Totenkopf (i.e. skull, literally dead's head) is the German word for
the skull and crossbones and death's head symbols. The Totenkopf
symbol is an old international symbol for death, the defiance of
death, danger, or the dead, as well as piracy. It consists usually of
the human skull with or without the mandible and often includes two
crossed long-bones (femurs), most often depicted with the crossbones
being behind some part of the skull.
It is commonly associated with 19th- and 20th-century German military
2 German military
2.3 German Empire
2.4 Weimar Republic
2.5 Third Reich
3 Non-German military
5 Other uses
6 See also
Toten-Kopf translates literally to "dead's head", meaning exactly
"dead person's head". Semantically, it refers to a skull, literally a
Schädel. As a term,
Totenkopf connotes the human skull as a symbol,
typically one with crossed thigh bones as part of a grouping.
German language meaning of the word
Totenkopf has not
changed for at least two centuries. For example, the German poet
Clemens Brentano (b. 1778 – d. 1842) wrote in the story "Baron
"Lauter Totenbeine und Totenköpfe, die standen oben herum ..."
(i.e. "A lot of bones and skulls, they were placed above ...").
The common translation of "Totenkopf" as death's head is incorrect; it
would be Todeskopf, but no such word is in use. The English term death
squad is called Todesschwadron, not Totenschwadron. It would be a
logical fallacy to conclude that usage varies only because of the
German naming of the Death's-head Hawkmoth, which is called Skull
Hawkmoth (Totenkopfschwärmer) in German, in the same way that it
would be a fallacy to conclude that the German word Nachtkerze (i.e.
night candle) would mean Willowherb, just because the Willowherb
Hawkmoth (Proserpinus proserpina) is called Night Candle Hawkmoth
(Nachtkerzenschwärmer, Proserpinus proserpina) in German.[citation
Hussar from Husaren-Regiment Nr.5 (von Ruesch) in 1744 with the
Totenkopf on the mirliton (Ger. Flügelmütze)
Use of the
Totenkopf as a military emblem began under Frederick the
Great, who formed a regiment of
Hussar cavalry in the Prussian army
commanded by Colonel von Ruesch, the Husaren-Regiment Nr. 5 (von
Ruesch). It adopted a black uniform with a
Totenkopf emblazoned on the
front of its mirlitons and wore it on the field in the War of Austrian
Succession and in the Seven Years' War. The
Totenkopf remained a
part of the uniform when the regiment was reformed into Leib-Husaren
Regiments Nr.1 and Nr.2 in 1808.
Totenkopf badge worn by the Brunswick Leibbataillon ("Life-Guard
Battalion") at the
Battle of Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
In 1809 during the War of the Fifth Coalition, Frederick William, Duke
of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel raised a force of volunteers to fight
Napoleon Bonaparte, who had conquered the Duke's lands. The Brunswick
corps was provided with black uniforms, giving rise to their nickname,
the Black Brunswickers. Both hussar cavalry and infantry in the force
Totenkopf badge, either in mourning for the duke's father,
Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, who had
been killed at the
Battle of Jena–Auerstedt
Battle of Jena–Auerstedt in 1806, or according to
some sources, as a sign of revenge against the French. After fighting
their way through Germany, the
Black Brunswickers entered British
service and fought with them in the
Peninsular War and at the Battle
of Waterloo. The Brunswick corps was eventually incorporated into the
Prussian Army in 1866.
The skull continued to be used by the Prussian and Brunswick armed
forces until 1918, and some of the stormtroopers that led the last
German offensives on the Western Front in 1918 used skull badges.
Luftstreitkräfte fighter pilots Georg von Hantelmann and Kurt
Adolf Monnington are just two of a number of Central Powers
military pilots who used the
Totenkopf as their personal aircraft
Garford-Putilov Armoured Car
Garford-Putilov Armoured Car used by the
Freikorps in 1919, with a
Totenkopf painted on the side.
