The Military Merit Cross (German: Militärverdienstkreuz) was a decoration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was established on 22 October 1849 by Emperor Francis Joseph I, intended as an award for officers for services rendered both in war and during peacetime.
The first Military Merit Crosses were conferred upon officers who served in the Italian campaigns of 1848–49 that ensured Habsburg rule in Lombardy-Venetia and repelled the advance of King Charles Albert I of Sardinia into those areas. In 1849–1850, the Military Merit Cross was bestowed upon just under 1500 officers for their efforts to enforce the power of the Habsburg dynasty. In the second half of the 19th century, most crosses were awarded during great military conflicts: the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859, the Second Schleswig War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78.
The Military Merit Cross originally had only one class. However, a separate War Decoration (Kriegsdekoration) was instituted in 1860, after the Austro-Sardinian war (which enabled to the unification of Italy under the dynasty of the Kingdom of Sardinia). This badge had a laurel wreath between its arms and was awarded only for meritorious acts in the face of the enemy. Henceforth, wartime decorations were distinguished from peacetime crosses by the presence of the wreath.
After the outbreak of the First World War, in September 1914, the Military Merit Cross was reformed. It was divided into three classes, and the previous badge became the decoration for the 3rd Class. This classification made the Military Merit Cross effectively an order.