The snapshot was forever recorded in history. A few days before embracing death in his Berlin bunker, Adolf Hitler emerged from underground to greet the last defenders of the Reich. All of them, teenagers willing to give their lives for him ‘leader‘. The photograph taken of that event shows the Nazi leader with a half smile as he greets a boy no more than fifteen years old. A kid who just got a iron Cross, the most famous decoration in Germany. “It is paradoxical that this medal, so difficult to obtain for officers and soldiers since the 19th century, was given to a boy who had not yet entered combat.”
The one who speaks is Eduardo Caamano, historical popularizer, researcher and essayist. He does it through the telephone with an energetic tone that manages to attract the interlocutor in each sentence. “Despite the fact that this medal has become famous thanks to Nazi Germany, the truth is that its origin dates back to the Teutonic order and that it was established in 1813. In fact, it is still delivered,” he reveals. He knows well what he is talking about, because these days he presents’
History of the Iron Cross‘(Almuzara), a historical essay that, as he himself recalls, was born to fill a gap and end the scarcity of bibliography that exists on this object. One, by the way, that the members of the Blue Division yearned for.
How did you select this very specific topic?
One of my favorite bedside readings has always been military books. I especially like the 19th and 20th centuries. The world wars, the Cold War … I always try to look for themes and characters that do not have a bibliography in Spanish. Or, if they have it, that it is very outdated, from the 70s and 80s. The key is to fill a gap with a character or an area that appeals to me. Also, since I found a lot of information about the Iron Cross in the biography I wrote about the Red Baron in 2014, I decided it was time to dedicate an essay to it.
How is it possible to dedicate almost 500 pages to an object?
The Iron Cross is the common thread to tell the story of the wars in which it was delivered, which were three. Thus, I speak of the Prussian campaigns against Napoleon and the creation of the medal in 1813; the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war (in which its aesthetics was changed); and the arrival of the First and Second World War. The latter is the most mediatic thanks to the movies.
Was it only delivered during the war?
It was valid only in times of war. During peace it could be said that she was asleep. No one was decorated if there was no conflict because they sought to reward merits in combat.
Why was it born in the 19th century?
It was commissioned by King Frederick William III to a Prussian architect. The decorations in force until then were intended for command posts – generals, commanders, nobles … -. The monarch considered that the troop soldiers would be motivated to know that they could be awarded. At that time it was something revolutionary because the lower classes were not recognized. It was a ‘marketing’ idea and, in a way, democratic. Thus was born the Iron Cross of the second class, which was the basic one. Then you could get the next one, the first class. Although only 10% of the total achieved it. Lastly, there was the Knight’s Cross, which was limited to officers.
Why is the Iron Cross often associated with World War II?
Because Hitler turned it into another propaganda symbol. Until then the Iron Cross only had three versions – second class, first class and Knight’s Cross – and he multiplied this figure by five. It included many distinctive badges that had to be achieved step by step. To this we must add that World War II is the most popular and many films are made about it, so it is easy to see it on the big screen. In fact, I would say it is the most famous military decoration in the world today. Nobody knows the English, French or Spanish decorations. If you show it to anyone, don’t hesitate: they’ll tell you it’s from the Nazis.
But he was not a Nazi …
It is not. It is one of the great myths. It is a German medal that was established in 1813. From then on it was renewed and recycled by all the leaders who were present in the war. From the Prussian King Frederick William III to Adolf Hitler there was not a single leader who did not take advantage of it. It should also be borne in mind that its symbolism comes from long before, from the Teutonic knights. In the 12th century this order had established itself in the Holy Land to liberate Jerusalem from Saladin. His uniform, which had a cross – black, to distinguish it from the red one of the Templars – is the origin of everything.
What did it mean to get this decoration in World War II?
Increase status. The Iron Cross opened many doors on a social level. Arriving at a dinner party with this award was similar to obtaining a Goya or an Oscar.
It seems impossible to cite all the types of Iron Crosses that were in the Second World War …
The most basic was second class. Then came the first class. As a curiosity, it should be noted that, if the recipient had already received this medal in the First World War, they did not give him another, but what we could call a ‘repetition pin’. Then the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross stood out. And from here come the badges introduced by Hitler. This included the following pin-shaped ladders: Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with oak leaves; with oak leaves and swords; with oak leaves, swords and diamonds and with golden oak leaves, swords and diamonds. The latter was only owned by one pilot.
How is it possible that Göering had a different one?
Because he was a very vain and capricious man. He wanted a decoration that no one had and had the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross made. He handed it over to the Allied forces and was lost. You know how these things are… It is possible that someone kept it.
Was an Iron Cross given to the Spanish divisionaries?
There were various types of medals for the Blue Division. The most common was the Russian Campaign Blue Division Medal. This was a Spanish decoration designed for this unit. Its main characteristic was that, inside the eagle that formed it, there was a small Iron Cross. There were also others like ‘The Old Guard’, which had the Falange symbol on the tape. In addition, some soldiers could win the German Second Class Iron Cross. In the book I include a photo of a woman, Aurora Vega, who collected it on behalf of her son, who died in combat. In turn, it was also possible for them to obtain the Medal of the Russian Campaign against Bolshevism.
Some prominent Spaniard who obtained it?
Two. The first was General Emilio Esteban Infantes, who obtained the Knight’s Cross for having led the Blue Division. It is something very strange, since it was destined in practice to the high German officiality. The second was Joan Pujol, nicknamed Garbo. Hitler decorated him for spying for the Germans without knowing that he was actually a double agent. In fact, he was decorated by both sides; the English gave him the Order of the British Empire. There were not many more. Foreigners did not usually receive this type of recognition. The divisionaries were a very rare case.
And any German that has been especially striking?
One would have to look at the biographies, there are many. 90% of the cases or more were normal war decorations. Yes, I would like to refer to women, who have been very neglected when it comes to this medal. Very few received it. Hanna Reitsch, a test pilot who was considered somewhat suicidal because she always volunteered to test the new turbine aircraft of the ‘Luftwaffe’, highlighted. I was not afraid. He climbed into the cockpit of any airplane. He won two crosses, second and first class.
Based on everything you have explained to us, it seems that no one obtained this medal for acts related to the Holocaust …
Nothing can be assured. In World War II there was a time when all values were distorted and a level of stupidity was reached very high. Maybe someone was decorated for their work in the concentration camps, but the reality is that I have not come across any. Everything I have seen has been due to military acts – shooting down planes, sinking submarines, advancing on the enemy … -.
Does the Iron Cross continue to be handed over?
Yes, but with another name. Although now they are called the Cross of Honor. Angela Merkel has decorated some soldiers with these crosses for their work in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Shortly before, in the fifties, there were some similar to those of World War II, but without the swastika, of course.
What advice would you give collectors to avoid scams?
I include a chapter dedicated to collecting and tables in which you can see which are the easiest to get, which are also the cheapest. In this case it is the second class of 1914. The most difficult are those given to officers, which were very few. Although the price is relative and depends on supply and demand or the state in which the piece is. I have also written a section in which I talk about the purchase process and give several tips to know how to differentiate a real from a fake.