The Order “De la Générosité”

In 1665, Charles Emil of House Hohenzollern (1655–74), a young prince from the Electorate of Brandenburg, founded a chivalric order – the Order of Generosity (Générosité). The founder entrusted the title of the Grand Master upon his younger brother, future Prince-Elector Frederick III, who later became Frederick I, the first Prussian king.

From Electorate to Kingdom

The Order of Generosity was initially an award for members of the ruling dynasty, but later it would also be issued to civil servants and military officials both of the Electorate and to those from abroad. The first awarding actually occurred as late as in 1685. By 1701, when the Elector of Brandenburg declared himself King in Prussia, only around ten people had been awarded, among them three princes of House Hohenzollern.

The badge of the order was a blue-enameled Maltese Cross on a blue ribbon, with the syllables of the word “générosité” written on the arms of the cross, and with eagles between them. King Frederick I of Prussia used this cross as a design pattern for his own paramount award, the Order of the Black Eagle, founded on the same year as the Prussian kingdom – 1701.

Frederick I, King in Prussia. He is wearing the chain of the Order of the Black Eagle, inspired by the Order de la Générosité.

Painting by Antoine Pesne (1683-1713).

Peter the great and De la Générosité

This interesting discovery that was recently made while reviewing the originals of the diaries of the Great Embassy, which Peter the Great was a part of is described in the book Foreign Orders of Russian Emperors in the Collection of the Moscow Kremlin (pp 44-48), by Liudmila Gavrilova. The book is available at our museum store. (TMOK)

To Museum Store

On June 18, Peter again visited Pillau and met the Elector of Brandenburg a second time. After lunch, in a private setting, Frederick took a diamond star off his chest and asked Peter to accept it. According to the record in the original diaries, which was left out when the diaries were copied: “… in the garden, the Elector kindly offered a diamond star from his breast to Pyotr Mikhailov, and they kissed each other cordially on the lips.” Later, on June 27, 1697, Frederick sent “to Pyotr Mikhailov a chivalric badge, a cross with diamonds”.”

Peter I in Holland in 1698. The incognito Tsar is told to have taken great interest in Dutch shipbuilding skills.

Peter’s awarding symbolized the success of an agreement of friendship and trade between Russia and Brandenburg. New business relations were established: Russians could without any limits travel in the lands of Brandenburg-Prussia, and the subjects of the Prince-Elector obtained the right to visit Russia and trade with Persia and China, having paid a certain levy. The most important part of the agreement was an unwritten accord between Peter and Frederick on mutual military assistance against enemies,  Sweden in particular.


Peter I, however, never wore the badge of the Order de la Générosité. Furthermore, all information about this episode was erased from written reports. The reason for this was not only the necessity to keep the secret agreement confidential, but presumably also the fact that Peter I – after familiarising himself with the English system of orders during his visit with Great Embassy – decided it was impossible to accept membership in a foreign order before a Russian order was established.

The Order “Pour le Mérite”

After the death of King Frederick I in 1713, the Order of Generosity was abandoned (although it was occasionally bestowed upon foreign nationals until 1791). On January 9, 1740, however, King Frederick II (the Great) restored the order under the name “Pour le Mérite” (French: For Merit). On May 31, 1740, Frederick converted the previously chivalric order into an award for merit, but retained the structure where it had only one class. It was to be bestowed upon military personnel for service in war.

The badge of the order is a blue-enameled Maltese Cross with a golden outline and Prussian eagles between its arms. On the upper arm of the cross is the Prussian royal cipher “F” – for Frederick – under a golden crown. The order’s name and motto – “Pour le Mérite” – is written in golden letters on other arms of the cross. The ribbon is black with two silver (or white) stripes on the edges.

Badge of the Order of Pour le Mérite from the collection of Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood.

The First Recipients

Despite officially being a military award, the founder of the order of Pour le Mérite nevertheless made exceptions for three civilians. The first was Francesco Algarotti (1712–64), an Italian philosopher, poet, critic and art collector. Frederick II and he became dear friends, and the king conferred the title of count on Francesco. On April 24, 1747, Frederick awarded his friend with the Pour le Mérite. When Algarotti died in Italy, the king erected a monument on his tomb in the Campo-Santo cemetery in Pisa with the inscription “Algarotto Ovidii aemulo, Neutoni discipulo, Fredericus rex” (Latin: “Algarotti – Ovid’s successor, Newton’s disciple. King Frederick”.

