Military Wiki
Pour le Mérite
(Military order)
Blue Max.jpg
Awarded by the King of Prussia
Type Neck order
Eligibility Military personnel
Status Extinct
Established 1740
Last awarded 2 September 1918
Pour le Mérite with Oak Leaves

The Pour le Mérite (for the merit), known informally as the Blue Max (German language: Blauer Max),[1] was the German Kingdom of Prussia's highest order of merit. It was awarded strictly as a recognition of extraordinary personal achievement, rather than as a general marker of social status or a courtesy-honour, although certain restrictions of social class and military rank were applied. The award was given as both a military (1740–1918) and civil (1740–1810, after 1842 as a separate class) honour.

The award was founded in 1740 by Frederick the Great; it was intended primarily as a military honour, but was also sometimes given for civil accomplishments. New awards of the military class ceased with the end of the Prussian monarchy after World War I in November 1918.

A separate civil class of the Pour le Mérite, the Pour le mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste, was created in 1842 to honour accomplishments in the arts and sciences. This version of the order was revived as an independent organization in 1923, and again in 1952, with the President of Germany replacing the King of Prussia as head of the order. This version of the honour is still active.

The order is effectively secular, and membership endures for the remaining lifetime of the inductee, unless renounced or revoked.


The Pour le Mérite was founded in 1740 by King Frederick II of Prussia. It was named in French, which was the leading international language and language of the Prussian royal court of that era. The French name was retained, despite the rising tide of nationalism and increasing hostility between French and Germans during the 19th century, and ironically many of its recipients were honoured for acts performed in wars against France.

The physical symbol of the award was a blue-enameled Maltese Cross with golden eagles between the arms (which is based on the symbol of the Johanniter Order) and the Prussian royal cypher and the words Pour le Mérite ("For Merit" in the French language) written in gold letters on the body of the cross.

Until 1810, the Order was given as both a civilian and a military honor.

The Pour le Mérite is an "order", in which a person is admitted into membership, and should not be referred to as a "medal" or "decoration".[citation needed]

Military order

In January 1810, during the Napoleonic wars, King Frederick William III decreed that the award could be presented only to serving military officers. In March 1813, the king added an additional distinction, a spray of gilt oak leaves attached above the cross. Award of the oak leaves originally indicated extraordinary achievement in battle, and was usually reserved for high-ranking officers.

The original regulations called for the capture or successful defense of a fortification, or victory in a battle. By World War I, the oak leaves often indicated a second or higher award of the Pour le Mérite, though in most cases the recipients were still high-ranking officers (usually distinguished field commanders fitting the criteria above; the few lower ranking recipients of the oak leaves were mainly general staff officers responsible for planning a victorious battle or campaign). In early 1918, it was proposed to award the oak leaves to Germany's top flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, but he was deemed ineligible under a strict reading of the regulations. Instead, Prussia awarded von Richthofen a slightly less prestigious honor, the Order of the Red Eagle, 3rd Class with Crown and Swords. This was still a high honor, as the 3rd Class was normally awarded to colonels and lieutenant colonels, and von Richthofen's award was one of only two of the 3rd Class with Crown and Swords during World War I.

In 1866, a special military Grand Cross class of the award was established. This grade of the award was given to those who, through their actions, caused the retreat or destruction of an army. There were only five awards of the Grand Cross: to King Wilhelm I in 1866, to Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia (later Emperor Frederick III) and Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia in 1873, to Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1878, and to Helmuth Graf von Moltke in 1879.[2]

The Pour le Mérite gained international fame during World War I. Although it could be awarded to any military officer, its most famous recipients were the pilots of the German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte), whose exploits were celebrated in wartime propaganda. In aerial warfare, a fighter pilot was initially entitled to the award upon downing eight enemy aircraft.[1] Aces Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke were the first airmen to receive the award, on January 12, 1916.[1] Although it has been reported that because of Immelmann's renown among his fellow pilots and the nation at large, the Pour le Mérite became known, due to its color and this early famous recipient, as the Blue Max, this story is probably an urban legend.[3]

The number of aerial victories necessary to receive the award continued to increase during the war; by early 1917, it generally required destroying 16 enemy airplanes, and by war's end the approximate figure was 30. However, other aviation recipients included zeppelin commanders, bomber and observation aircrews, and at least one balloon observer.

Although many of its famous recipients were junior officers, especially pilots, more than a third of all awards in World War I went to generals and admirals. Junior officers (army captains and lieutenants and their navy equivalents) accounted for only about 25% of all awards. Senior officer awards tended to be more for outstanding leadership in combat than for individual acts of bravery.

Recipients of the Blue Max were required to wear the award whenever in uniform.

The last new member admitted to this class of the order was flying ace Theo Osterkamp, on 2 September 1918.

