Prussian King Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) instituted the blue enameled cross “Pour le Merite” in June 1740 as a token of appreciation for those leaders in his army who distinguished themselves in the first Silesian War. The medal continued to be awarded for the next 180 years, gaining its greatest renown with Germany’s air aces of WWI.
The most famous recipient was Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. However, the nickname for this medal…the “Blue Max”…was coined in honor of Max Immelman, one of Germany’s first air heroes.
The Pour le Merite was instituted by Frederick the Great at a time in European history when French was the language of choice in higher society and language used by all diplomats, much as English is the common language today. Frederick II was no exception and preferred to speak French, hence the name of his medal “for merit” was named “Pour le Merite” …and in deference to Frederick, the medal carried its original name into the 20th century, even though it was awarded for fighting against the French in 1813, 1870 and 1914.
The Blue Max was a medal awarded for merit, something it had in common with the Order of the Black Eagle Breast Star. The Breast Star was an award granted by the Kings of Prussia since 1701 and both awards contain a tantalizing clue as to how the small Kingdom of Prussia came to grow so powerful. The motto that is engraved upon the Breast Star was taken seriously and one that the Prussian kings lived by and instilled in their people. It was one very important philosophy…”To each according to their merit”…a motto that espouses rewarding merit and not allowing corruption or favoritism. The Breast Star and the Pour le Merite encapsulate how Prussia was ruled and why it became a model of efficiency in both civilian and military organization.
Great leaders made this happen, of course, and Prussia had two that were recognized as Great by all historians. The short time period from the era of the Great Elector, when Brandenburg/Prussia began its ascendancy, to his Grandson Frederick the Great… who made Prussia a world power… was less than 100 years. Then, in less than another 100 years, Wilhelm I and Bismarck made Prussia even stronger…strong enough to unite all of Germany under their leadership.in 1871.