The Flag of Germany

by Josh Spaulding

The Flag of Germany

The Use of the National and State Flag

– The national flag is the German civil flag. It is also used as state flag by the non-federal authorities (e.g. the authorities of the German states use the German national flag together with their own state flag).

– The national flag is further used as state flag by the highest federal authorities (Bundestag, Bundesrat, Bundesversammlung, Chancellery, Constitutional Court) to show their connection to the German people. The other federal authorities use the Bundesdienstflagge as state flag.

– The national flag is used as state ensign by the non-federal authorities. The federal authorities use the Bundesdienstflagge as state ensign.

– The national flag is also used as civil ensign.

– The Bundesdienstflagge is also used as war flag. The German Navy uses the Bundesdienstflagge as war flag on land and the Flag of the German Navy as war ensign. The Flag of the German Navy is also used as Navy Jack.

Origins

There are several theories regarding the origins of this colour scheme and its inherent meaning. The first theory holds that the black and gold combination relates to the colours on the semi-official coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire. These two colors would find their way into the flag of the Austrian Empire, created in 1804 by the last ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II. Within two years, and following Napoleon’s victory over Austria at Austerlitz, the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist. From that time onward, the two colors would be closely associated with Austria’s Habsburg Dynasty, which appropriately became known as the “Black and Gold Monarchy.”

The German relation to black and gold surfaced in the radical 1840’s, when the black-red-gold flag was used to symbolize the movement against the Conservative European Order that was established after Napoleon’s defeat. The area known today as Germany was carved into a loosely-knit German Confederation and republicanism was suppressed. This system preserved peace and maintained order in Europe, smothering the nationalist and liberal tendencies brought to life during the Napoleonic Era.

Only after harsh economic conditions struck in the 1840’s did the radicals and nationalists get their chance to usher in change. During the Springtime of the Peoples, radicals took power and a National Assembly was finally formulated after serious deliberation. Nevertheless, the movement fell apart within a year, as the economy leveled out, radicals lost support and monarchists regained power. Also, internal disputes and numerous disagreements plagued the new government, although it had succeeded in drafting a constitution that declared “Basic Rights for the German People.”

Still, the liberals failed in their efforts to create what is often referred to as a “Greater Germany”. The Frankfurt Parliament had declared the black-red-gold as the official colours of the German Confederation, with the red in the tricolour most likely a referencing the Hanseatic League and the gold and black symbolizing Austria, as its Empire, considered to be “German”, had an influence over (what would become) southern Germany. There are many theories in circulation regarding the origins of the colour scheme utilized in the 1848 flag. It has been proposed that the colors were those of the Jena Student’s League, one of the radically-minded Burschenschaften banned by Metternich in the Carlsbad Decrees. Another claim goes back to the uniforms (mainly black with red facings and gold buttons) of the Lützow Free Corps, comprised mostly of university students, and formed during the struggle against the occupying forces of Napoleon. It is during the mid nineteenth century that red became synonymous with revolution and Karl Marx’s socialist vision. Whatever the true explanation, these colours soon came to be regarded as the national colours of Germany during this brief period, and especially after their reintroduction during the Weimar period, they have become synonymous with liberalism in general.

There are a number of reasons why the Revolutions of 1848 failed, but partisan support was low to begin with, while painfully slow deliberation, conflicting political views and varied economic interests doomed the experiment altogether. Conservatives, such as the Junker class, emerged as the winners. There were other factors involved, including Prussia’s startling growth which, coupled with Austria’s gradual decline, increased the frequency of power-play politics in Central Europe. Still, it was Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm IV – not the Austrians – who rejected the proposal to become Emperor of the Frankfurt liberals’ Germany.

At the same time, Austria’s status as a multiethnic empire complicated the dream of a united Greater Germany – the grossdeutsch solution. Eventually, Prussian leadership, largely influenced by Otto von Bismarck, settled for a Germany that excluded Austria. An important step towards this kleindeutsch solution was the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. Interestingly, the South-German States aligned with Austria, including Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg are said to have flown the black-red-gold flag, further illustrating the distinctions between the present day colour scheme and the northern, Prussian tradition. This direction was finalized after the conflict, as the German Confederation was officially disbanded and Prussia went on to form its unofficial successor, the North German Confederation, in 1867. On June 25 of that year, the coalition adopted a flag that blended the colours of its largest and smallest member Prussia (black and white) and the Hanseatic League (red and white) into a new black-white-red (schwarz-weiß-rot) horizontal tricolour. This flag would also be the national flag for the subsequent German Empire from 1871 to 1918, which finally replaced the German Confederation.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War I this Imperial flag fell into disuse and the new Weimar Republic officially reinstated the black-red-gold sequence on August 11, 1919. Throughout the days of the Weimar Republic there was a debate on which flag to use, causing strong controversy, with monarchists and conservatives in favour of re-adopting the black-white-red flag. In 1926 the old black-white-red flag was once more admitted to use, but only for Germany’s diplomatic missions overseas. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the black-red-gold flag was entirely removed and replaced with the black-white-red, though they would eventually, on September 15, 1935, replace virtually all German governmental flags with designs based on the swastika flag that had been their party flag. It featured the same colours as the Imperial flag, but it was arranged as a red flag with a white disk in the centre containing a black swastika. The old black-white-red flag was then banned by the Nazis as “reactionary”. (See flag of Nazi Germany.)

After the defeat of Germany in World War II, Germany was occupied by the Allies. The Allied Control Council banished the existing national flags, and issued an humiliating order designating the international signal pennant representing the letter “C” (minus a triangular cutout) as the provisional civil ensign of Germany: “C” stood for Capitulation. The Council stated that this “C-Pennant” (German, C-Doppelstander) “shall not be honored, and shall not be dipped as a salute to war and merchant ships of whichever nation.”

After some debate, the black-red-gold flag was once again adopted as the federal flag for the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) on May 9, 1949. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) had initially used the same flag, but on October 1, 1959 it introduced a communist emblem to the centre of the flag: a hammer (symbolizing the workers), and a pair of compasses (symbolizing the intellectuals) inside ears of grain (symbolizing the farmers). This remained almost until the territory of the former GDR was reunified with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990 (the GDR formally removed the emblem shortly before reunification). The flag of the GDR was banned, and any use of it considered a criminal offence, in West Germany during much of the Cold War.