The Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (German: Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or Bundesverdienstorden, BVO) is the only federal decoration of Germany. It was created by the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Heuss, on 7 September 1951, and has been awarded to over 200,000 individuals in total, both Germans and foreigners. Since the 1990s, the number of annual awards has declined from over 4,000, first to around 2,300–2,500 per year, and now under 2,000, with a low of 1752 in 2011. In recent years, women have made up a steady 30–31% of recipients. Colloquially, the decorations of the different classes of the Order are also known as the Federal Cross of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz).
Most of the German federal states (Länder) have each their own order of merit as well, with the exception of the Free and Hanseatic Cities of Bremen and Hamburg, which reject any orders (by old tradition their citizens, particularly former or present senators, will refuse any decoration in the form of an order, the most famous example being former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt).
The order was established on 7 September 1951 by the decree of the then Federal President Theodor Heuss. The decree, which was co-signed by the President Heuss together with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Minister of the Interior, Robert Lehr, signed, states:
Desiring to visibly express recognition and gratitude to deserving men and women of the German people and of foreign countries, on the second Anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany, I establish the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is awarded for achievements that served the rebuilding of the country in the fields of political, socio-economic and intellectual activity, and is intended to mean an award of all those whose work contributes to the peaceful rise of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Order comprises four groups with eight regular and one special classes, hereafter the official denominations in English:
- Grand Cross (German: Großkreuz)
- Grand Cross special class (Sonderstufe des Großkreuzes); the highest class of the Order reserved for heads of state.
- Grand Cross special issue (Großkreuz in besonderer Ausführung); equivalent to Grand Cross, but with laurel wreath design (awarded only twice in history, to Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl)
- Grand Cross 1st class (Großkreuz); Grand Cross
- Great Cross of Merit (German: Großes Verdienstkreuz)
- Grand Cross (Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband); Great Cross with Star and Sash
- Knight Commander's Cross (Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern); Great Cross with Star
- Commander's Cross (Großes Verdienstkreuz); Great Cross of Merit
- Cross of Merit (German: Verdienstkreuz)
- Officer's Cross (Verdienstkreuz 1. Klasse); Cross of Merit 1. Class
- Cross (Verdienstkreuz am Bande); Member
- Medal of Merit (German: Verdienstmedaille)
- Medal (Verdienstmedaille)
The President of the Federal Republic holds the Grand Cross special class ex officio. It is awarded to him in a ceremony by the President of the Bundestag, attended by the Chancellor of Germany, the President of the Bundesrat, and the Supreme Court President. Other than the German president, only a foreign head of state and their spouse can be awarded with this highest class. There is also the provision of awarding the Grand Cross in a "special issue" with laurel wreath design (Großkreuz in besonderer Ausführung), in which the central medallion with the black eagle is surrounded by a stylized laurel wreath in relief. This Grand Cross special issue has been awarded so far only twice, to former German chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
Except for the lowest class, the badge is the same for all classes, but with slightly different versions for men and women (slightly smaller badge and ribbon for women):
The badge is a golden cross enamelled in red, with a central disc bearing a black eagle.
The star is a golden star with straight rays, its size and points vary according to class, with the badge superimposed upon it.
- 8-pointed golden Star: Grand Cross special class
- 6-pointed golden Star: Grand Cross 1st class (and special issue design if golden oak crown between the cross branches around the medallion)
- 4-pointed golden Star: Grand Cross (Grand Cross of Merit with Star and Sash)
- silver Square-upon-point: Knight Commander (Grand Officer)
The riband is red with gold-black-gold stripes.
Insignia of the Grand Cross special class
Insignia of the Grand Cross 1st class
Badge and riband of the class "Grand Cross"
(without showing the star)
Star of the class "Grand Cross"
Star of the class "Knight Commander's Cross"
Badge suspended on neck riband of the class "Commander's Cross"