History of the Iron Cross

On September 1, 1939, the very eve of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler signed into law the Great Renewal Order that reinstituted the Iron Cross for the last time.

“After I have determined to call to arms the German people, as a defense against an attack that threatens them, in memory of the sons of Germany who in heroic battles in the previous great wars have stood for the country, I renew the Order of the Iron Cross. The Iron Cross will be awarded for outstanding service to service personnel and for bravery in the face of the enemy."

The order reintroduced the Iron Cross in all three of its original grades (Grand Cross, Iron Cross First Class, and Iron Cross Second Class) but went on to create a new grade of Iron Cross as well: The Knights Cross. Hitler also introduced the 1939 Bar to the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class and the 1939 Bar to the 1914 Iron Cross 2nd Class which were meant to reward those veterans of the First World War who had subsequently won another Iron Cross during the period of WWII.

Before production of the 1939 Iron Cross was to begin, several important decisions were made that would see the Iron Cross change radically in appearance from the older Imperial cross designed by Schinkel. The new Nazi cross was to be both larger and more robust. All vestiges of the Imperial Oak Leaves, Crown, and Cipher were removed. In the place of these traditional Prussian emblems, Escher, the designer of the 1939 Iron Cross, used the swastika as the central theme with the date 1939 occupying the lower portion. The reverse of the cross was to remain plain except for the date of the Iron Cross' first inception into military service: 1813.

The proposed design changes caused a vigorous but short lived debate as the medals manufacturing community believed the style of the 1939 Iron Cross should remain the same as that of the earlier Imperial Iron Cross. Tradition may have played a part, but the fact that there were still vast quantities of 1914 frame stocks still on hand played a much more significant role. It was argued that a significant savings in both time and expense could be achieved if the manufacturers could produce the 1939 Iron Cross in the standard traditional shape and size. In fact, several manufacturers did produce the 1939 Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class in the old Imperial size and style until these firms were eventually forbidden to do so. These "Imperial style" crosses, know today as "Schinkelform crosses" (a named derived from the original designer of the Iron Cross) are quite difficult to come by today.

It is worth noting that unlike the Iron Crosses of previous issues, the 1st and 2nd classes of the 1939 Iron Cross were almost never produced with genuine silver frames - almost all were produced with frames made from "German Silver" - an alloy of copper and nickel. Also, the cores of the '39 crosses were always made of mailable iron (cast iron was no longer to be used). Another significant change to the 1939 Iron Cross came in the form of its method of construction. As the war progressed, the traditional method of constructing the decoration - that is to say, making each one by hand - became unacceptable. During the Second World War, the demand for Iron Crosses rose steadily as the years went by as more and more awards were being won by the men in the field. In fact, production could not keep up with the demand and the manufacturers struggled to fill orders that seemed to fall further and further behind schedule.

In the spring of 1942, things had reached the breaking point. The Prasidialkanzlei demanded a better production schedule and gave the project over to a research group located in the Koblenz in the Sudentenland. This group came to be known as the "Koblenz Arbeitsgemeinschaft" and it was through their research and experimentation that a new method of manufacturing the Iron Cross was found. The technique they developed, the "Koblenzer Method," was a manufacturing process which was designed around a machine that would automatically form the frame halves from silver wire - the iron core would be inserted between the frame halves at which point the machine would fuse all of the components together under extreme pressure.

The completed crosses produced on this machine did not need to be burnished or buffed as the heat from the press produced a very bright frame. Also, the seam between the two frame halves (obvious on all earlier crosses) is almost invisible on the Koblenzer made crosses. This process drastically improved the rate of Iron Cross manufacture. The machine could produce 1000 crosses a day. It is interesting to note that both the Knights Cross and the Grand Cross were NEVER produced on the Koblenzer Press but rather in the old traditional way. At any rate, the new press was considered to be about 40% quicker than the old hand made method.

Other variations include those made up with brass cores instead of iron. These brass crossed crosses were intended for private purchase by Naval personnel - not a bad idea when one considers the corrosive effect that salt water has on iron. There is also an EXTREMELY RARE variation of the '39 cross that features a slight variation in the formation of the numeral "3" in the date 1939. In this variation, the top of the "3" is round (as it appears in this text) while the "3" on the standard cross is flat on top. Variations unique to the 1st class one might encounter is regular flat form cross (award pattern) as well as the convex or "clam shell" type. Both the convex as well as the regular flat back cross were produced in both pinback and screwback form.

It is important to note that the convex style of cross was forbidden by the LDO once it came into power in 1941 but the screwback attachments were allowed on items produced for private purchase. The LDO (Leistungs Gemeinschaft der Deutscher Ordenshersteller) was founded in 1941 as a of self-regulating association that governed the private firms involved in the manufacture of state and military awards, orders and decorations. The LDO imposed very strict quality control over all awards produced by its member companies and, via directives issued through the Fuherer's office stipulated the exact specifications, materials and often techniques to be used in the manufacturing process. LDO documentation was also circulated that kept the manufacturers abreast of the newest and most efficient manufacturing techniques as well. For example, the LDO provided a great deal of information to the various Iron Cross manufacturers on the "Koblenzer Frame Press" which greatly sped up production. In the case of the 1939 Iron Cross, the LDO introduced very strict specifications on the dimensions (44mm across), materials and specific forms to be used.

All original "odd-ball" variants of the Iron Cross that exist come, for the most part, from the period prior to the LDO's formation in 1941. Once the LDO began to impose its strict regulation of the manufacturing industry, all of the "unusual" variants were taken out of production. Although there was no official cloth version of the Iron Cross, some recipients purchased or had made at their own expense, cloth versions of the 1st class cross and stitched them directly to their uniforms. Unlike the cloth "undress" versions of the German Cross which were made to a very high standard, the cloth versions of the Iron Cross were quite shoddy and cheap looking. In fact, they were little more than black woolen cross cutouts backed with paper. The simulated frame was made from silver wire stitched to the wool backing. The wire was supposed to serve as the outline of the frame but invariably wound up being deformed. The date and swastika were crudely sewn by hand in either dull silver or aluminum wire. Although unattractive, original versions of this variation are considered very rare and are worth a considerable amount of money today.

The ribbon to the 1939 Iron Cross was also changed from that of the former Imperial cross as well. The new ribbon utilized Nazi Germany's national colors: red, black, and white. The new ribbons featured a central brick red stripe flanked by two thinner white stripes, with the white stripes flanked by two black stripes forming the border of the ribbon. In 1957 The West German Government ever-seeking to rid itself of the memory of WWII, yet wishing to recognize the valor of its veterans, re-issued the Iron cross in a de-nazified version. They removed the swastika from the medal and the Reich’s Eagle was replaces with a small iron cross from the 1939 Ribbon Bar to the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class and 2nd Class for those veterans of the First World War who had subsequently won another Iron Cross.