Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Totenkopf is the German word for "Death's Head", and is used to describe a military insignia featuring a skull above crossed bones. It is distinguished from the similar traditions of the skull and crossbones and the Jolly Roger by the fact that the bones are positioned directly behind the skull and the lower jaw bone is absent.
Today the symbol and its name are mostly associated with Nazi Germany, particularly the SS and Waffen-SS. However, the use of the symbol as a military insignia began with the cavalry of the Prussian army under Frederick the Great.
Frederick formed Husaren-Regiment Nr.5 (von Ruesch) , a Hussar regiment commanded by Colonel von Ruesch. These Hussars adopted a black uniform with a Totenkopf emblazoned on the front of their Mirletons , and wore it on the field in the War of Austrian Succession and in the Seven Years War.
In 1808, when the regiment was reformed into Leib-Husaren Regiments Nr.1 and Nr.2, the Totenkopf remained a part of the uniform.
However, Prussia was not the only nation to use the Totenkopf. The Kingdom of Sweden's Hussar Regiments wore it in the Prussian Style, on the front of the Mirleton.
During the Napoleonic Wars, when Frederick Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg was killed in battle, his troops changed the colour of their uniforms to black, with a Totenkopf on their Shakos in mourning their dead leader. The deaths head continued to be used throughout the Prussian and Brunswick Armed forces until 1918.
The Totenkopf was used 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 Reichwehr 's 5th Cavalry Regiment.
When the NSDAP came to power, they simply adopted the Totenkopf from the historical tradition and used it for their own purposes (as they did with the Swastika), leaving it marked with a stigma that has continued to the present.
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