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The Pour le Mérite was an honour conferred both for military (1740-1918) and civil (1740-1810, after 1842 as a separate class) services. 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 order was secular, and membership endured for the remaining lifetime of the recipient, unless renounced or revoked.
During the First World War, the Pour le Mérite was known informally as the Blue Max (German: Blauer Max), in honour of flying aceMax Immelmann, the first recipient during the war. Immelmann was also the first aviator ever to win the award.
New awards of the military class ceased with the end of the Prussian monarchy in November 1918.
The civil class was revived as an independent organization in 1923 (Pour le Méritefür Wissenschaften und Künste). Instead of the King of Prussia, the President of Germany acted as head of the order. After the Second World War, the civil class was re-established in 1952. This version of the Pour le Mérite is still active today. The Pour le Mérite is still an order into which a person is admitted into membership, like the United Kingdom's Order of the British Empire, and is not simply a medal or state decoration. German author Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998, was the last living recipient of the military class award.
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 the favoured language at Frederick's court. The French name was retained, despite the rising tide of nationalism and increasing hostility between French and Germans during the 19th century, and indeed many of its recipients were honoured for acts performed in wars against France. The insignia of the military 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 French) written in gold letters on the body of the cross. The ribbon was black with edge stripes of silver-white. The order consisted of only one class, both civil and military, until 1810. Only a few civilians were honored: Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1747),Francesco Algarotti (1747) and Voltaire (1750).
Pour le Mérite with oak leaves
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 defence 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 honour, 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.
"The Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen wears "the Blue Max."
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. Aces Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke were the first airmen to receive the award, on January 12, 1916. It was awarded to Germany's highest-scoring ace, Manfred von Richthofen, in January 1917. 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 colour and Immelmann's first name, as the "Blue Max," that has not been confirmed.
The number of aerial victories necessary to receive the award continued to increase during the war; by early 1917, it generally required destroying 16-20 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.
Recipients of the "Blue Max" were required to wear the award whenever in uniform. 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. Senior officer awards tended to be more for outstanding leadership in combat than for individual acts of bravery.
The Pour le Mérite became extinct as a result of KaiserWilliam II's abdication as king of Prussia and German Emperor 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.
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.
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. They included Einstein (who resigned his membership in the order in 1933, and refused invitations to renew it after the war), Kollwitz, and Barlach. Such actions were later repudiated by both the order, and the postwar German government.
In 1952, with the assistance of President of West GermanyTheodor Heuss, the order was again re-established - now as an independent organization with state recognition and the President of the German Federal Republic as Protector of the Order. However, unlike the somewhat similar Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit) also established by Heuss, it is not a state order.
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.
Helmuth Graf von Moltke, known as "Moltke the Elder"; first decorated in 1839 as a junior officer; he received the oak leaves in 1871 and the Grand Cross in March 1879. Also inducted into the civil class of the order in 1874.
Otto von Bismarck, Prussian minister president and German chancellor during the unification period; decorated in 1884 with the Pour le Mérite with oak leaves. Also inducted into the civil class of the order in 1896.
Hans Joachim Buddecke, German fighter ace in World War I, credited with thirteen victories. He was the third ace, after Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, to earn the Blue Max (Pour le Mérite). He fought in Gallipoli to fly the Halberstadt D.II and Fokker E.III with Ottoman FA 6 against the Royal Naval Air Service. The Turkish campaign was successful, with four confirmed victories and seven unconfirmed, and Buddecke was personally awarded the Gold Liakat Medal by Enver Pasha.
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.
Werner von Blomberg, decorated as a major in June 1918 and later a Field Marshal General in the Wehrmacht.
Fedor von Bock, Awarded Pour le Mérite in 1918 for efforts of leading his battalion at the Somme and Cambrai. Later Field Marshal and commander of Army Group North, Polish campaign, 1939. Commander Army Group B in conquest of Western Europe 1940. Commander Army Group Centre in Russia 1941. Commander Army Group South in Russian Ukraine and Caucasus 1942.
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.
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.
Otto von Garnier, German General of the Cavalry awarded the Pour le Mérite in October 1916.
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.
Heinrich Kirchheim, Company Commander of Jäger-Bataillon Number 10 and a Generalleutnant in World War II. Awarded in October 1918.
Johann von Ravenstein, German officer, In May 1918 his battalion broke through the opposing line at Soissons. After capturing the notorious Chemin des Dames, he succeeded, with 10 soldiers, in capturing the bridge over the Aisne at Bourg intact. His troops took 1500 prisoners and captured 32 cannons. Later served in the Afrika Korps.
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. France has the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for significant contributions to the arts and literature. In Poland the Gloria Artis Medal has been established for the same purpose.
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.