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In the first chapter of Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest, which I've started reading online, we are introduced to the character of Baron Geert von Innstetten as follows (emphasis mine):

"Yes, compose yourself and I'll begin. We were speaking of Baron von Innstetten. Before he had reached the age of twenty he was living over in Rathenow, but spent much of his time on the seignioral estates of this region, and liked best of all to visit in Schwantikow, at my grandfather Belling's. [...]

But he didn't care to remain here in the neighborhood any longer, and he must have lost all taste for the soldier's career, generally speaking. Besides, it was an era of peace, you know. In short, he asked for his discharge and took up the study of the law, as papa would say, with a 'true beer zeal.' But when the war of seventy broke out he returned to the army, with the Perleberg troops, instead of his old regiment, and he now wears the cross. Naturally, for he is a smart fellow. Right after the war he returned to his documents, and it is said that Bismarck thinks very highly of him, and so does the Emperor. Thus it came about that he was made district-councillor in the district of Kessin."

What would it mean for him to "wear the cross"? I'd guess this is some kind of military honour or medal, akin to the British Victoria Cross, but I'm not even sure which state he would be representing in the military at this time! The mention of Bismarck and the Emperor suggests the German Empire, but I included enough quotes to fix him in a more specific region of Germany if that's relevant. Or is it another kind of "cross", something related to religion or politics? Why should being a "smart fellow" (rather than a brave one, for a military honour) make it natural for him to wear the cross?

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In German, the corresponding passage (quoted from Effie Briest on Zeno.org) does not mention the type of cross:

Kurz und gut, er nahm den Abschied und fing an, Juristerei zu studieren, wie Papa sagt, mit einem ›wahren Biereifer‹; nur als der siebziger Krieg kam, trat er wieder ein, aber bei den Perlebergern statt bei seinem alten Regiment, und hat auch das Kreuz. Natürlich, denn er ist sehr schneidig.

However, since it is mentioned in the context of war, the intended meaning is "das Eiserne Kreuz" ("the Iron Cross"). This military decoration was established by Friedrich Wilhelm III, king of Prussia, in 1813, in order to boost his people's fighting spirit during wars of liberation (Fontane, ed. Wöhrle, p. 385; Keil). The specific occasion was the war against the French emperor Napoleon (see German Campaign of 1813). There were three levels: II. Klasse (2nd class), I. Kasse (1st class) and Großkreuz (Grand Cross). The Iron Cross could not only be awarded to officers but also to ordinary soldiers; in practice, however, 90% of Iron Cross 1st Class decorations in 1813–1815 were awarded to officers.

Since the decoration was created for wars of liberation, it was not awarded again in the First Schleswig War of 1848 – 1851, the Second Schleswig War of 1864 or the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. King Wilhelm I renewed it for the Franco-Prussian War "bei erklärter Gefahr für das Vaterland" ("on manifest danger to the fatherland") after he had manipulated France into declaring war so Prussia wouldn't be perceived as an agressor by England and Russia. During this war, the Iron Cross 1st Class was awarded around 1.300 times and the Grand Cross only 9 times (ehrenzeichen-orden.de; Militaria Berlin: "Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse"); the Iron Cross 2nd Class was awarded around 48.500 times (Militaria Berlin: "Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse").

It is not obvious which level (1st Class or 2nd Class) of the Iron Cross was awarded to Geert von Innstetten. The decoration is also mentioned in other works by Fontane without mentioning a specific level. See for example Einzug (III) (a poem written a few months after the Franco-Prussian War), chapter 5 of Der Stechlin and chapter 3 of L'Adultera. However, an Iron Cross 2nd Class was a precondition for the Iron Cross 1st Class. For example, Benno Hann von Weyhern was a cavalry officer who received both decorations in the Franco-Prussian War.

Effi's description of Geert von Innstetten as "schneidig" can be translated both as "elegant" (or "dashing") or as "spirited" (or "energetic"). In the context of military decorations for courage, the latter seems to make more sense.


References:

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The “war of seventy” refers to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and this is confirmed by the mention of Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the North German Confederation at the outbreak of the war, and from 1871 the Chancellor of the German Empire.

So the “cross” must be the Iron Cross, a military decoration created in Napoleonic-era Prussia, and revived by King Wilhelm at the outbreak of the war in 1870. It was awarded about 40,000 times to soldiers who distinguished themselves in the seven-month war with France.

There is some ambiguity in the phrase “for he is a smart fellow”. Perhaps this means that he was smart (keen) enough to distinguish himself in the army and earn the medal. Or perhaps it means that he is smart (well-dressed) because he pays attention to details like the display of medals. Or it means that he is smart (intelligent) enough to know that displaying military medals is a useful way of currying favour with the rulers of Germany.

(The original German is “denn er ist sehr schneidig” which is similarly ambiguous.)

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  • Are you a native german speaker or a learner? Because for ‘schneidig’, Wiktionary gives ‘dashing’ and while my dictionary doesn’t give a translation, it’s clearly related to ‘der Schneider’, ‘the tailor’, suggesting more to me an appearance-based meaning. Feb 19 at 10:36
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    @Fivesideddice Native speaker here. "Dashing" is a good translation, when using the definition "attractive, adventurous, and full of confidence". As much as it pains me to say, "Schneid" is in its usage comparable to modern-day "swag". It's something you have, a certain style mixed with self-confidence.
    – MechMK1
    Feb 19 at 10:40
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    Oxford-Duden says, "schneidig adj. dashing, daring, bold, rousing, brisk, trim" Feb 19 at 10:40
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    @MechMK1 ah, okay, thanks; I’ll definitely write that down somewhere; ‘a fine addition to my collection’, as they say :D Feb 19 at 10:52
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    @Fivesideddice "Boys have swag, men have Schneid" :D
    – MechMK1
    Feb 19 at 14:36
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The cross that is been talked about is the Iron Cross, established as the military decoration. From the linked Wikipedia page:

The Iron Cross (German: Eisernes Kreuz, abbreviated EK) is a former military decoration in the Kingdom of Prussia, and later in the German Empire (1871–1918) and Nazi Germany (1933–1945).

The Iron Cross was awarded to soldiers during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. Before a soldier could be awarded with the Iron Cross 1st Class, he needed to have been decorated with the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

Emperor Wilhelm II reauthorized the Iron Cross on 5 August 1914, at the start of World War I. During these three periods, the Iron Cross was an award of the Kingdom of Prussia, although—given Prussia's pre-eminent place in the German Empire formed in 1871—it tended to be treated as a generic German decoration. The 1813, 1870, and 1914 Iron Crosses had three grades:

  • Iron Cross 2nd Class (Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse, or EKII)
  • Iron Cross 1st Class (Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse, or EKI)
  • Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (Großkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Großkreuz) Although the obverse of the medals of each class was identical, the manner in which each was worn differed. The Iron Cross 1st Class employed a pin or screw posts on the back of the medal, and was worn on the left side of the recipient's uniform, like the original 1813 version. The Iron Cross 2nd Class, and the larger Grand Cross, were suspended from different ribbons: the Grand Cross from a neck ribbon, the 2nd Class from a ribbon on the chest. The usual display of the 2nd Class version was as a ribbon through one of the button holes in the recipient's tunic.

The Grand Cross was intended for senior generals of the Prussian or (later) the German Army.

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    This answer seems to be the same as the other, except with more Wikipedia quotes about the cross itself and less explanation of why it is the correct answer.
    – bobble
    Feb 19 at 15:17

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