“To this day, the Iron Cross remains one of the most recognizable medals in military history.”
THE BLOODBATH THAT was the First Ypres is remembered in Germany as Kindermord bei Ypern or simply the “Massacre of the Innocents”.
Over the course of the battle, which took place in the autumn of 1914, the Kaiser’s mostly green army suffered a mind-boggling 50,000 casualties.
The 16th Bavarian Reserve was just one of hundreds of German units that was decimated in the 34-day clash. The regiment marched into action with 3,600 men; by the end, fewer than 600 were still standing.
Army brass lavished the shattered survivors with decorations for their bravery in the face of the withering enemy fire.
One soldier in particular, a 25-year-old volunteer who’d enlisted in the 16th just three months earlier, received the Iron Cross Second Class for his part in the battle. His name was Adolf Hitler.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” he would write about winning the commendation.
The future Nazi dictator would later be awarded the more prestigious Iron Cross First Class in the summer of 1918. This time, the Austrian-born corporal was lauded for heroism as a messenger on the Western Front.
Of course, Hitler was just one of untold millions of Germans who have received the Iron Cross in the 200 years since it was established. To this day, it remains one of the most recognizable medals in military history. Here are ten fascinating facts about Germany’s best-known decoration.
For Prussian Bravery
Prussia’s King Frederick William III established the Iron Cross or Eiserne Kreuz on March 10, 1813 to reward soldiers who fought heroically to break the French occupation, also known as the War of Liberation.
The unmistakable black and silver cross-shaped medal was designed by the famous architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. It was composed of a nearly two-inch wide cross of iron encased in a silver frame. The flared-end design, a symbol known as a footed cross or croix pattée, was inspired by Medieval heraldic insignia. Variations of the shape were used by French, Portuguese and Teutonic knights during the Age of Chivalry.
Karl August von Borcke was history’s first recipient of the Iron Cross. He won the medal for outstanding generalship against the French near Lüneburg. The 37-year old Pomeranian native would later lead armies at Leipzig and also Ligny during the 1815 Hundred Days Campaign.
A German Medal
The Iron Cross, which could only be awarded during periods of war, was restored in 1870 for the Prussian invasion of France. The German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II reinstated it again in the summer of 1914. Hitler ordered the medal’s return the very day his army’s invaded Poland in 1939. On each occasion, the year of the medal’s reintroduction was stamped on the cross’ descending arm. Nazi-era variants were further emblazoned with a swastika in the centre.
Making the Grade
The Iron Cross is not a single medal, but an entire family of decorations, with higher status commendations awarded for more outstanding acts of valour. Here’s the breakdown:
• The Iron Cross Second Class, the lowest and most common variant of the medal, was handed out for “a single act of bravery in the face of the enemy”. Winners of the IC2C typically displayed it as a segment of ribbon from the second button hole of their tunic. The cross itself was only worn on formal occasions, either hanging from the button hole ribbon or the left side of a dress uniform tunic.
• To qualify for a more exclusive Iron Cross First Class, one had to have already received the lesser citation and subsequently performed additional acts of outstanding bravery, sometimes more than one. During World War Two, the first class medal would often go to U-boat commanders upon the sinking of 50,000 tons of enemy shipping or pilots who had reached six confirmed kills.  Recipients wore the citation with their everyday uniforms, most often midway down the left side of the tunic.
• The Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, which was twice the size of the first and second class medals, was reserved for generals and marshals who made “outstanding strategic decisions affecting the course of [a] war” . Hermann Goering won the only Grand Cross given out in World War Two. The Nazi Reichsmarschall gained the commendation for the Luftwaffe’s role in the 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. The original medal, which was worn around the neck, was lost when Goering’s home was destroyed by Allied bombers; he ordered a replacement manufactured.
• A supreme version, known the Star of the Grand Cross, was set on a gold eight-point star. Only two were ever presented: one to Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo; the other went to Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in 1918. Hitler vowed to bestow one to the top German general of the Second World War, but the Third Reich collapsed before he could do so. Some speculate that Hermann Goering was the intended recipient of this singular honour. The un-awarded citation was captured by the Allies in 1945; it now resides at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Nazi Cross
Hitler instituted yet another variant of the Iron Cross known as the Knights Cross. Worn around the collar on a red, white and black ribbon, the medal was more esteemed than the first and second class Iron Crosses but still inferior to the Grand Cross. Available to soldiers of any rank, Knights Crosses also came in a series of grades of increasing distinction. Higher levels of the were augmented with oak leaves, then swords, followed by diamonds and then finally golden oak leaves. In all, more than 7,000 Knights Crosses of various levels were awarded in World War Two.
Stuka ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel, one of the Third Reich’s most decorated soldiers, recieved the Knights Cross with Swords, Diamonds and Golden Oak Leaves. Rudel flew more than 2,530 combat missions resulting in the destruction of more than 500 tanks, 150 guns, 800 vehicles and four warships, including the Soviet battleship Marat. 
In all, an estimated 5 million Iron Crosses were awarded in the First World War; 4 million were distributed in World War Two.
More than a dozen women were awarded Iron Crosses. Among them is Hildegard Hieronymus, a civilian telephone operator in Silesia who continued to connect calls even when Soviet troops were overrunning her town in 1945. A nurse named Else Grossmann won the Iron Cross for heroism under fire on the East Front. The most famous female recipient is pilot Hanna Reitsch. She was honoured for surviving a Me-163 Komet test flight mishap.
Other recipients included Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords). Berlin awarded the citation posthumously for contributions to the Axis war effort. Halim Malkoć, a Bosnian member of the SS, was decorated by Heinrich Himmler in October 1943. The 25-year-old Muslim officer refused the medal citing the cross’ Christian lineage, but proudly wore the ribbon that came with the commendation. Amazingly, Germany conferred Iron Crosses to two Jews serving in the Finnish military for their conspicuous gallantry in the 1940 Winter War. Both refused to accept the Nazi commendation.
Iron Crosses continued to be bestowed right up until the moment of Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. The last known recipient of the medal was Wolfgang Feller. The 29-year-old naval lieutenant won the Knight Cross on June 17, 1945 — more than a month after VE Day — for helping to clear the Baltic Sea of anti-ship mines following the Axis capitulation. Since the presentation came after the war had ended, Feller’s citation is not considered legitimate.
A ban on Nazi-era emblems by the post-war West German government prevented acting personnel and veterans from wearing Iron Crosses until replacement medals (without the swastika) were authorized in 1957. The West German military, the Bundeswehr, adopted the Iron Cross as its official insignia in 1955. Following German participation in the NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, pressure mounted on the government in Berlin to reinstate the Iron Cross as a medal. In 2008, the German defence ministry established the Ehrenkreuz der Bundeswehr für Tapferkeit or “Cross of Honour for Bravery”. At least 26 of the gold croix pattée-shaped medals have been awarded.