15. The Iron Cross: a national symbol

By Laura Achtelstetter (@Laura8tel

In my research, the Napoleonic Wars – or Wars of Liberation (1813-15) as they are called in Germany – are a central event. Nearly all of the people I am focusing on  fought in these wars, many of them got wounded, lost friends and family members. In testimonies from this time, one object is central: The Iron Cross (IC).

Endowed by king Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1813, it became not only a reward for soldierly courage, but also a symbol of political ideas. The IC was the first medal in Germany rewarded regardless of the person’s origin, social stand or military rank. Previously, medals were made out of precious metals and a prerogative of officers – which were always noblemen. Since the universal military service was established in Prussia, the military was no longer a military of the aristocracy. The Iron Cross consequently mirrors this transition within the military.

The first person to be awarded with the IC in 1813 was Queen Luise (deceased in 1810). Friedrich Wilhelm III had chosen her birthday, 10 March, as the date of endowment. Glorified as role-model mother, wife and Queen, she became a Prussian martyr in public perception and memory. Many young soldiers longed for the IC, at it became a symbol of her memory and glorification, hence a symbol of the bond between Prussian monarchy and people. What we would call today a successful PR campaign established the narrative of the Prussian nation – including a royal family and their people – rising to liberate their home country (and their fellow Germans) from foreign (French) occupation. In this context, the IC became the symbol for a nation and a joint effort for liberation. The meaning of this symbol would change dramatically within the next 150 years from liberation towards aggression.

Image: Ein Eisernes Kreuz aus dem Jahr 1813 – Revers, das Avers ist glatt, reused via a Creative Commons licence.

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