Were there any attempts to rename the French language but Prussian order Pour le Mèrite, why was it never Germanised? If there were attempts, how did the opponents argue?

The Prussian's highest order of merit, Pour le Mérite, was established by Frederick the Great in 1740 and in its military form was awarded up to 1918. With this exact name – which is French rather than German, as one might expect.

Now it is true, the German nobility preferred speaking French so much at the time – and Frederick in particular, who also named his favorite castle Sanssouci (French for 'without sorrows', German would be ~'Ohnesorge'/'Sorgenfrei') – that for example one of his friends wrote:

Nevertheless the German language was now in bad repute, for the aristocracy was adopting French. Voltaire wrote from Berlin (November 24, 1750):

“I find myself here in France; no one talks anything but French. German is for the soldiers and the horses; it is needed only on the road.

— Quoted from Will and Ariel Durant: "The Age of Voltaire: A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756", Page 70 (emphasis added, LLC)

This might explain part of the why it was originally named in French rather than High German or even a Prussian/Low German dialect.

However, there were several events and movements between 1740–1918 that lead to animosity and hostility between France and German states, especially after Napoleon decided to visit the territories East of the Rhine and did his share to spark nationalist feelings in German lands.

This was reflected on the language level, as since early on speaking primarily French at a German court went out of fashion and Gallicisms in general were increasingly seen as not a sign of but a violation of good style and furthermore politically effectively as against the 'purity' of the German language and a hindrance for the envisioned achievement of national unity. Curiously, this trend got even ever stronger, after national unity in the form of 'small German solution' was achieved.

Examples for this movement are found even before Frederick but took on steam after the Napoleonic wars: earlier writers argued simply on grounds of 'style and beauty', but after 1800 people like Ernst Moritz Arndt in his "Über Volkshaß und über den Gebrauch einer fremden Sprache" (On popular hatred and on the use of a foreign language), 1813) Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in "Über die Beförderung des Patriotismus im Preußischen Reiche" attached a decidedly political motivation to this debate.

This got ever stronger and more nationalistic and culminated in the founding of decidedly anti-French clubs and societies, like ADSV (Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein). The present day successor association writes:

The German language purism during the Second Empire and the Weimar Republic was not only manifest in the activities of the General German Language Society (»Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein«). To assess the movement correctly, it has to be taken into a broader view that encompasses work done by public authorities and institutions (military, postal system, railway system, government legislation, and justice).

The ADSV even pleaded for avoiding or supplanting the very word "Militär" itself.

and may perhaps have culminated in writers like the language purist Eduard Engel who in 1917 during the height of the First World War argued for a radical cleansing of the German language from all foreign influence and especially from any traces of French, again with emphasis relying on the ongoing war between the 'hereditary arch-enemies' France and Germany: "Sprich Deutsch!" "Speak German!":

We are the people without a firmly established mother tongue, the people without a shadow: Peter Schlemihl among the peoples. As often as I have spoken to a Welscher about the question: in what language will victorious Germany negotiate with the defeated, I have been laughed at with my demand that German peace should be negotiated only in German. The victorious Boche will stammer the more noble language of the defeated 'chivalrous Frenchman'. I will let this stand and will gladly take the chance of being wronged one day.

No prince or even professor is so highly esteemed that he would not gain true nobility through pure German, or lose it through the most distinguished and magnificent Welsch. Welsch is thoroughly low, mean, ignoble, or, to be better understood by the Welsh people, in their language: subaltern, inferior, vulgar, common, communal, commissary, vulgar, plebeian.

— Horrible attempt by LLC to translate this pamphlet, suggestions for improvement welcome. Note that "Welsch" is meaning variously at the same time: "the French", "the English", "the enemy", the "bad people".

An answer to "why was the 'Puhrlemäritt' never renamed" (onomatopoetic try at rendering of a Prussian pronouncing it) is sure invoking some kind of response like "military tries to keep its traditions". That is true, but still needs a reference for this special inquiry. And on the other hand, it is certainly not that easy here.

The original name is not that easy to pronounce correctly in French for a monolingual German. While the Pour le Mèrite is still given out today, in its civilian version for sciences, another order came into competition, but has the exact same word meaning, this time entirely Germanised to a nicely bureaucratic and seemingly exact compound word: pour le mérite ~ for merit ~ Verdienstorden.

