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. When Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was killed in battle during the Napoleonic Wars, his troops changed their uniform colors to black or apple green, with a Totenkopf on their shakos in mourning their dead leader. Other sources claim that the “Black Brunswickers” were so equipped while Friedrich Wilhelm of Brunswick lived, as a sign of revenge on the French.
The skull continued to be used throughout 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 insignia.
The 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.
The 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 Hermann Göring.
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 ϟϟ sieg rune.