Totenkopf was used in Germany throughout the inter-war period,
most prominently by the Freikorps. In 1933, it was in use by the
regimental staff and the 1st, 5th, and 11th squadrons of the
Reichswehr's 5th Cavalry Regiment as a continuation of a tradition
from the Kaiserreich.
In the early days of the NSDAP, Julius Schreck, the leader of the
Stabswache (Adolf Hitler's bodyguard unit), resurrected the use of the
Totenkopf as the unit's insignia. This unit grew into the
Schutzstaffel (SS), which continued to use the
Totenkopf as insignia
throughout its history. According to a writing by Reichsführer-SS
Heinrich Himmler the
Totenkopf had the following meaning:
The Skull is the reminder that you shall always be willing to put your
self at stake for the life of the whole community.
Totenkopf was also used as the unit insignia of the Panzer forces
of the German Heer (Army), and also by the Panzer units of the
Luftwaffe, including those of the elite Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1
Both the 3rd SS Panzer Division of the Waffen-SS, and the World War II
era Luftwaffe's 54th Bomber Wing
Kampfgeschwader 54 were given the
unit name "Totenkopf", and used a strikingly similar-looking graphic
skull-crossbones insignia as the SS units of the same name. The 3rd SS
Panzer Division also had skull patches on their uniform collars
instead of the SS sieg rune.
The first version of the SS-Totenkopf; used from 1923 to 1934
The second version of the SS-Totenkopf; used from 1934 to 1945
Junkers Ju 88 of
Kampfgeschwader 54 (KG 54) in France, November 1940
German Panzer totenkopf
Swedish hussar in 1761
Australian commandos in New Guinea, 1945
A skull and crossbones has often been a symbol of pirates, especially
in the form of the Jolly Roger, but usually having the crossbones
beneath the skull rather than behind it, as used by pirate Samuel
Bellamy in one example.
The uniform of the Spanish Army's Lusitania Dragoon Regiment during
part of the 18th century included three skull and crossbones in the
cuffs, and in 1902 the skull and crossbones insignia was
authorized again to replace the regiment number on the sides of the
The British Army's
Royal Lancers continue to use the skull and
crossbones in their emblem, inherited from its use by the 17th
Lancers, a unit raised in 1759 following General Wolfe's death in
Quebec. The emblem contains an image of a death's head, and the words
'Or Glory', chosen in commemoration of Wolfe.
In 1792, a regiment of Hussards de la mort (Death Hussars) was formed
to defend the young
French Republic from the Austrian attempt to
Although not exactly a
Totenkopf per se, the Chilean guerrilla leader
Manuel Rodríguez used the symbol on his elite forces called "Husares
de la muerte" ("
Hussars of death"). It is still used by the Chilean
Army's 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
The primarily Prussian 41st Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry,
Mustered in: June 6, 1861-Mustered out: December 9, 1865 wore a skull
The Vengeurs de la Mort («death avengers»), an irregular unit of
Commune de Paris, 1871.
The Portuguese Army Police 2nd Lancers Regiment use a
skull-and-crossbones image in their emblem, similar to the one used by
the Queen's Royal Lancers.
The Kingdom of Sweden's
Hussar Regiments wore a death's head emblem in
the Prussian Style on the front of the mirleton.
Ramón Cabrera's regiment adopted in 1838 a skull with crossbones
flanked by an olive branch and a sword on a black flag during the
Spanish Carlist Wars.
Chetniks wore a death's head emblem in several conflicts:
guerrilla in Old Serbia, First and Second Balkan Wars, World War I
(both defense and resistance) and World War II.
The Italian elite storm-troopers of the
Arditi used a skull with a
dagger between its teeth as a symbol during World War 1. Various
versions of skulls were also later used by the Italian Fascists.
The White Russian Kornilov regiment adopted a death's head emblem in
Kuperjanov's Partisan Battalion
Kuperjanov's Partisan Battalion used the
skull-and-crossbones as their insignia (since 1918); the Kuperjanov
Infantry Battalion continues to use the skull and crossbones as their
Two Polish small cavalry units used death's head emblem during
Polish–Ukrainian War and
Polish–Soviet War - Dywizjon Jazdy
Ochotniczej (also known as Huzarów Śmierci i.e. Death Hussars) and
Poznański Ochotniczy Batalion Śmierci.
