A Richmonder explains why he spent four years — and more than 400 pages — tracing the history of Germany's Iron Cross. 

Blood and Iron

The past century pivoted wars in which Germany was, to say the least, central. And central to German wartime identity for the last two centuries has been the Iron Cross, the nation's most common military insignia and highest military decoration. In "The Iron Time: A History of the Iron Cross," Richmond advertising art director and graphic designer Stephen Previtera traces this powerful symbol from its origin in the Crusades to its appearance in later wars, holy and otherwise. Previtera's book, a heavy, glossy, four-color labor of love he began in 1996, is more than 400 pages and contains more than 1,000 photographs, charts and diagrams, mostly his and those of Richmonders he persuaded to help, including on his multiple research trips to Germany. "The Iron Time" also includes interviews of four World War II recipients of the Iron Cross and Richmond photographer Thomas Daniel's eerie portraits of men wearing theirs. Style: Why did you do this?
Previtera: When I was a little boy, I always enjoyed reading and looking at military history books, specifically books that my father and grandfather gave me. My grandfather would lend me his old Ballantine history books, the kind you could get for a dollar, and we would all take trips to Gettysburg and other Civil War sites. I also remember watching the 16-part "World at War" TV series Laurence Olivier narrated. It all just kind of piqued my interest as a child. I wondered why men would want to fight each other on such a large scale. Later, when I dated a German girl at the University of Delaware, I would go in the summertime to visit her in Germany. At a flea market there, I noticed a dealer with a number of military decorations. That's when I started collecting. A medal is part and parcel of someone's achievement and experiences in war. It's something you can pick up and carry around and point to as a touchstone of that. People collect all sorts of crazy things — helmets, uniforms — you name it. Medals and decorations are more like bottle caps in the sense that you don't have to have the rest of the bottle, so it's easier than with larger collectibles, and they all fit in one suitcase. Style: You are a graphic designer. In design terms, why is the Iron Cross special?
Previtera: I would say: simplicity of design, complexity of meaning. The cross of course is a Christian symbol and the Iron Cross was based on the symbols used by the Teutonic knights of the Third Crusades. It was designed by a prominent architect, the premier architect of Berlin in the early 1800s. The Iron Cross itself is probably the ugliest of all the major military decorations in terms of the metals used — iron and silver — and the casting and so forth, but design-wise it is the simplest and most elegant of all. It captures your attention. But more than anything else, it's how the Iron Cross parallels the history of modern Germany. In 1813 it was created as a symbol against tyranny, against Napoleon. And this symbol was later adopted by the greatest tyrant of the 20th century. Style: You visited German museums and interviewed several Iron Cross recipients for your book. How do they feel about Hitler's appropriation of the Iron Cross?
Previtera: The Germans are very sensitive about this issue. The swastika is outlawed, but the Iron Cross is not. The shape is still used as the symbol on their planes and tanks and everything they use today. I would never have associated it with freedom or liberation or independence, but that's how it originated and that's why they still cling to it and why they still use it today. This was really an optimistic symbol that was given such a dirty name. In fact, Hitler owed his own Iron Cross/First Class to a Jewish lieutenant. Hitler was a messenger in World War I, running messages between the lines and really in the thick of things. He was a corporal and his lieutenant, Hugo Gutmann, who nominated him, was Jewish. The other thing is that you win it for bravery in the face of the enemy. You don't win it for mowing down innocent women and children. But many Germans are very ambivalent about it. Some of the younger generation look at the older generation as having given Germany such a bad name and they associate the Iron Cross with that. It's like the Confederate flag. It's got that terrible meaning to one group of people and that wonderful meaning to another. Style: What was it like talking to the retired German officers?
Previtera: I didn't get the concept for the interviews in the back of the book until about two years into the project. I decided, "Let's make it a general history book instead of just about some hunks of metal." These guys put flesh and bone on what would be just iron and silver. It became vitally important to me to spend time with these guys on the other side because my father was in the Second World War as well. I love speaking to veterans of all countries; it just happens that I focused on a piece of history that isn't really discussed, which is the enemy side. If we can look at history from all angles, we can get a better sense of the causes. And if we can see a conflict from the opposite person's viewpoint, perhaps we can prevent it. The officers were very ambivalent. The visit with [highly decorated U-boat commander Erich Topp] was probably the most interesting. He had so much regret about the war it was palpable. This is a man who was a hero in Germany; he was on a stamp; he had all of the various Iron Crosses. He said, "After we destroyed a ship and would surface, I would see through my binoculars men running through the fire on the decks and hear their screams." And tears are coming to his eyes, and now this is what he remembers most about the war. They earned the highest decorations, but they can tell you how horrible, truly and terribly horrible it all was. I should also mention the fact that these men spent much of their lives after the war fighting with us, so to speak, in NATO. Style: You said the Germans use the cross as their military insignia on planes and tanks and such. But do they still give out Iron Crosses as medals?
Previtera: No, this symbol is dead. They resurrected it for the German forces in NATO in 1957, but the Iron Cross will die with the last German veteran of World War

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