The military class of the Pour le Mérite became extinct as a result of Kaiser William II's abdication as King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany on 9 November 1918. This marked the end of the Prussian monarchy and it was never awarded thereafter; however the honour continued to be recognized for, and worn by, previous recipients.

Notable recipients

Kingdom of Prussia

German Empire

  • Otto von Bismarck, Prussian minister president and German chancellor during the unification period; decorated in 1884 with the Pour le Mérite with oak leaves.
  • Leo von Caprivi, Prussian general, decorated in 1871 for merit in the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Alfred Graf von Waldersee, German Field Marshal, decorated August 1901 with the Pour le Mérite with Oak leaves for his services as Allied Supreme Commander in China 1900-1901[4]
  • Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, received the Pour le Mérite for the East Africa campaign of 1905-07.

World War I (air force)

World War I (army)

  • Erwin Rommel, decorated as an Oberleutnant in December 1917, later a Field Marshal and commander of the German Afrika Korps in World War II.
  • Paul von Hindenburg, German field marshal and later President of Germany; awarded the Pour le Mérite in September 1914 and the oak leaves in February 1915.
  • Erich Ludendorff, German general of World War I; awarded the Pour le Mérite in August 1914, one of the earliest World War I awards, for the siege of Liege, Belgium; received the oak leaves in February 1915.
  • Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, German field marshal; awarded the Pour le Mérite in August 1915 and the oak leaves in December 1916.
  • Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, German field marshal; awarded the Pour le Mérite in August 1915 and the oak leaves in February 1918.
  • Werner von Blomberg, decorated as a major in June 1918.
  • Fedor von Bock, decorated as a major in April 1918.
  • Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff from 1914 to 1916; awarded the Pour le Mérite in February 1915 and the oak leaves in June 1915.
  • Oskar von Hutier, German general awarded the Pour le Mérite in September 1917 and the oak leaves in March 1918.
  • Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who led German forces in the guerilla campaign in German East Africa.
  • Otto Liman von Sanders, German general who served as adviser and commander of Ottoman forces in World War I; awarded the Pour le Mérite and the oak leaves simultaneously in January 1916 for his role in the Battle of Gallipoli.
  • Friedrich "Fritz" Karl von Lossberg, World War I master-strategist; expert in the Defence in depth. Awarded 21 September 1916 (Somme); oak leaves on 24 April 1917 (Arras).
  • August von Mackensen, German general (later field marshal) of World War I; awarded the Pour le Mérite in November 1914 and the oak leaves in June 1915.
  • Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff at the outbreak of World War I. Nephew of Moltke the Elder.
  • Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, German officer in the Near East campaigns of World War I.
  • Max Hoffmann, German staff officer; awarded the Pour le Mérite in October 1916 and the oak leaves in July 1917.
  • Hans von Seeckt, German staff officer in World War I; awarded the Pour le Mérite in May 1915 and the oak leaves in November 1915.
  • Ernst Jünger, Army Lieutenant and later novelist, the last living holder of the Pour le Mérite at the time of his death in 1998.
  • Ferdinand Schörner, decorated as a Leutnant in December 1917, later a field marshal in World War II.

World War I (navy)

Civil class

Pour le Mérite, Civil class

In 1842, King Frederick William IV of Prussia, acting on the advice of Alexander von Humboldt, founded a separate civil class of the order, the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts (Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste), with the three sections: humanities, natural science and fine arts. Among famous recipients of the civil class of the Pour le Mérite in the first group of awards in 1842 were Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Jakob Grimm, Felix Mendelssohn, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and August Wilhelm Schlegel. Foreign recipients in the "class of 1842" included François-René de Chateaubriand, Louis Daguerre, Michael Faraday, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Franz Liszt. When a vacancy occurred the Academy of Arts and Sciences nominated three candidates, one of whom the king appointed.

Later recipients included Thomas Babington Macaulay (1853), John C. Frémont (1860), Theodor Mommsen (1868), Charles Darwin (1868), Thomas Carlyle (1874) (who never accepted any other honor), Max Müller (1874), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1875), William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1884), Heinrich von Treitschke (1887), Johannes Brahms (1887), Giuseppe Verdi (1887), William Henry Flower and Hubert von Herkomer (1899), Camille Saint-Saëns (1901), Luigi Cremona (1903), John Singer Sargent (1908), Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1910), Otto Lessing (sculptor) (1911), Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1911), Sir William Ramsay (1911), Max Planck (1915), and Rudolph Sohm (1916).

In November 1918 the Kingdom of Prussia came to an end, and with it that state's sponsorship of the Pour le Mérite. However, unlike the military class of the order, the class of the order for achievements in the arts and sciences did not come to an end. The members re-established their order as an autonomous organization, with revised rules and processes for nomination.