Two similar awardings occurred in September 1750. Both recipients were of French origin, namely: Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759) a mathematician, astronomer and geodesist, first president of the Berlin Academy of Sciences  (1745–53); and François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1698–1759), the great philosopher, historian, writer and poet. Frederick, who admired the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment, bestowed upon Voltaire a diamond badge of the Pour le Mérite and appointed to him a remarkable salary of six thousand thalers a year.

Among the first recipients of the Pour le Mérite was also a prominent nobleman from the Baltic provinces of Russia: on January 31, 1741, Major General Baron Georg Reinhold von Lieven was appointed to the order. He was a member of an ancient and prestigious Baltic German family from nowadays Latvia, and he later became a General-in-Chief in the Russian armed forces.

In the 1750s, however, Russia sided with Austria against Prussia in the Seven Years’ War. Nevertheless, after the ascension of the Prussophile Emperor Peter III to the Russian throne early in 1762, a peace was hastily arranged, and in March 1762, Paul von Werner, a Prussian Lieutenant General brought a badge of the Pour le Mérite to Saint Petersburg, and bestowed it upon Peter III on behalf of King Frederick II.

Coat of arms of the noble family of Lieven in the Russian Empire.

The Napoleonic Wars

During his reign, Frederick the Great awarded 924 people with the Pour le Mérite. His successor, Frederick William II (1786–97) awarded 1,006 people, and Frederick William III (1797–1840) bestowed 2,454 badges of the order, almost half of those upon Russian military officers for their participation in the wars against Napoleon. Aleksey Yermolov, a general who was among the first recipients in April 1807, recollected: “The Prussian King presented an order for merits to three field officers and I was in their number. Those awards were of the first ones, not yet abased by enormous multiplying”. The last remark of Yermolov concerned the flood of foreign awards poured upon Russian officers for their feats during the 1813–14 military campaign abroad.

Such generous awarding resulted in a certain abasing of the award. Novelist Aleksey Pisemsky in his “Russian Liars” (1865) published the tale “Chevalier of the Order Pour le Mérite”: the main character of the story is the former quartermaster, who by chance happened to be accepted into the Order “…for successful fulfilment of some of our service corps tasks.” He deceived everybody by saying that he was awarded for a valiant cavalry attack near Głogów. Telling about this “brave warrior,” the author notes sarcastically: “Why, instead of blurry and confusing ‘poor-leh-mehreet,’ did Fate not offer to that man a “Georghiy” (the Order of Saint George) or some star?”

The Order in the 19th Century

In 1810, King Frederick William III decreed that the Pour le Mérite should only be presented to serving military officers, who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield. In 1813, a spray of gilt oak leaves was attached above the cross on some badges in memory of Queen Loise, the late spouse of the king. The award of the oak leaves was reserved for officers appointed for the second time.

Besides the oak leaves, to distinguish a recipient awarded for the second time, in 1817, the badge’s ribbon was also modified: a central silver band of 0.8 mm was added in between the two silver (white) edge bands. The design of the badge itself was revised as well: the font of the name “Pour le Mérite” on the cross was changed from Italic to Normal and the color of the enamel from light blue to dark blue.

In 1844, the royal crown was added to the badge of those recipients, who had been in the order for 50 years or longer. Among the first who received a crown to their Pour le Mérite badge were the Russian generals who had been accepted back in 1794–95, for quelling the Warsaw Uprising. In total, 212 people have worn a badge with a crown since its introduction – among them 99 Russian officers who took part in the Napoleonic Wars.

The Pour le Mérite badge with Oak Leaves.

In 1866, the King of Prussia, who later, in 1871, became the first Emperor of Germany, William I (1797–1888) introduced the Grand Cross and a four-pointed star as special insignia of the order, both with the portrait of Frederick the Great. This high honour has been bestowed upon only four recipients:

  • in 1873 – Crown Prince Frederick William (later King and Emperor Friedrich III (1831–88)), and Prince Frederick Charles-Nicolas (1828–85) – both received oak leaves as well;
  • in 1878 – Emperor of Russia, Alexander II (1818–81);
  • in 1879 – Helmuth von Moltke (1800–91), Field Marshal of Prussia and Russia.

