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

Black iron cross isolated on white

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

Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini

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.