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Iron Cross (Eisernes Kreuz)

In spirit the Iron Cross was created by Gneisenau in the black days of 1811. Napoleon in that year was threatening to invade Russia, and had made large additions to the French garrisons in and about Prussia. Frederick William was in painful need of money ; the French indemnity weighed heavily upon his scanty exchequer, and he realized that in the coming war there would be nothing to prevent Prussia being again tramped over by one or more of the neighboring states at war. The French were already in possession of several Prussian fortresses, and there was every reason to anticipate that Napoleon meant to use was every reason to anticipate that Napoleon meant to use this country as his prime base of operations.

The King became thoroughly alarmed for his personal safety. He sent, on May 14, 1811, a most humble plea to Napoleon, which in formal treaty talk sounded fairly well, but in plain English told Napoleon that Prussia would gladly submit to any humiliation if France would only promise not to drive him from the throne. The King was bold enough to beg some abatement of the grinding indemnity ; to ask for the return of one or two Prussian fortresses, and to be allowed a larger standing army than 42,000 ; but in return France was offered the use of the Prussian army to fight French battles under any and all circumstances. In other words, the Prussian army was offered to Napoleon as part payment for a war indemnity arranged at the Peace of Tilsit. Napoleon was by this time, however, too blind in matters political to see his own interests. He ignored this message.

But for this silence of Napoleon we might never have heard of an Iron Cross in Germany. The King had persistently opposed every suggestion looking to a popular army of citizen volunteers, for he dreaded his people more than he did the French. But one thing he dreaded more even than his people, and that was the loss of his throne. As between losing his throne and appealing to his people, he finally decided to make a great sacrifice, and asked advice of the soldier who had been in America - Gneisenau.

Gneisenau commenced by assuming that Prussia was on the verge of being destroyed by Napoleon, and he therefore opened with the following proposition : "Since Prussia is threatened with invasion that means annihilation ( Vernichtung), the royal family must seek its safety and support in a popular call to arms (Volksaufstand)." The King annotated this paragraph with his own hands: "The proposed struggle for existence (Kampf der Verzweiflung) is no doubt better and more honorable than voluntarily passing under the yoke." Gneisenau elaborately worked out a plan of insurrectionary warfare, the details of which must have been familiar to him in America. All Prussia was mapped out into districts, each district to be under the control of a confidential agent

Gneisenau proposed that every man who had served faithfully should wear for the rest of his life an honorable distinction, either a black-and-white scarf or a national cockade ; and here was the idea of the Iron Cross. The King thought well of the decoration in general, but did not approve of limiting it to the citizen soldier. He wished it extended to all his army, and thus robbed it of much of its peculiar value. The original "Iron Cross " was to consist of two pieces of black-and-white ribbon sewed on to the breast in the shape of a cross. The colors were those of Prussia ; the shape suggested the famous cross of the order of German Knights - a happy blending of national with imperial aspirations.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:27 ZULU