• Adrian J. Boas

On a Teutonic Bloom

Updated: May 30, 2019

Montfort keystone (courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority/Metropolitan Museum of Art); cornflower (böhringer friedrich [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

In an effort to distance itself somewhat from its radical far-right image, in 2017 Austria’s Freedom Party replaced its symbol, the cornflower (kornblume), with another flower, the alpine edelweiss. In perhaps an effort to do precisely the opposite, a prominent member of German far right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, Andre Poggenburg, recently chose the cornflower as the symbol of his breakaway AdP (Awakening of German Patriots) party. The brilliant blue cornflower, Centaurea cyanus, has a history as a national emblem in Germany and its origins are generally traced back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

According to a popular tale, when Louise, queen of Prussia fled Berlin to escape from the army of Napoleon, she hid with her children in a field. In order to keep them quiet she weaved them wreaths of cornflowers. One of her children, on whom this apparently left a particularly strong impression, was the future kaiser, Wilhelm I. The cornflower later became known as the emperor's flower - Kaiserblume. Following Bismark's unification of Germany in 1871 it became a symbol of the united Second Reich and of its emperor. After a near fatal assassination attempt in 1878 German citizens sent the kaiser great masses of cornflowers to express their gratitude for his survival. In the twentieth century the cornflower remained a symbol of German nationalism and in the 1930s it was worn by members of the outlawed Nazi party in Austria as a means of identifying one another during the years prior to the Anschluss. Under Hitler, Germany made use of the cornflower symbol and its deep blue colour, similar but somewhat lighter to the colour of the old Prussian military uniforms that gave name to the popular blue pigment - Prussian Blue. The cornflower was the insignia of the 22nd SS Volunteer Cavalry Division which was active on the Eastern Front during the Second World War and cornflower blue was used on many of the ribbons and medals of valour of the Third Reich.

But perhaps the cornflower had considerably earlier German roots. In 1926, during excavations of a large vaulted basement room in the German fortress of Montfort in the western Galilee, workers uncovered a huge, almost intact vault keystone with a carved boss in the form of a cornflower. It had originally decorated the crown of the rib-vaulting in the castle's Great Hall, and when Montfort was dismantled by the Mamluks in 1271 it fell some 20 metres to where it lay until it was uncovered by the excavators six and a half centuries later.

Like another flower which decorated the architecture of Montfort, the fleur-de-lis, it probably already held symbolic meaning. There are other floral motifs in Montfort, but the use of the cornflower in a very prominent location, decorating the ceiling of the ceremonial hall in the Teutonic Order's principal castle and headquarters, suggests that it was not chosen merely for its beauty, but because in the thirteenth century it already had importance as a German emblem.