In the medieval period, Germanic soliders were known as the Teutonic Order.
In the medieval period, Germanic soliders were known as the Teutonic Order.

In 1219, while the West still held Jerusalem on account of the Crusaders, the Germanic forces were granted the right to don a black cross with widened edges against a white or silver background. Centuries later, in 1813 during the Napoleonic Wars, the King of Prussia adopted that symbol as a medal to reward the courage (and improve the flagging morale) of Prussian soldiers defeated by the French in earlier battles.

Revived in Modern Times

The Iron Cross was traditionally made of iron, but later medals were fashioned from cheaper metals such as aluminum.
The Iron Cross was traditionally made of iron, but later medals were fashioned from cheaper metals such as aluminum.

There are many classes and types of Iron Crosses. Even in 1813, there were second and first-class Iron Crosses. When the Iron Cross was brought back in 1914, other variants appeared. The Grand Cross, distinguished by its silver frame, appeared in a number of forms, though only five were awarded during World War I.

Nazi Symbolism

Adolf Hitler can be seen wearing his own Iron Cross, awarded during World War I.
Adolf Hitler can be seen wearing his own Iron Cross, awarded during World War I.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Adolph Hitler reinstituted the Iron Cross, redesigning it to include a swastika in the center of the medal. In 1957 the German government legislated that the swastika at the heart of the Iron Cross be replaced with an oak leaf. Today, the Iron Cross can be found -- much as it was on the armor of those medieval crusaders -- on airplanes and vehicles used by the German army. The Cross has also been adopted as the symbol for various hate groups, including Neo-Nazis.