Visual Propaganda – WW2 German Military Awards & Decorations


Propaganda, a medium effectively used by the Nazis, was extremely important to the course of World War 2.

By taking control of the media and only printing or broadcasting Nazi material, the Third Reich was able to effectively flood Germany with its propaganda.

The German army advancing in the steppes of Russia. How do you motivate fighting men, thousands of miles from home?

The German army advancing in the steppes of Russia. How do you motivate fighting men, thousands of miles from home?

For the German soldiers on on the war front, however, subjected to the horrors of war, and enduring extremes of climate from the deserts of North Africa to the winter snow of Russia; propaganda evolved into iconic forms of medals and decorations.

Thus, by 1944, a substantial number of medals, military ribbons, campaign and qualification badges were worn by the German soldier on the field uniform.

These were signs of honour and distinction; their entitlement may have bolstered morale, being immediate proof of an individual’s bravery and leadership; but also made, as Nigel Thomas states in his book ‘The German Army 1939-1945’, “much-decorated soldiers obvious targets for snipers.”


Of all these medals and decorations, the most iconic is the German award -The Iron Cross; Its historically rich and long tradition dates back to 1813, when the order was first instituted against the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte during the War of Liberation by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.

Pinned onto the uniforms of courageous German soldiers in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and again in 1914 for World War I, its humble but striking design became synonymous with old world German courage and triumph.

Various types of Iron Crosses. ©

Sebastian Bianchi states, “In the new world order where Germany was a pariah after World War I, few reminders of past conflicts could be a source of pride.

Still, the old silver and black was reminiscent of gallant Prussian warriors, the great victories of the Bismarck era, and the brave soldiers of World War I; the cross has had an unquestionable aura since it was created.

With the opening salvos of World War II, Hitler superimposed his chilling political imagery to this aura, evoking the glory of bygone days.

With that act, the 1939 Iron Cross, now forever interlaced with the Third Reich, instantly became one of the most visually powerful and recognizable military awards of all time.”

German soldiers on the attack during the Battle of the Bulge.

German soldiers on the attack during the Battle of the Bulge.

The Iron Cross was the principal medal for bravery and leadership in the frontline, the 1st class was a black and silver pin-on cross on the left breast pocket while the 2nd class was displayed by a button-hole ribbon.

There were higher levels or classes; for conspicuous gallantry or leadership, four classes of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross might be awarded progressively. These were worn at the throat.

Fast-forward to July 2009, Jamie Downie reports “Since the end of World War II, Germany has been reluctant to focus much attention on its fighting forces.

More than six decades after its end, though, Germany has introduced military honors: A politically correct, newly minted version of the Iron Cross – awarded to German soldiers since 1813, but withdrawn after the Second World War – was pinned on the chests of four senior non-commissioned officers yesterday.

They had dragged comrades and children to safety after a suicide bomb attack in northern Afghanistan.

“In my trips to Afghanistan I have seen for myself the conditions under which these men have to serve,” Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, said at a ceremony attended by German military top brass in the Berlin chancellery.

The award of the bravery medal – known as the Honour Cross, although it has the same shape as the Iron Cross – marks a breakthrough in the way that Germany sees itself.”


Military War Badges and Campaign Shields

“Kriegsabzeichen” or War Badges were another unique World War 2 German phenomenon, and allowed an observer to determine the level of experience of a particular soldier at first glance.

In existence before 1918, the number of German War Badges dramatically increased during the war and by 1945, there were over 40 different patterns. Often subdivided into classes, they were distinguished by the metal type (Gold, Silver, and Bronze), and/or by having a boxed number on the obverse of the Badge (Above left: Silver Infantry Assault Badge, General Assault Badge.)

Typical symbolism on these badges were laurel wreaths commonly associated with victory, the particular weapons associated and the ubiquituous German eagle and swastika.

Campaign shields were another form of awards that recognised arduous or successful campaigns, worn permanently to the upper left jacket sleeves of the tunic, these line of decorations highlight battles that captured the public’s imagination especially in the last desperate days of the war, where the soldiers of the German Army often put up resistance in bypassed pockets (Above right: Cholm Campaign Shield).

I was surfing the blogs when I came across these interesting comments and photographs at Axis History Forum:

Wrote Laurence Strong: “I was looking up some stuff in a book called “CANADA’S FIGHTING VEHICLES” and came upon this photo. I wish I had been there for prisoner processing :(


I think this is the result of several weeks of acquisition. Note that he has the France and Germany Star ribbon up. The Warrant states a cut-off of May 8, 1945 so this picture must be late May at the absolute earliest, as it seems the majority of the awards are not combat related. he is also a MM winner. I wonder how much his chestful is worth at today’s prices?”

Vera M replied: In the book Blood Red Snow written by Günter K. Koschorrek, the author mentioned that during his stay as a POW in a Czech hospital which was under American surveillance, he managed to trade in all his decorations with Americans for cigarettes. “Both white and black GIs are crazy about German medals, and they’ll probably boast about them when they gey back home. They even come to us in the hospital here and try to outbid each other in cartons of cigarettes for our awards.” He did not mention anything about the medals again when he was sent to a POW camp later on, probably because he didn’t have any more.


Captured German soldiers, Italy. Note the clutch of medals on the blindfolded officer’s tunic

In other memoirs written by German soldiers who were taken prisoners by the Red Amy (and managed to stay alive and returned to their homeland years later), they more or less mentioned their belongings of monetary value, such as watches, rings, even boots had they been in good condition, were confiscated by the Soviet soldiers who were not necessarily the ones in charge of frisking process. To my disappointment, none of them made mention of the medals. I could only guess that they were among the things taken by the Soviet soldiers but am not sure since, unlike their American counterpart who could go back to America and brag about the decorations as their prize on the battlefield, things engraved with swastika could as well be a taboo given the heated anti-Fascism in USSR (which is my guess).

The iconic status of the Iron Cross did not go unnoticed by the movie producers; in the movie “The Cross of Iron” directed by the famous director Sam Peckinpah, a squad of long suffering German veterans led by their Iron Cross awarded NCO have not only to endure attacks by Russian soldiers but their glory hunting officer.

This is the movie intro, which aptly sums up the rise and fall of Hitler’s Thousand Years Reich.


About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

4 responses to “Visual Propaganda – WW2 German Military Awards & Decorations

  • World War Photos

    Propaganda played a crucial role in every war, it’s by getting people excited and passionate about something that you can use their power to its fullest.

  • Siembamba

    “…the indisputably notorious German award -The Iron Cross…”

    Oh Please. I dispute that. I have no problem with the Iron Cross and won’t mind at all if someone wore it. I’m tired of the Anglophone people dictating to the world how we should feel about things.

    • ranman

      Point taken. The Iron Cross was just a medal which took on an iconic status. I have edited the word ‘indisputably notorious’ out. Thank you for sharing your views.

  • Siembamba

    Here in South Africa WW2 and Soviet-era medals are quite common in specialist shops. Those conflicts aren’t as big a part of our history and culture, hence those medals hardly cause any controversy here.

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