Symbols and Meaning: Iron Cross

A rich history from modern militaries to the Knights Templar.

Throughout the history of our great planet, wars have been waged. Militaries have sought expansion or defence based on the values of the culture from whence they came. Those values are often associated with spiritual and religious beliefs. The military, protectors of the culture, are adorned with iconography and symbolism imbued with meaning based on individual merit. The symbol of the iron cross is one such symbol.

The iron cross derives much of its meaning from the Christian crucifix. However, due the historical impact of the events of the second world war, much of this original meaning has been obfuscated. The symbol is often – albeit incorrectly – attributed solely to the National Socialist party of the mid-20th Century. It, like much of the iconography of the party comes from much older cultures from which it had greater meaning.

Over a Century before the existence of a socialist party in Germany, Kaiser Freidrich Wilhelm III of Prussia had commissioned neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design a military emblem. In 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, the iron cross was reborn and for the first time in hundreds of years, officially re-established as a military decoration. The campaign medal was awarded for acts of heroism, bravery and leadership and endured as a military honor throughout the subsequent Franco Prussian war, as well as World War One.

This too however is but a modern incarnation of this ancient symbol for military use. Earlier designs span as far back as the 6th century under different names. The croix pattée, translated ‘footed cross’, shares a striking resemblance to the modern iron cross and can be assumed to be its predecessor. This earlier cross first appears in very early medieval art and had remained in use throughout the medieval ages.

Military orders including the Knights Templar as well as the Teutonic Order used the croix pattée. Teutonic Knights were a Catholic order, referred to at the time as “Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum”, translated “Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem”. Members of this small voluntary order served to establish hospitals and protect Christians pilgrims enroute to the Holy Land and in the Baltics from raids. The cross symbolism would have undoubtedly helped distinguish the Christian military order from enemy forces. In fact, the croix pattée became so synonymous with these orders that it is sometimes referred to as the Cross of the Knights Templar. Although multiple cross designs have been used by the order throughout time.

Today, the iron cross has seen adoption by subcultures in the west. These include motorcycle groups, skateboard companies, clothing companies and bands. The – likely incorrect – use of this symbol could be attributed to a misconception of what it represents, understood as meaning rebellion and a toughness. Despite modern perversions through misuse, the iron cross continues to represent the highest of Christian ideals in military orders, loyalty, honor, courage and faith.

Appropriately, the iron cross resumed its illustrious germanic military heritage as the insignia of the Bundeswehr (Federal Defence Forces of Germany) in 1956. The iron cross and related symbols such as the; croix pattée, maltese cross, red cross, and others, persists through Germanic and Christian civilizations. Not solely within military orders, but also on national flags, pacifistic humanitarian organizations, as well as civil services such as the fire department.

From its traceable origins over 1,200 years ago, the iron cross has represented the highest expression of Christian values. With a bit of understanding of the deep historical significance of this symbol, we are more capable of interpreting, understanding and using the symbol in a appropriate and meaningful way.

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