Verdienstorden coincidentally was regarded after its inception in 1901 as a highly regarded Prussian order as well. Looking quite similar to the higher ranking Blue Max:

enter image description here

Or in the case of 'the Blue Max for common soldiers', the Militär-Verdienst-Kreuz since 1864.

In freshly founded Imperial Germany for example, the General Post master Heinrich von Stephan became the first honorary member of the ADSV in 1886, because since 1874 he was responsible for the prescribed and forced Germanisation of 760 former French expressions and technical terms in his trade:

einschreiben für recommandieren, Fernsprecher für Telephon, postlagernd für poste restante usw.). Auch im Verkehrswesen ist in den folgenden Jahrzehnten viel verdeutscht worden (z. B. Bahnsteig / Perron, Abteil / Coupé, Fahrgast / Passagier, Fahrkarte / Billet, Bahnhof / Station).
— Peter von Polenz: "Geschichte der deutschen Sprache", Walter de Gruyter: Berlin, New York, 102009, p153.

And even the military itself simply wasn't that recalcitrant and keen on keeping every existing French term just 'because of tradition'. For example the term "Lieutenant" changed to "Leutnant" with a military reform in 1899. Also compare other ranks like ensign/Fähnrich changed at the same time with the expressed intent of avoiding French terms:

Cabinet order of Kaiser Wilhelm II, published in the Army Ordinance Gazette on 1 January 1899. The aim was to replace foreign words with German expressions.
WP: Fähnrich, fn15, my translation

This fact of Germanisation in the army and the resulting approval for this step into the long called for 'right direction' in newspapers:

Despite repeated attempts they had achieved very little in this area [before 1817, LLC]: In 1841, Frederick William IV introduced Captain instead of Captain into the Prussian army. After 1871, both the Militärliteraturblatt and the Militair-Wochenblatt worked for some time to purify the language. Following the example of the Generalstabswerk über den Krieg von 1870-71, where foreign words had been systematically replaced from the second book on, the editorial staff printed possible Germanizations and asked their colleagues for contributions that were as foreign-word free as possible: The Field Duty Regulations and the Firing Regulations for the Infantry (1887) are both characterized by their purity of language, and even the Emperor supported these efforts: A first decree of February 13, 1887, replaced terrain and detachements with Gelände and Abteilungen
— Alan Kirkness: "Zur Sprachreinigung im Deutschen 1789-1871", Forschungsberichte Des Instituts Für Deutsche Sprache Mannheim, Vol 26.2, TBL Verlag Gunler Narr· Tübingen Tübingen 1975. PDF. Own translation.

enter image description here

— Zu Neujahr sind im Bereiche des Militärwesens eine ganze Anzahl von fremdländischen Ausdrücken verdeutscht worden. Das ist eine sehr lebhaft zu begrüßende That. Die Seconde- und Premier-Lieutenants haben ihr Dasein eingebüßt, an ihre Stelle ist der „Leutnant" und „Oberleutnant" getreten, an die Stelle des Offizieraspiranten oder Avantageurs im aktiven Dienststand ist der „Fahnenjunker" gesetzt worden. Der langathmige Portepeefähnrich heißt fortan schlecht und recht nur „Fähnrich", es gibt keine Funktion mehr, sondern nur noch eine „Dienststellung." An die Stelle des Avancements ist die „Beförderung" getreten und endlich hat man das schreckliche Wort Anciennetät durch das für Jedermann leichtverständliche Wort „Dienstalter" übersetzt. Es gibt auch fortan keinen etatsmäßigen Stabsoffizier mehr, sondern die Bezeichnung heißt künftig: „Oberstleutnant oder Major beim Stabe des Infanterie … u.s.w. […]. Es ist also mit diesem Schritt wieder ein tüchtiges Stück Verdeutschung unserer Heeressprache erreicht. Die Königl. Verfügung hat folgenden Wortlaut:

Um die Reinheit der Sprache in Meinem Heere zu fördern, will Ich bei voller Schonung der Ueberlieferungen auf den Mir gehaltenen Vortrag bestimmen, daß von heute ab nachstehende Fremdausdrücke durch die nebenangeführten deutschen Wörter zu ersetzen sind: Offizier-Aspirant (im aktiven Dienststande): Fahnen-junker, Portepee-Fähnrich: Fähnrich. Sekonde-Lieutenant: Leutnant. Premier-Lieutenant: Oberleutnant. Oberstlieutenant, Generallieutenant: Oberstleutnant, Generalleutnant. Charge: Dienstgrad. Funktion: Dienststellung. Avancement: Beförderung. Anciennetät: Dienstalter. An Stelle der Bezeichnung „etats-mäßiger Stabsoffizier" sind künftig dem Dienstgrade die Worte „beim Stabe" hinzuzufügen, […] — Berlin, den 1. Januar 1899, -Wilhelm,

Heidelberger Zeitung, January 3, 1899 Highlighting: LLC to emphasis author, aim and French-origin words changed

The medal itself was not immune from changes throughout its history, with great variation from 1740 to 1810, and quite some additions in later years, like other ranks:

[…] originally in italics but changed in 1832 to the Roman style. […]The medal saw many inconsistencies in appearance and construction between 1740 and the 1800s.
— Kevin Brazier: "The Complete Blue Max- A Chronological Record of the Holders of the Pour le Mérite, Prussia’s Highest Military Order, from 1740 to 1918", Pen & Sword Military: Barnsley, 2013,

An older version of that medal, that was entirely replacing the order "De la Générosité":

enter image description here
The outward appearance of the order is characterized by numerous changes …
Orden Pour le Mérite, LeMo, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Inv.-Nr.: o 16; with more examples of these small changes on this page.e

And at least as early as 1801 we see one example of an influential schoolbook author calling out explicitly on this alien sounding wording pour le mérite on it, as not suitable for inspiring bravery in soldiers:

Meriten – Verdienste
Ich bemerkte bei Gelegenheit dieses Wortes in dem Nachtrage: daß wir auszeichnende Belohnungen pour le merite, aber keine für das Verdienst hätten; gleichsam als wenn alles verdienstliche etwas ausländisches, dem Deutschen, wie seiner Sprache, fremdes wäre! Wie soll ein Volk Muth und Lust sich zu heben bekommen, wenn ihm bei jeder Gelegenheit, und zwar von oben herab, nicht undeutlich zu verstehen gegeben wird, daß das Gute und Lobenswürdige, was es etwa an sich haben oder thun mag, nicht etwas einheimisches, sondern etwas undeutsches, etwas — Fränzösisches sei! Ist es zu verwundern, daß sich in unserer Sprache die seltsame R.a. es nicht weit her, für, es ist nicht vorzüglich, findet, da sogar unsere Verdienste erst zu Französischen Meriten, umgetauft werden müssen, um geschätzt und belohnt zu werden! Und welcher seltsame Widerspruch, daß man sogar noch jetzt, bei dem so tiefgefühlten Abscheu gegen das Beginnen und die Vortschritte der Neufränkischen Völkerschaft, noch immer fortfährt, diesem Volke kindlich nachzuplappern, und der Geistesoberherrschaft desselben durch nachahmende Sprache, nachahmende Sitten und Moden zu huldigen! Wenn wir doch Eins von diesen angestaunten Fremdlingen lernen wollten — folgerecht zu handeln!

– Joachim Heinrich Campe: "Wörterbuch zur Erklärung und Verdeutschung der unserer Sprache aufgedrungenen fremden Ausdrücke", ('Dictionary for the explanation and Germanisation of foreign expressions imposed on our language'), Schulbuchhandlung: Braunschweig, 1801. (p 464, gBooks)

Translation of most relevant first part:

that we had excellent rewards pour le merite, but none for merit (Verdienst); as if everything that is meritorious were something foreign, foreign to German, as to its language.

(Note that Campe himself was not anti-French but like George Washington an honorary citizen of the French Republic since 1792. His simply pro-German argument is also quite weak in comparison and not really obviously connected to any campaign in favour of changing the medal. It reads more like a general complaint. Therefore he is only a predecessor to for what I am looking for.)

A cryptic hint at this discussion and how it obviously ended is then found in this satirical analysis of language purity in 'Berlinfranzösisch und Parisberlinisch' a »Le superflu, chose très-nécessaire«:

Also the order "Pour le mérite" belongs as a historical sign still to the granted error specification and otherwise still various, which is able to protect itself by own venerability against open attack but not against reproach in secret.
— Alexander Moszkowski: "Das Geheimnis der Sprache", published 1920. (own translation)

So to get a bit closer to know 'why was the Pour le Mérite never renamed to be more German?', I am interested getting to know whether there were attempts or even just more calls to do just that? In Moszkowski's words: what was this reproach or rebuke leveled against it?

