The award was a blue-enameled Maltese Cross with eagles between the arms based on the symbol of the Johanniter Order, the Prussian royal cypher, and the French legend Pour le Mérite ("for Merit") arranged on the arms of the cross.
A civil version of the order, for accomplishments in the arts and sciences, still exists in the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Pour le Mérite was first founded in 1740 by King Frederick II of Prussia, named in French, the language of the Prussian royal court at the time. Until 1810, the Order was both a civilian and military honor. In January of that year, King Frederick William III decreed that the award could be presented only to serving military personnel. The Pour le Mérite is correctly called an Order, to which one is awarded membership, and should not be referred to as a "Medal".
In March 1813, Frederick William III added an additional distinction, a spray of gilt oak leaves attached above the cross. Award of the oak leaves originally indicated extraordinary achievement in battle, and was usually reserved for high-ranking officers. The original regulations called for the capture or successful defense of a fortification, or victory in a battle. By World War I, the oak leaves often indicated a second or higher award of the Pour le Mérite, though in most cases the recipients were still high-ranking officers (usually distinguished field commanders fitting the criteria above; the few lower ranking recipients of the oak leaves were mainly general staff officers responsible for planning a victorious battle or campaign). In early 1918, it was proposed to award the oak leaves to Germany's top flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, but he was deemed ineligible under a strict reading of the regulations. Instead, Prussia awarded von Richthofen a slightly less prestigious honor, the Order of the Red Eagle, 3rd Class with Crown and Swords. This was still a high honor, as the 3rd Class was normally awarded to colonels and lieutenant colonels, and von Richthofen's award was one of only two of the 3rd Class with Crown and Swords during World War I.
In 1866, a special military Grand Cross class of the award was established. This grade of the award was given to those who, through their actions, caused the retreat or destruction of an army. There were only five awards of the Grand Cross: to King William I in 1866, to Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia (later Emperor Frederick III) and Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia in 1873, to Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1878, and to Helmuth Graf von Moltke in 1879.
The Pour le Mérite gained international fame during World War I. Although it could be awarded to any military officer, its most famous recipients were the pilots of the German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte), whose exploits were celebrated in wartime propaganda. In aerial warfare, a fighter pilot was initially entitled to the award upon downing eight enemy aircraft. Aces Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke were the first airmen to receive the award, on January 12, 1916. Because of Immelmann's renown among his fellow pilots and the nation at large, the Pour le Mérite became known, due to its color and this early famous recipient, as the Blue Max.
The number of aerial victories necessary to receive the award continued to increase during the war; by early 1917, it generally required destroying 16 enemy airplanes, and by war's end the approximate figure was 30. However, other aviation recipients included Zeppelin commanders, bomber and observation aircrews, and at least one balloon observer.
Although many of its famous recipients were junior officers, especially pilots, more than a third of all awards in World War I went to generals and admirals. Junior officers (army captains and lieutenants and their navy equivalents) accounted for only about 25% of all awards. Senior officer awards tended to be more for outstanding leadership in combat than for individual acts of bravery.
Recipients of the Blue Max were required to wear the award whenever in uniform.
The last (un-official) issued Pour le Merite was made by Rothe of Vienna in 1964 for Theo Osterkamp in recognition for being named Chancellor of the Order. The medal had the 50 year crown attached to the ribbon above the Order.
In 1842, King Frederick William IV of Prussia founded a civil class of the order, the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts (Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste), with the three sections: humanities, natural science, and fine arts. Among famous recipients of the civil class of the Pour le Mérite in the first group of awards in 1842 were Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Jakob Grimm, Felix Mendelssohn, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and August Wilhelm Schlegel. Foreign recipients in the "class of 1842" included François-René de Chateaubriand, Louis Daguerre, Michael Faraday, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Franz Liszt. When a vacancy occurred the Academy of Arts and Sciences nominated three candidates, one of whom the king appointed. Later recipients included Thomas Babington Macaulay (1853), John C. Frémont (1860), Theodor Mommsen (1868), Charles Darwin (1868), Thomas Carlyle (1874) (who never accepted any other honor), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1875), Lord William Thomson Kelvin (1884), Heinrich von Treitschke (1887), Johannes Brahms (1887), Giuseppe Verdi (1887), Camille Saint-Saëns (1901), John Singer Sargent (1908), Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1910), Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1911), Sir William Ramsay (1911), Max Planck (1915), Albert Einstein (1923), Gerhart Hauptmann (1923), Richard Strauss (1924), Wilhelm Furtwängler (1929), Käthe Kollwitz (1929), and Ernst Barlach (1933). As a Jew, Einstein was forced to give up his award by the Nazi government in 1933, and a number of others, such as Kollwitz and Barlach, also were deprived of the award by the Nazi regime.
In 1952, the President of West Germany, Theodor Heuss, revived the civil order as an autonomous organization under the protection of the German President (although it is not a state order like the Bundesverdienstkreuz). This revived civil order is awarded for achievements in the arts and sciences. Active membership is limited to thirty German citizens, ten each in the fields of humanities, natural science, and medicine and the arts. Honorary membership can be conferred on foreigners, again to the limit of thirty. When a vacancy occurs the membership selects a new member. Among those inducted in 1952 were Otto Hahn, Paul Hindemith and Emil Nolde. Later recipients include Arthur Compton (1954), Hermann Hesse (1954), Albert Schweitzer (1954), Thomas Mann (1955), Oskar Kokoschka (1955), Carl Orff (1956), Erwin Schrödinger (1956), Thornton Wilder (1956), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1956), Werner Heisenberg (1957), Gerhard Ritter (1957), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1957), Percy Ernst Schramm (1958), Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1961), Karl Jaspers (1964), Otto Klemperer (1967), Carl Zuckmayer (1967), Henry Moore (1972), Raymond Aron (1973), George F. Kennan (1976), Friedrich Hayek (1977), Karl Popper (1980), Eugène Ionesco (1983), Hans Bethe (1984), Gordon A. Craig (1990), Rudolf Mößbauer (1996), Umberto Eco (1998), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1999), and Wim Wenders (2005). The most recent recipients, in 2006, were economist Reinhard Selten, historian James J. Sheehan, and legal scholar Christian Tomuschat.
Only three persons received both the military and civil versions of the Pour le Mérite. These were Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who received the military class in 1839 and the civil class in 1874, Otto von Bismarck, who received the military class in 1884 and the civil class in 1896, and Hermann von Kuhl, who received the military class in 1916 and the civil class in 1924.
A number of other countries have founded similar high civic honors for accomplishments in the arts and sciences. The United Kingdom confers the Order of Merit and Order of the Companions of Honour. The Republic of Austria confers the Austrian Decoration of Honor for Science and the Arts (Österreichisches Ehrenzeichen für Wissenschaft und Kunst), founded in 1955. Like the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts, this was in a sense a revival of an earlier imperial award, in this case the Austro-Hungarian Decoration of Honor for Art and Science (Österreichisch-Ungarisches Ehrenzeichen für Kunst und Wissenschaft), which existed from 1887 to 1918. Unlike the German award, however, the design of the modern Austrian award is unlike that of its imperial predecessor.
Other countries also may recognize accomplishments in the arts and sciences, but with more general orders also awarded for accomplishments in other fields. France's Légion d'honneur is an example of a decoration often conferred for accomplishment in many fields, including the arts and sciences. Belgium awards either its Order of Léopold or Order of the Crown for outstanding accomplishments in the arts and sciences, and may award its Civil Decoration for lesser accomplishments in these fields.