The awarding of new memberships resumed in 1923. New members of the revised included Albert Einstein (1923), Gerhart Hauptmann (1923), Richard Strauss (1924), Wilhelm Furtwängler (1929), Käthe Kollwitz (1929) the first female recipient of the honour, and Ernst Barlach (1933).

During the era of National Socialism in Germany (1933–45), the order was re-absorbed into the state honours system, and the list of its members was reviewed and revised according to the policies of the new government. A number of Jews and other perceived dissidents or "enemies" of the state were deprived of their awards by the Nazi regime; including Einstein (who resigned his membership in the order in 1933, and refused invitations to renew it post-war), Kollwitz, and Barlach. Such actions were later repudiated by both the order, and the government of Germany.

In 1952, with the assistance of then President of West Germany Theodor Heuss, the order was again re-established. This time as an independent organization with state recognition and the President of Germany as Protector of the Order, although it is not a state order; unlike the somewhat simillar Bundesverdienstkreuz also established by Heuss.

The revived civil order of the Pour le Mérite is awarded for achievements in the arts and sciences. Active membership is limited to 40 German citizens, ten each in the fields of humanities, natural science, and medicine and the arts. Honorary membership can be conferred on foreigners, again to the limit of 40. When a vacancy occurs, the remaining members select a new inductee.[5] Among those inducted in 1952 were Otto Heinrich Warburg, Otto Hahn, Paul Hindemith, Reinhold Schneider and Emil Nolde. Later recipients include Arthur Compton (1954), Hermann Hesse (1954), Albert Schweitzer (1954), Thomas Mann (1955), Oskar Kokoschka (1955), Carl Orff (1956), Erwin Schrödinger (1956), Thornton Wilder (1956), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1956), Werner Heisenberg (1957), Gerhard Ritter (1957), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1957), Percy Ernst Schramm (1958), Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1961), Karl Jaspers (1964), Otto Klemperer (1967), Carl Zuckmayer (1967), Henry Moore (1972), Raymond Aron (1973), George F. Kennan (1976), Friedrich Hayek (1977), Karl Popper (1980), Emil Schumacher (1982), Eugène Ionesco (1983), Hans Bethe (1984), Gordon A. Craig (1990), Rudolf Mößbauer (1996), Umberto Eco (1998), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1999), and Wim Wenders (2005). The most recent recipients, in 2006, were economist Reinhard Selten, historian James J. Sheehan, and legal scholar Christian Tomuschat.

Dual-class honourees

Only three persons have received both the military and civil classes of the Pour le Mérite. These were Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who received the military class in 1839 and the civil class in 1874, Otto von Bismarck, who received the military class in 1884 and the civil class in 1896, and Hermann von Kuhl, who received the military class in 1916 and the civil class in 1924.

Similar orders in other countries

Besides Prussia, several other states of the former German Empire also conferred similar awards for the arts and sciences. These included the Kingdom of Bavaria's Maximilian Order for Art and Science (Maximiliansorden für Kunst und Wissenschaft), the Duchy of Anhalt's Order of Merit for Science and Art (Verdienstorden für Wissenschaft und Kunst), and the Principality of Lippe's Lippe Rose Order for Art and Science (Lippische Rose, Orden für Kunst und Wissenschaft).

A number of other countries have founded similar high civic honors for accomplishments in the arts and sciences. The sovereign of the Commonwealth realms confers the Order of Merit and Order of the Companions of Honour. The Republic of Austria confers the Austrian Decoration of Honor for Science and the Arts, founded in 1955. Like the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts, this was in a sense a revival of an earlier imperial award, in this case the Austro-Hungarian Decoration of Honor for Art and Science (Österreichisch-Ungarisches Ehrenzeichen für Kunst und Wissenschaft), which existed from 1887 to 1918. Unlike the German award, however, the design of the modern Austrian award is unlike that of its imperial predecessor.

Other countries also may recognize accomplishments in the arts and sciences, but with more general orders also awarded for accomplishments in other fields. France's Légion d'honneur is an example of a decoration often conferred for accomplishment in many fields, including the arts and sciences. Belgium awards either its Order of Leopold or Order of the Crown for outstanding accomplishments in the arts and sciences, and may award its Civil Decoration for lesser accomplishments in these fields.

See also

  • The Blue Max, 1966 film


Includes material from the German-language Wikipedia version of this article
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 van Wyngarden Early German Aces, p.30
  4. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 9 August 1901. 
  5. Hieronymussen, Orders and Decorations of Europe in Color, p.171
  • Hieronymussen, Paul (1967)' Orders and Decorations of Europe in Color, The Macmillan Company, New York
  • van Wyngarden, G. (2006). Early German Aces of World War I, Osprey Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84176-997-5

External links

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