Row over new 'Iron Cross'

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Adolf Hitler claimed it was the happiest day of his life when he was awarded it as a soldier during the First World War and most films about the ensuing conflict would be unthinkable without a jackbooted German general showing off the medal on his tunic.

For these reasons, Germany felt obliged to unveil a substitute Iron Cross award for outstanding military bravery yesterday – while its defence ministry went out of its way to deny suggestions that there was a secret plan to re-introduce the banned medal that once symbolised Nazi power.

"This is an entirely new decoration. It has nothing to do with the Iron Cross," said a ministry spokesman as the new "Armed Forces Cross for Honour and Bravery" was awarded to four soldiers who saved their comrades in Afghanistan. Although the new medal is in gold rather than the familiar black and silver, its designers have nevertheless chosen to copy almost the exact shape of the original Iron Cross.

Germany's armed forces have not had a decoration for outstanding bravery since the Iron Cross was banned 64 years ago. However the country's new military role in Afghanistan persuaded Horst Köhler, the German President, to agree to introduce a new bravery medal last year.

The decoration, awarded for the first time yesterday, follows an anguished debate over demands that the old Iron Cross be re-introduced.

The German left remains suspicious of the new medal. A Social Democrat spokesman said that it could encourage "American-style patriotic celebration of the military".

The country's Left Party said the medal was "an attempt to encourage the public to accept war".