In 1889, Field Marshal von Moltke received the Crown on his Grand Cross badge with diamonds and oak leaves, on the occasion of his 50-year membership in the Order. That was the only instance when this type of exceptional award was bestowed.

King Frederick William IV (1840–61) appointed only 36 nominees, besides those bestowed with badges with Crown. The King of Prussia and first Emperor of Germany William I (1861–88) awarded 306 nominees, and William II, the last German Emperor conferred the order upon 704 people, mostly during World War I. In total, from 1740 until 1918, there were 5,430 recipients of the Pour le Mérite – of them more than 1,500 were foreigners.

Insignia Makers

The first maker of the Pour le Mérite order insignia was Daniel Baudesson (1716–85), court jeweller of King Frederick II. His son Ludwig continued the family business after his father’s death. In 1826,  John George Hossauer (1794–1874) became the main supplier of the insignia, as well as the court jeweller. His contemporaries referred to him as “Primus Inter Pares” (Latin: “First among equals”). The workshops of his company operated from 1819 until 1859.

In 1815, Hossauer had gone to Paris to study jewelry art. In 1819, he returned to Berlin with the intention to start producing items of platinum, gold, and silver. In 1826, he was granted a title of the Goldsmith of His Majesty William III, and in 1827, Hossauer was accepted into the Order of the Red Eagle (initially 4th class, in 1839, 3rd class). In 1841, Hossauer introduced a new electrolytic method of gilding instead of the old poisonous thermal technique. In 1844, his shop employed 63 people.

A sugar bowl made by John Georg Hossauer around 1845.

Zucker-Museum Berlin.

In 1858, Hossauer was granted the title of Commercial Counselor, and in 1859, he quit private business – his firm was acquired by Jeremie Sy and Albert Wagner. Instead, he obtained the position of Senior Goldsmith of His Majesty Frederick William III. In 1863, he was granted the title of Secret Commercial Counselor and awarded with the cross of the Order of Hohenzollern. In 1867, he was accepted into the Order of Crown (2nd class). Hossauer’s contribution to the art of designing and making orders’ insignia was enormous, and his innovations were put to use internationally.

Hossauer’s work was followed by a Berlin jewelry company founded by Emil-August Wagner (1826–90) and Jeremie Sy. In 1859, they acquired Hossauer’s shop where Wagner had previously studied jewelry in the 1840s. The company is known by many names, e.g., “Wagner & Sohn,” “Sy & Wagner,” “SW,” “AW,” and “Johann Wagner & Sohn,” and it continued to produce Prussian insignia until World War II.

Another insignia maker was a company founded in 1761 by John Godet (1732–96) – it was one of the first producers of orders’ badges in Germany. Under the supervision of John Frederick Godet (1798–1860), the shop became the court jewelry company of the King of Prussia in 1828, but it actually made orders’ insignia for all European countries. From approximately 1864, it was operating as “J. Godet & Söhne,” after 1924 as “Eugen Godet & Co.,” and in the late 1920s, the changed its name to “Gebrüder Godet & Co.”

The Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts

A new award was established by King Frederick William IV (1795–1861) on May 31, 1842, in honour of the 102nd anniversary of Frederick the Great’s ascension to the Prussian throne. It was called the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts. Two years earlier, on the centennial of Frederick’s coronation, and of the Pour le Mérite, King Frederick William – apparently with the membership of Voltaire and other scholars in mind – had already created a civil division of the order. However, he apparently decided that this was not enough, and created a special award: the Order for Achievements in the Sciences and Arts.

Statutes and Badge

The first awards were conferred upon 56 celebrated scientists, writers, artists and musicians both from Prussia other countries. According to the statutes of the order, its membership could not exceed 60 people: 30 Prussian nationals and 30 foreigners at most. Every time a vacancy occurred, the Berlin Academy of Sciences nominated three candidates, and one of them was appointed by the king. The monarch was the Head of the Order and personally appointed a Chancellor from among the order’s members. In total, 20 people have been appointed Chancellor, namely:

  1. 1842 – Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) – polymath;
  2. 1859 – Friedrich-Carl von Savigny (1779-1861) – jurist;
  3. 1862 – Peter Joseph von Cornelius (1784–1867) – artist;
  4. 1867 – Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) – historian;
  5. 1886 – Adolph von Menzel (1815–1905) – artist;
  6. 1905 – Arthur von Auwers (1838–1915) – astronomer;
  7. 1915 – Friedrich Schaper (1869–1956) – artist;
  8. 1920 – Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) – theologian;
  9. 1930 – Max Planck (1858–1947) – physicist;
  10. 1952 – Enno Littmann (1875–1958) – orientalist;
  11. 1955 – Max Hartmann (1876–1962) – biologist;
  12. 1959 – Erich Kaufmann (1880–1972) – jurist
  13. 1963 – Percy Schramm (1894–1970) – historian;
  14. 1971 – Kurt Bittel (1907–91) – archaeologist;
  15. 1979 – Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (1911–2000) – physicist;
  16. 1984 – Helmut Coing (1912–2000) – jurist;
  17. 1992 – Hans Zachau (1930–2017) – biologist;
  18. 2005 – Horst Albach (b. 1931) – economist;
  19. 2009 – Eberhard Jüngel (b. 1934) – theologian;
  20. 2013 – Christiane Nusslein-Volhard (b. 1942) – biologist.

The badge of the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts from the collection of the Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood.

The badge of the order is round – shaped in the form of a link of the chain of the Order of Black Eagle – with a golden medallion featuring the Prussian eagle in the centre. Surrounding the central medallion is an enamelled circle with the motto: “Pour le Mérite” written on it. Between the central medallion and the outer enamelled circle, and connecting them, are four twofold gold letters “FF” with four Roman numerals “II” – for Frederick II. Four golden king’s crowns are attached to the outer circle. The badge in worn on the neck with a white ribbon that has two black bands on its edges.

First Recipients of the Award

Among the 56 first recipients of the order, one can recognise the scientific and cultural elite of the time: Joseph Gay-Lussac (1778–1850), a distinguished physicist and chemist; Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), one of the fathers of modern photography; François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1854), an acclaimed writer and historian; Michael Faraday (1791–1867), a renowned physicist; famous composers Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Franz Liszt (1811–86) and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–47); famed philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling (1775–1854); outstanding mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855), esteemed poet and translator Vasily Zhukovsky (1783–1852), and many other great minds of their era.

Among these first recipients was also Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1770–1846), a famous Russian admiral and explorer of Baltic German descent. A member of a prominent local noble family, he was born in the Governorate of Estonia, not far from Tallinn. Krusenstern joined the Russian Imperial Navy in 1787, and after publishing a paper pointing out the advantages of direct communication by sea between Russia and China by passing Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, he was appointed by Tsar Alexander I to make a voyage to the Far East coast of Asia. This endeavour led to the first Russian circumnavigation of the world.

Portrait of the Russian admiral and explorer Adam Johann von Krusenstern by an anonymous author.

Baltic German Scholars in the Order

Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts was regarded as an extremely honourable award for intellectual achievements, equal in prestige, but even senior, to the Nobel Prize, established in 1901. In the middle of the 19th century, several Baltic German scholars from nowadays Estonia were appointed to the order for their accomplishments.

Pencil drawing of young Karl Ernst von Baer by an anonymous author.

Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–1876), a naturalist and philosopher was accepted in 1849. Born to a Baltic German family in the Governorate of Estonia, he graduated from the medical department of the Imperial University of Tartu in 1814. Von Baer became a professor in 1817 and mostly taught in Königsberg until he moved to Saint Petersburg in 1834, and joined the Academy of Sciences there. His scholarly pursuits concentrated on the embryonic development of animals, as well as on animal evolution. In his “On the History of the Development of Animals” (2 vols., 1828–36), von Baer stipulated a new basis for embryology, based around one of his most spectacular achievements – the discovery of the mammalian ovum. He was also the first person to observe the human ova.

Von Baer improved the previously prominent George Cuvier’s theory of species, having considered the common features in both structuring and developing of the embryo. He discovered the blastula stage (a part of the very early development) of mammals’ embryonic growth and described the development of vertebrates’ main organs. Same as Darwin (who received the Pour le Mérite in 1868), von Baer regarded variability as the basis for the evolution, but rejected natural selections. In Baer’s view, the main essence of evolution was “a constant victory of spirit over matter.” It was close to Lamarck’s opinion of the progress, but von Baer avoided mentioning it.