During 1943-1945 the Italian
Black Brigades and numerous other forces
fighting for the Italian Social Republic, wore various versions of
skulls on their uniforms, berets, and caps.
United States Marine Corps Reconnaissance Battalions
United States Marine Corps Reconnaissance Battalions use the
skull-and-crossbones symbol in their emblem.
No. 100 Squadron RAF
No. 100 Squadron RAF (Royal Air Force) continue to use a flag
depicting a skull and crossbones supposedly in reference to a flag
stolen from a French brothel in 1918.
The Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, a special unit
within the military police of Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, uses the
skull emblem to differentiate their team from the regular units.
South Korea's 3rd Infantry Division (백골부대) have a
skull-and-crossbones in their emblem.
United States Cavalry
United States Cavalry reconnaissance troops or squadrons utilize
a skull insignia, often wearing the traditional Stetson hat, and
backed by either crossed cavalry sabers, crossed rifles, or some other
variation, as an unofficial unit logo. These logos are incorporated
into troop T-shirts, challenge coins, or other items designed to
enhance morale and esprit de corps.
Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine
Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine under
Nestor Makhno used
Totenkopf insigna on its flags.
A French Hussard de la mort (1792)
Spanish Carlist flag (1838)
Cap badge of the British 17th Lancers.
Prince Ferdinand of Bavaria
Prince Ferdinand of Bavaria wearing the Spanish Lusitania's
Regiment uniform (1914)
The "death's head" was the insignia of Polish Death
1920 (Polish–Soviet War)
Totenkopf on shoulder sleeve insignia of the United States
400th Missile Squadron
400th Missile Squadron uniform sometime between 1995 and
Makhno's flag (1918)
Craft International logo, military training company founded by Chris
Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse, a major enemy in the Wolfenstein
In the United States, the skull & crossbones symbol has often been
used to indicate a poisonous substance.
3rd SS Division Totenkopf
Human skull symbolism
Skull and Bones
Klaus D. Patzwall: Der SS-Totenkopfring. 5th edition: Patzwall,
Melbeck 2010, ISBN 978-3-931533-07-6.
Joost Hølscher (Author, Illustrator): Death's Head, The History of
the Military Skull & Crossbones Badge (The History of Uniform).
1st edition: Éditions Chamerelle 2013, ISBN 978-90-820326-0-4
^ Clemens Brentano: Baron Hüpfenstich - Chapter 2 (Projekt
^ Reid, Stuart (2010). Frederick the Great’s Allies 1756–63.
Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1849081771.
^ Nash, David (1972). The Prussian Army, 1808-1815. Almark Publishing.
p. 54. ISBN 978-0855240752.
^ Osprey Publishing - The Black Brunswickers
^ First World War - Willmott, H. P.; Dorling Kindersley, 2003, Page
Georg von Hantelmann & Kurt Wüsthoff's Fokker D.VII, Jasta 15
^ van Wyngarden, Greg (2011). Osprey Elite Aviation Units #40: Jasta
18 - The Red Noses. Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing. pp. 85–86,
97. ISBN 978-1-84908-335-5.
^ Heinrich Himmler: "Der
Totenkopf ist die Mahnung, jederzeit bereit
zu sein, das Leben unseres Ichs einzusetzen für das Leben der
^ Angolia, John R., and Adolf Schlicht, Uniforms and Traditions of the
Luftwaffe Volume 2, R. James Bender Publishing, San Jose, CA, 1997.
^ María de Sotto, Serafín (1856). Historia orgánica de las armas de
Infantería y Caballería españolas (in Spanish). 16.
^ Colección legislativa del Ejército (in Spanish). 1902.
^ QRL Regimental Association
^ (in French)
^ "New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center -
^ Draner. "1870-1871. Guerre et Commune. Gardes nationaux volontaires,
gardes mobiles..." BNF Gallica (in French). p. 20.
^ "craft internationallogo - Goo