The Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit) is officially called the Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany). It is Germany's only general decoration. This Federal Order of Merit was created on 7 September 1951. Between 3,000 and 5,200 awards are given every year in all classes.
Most of the Länder have their own orders of merit, with up to three ranks (member, officer, commander). The Cities of Bremen and Hamburg do not have an order, and by old tradition its citizens will refuse any decoration in form of an order.
The Bundesverdienstkreuz has eight classes, in ascending order:
- Verdienstmedaille (Medal of Merit)
- Verdienstkreuz am Bande (Cross of Merit on ribbon)
- international: Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross)
- Verdienstkreuz 1. Klasse (Cross of Merit, First class)
- international: Offizierkreuz (Officer's Cross)
- Großes Verdienstkreuz (Halskreuz) (Great Cross of Merit, neck cross)
- international: Komturkreuz (Commander's Cross)
- Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern (Great Cross of Merit with star)
- international: Großoffizierkreuz (Great Officer's Cross)
- Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband (Great Cross of Merit with Star and shoulder ribbon)
- international: Großkreuz 2. Klasse (Grand Cross of Merit, Second class) oder Großkomturkreuz (Grand Commander's Cross)
- Großkreuz (Grand Cross)
- Sonderstufe des Großkreuzes (Special class of the Grand Cross)
The President of the Federal Republic holds the Sonderstufe des Großkreuzes ex officio. It is awarded to him in a ceremony by the President of the Bundestag attended by the Chancellor, the President of the Bundesrat and the President of the Bundesverfassungsgericht. Other than the President of the Federal Republic, only a foreign head of state can be awarded with the highest class. The Großkreuze can also be given in a special rare design. Only two people have had this award, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
Except for the lowest class, the badge is the same for all classes, but the badge and ribbon for women is slightly smaller.
The badge is a golden Maltese Cross enamelled in red, with a central disc bearing a black eagle.
The star is a golden star with straight rays, its size and points vary according to class, with the badge superimposed upon it.
The ribbon is red with gold-black-gold stripes.