Totenkopf (i.e. skull, literally 'dead's head') is the German word for the skull and crossbones (or "death's head") symbol. The "skull and crossbones" symbol is an old international symbol for death, the defiance of death, danger, or the dead, as well as piracy or toxicity. It consists usually of the human skull with or without the mandible and often includes two crossed long-bones (femurs), most often depicted with the crossbones being behind some part of the skull.
The term Totenkopf is commonly associated with 19th- and 20th-century German military use.
The German word Totenkopf is equivalent to the English term "death's head," and connotes the human skull as a symbol, with or without crossbones. (The everyday German word for the skull bone itself is Schädel.)
The word Totenkopf may also be used to refer to a literal skull. For example, in a story by German poet Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), we find the phrase "Lauter Totenbeine und Totenköpfe" used to mean simply "A lot of bones and skulls."
Hussar from Husaren-Regiment Nr.5 (von Ruesch) in 1744 with the Totenkopf on the mirliton (Ger. Flügelmütze)
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.
Totenkopf badge worn by the Brunswick Leibbataillon ("Life-Guard Battalion") at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The Totenkopf was used in Germany throughout the interwar 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 Reichswehrs 5th Cavalry Regiment as a continuation of a tradition from the Kaiserreich.
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 SS sieg rune.
The first version of the SS-Totenkopf; used from 1923 to 1934
The second version of the SS-Totenkopf; used from 1934 to 1945
A skull and crossbones has often been a symbol of pirates, especially in the form of the Jolly Roger, but usually having the crossbones below the skull's lower mandibile (if present) rather than behind it, as used by pirate Samuel Bellamy in one example.
The uniform of the Spanish Army's Lusitania Dragoon Regiment during part of the 18th century included three skull and crossbones in the cuffs, and in 1902 the skull and crossbones insignia was authorized again to replace the regiment number on the sides of the collar.
The British Army's Royal Lancers continue to use the skull and crossbones in their emblem, inherited from its use by the 17th Lancers, a unit raised in 1759 following General Wolfe's death in Quebec. The emblem contains an image of a death's head, and the words 'Or Glory', chosen in commemoration of Wolfe.
In 1792, a regiment of Hussards de la Mort (Death Hussars) was formed during the French Revolution by the French National Assembly and were organized and named by Kellerman. The group of 200 volunteers were from wealthy families and their horses were supplied from the King's Stables. They were formed to defend against various other European states in the wake of the revolution. They participated in the Battle of Valmy and its members also participated in the Battle of Fleurus (1794). They had the following mottos: Vaincre ou mourir, La liberté ou la mort and Vivre libre ou mourir - Victory or death; Freedom or death; and Live free or die.
Although not exactly a Totenkopfper se, the Chilean guerrilla leader Manuel Rodríguez used the symbol on his elite forces called "Husares de la muerte" ("Hussars of death"). It is still used by the Chilean Army's 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
The primarily Prussian 41st Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry, Mustered in: June 6, 1861-Mustered out: December 9, 1865 wore a skull insignia.
The Estonian Kuperjanov's Partisan Battalion used the skull-and-crossbones as their insignia (since 1918); the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion continues to use the skull and crossbones as their insignia today.
Many United States Cavalry reconnaissance troops or squadrons utilize a skull insignia, often wearing the traditional Stetson hat, and backed by either crossed cavalry sabers, crossed rifles, or some other variation, as an unofficial unit logo. These logos are incorporated into troop T-shirts, challenge coins, or other items designed to enhance morale and esprit de corps.