the Iron Cross Second Class were suspended from different ribbons.


The Iron Cross 1st Class and the Iron Cross 2nd Class were awarded without regard to rank. One had to already possess the 2nd Class in order to receive the 1st Class (though in some cases both could be awarded simultaneously). The egalitarian nature of this award contrasted with those of most other German states (and indeed many other European monarchies), where military decorations were awarded based on the rank of the recipient. Even though the Iron Cross was intended to be awarded without regard to rank, officers and NCOs were more likely to receive it than junior enlisted soldiers. The Grand Cross was intended for senior generals of the German Army.

In the First World War, approximately four million Iron Crosses of the lower grade (2nd Class) were issued, as well as around 145,000 of the higher grade (1st Class). Exact numbers of awards are not known, since the Prussian archives were destroyed during the Second World War. The multitude of awards reduced the status and reputation of the decoration. Among the holders of the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class was Adolf Hitler, which was unusual as very few holders of the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class were enlisted soldiers; Hitler held the rank of or Corporal. Hitler can be seen wearing the award on his left breast, as was standard, in many photographs.

World War II

Adolf Hitler restored the Iron Cross in 1939 as a German decoration (rather than Prussian as in earlier versions), continuing the tradition of issuing it in various grades The Iron Cross of the Second World War was divided into three main series of decorations with an intermediate category, the Knight's Cross, instituted between the lowest, the Iron Cross, and the highest, the Grand Cross.

World War II Design:

The ribbon of the medal (2nd class and Knight's Cross) was different from the earlier Iron Crosses in that the color red was used in addition to the traditional black and white (black and white were the colors of Prussia, while black, white, and red were the colors of Germany).

World War II Iron Cross

The standard 1939 Iron Cross was issued in the following two grades:

The Iron Cross was awarded for bravery in battle as well as other military contributions in a battlefield environment.

Wearing the Iron Cross

The Iron Cross 2nd Class came with a ribbon and was worn in one of three different methods:

The Iron Cross First Class was a pin-on medal with no ribbon and was worn centered on a uniform breast pocket, either on dress uniforms or everyday outfit. It was a progressive award, with second class having to be earned before the first class and so on for the higher degrees. It is estimated that some five million Second Class Iron Crosses were awarded in the Second World War, and 730,000 in the First Class.

Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (in German: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Ritterkreuz) recognized extreme battlefield bravery or successful leadership. The Knight's Cross was divided into five degrees. In total, 7,313 awards of the Knight's Cross were made.

1939 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

Like the Knight's Cross, the Grand Cross (Großkreuz) was also worn suspended from the collar. The only recipient of the Grand Cross during the Second World War was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who was awarded the decoration on July 19, 1940. The medal is in effect an oversized Knight's Cross. It had the same overall characteristics as the Knights Cross but was much larger, measuring 63 mm in width as opposed to about 44 mm for the Iron Cross and 48.5 mm for the Knight's Cross. It was originally intended to have outer edges lined in gold, but this was changed to silver before the award was presented.