2 September 1918
6 June 1740
The Pour le Mérite (French, literally "For Merit") is an order of merit (German: Verdienstorden) established in 1740 by King Frederick II of Prussia. The Pour le Mérite was awarded as both a military and civil honour and ranked, along with the Order of the Black Eagle, the Order of the Red Eagle and the House Order of Hohenzollern, among the highest orders of merit in the Kingdom of Prussia. After 1871, when the various German kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and Hanseatic city states had come together under Prussian leadership to form the federally structured German Empire, the Prussian honours gradually assumed, at least in public perception, the status of honours of Imperial Germany, even though many honours of the various German states continued to be awarded.
- Military class
- Civil class
- 1740 to 1871
- 1871 to 1914
- 1914 to 1918 World War I
- Recipients of the Civil class
- Recipients of both classes
- Similar orders in other countries
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.
New awards of the military class (known in First World War informally as the Blue Max, German: Blauer Max) ceased with the end of the Prussian monarchy in November 1918. The civil class was revived as an independent organization in 1923 (Pour le Mérite für 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 still is 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.
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 ironically 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.
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.
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 color 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 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.
Junior officers (army captains and lieutenants and their navy equivalents) accounted for only about a fourth of all awards. Several famous lieutenant-ranked (Kapitänleutnant) U-boat commanders, including Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (U-35), Walther Schwieger (U-20) Otto Hersing (U-21) and Otto Weddigen, received the Pour le Mérite. The last new member admitted to the military 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.
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), Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander (1874), 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), antiwar sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1929) – the first female recipient of the honor – and Ernst Barlach (1933).
During the era of National Socialism in Germany (1933–45), the order was re-absorbed into the state honors 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 Germany Theodor 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.
1740 to 1871
1871 to 1914
1914 to 1918 (World War I)
German air force
Recipients of the Civil class
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), Lise Meitner (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), Carlos Kleiber (1990), Witold Lutosławski (1993), Fritz Stern (1994), Rudolf Mößbauer (1996), Umberto Eco (1998), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1999), Bronisław Geremek (2002) and Wim Wenders (2005).
The most recent recipients, in 2006, were economist Reinhard Selten, historian James J. Sheehan, and legal scholar Christian Tomuschat.
Recipients of both classes
Only a small number of persons have received both the military and civil classes of the Pour le Mérite:
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. 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.