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History of the Iron Cross - Maltese Cross

Forget all other previous meanings, the Iron Cross today means that you are part of the chopper world, whether it is riding them, building them, or in some other capacity. Having said that, here is more of a historical view on the Iron and Maltese Crosses:

Since man has had the capacity to understand religion, religious beliefs have played a large role in war and conflicts: from the crusades, through the American Revolution, World War II, Vietnam and present day Iraq, including every battle in between and those yet to come. Due to the impact religious beliefs have on military altercations it seems only natural that religious symbolism be used in military decoration of all types. With every battle being fought for "God and country" it is only logical that some of the most honorable military decorations and awards in the world contain religious symbols. The cross, though used in several variations, is the most widely used religious symbol in military decoration.

Of all the military crosses, the most infamous is Germany's IRON CROSS. Thanks to the negative impact Adolf Hitler has left upon civilization, the Iron Cross has become somewhat tainted. Prior to Hitler it had always been a glorious medal that represented bravery and heroism. It seems to be making a comeback as a symbol of bravery and individualism over the past few decades.

The Iron Cross is quite often confused with the Maltese Cross. The shape of each cross actually evolved from the cross pat`ee; the Iron Cross retains the actual shape of the cross pat`ee, the Maltese cross however has deep V cuts into each arm of the cross forming the eight-pointed cross of the Knights of Malta.

The significant difference between the two remains in their meaning and place in history.

The Maltese Cross

The definition of a Maltese Cross is one which conforms to a strict definition ("a cross of made from four straight lined pointed arrowheads, meeting at their points, with the ends of the arms consisting of indented 'v's") is without doubt a Christian symbol. However before examining the use of the cross described as "Maltese", the meaning of the cross needs to be considered.


The Cross as a Christian Symbol.

The cross is a symbol adopted to remind Christians of our Lord's saving death - and with an empty cross his resurrection! Otherwise it is a quite neutral symbol, often in its form of equal sized arms, used in art due to the symmetry of design. Even as used by Christians, Christian artists have been inspired to produce many variations on the theme. Christian countries used the cross as the main symbol of decorations awarded to those who served the nation.

The Maltese cross, used as an identifying insignia on the habit of the Knights of Malta, was for the purpose of identifying themselves from their enemies. The Knights of Malta, also known as the Knights of St. John or the "hospitialers" was a religious order founded by Amalfitian merchants around the year 1070. The purpose of the order was to aid and care for pilgrims making the journey to the Holy Land. In 1136 the knights became a fully militarized order. The Knights driven out of Syria had been fleeing years of persecution by Islamic forces acquired Malta as their Sovereign Land from Charles V of Spain in 1530. This is the time that the Maltese Cross evolved into the present day form. The cross is described as a white eight pointed cross.
The eight points of the cross are believed to represent the eight vows the knights had to observe:

1) live in truth;
2) have faith;
3) repent of sins;
4) give proof of humility;
5) love justice;
6) be merciful;
7) be sincere and whole hearted;
8) endure persecution.

Although many countries and organizations throughout the world use crosses that are similar if not exact in shape to the Maltese Cross, the fact remains that the Maltese Cross has its own specific purpose and should not be confused with other decorations or medals that have their own purpose.

The Iron Cross


The iron cross was originally introduced in 1813 by Kaiser Frederic Wilhelm and designed by Karl Friedrich as a campaign medal award- ed for acts of heroism, bravery and leadership. The original iron cross consisted of a blackened iron core in the shape of the cross patt`ee, surrounded by a two-piece silver frame that is soldered together. The center of the cross has a sprig of three oak leaves, while the upper arm has the cipher FW (Frederic Willhelm) surmounted by the Prussian crown, and the lower arm has 1813 for the year of introduction; the reverse of the medal is plain. The iron cross reintroduced in the Franco Prussian War of 1870 - 1871 and in the First World War 1914 - 1918 differed only slightly from the original. The face of the medal was altered by placing the cipher W in the center of the cross, the Prussian cross on the upper arm and the year of the individual war on the bottom arm. The reverse of the medal was the same as the face of the original iron cross.

Adolf Hitler reintroduced the iron cross for the last time on Sept. 1st, 1939. Once again the decoration of the cross was altered. The cipher W was replaced with the Swastika, and the lower arm the year date 1939, the reverse only has the introduction date 1813 on the lower arm.


There are three classifications of the iron cross; the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, the Iron Cross first class and the Iron Cross second class. The crosses of each class look identical, the designation between them is the manner in which they are worn. The Grand Cross was slightly larger than the first and second class crosses and was worn around the neck from a ribbon. The Iron Cross first class was either a pinned back or a screw back medal worn on the left side of the recipient's uniform. The Iron Cross second class was worn suspended from a ribbon on the left side of the recipient's uniform.

The first three periods of introduction had a non-combatant's version of the Iron Cross and were awarded regardless of nationality. The designation between the combatant's and non-combatant version were the orders in which the colors on the ribbons appeared. The combatant ribbon would have strips of color in the following order; black, white, broad black, white, black. The non-combatant's version would be the reverse; white, black, broad white, black, white. This is the only differentiation between the two versions.
The 1939 version of the Iron Cross was awarded in seven grades:

1) Iron Cross second class
2) Iron Cross 1st class
3) Knights Cross of the Iron Cross
4) Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with oak leaves
5) Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with oak leaves and swords
6) Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with oak leaves, swords and diamonds
7) Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.

Hitler did not reintroduce the non-combatant version of the Iron Cross. He instead established the War Merit Cross. The ribbon colors of the Iron Cross were also changed in 1939. The colors were black, white, broad brick red, white, black; the broad red stripe was instituted into the ribbon to represent the blood shed in the First World War.

The meaning behind the Iron Cross represents the same principal value as other cross medals such as the British Military Cross, Victoria Cross, or the United States Distinguished Flying Cross, Navy Cross, or Army Distinguished Service Cross. It is unfortunate that the Iron Cross is not held in such high esteem as these other medals.

Many today believe that the iron cross no longer has such a negative association with it. It has been brought into the mainstream ironically by bikers and more specifically, chopper builders and riders. Most today feel that the Iron Cross is one’s badge of belonging to the chopper world and also a symbol of courage and freedom. It should be worn proudly.