The Iron Cross was a Prussian military medal awarded for extreme bravery through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. But Germany no longer pins it on its gallant soldiers; furthermore, they’re banned from production in the country.
That’s because the Nazis coopted the Iron Cross.
Hitler personally awarded lots of them, including an extra-special Grand Cross to Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring for blitzing the hell out of Holland, Belgium and France.
Despite this link with the epitome of evil, Iron Crosses appear in America.
Heavy Rebel Weekender, Winston-Salem’s long-running rockabilly festival, features everything from bands and tattoos to burlesque and a pre-’72 car show, which I attended on July 2, hoping to see some beautiful American muscle cars and hot rods. Of all the cars lined up and down Trade Street and its tributaries, perhaps no other car attracted more attention than Weekend Warrior.
Weekend Warrior resembled no other jalopy I’d ever seen before. True to its name, the car boasted an impressive arsenal of no less than a half-dozen plastic firearms, ammo boxes and belts loaded with spent .30-caliber brass, a grenade hood ornament and a shark-mouth paint job on the sides of the hood reminiscent of World War II-era nose art found on Curtiss P-40 Warhawks flown by the 1st American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers.
Other military allusions were plastered on the Warrior. A ginger pinup leaned seductively on the rear-left side of the car in a ’40s-style livery painting. POW/MIA logos appeared on the automobile, as did the saying, “All gave some, some gave all.”
The Weekend Warrior was a kitsch masterpiece, unrecognizable from its original form.
“It’s a Volkswagen!” one gawking woman said. “A ’67 Volkswagen! Where in there, I don’t know.”
Many hot-rodders repurpose old Beetles due to their ubiquity and relatively low purchase price, dubbing the final product “Volksrods.”
The Warrior’s country of origin explained another military design — one that made my skin crawl.
On the ridiculous spoiler that surely does nothing to improve its alleged “0-50 in 11 minutes” acceleration time, an Iron Cross was painted.
If I’m anything, I’m anti-fascist, thus leading to my discomfort; after spying the symbol, I backed away slowly and ogled a pristine ’61 Chevy Biscayne coupe in Carolina blue.
I’m also ignorant. So I did some research.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Iron Cross, though illegal in Germany, holds a different history in America. Two ’60s countercultures — bikers and surfers — adopted the cross in the postwar world. Surfers especially were known to wear the Iron Crosses their GI fathers looted from soldiers across the Western Front. Bikers used the medal for its shock value. Neither group adopted the design to make nationalistic or supremacist statements.
Also, I’d forgotten this: While Germany disavowed the Iron Cross as a medal, the Bundeswehr — the country’s armed forces — still uses a modified version of the symbol as its insignia and decorates heroes with a gold Cross of Honour for Valour.
After my reading, I found myself less disturbed by the Iron Cross on display at the car show.
Even the ADL states, “The use of the Iron Cross in a non-racist context has greatly proliferated in the United States, to the point that an Iron Cross in isolation […] cannot be determined to be a hate symbol. Care must therefore be used to correctly interpret this symbol in whatever context in which it may be found.”
While my gut reaction was unfounded, it still nags me.
Symbols carry different meanings in the eye of each beholder. Some symbols may not faze certain groups, but others may take offense.
I associate the Iron Cross directly with Nazism because I’m a history nut; a bonus negative association comes the Axis occupation of Greece, which my grandparents endured.
Still, I get why some may not link the cross with hate. To them, it’s a nonconformist badge.
But let’s compare it with a design we all recognize: the Confederate Flag.
The Stars and Bars polarizes our nation. The argument, “Heritage, not hate,” always arises in discussions over its meaning. And many well-meaning Southerners fully believe in this side of the debate and proudly fly the flag, whether it’s pasted on the rear windshields of pickups or waved at Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts.
Yet, in the present political climate, many interpret the flag as the ultimate American regalia of white supremacy; those who refuse acknowledgement of its problematic status run the risk of abetting racism.
Similarly, the Iron Cross persists as a neo-Nazi signifier. In 2011, the ADL reported white supremacists’ increasing association with the motorcycle clubs popularizing the cross’ harmless status.
Maybe I’m being a reactionary, overly PC liberal by letting it shake my nerves. After all, it’s not as though I believe the owner of Weekend Warrior is a Nazi; after the initial shock wore off, I figured the cross was benign. None would doubt the owner’s patriotism.
And I saw it elsewhere: For example, tiny Iron Crosses adorned the tops of door locks in a ’33 Ford V8 coupe, the very same car from Chuck Berry’s classic, “Maybellene”: “Nothin’ outrun my V8 Ford.”
Nor do I fear any Heavy Rebel Weekenders. Those I’ve met are delightful people, as full of hate as newborn babies.
But maybe, in these tumultuous times of further normalized bigotry, we should rethink whether the Iron Cross remains innocuous or not.