Sunday, February 22, 2009

The German Iron Cross

It’s been a very long time since I have last posted in this blog, so I thought I’d interject something that might be of true interest but doesn’t have anything directly to do with Prussian history – although, it was during Prussian rule that this was first introduced.

I knew since I was a teenager that my brother was in possession of an iron cross that was given to him by our mother as a memoir of our grandfather. While doing my research for the posts in this blog, I stumbled across the Order of the Black Eagle (see my post from October 5, 2008) wherein the badge of the order is described as a gold Maltese cross with blue enamelling and gold-crowned black eagles (resembling the Order’s black eagle) between the arms of the cross.

Order of the Black Eagle sash and badge

Maltese Cross (Still used today by Malteser International)

I began to wonder if this had anything to do with the Iron Cross that my brother has, so I asked him to photograph it and send it to me. To my great surprise, he was indeed in possession of the iron cross awarded to our grandfather while serving the German army during the Second World War. The resemblance of the following four crosses below is striking, each awarded during wars of particular importance in German history.

Iron Cross of 1813
War of the Sixth Coalition

Iron Cross of 1870

World War 1 Iron Cross, 2nd Class

Iron Cross Second Class from WW2
(my brother's)

The above displayed Iron Cross depicts the Iron Cross Second Class, which was rewarded approximately four and half million times to those soldiers who fought with particular distinction during battle, as well as a handful of civilians who had bravely performed military functions.

Adolf Hitler had reinstated the Iron Cross on the 1st of September, 1939 reviving in this way the originally founded Iron Cross of King Frederick William III of Prussia on the 10th of March in 1813 to those soldiers fighting with distinction against Napoleon in the War of the Sixth Coalition.

Original forms of this cross were used in the coat of arms of the Teutonic Knights in 1143 by Pope Celestine II who ordered the then-called Knights Hospitaller to oversee a German hospital in Jerusalem founded in 1050 as an Amalfitan hospital to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims and to those knights injured in battles to the Holy Land.

Teutonic Knights Coat of Arms

Teutonic Knights Cross

Since the Iron Cross had been issued over the entire period of German history, its design (but not the specific decoration) has remained the symbol of Germany's armed forces (now the Bundeswehr) to this day.

Symbol of the modern German “Bundeswehr”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kingdom of Prussia – Wars of Unification, the Schleswig Wars

If you remember in my last post, I mentioned that King William I became King of Prussia in 1861. In 1862, King William nominated Otto von Bismarck to become the Prime Minister of Prussia. Bismarck was very interested in creating what he felt should be a “united” Germany, which meant the uniting of all Germanic nations into one, but with the stipulation that the Prussian ruling class and bureaucracy should remain dominant.

Up to this time, the German Confederation contained several loosely bound principalities without any one dominating power. It was for this reason that Bismarck found it necessary to form one single power and used both diplomatic and Prussian military means to achieve this objective. He made great efforts to gain the support of not only the bureaucracy, but that of the common folk as well by promising to lead the fight for a final German unification.

It took him three major conflicts to gain this status however, which conclusively led to the ultimate naming of William I as the first German Emperor on 18 January 1871.

The first of these conflicts began with the so-called First War of Schleswig beginning in 1848 and ending in 1851 followed by the Second War of Schleswig from 1863 to 1865. If you look at the map below (click on it to enlarge), you can see area 14 (Schleswig) and 8 (Holstein).

The Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were in alliance with the Kingdom of Denmark, whereas the Duchy of Holstein was already part of the German Confederation at that time. The conflict began because Denmark (in the white area marked “Expansion of Prussia”) attempted to annex Schleswig (14) but not Holstein (8) and Prussia decided to intervene by taking both territories for itself. The Danes were defeated but the other European powers attempted to pressure Prussia into returning Schleswig and Holstein to Denmark.

One of these powers was Austria, who was supported by Russia. Because of this, Prussia was persuaded in 1850 to return Schleswig and Holstein to Denmark's control but only if the Danes were not to integrate Schleswig into Denmark.

In 1863 however, the Danes began once again to attempt an integration of Schleswig by introducing a shared constitution. The German Confederation, led now by the Austrians, saw it necessary to occupy Holstein causing Denmark to withdraw her troops. Denmark continued refusal to give up Schleswig and in 1864, the Prussian and Austrian forces entered Schleswig and thereby initiated the Second War of Schleswig.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Brief History of Prussian Nobility – Kingdom of Prussia, part 3

As seen in my last post, the Kingdom of Prussia strongly influenced the Northern Germanic states politically and economically and later played a key role in forming the North German Confederation in 1867, thereby unifying 22 states with an estimated population of 30 million.

King Frederick William IV of Prussia; October 15, 1795
to January 2, 1861

Flag of the North German Confederation
and later of the German Empire

This unification however, was unfortunately not preceded without strife. Long and drawn-out struggles between liberals who felt a unified, federal Germany using a democratic constitution to maintain a more clearly represented government against the conservatives who pressured to keep a patchwork of independent, monarchical states, resulted in a power struggle between Prussia, being the strongest and largest of the confederation, and Austria.

Another factor influencing the decision makers within Prussia was a liberal student fraternity movement striving to unify all German states as one nation. Uprisings throughout Europe, beginning with a revolutionary victory in Paris in 1848 ultimately motivated revolutions within the German states in particular.

These led to Prussia’s first constitution in 1850 and allowed for a dual housed parliament consisting of a lower house and an upper house (equivalent to the British House of Lords). Let’s do a bit of math here before continuing. The lower house was elected by taxpayers and was further divided into three classifications – the weight of the vote depended on the amount of taxes paid by the voters. Women and persons who paid no taxes were not allowed to vote! This means, approximately one-third of the voters, ultimately, wealthy men, were to choose about 85% of the parliament! A dangerous business indeed! The upper house consisted of landowning classes appointed directly by the king – the so-called Junkers, which were equivalent to British Dukes and making up the remaining 15% of the votes.

January 2, 1861 heralded the crowning of William I, also known as Wilhelm the Great with the passing of King Frederick William IV, and the beginning of a very dramatic era for the Kingdom of Prussia. With the appointment of Otto von Bismarck as Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862, the defeat of both liberal and conservative initiatives was sealed through Bismarck’s determination to create a united Germany.

Wilhelm I, also known as Wilhelm the Great, King of Prussia from January 2, 1861 to March 9, 1888 and the first German Emperor from 18 January 1871 to March 9, 1888

With the domination of a Prussian ruling class and the lack of a liberal democracy, Bismarck directed Prussia through a series of wars (which I will mention in my next post) which ultimately brought King William I the dual titles of Germany’s first Emperor through the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 while remaining the King of Prussia.

Otto von Bismarck

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