Karl Ernst von Baer was also an explorer – reflected in the fact that he was a founding member of the Russian Geographical Society. Von Baer undertook expeditions to the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya and collected biological specimens there. He also travelled to the Caspian Sea, North Cape, and Lapland, among other places. Additionally, he described the corrosion of river’s banks, and observed a regularity which is now known as Baer’s Law – in the Northern Hemisphere, erosion occurs mostly on the right banks of rivers, and in the Southern Hemisphere on the left banks.

Monument to Karl Ernst von Baer in Tartu, Estonia.

Every year students of medicine from the University of Tartu wash his head with champagne.

Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (1793–1864), an astronomer and geodesist, and contemporary of von Baer was accepted into the order in 1851. Born to a German family in the town of Altona in Holstein (today in Germany, but a part of Denmark-Norway at that time), he moved to the Baltic provinces of Russia as a child. Struve graduated from the University of Tartu in 1813, defending the dissertation “On the Geographic Location of Tartu Observatory.”

Struve was the director of Tartu Observatory from 1818 to 1838, while also teaching at the university. He conducted a comprehensive survey of binary stars, discovered a large number of them and published a detailed catalogue in 1827. Binary stars orbit around each other and slowly change position – Struve made comprehensive measurements, detailing this process based on more than 2700 binary stars and published his results in a monumental work in 1837.

At the same time, he played a leading role in the founding the famous Pulkovo Observatory near Saint Petersburg. The observatory was largely Struve’s brainchild, and after its completion, he became its first director, working there from 1839 to 1862. Pulkovo soon gathered great fame as the “astronomic capital of the world” due to extraordinary achievements in fundamental astronomy, detecting the coordinates of heavenly bodies and producing detailed star catalogues. The system of so-called astronomic constants elaborated in Pulkovo Observatory under Struve’s supervision and published in “Etudes d’Astronomie Stellaire” in 1847  was appreciated worldwide.

An anonymous pencil drawing of Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve.

Additionally, Struve was also interested in geodetic surveying and initiated the Struve Geodetic Arc – a chain of survey triangulations stretching from Hammerfest in Norway to the Black Sea. Calculations based on the Arc allowed to establish the exact size and shape of the earth, and it yielded the first accurate measurement of a meridian. UNESCO listed the chain on as a World Heritage Site in 2005.

Monument to Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, inspired by his Geodetic Arc, in front of Tartu Observatory.

In 1882, the order of Pour le Mérite accepted Otto Wilhelm von Struve (1819–1905), the son of Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve. Following the family tradition, he was also an astronomer and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Already during his studies in the University of Tartu (1836–38), Otto Wilhelm assisted his father in Tartu Observatory. In 1839, he followed his father to Pulkovo and became its director in 1862 (remaining on the job until 1889). During the period of his management, the observatory expanded considerably and acquired new tools, most remarkably a 30-inch refractor – the largest in the world at that time – installed in 1886.

Main works of Otto von Struve were devoted to observational astronomy – he discovered more than 500 binary stars, observed planets, their satellites, Saturn’s rings, comets, and nebulas. Otto von Struve was a honorary member of many academies and scientific societies, repeatedly awarded with medals and prizes. In 1913, the small planet No 768 discovered by Russian astronomer Grigory Neuymin was named Struveana in honour of astronomers Wilhelm and Otto von Struve.

After the German Empire

As a result of the November Revolution of 1918, the German Empire disappeared. All German orders were abolished, but the Pour le Mérite Order of Civil Merit in Arts and Sciences became one remarkable exception. Its members restored it as an independent organisation in 1920. During the time of the so-called Weimar Republic of Germany (1919–33), a total of 40 new recipients were appointed to the order – first among them Albert Einstein (1879–1955), in 1923.

The last Pour le Mérite award was conferred in 1933. At first, Nazi authorities enlisted it as a state decoration of the Third Reich, but they soon repressed the order by expelling its Jewish members, as “enemies of the state.” Among those suppressed was Einstein (who escaped to the USA), as well as the painter Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) (first female recipient of the order), and the sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870–1938). Soon thereafter, the order was abolished.

In 1952, the Order of the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts was re-established as an independent organisation with the assistance of Theodor Heuss (1884–1963), the first President (1949–1959) of the Federal Republic of Germany. The President of the German Republic is the Protector of the Order to this day. Active membership is now limited to 40 German citizens – ten each in the fields of the humanities, natural sciences, medicine and the arts – and to 40 foreigners in the same categories. Currently, the order’s membership consists of 35 Germans and 31 foreign nationals, among them 13 Nobel Prize winners.