There are countless examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts to supplant French words with German ones. But any discussions about applying that also to this one type of non-German named military decoration seems hard to find.

Was it ever suggested to rename the Pour le Mérite and if it was how was that change argued for and against by whom?

  • 13
    Even your questions are too long to be really useful...
    – DevSolar
    Oct 26, 2020 at 15:17
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    @LangLangC But unfortunately you leave out half of that background, which leads you to the wrong conclusions. Oct 26, 2020 at 15:37
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    @LangLangC I think you are mixing up language reforms (where many spelling of words were changed, but also exchange of foreign terms) and an anti-french sediment. I have no problems extensive background information leading to the question. But it shouldn't be one sided. The Hugenotts had no reason to love France (royalist or revolutionary) and nevertheless retained their French identity. They were respected and influential. This aspect of the background is completely missing in your question making the background to one sided. Oct 26, 2020 at 16:09
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    To the contrary. There were spelling reforms often preserving French inheritance and grassroots language changes even incorporating more French loanwords. And there were anti-french language changes enforced from top down, especially in the military (and other official sectors, like, railway, post office, government etc) – almost solely motivated by francophobia. The Prussian/German military and politicians did for a lot items what some intellectuals demanded: 'getting rid of too much frenchiness'. That some Radikalinskys asked for the PlM to be renamed is more than likely. Oct 26, 2020 at 20:00
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    @LangLangC Your own quote answers your own question: The aim was to replace foreign words with German expressions. Words not names. Had they wanted to change everything French, they would have done it then. But they didn't. Sorry, but this is wishful thinking on your part. Oct 26, 2020 at 23:30

1 Answer 1


Due to the Hugenotten influence (from 1685 onwards) in Berlin and Prussia (there is no such thing as a 'Prussian' language) , the French language and culture (unaffected by Napoleons 'visit', as you term it, and the war of 1870/71) were very strong to the end of the 19th century.

As apposed to other countries (where only the aristocrats spoke French), in Prussia it was spoken by part of the population in everyday life.
- Der Einfluss der Hugenotten in Deutschland | Böser Wolf - Grenzen Überwinden

The Berlin dialect today is still strongly influenced by French.
- Den Hugenotten zugehört: Wie der Berliner französelt - WELT

It is unlikely that anybody saw the need to rename an existing Merit for the reasons that the OP gave (assuming anyone wanted to change it at all).

The Pour le mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste is an Ehrenzeichen and not a Verdienstorden.

Reasons for not renaming the Order of Merit

One of the more obvious reasons is, that the french text is incorperated to the metal itsself:

  • Prussian Military Pour le Mérite
    (Order For Merit)

  • with oak leaves (Eichenlaub)

The emblem of King Frederick II of Prussia, who established the honour in 1740, is also incorperated into the metal.

Since the King was still greatly respected, to change his original intentions of what the honour stood for, simply because of the french text, is unlikely.

The formal introduction as a military distinction in 1810 and it's extension (with oak leaves) in 1813 during the Napoleonic wars (where one would assume that anti-French sentiment was at its highest) contradicts the notion that French name of the Order was in itself a cause for consern. By 1816 around 1000 had been awarded (11 with oak leaves).

If anti-French sentiment was so great after the Napoleonic wars, then why didn't they give the newly created civilian version in 1842, long after 'anti-French thing' (as the OP call it), another name?

Between 1914 and 1918 the medal was awarded 687 times and the oak leaves for the Pour le Mérite 122 times.

The present association, in its PDF about the history of the order (Pour le Mérite – Über die Sichtbarmachung von Verdiensten), does not meantion any attempt to change the name. Nor any meantion that there was any opposition to using a French based name. It only states that the Nazi's (in 1934) wanted to to get rid of the association that issued the civilian order, not to rename it.

The only 'hint' that we have here is that no Pour le Mérite were issued (neither civilian or military) between 1934 and its reintroduction in 1952. No attempt was made to reintroduce the military Order in 1934. A draft to repeal the (civilian) Order was made in June 1939, but was not signed by the Prussian Prime Minister Hermann Göring (who recieved the military Pour le Mérite on the 2nd of May 1918).

The OP quotes the Wikipedia citement of the 1899 Cabinet order, which aims at the replacement of foreign words with German expressions, as a foundation for his assumption that this would/should apply also to French based names of objects.

Had this been the case, they would have done it then. But they didn't.

The Hugenotts, who had no reason to love France (royalist or revolutionary) but nevertheless retained their French identity, were respected and influential in Prussia. It is therefore doubtful that they would have supported such a general renaming of existing names or objects solely because it was based on french.

If this was truly the case, then Pommes frites (which the Hugenotts may have brought with them when they sought refuge in Prussia in the late 1680's) should have suffered the same fate as French fries did in 2003 where they were renamed to Freedom fries (just as the suggested renaming of Sauerkraut to Liberty Cabbage in 1918) in the United States. But it didn't happen.

These aspects of the background are completely missing in the OP question, making the background information too one sided. It gives the impression that the OP is only interested in answers that agree with his pre-drawn conclusions.

For these reasons I casted the second vote to close this question as Opion-based.

Der Orden Pour le Mérite, Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum
Nach der Niederlage Preußens gegen die von Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) geführten Truppen wurde der Charakter des "Pour le Mérite" als militärische Auszeichnung 1810 in den Ordensstatuten verankert. Die mit dem Verdienstorden geehrten Offiziere bildeten eine Ritterschaft und erhielten einen lebenslangen monatlichen Ehrensold. Da der Orden nur einmal verliehen werden konnte, führte Friedrich Wilhelm III. (1770-1840) für zusätzliche Verdienste der Ordensträger das gesondert anzubringende Eichenlaub als weitere Auszeichnungsstufe [1813] ein.

After Prussia's defeat by the troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the character of the "Pour le Mérite" was anchored in the statutes of the Order as a military distinction in 1810. The officers honored with the Order of Merit formed a knighthood and received a lifelong monthly honorary salary. Since the order could only be awarded once, Friedrich Wilhelm III. (1770-1840) introduced [in 1813] the oak leaves to be attached separately as a further award level for additional merits of the order bearers.

Gab es 1816 rund 1.000 Träger des "Pour le Mérite", so erhöhte sich deren Zahl im Laufe des 19. Jahrhunderts erheblich.
Von den 704 Verleihungen unter Kaiser Wilhelm II. fielen 687 in die Zeit des Ersten Weltkriegs.

While there were around 1,000 "Pour le Mérite" carriers in 1816, their number increased considerably in the course of the 19th century.
Of the 704 awards made under Kaiser Wilhelm II, 687 fell during the First World War.


  • 1
    The anti-French (& also pro-French) thing esp after Napoelon is a well established fact. The military saw enough of a need to get active in 1899. "Unlikely" is your (not unfounded, mind you!) guess. But for a lot of the (also military) terms a very politicised purism movement did achieve renamings. So, while things like Kornett, Portepee, Seconde-Lieutenant etc were renamed, the PlM was not. I simply doubt that this amounts to 'proving a negative', but more like 'not that many hits on a netsearch' thing. Was the 1899 reform just stuck, was there opposition ('not that one')? Oct 26, 2020 at 15:38
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    @LangLangC Your argumentation that because there were language based changes for everyday terms, that there must have been wide spread desire to changes everything frenched named is, I believe, without foundation. Oct 26, 2020 at 17:23
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    There was a Prussian language. It had nothing to do with the kingdom of Prussia, was Baltic, not Germanic, and has been extinct for centuries. But there is such a language.
    – C Monsour
    Oct 27, 2020 at 13:48
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    @CMonsour What you mean are the peaple , in English, called 'Old Prussian', which in German is called Prußen (without an 'e') as apposed to 'Prussia', which in German is called 'Preußen' (with an 'e'). So while it is true that there was an 'Old Prussian' language, it is also true that there was no 'Prussian' language. My statement is correct, yours is false. Oct 27, 2020 at 14:15
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    @MarkJohnson A few loan words (some not even specific to the dialect) don't mean that "The Berlin dialect today is still strongly influenced by French." These links are at best a weak support of your theory.
    – Roland
    Nov 4, 2020 at 7:48

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