While Americans are famously fond of the Stars and Stripes and the British Union Jack has long since adorned clothing all over the world, Germans have a far more complicated relationship with their flag.
Historically speaking, it’s also not all that old. In fact, its tricolor design only had official status for two short periods in the past: from 1848 to 1866 in the German Confederation and from 1919 to 1933 during the Weimar Republic. A fledgling democracy, the Federal Republic of Germany reinstated those black, red and gold stripes – but so did the communist German Democratic Republic.
Yes, indeed, Germany’s flag is a history lesson in itself, with some twists and turns along the way. Here are four interesting facts you should know about the German flag.
1. A red-legged eagle and the Holy Roman Empire
The simple tricolor flag doesn’t have a long history in Germany, but red and gold supposedly do. During the Holy Roman Empire, the coat of arms for the German Nation featured a black Eagle with red legs against a gold background. This has led some to claim that this color combination has its roots in the Middle Ages. However, even if it’s true, they were never the official colors of the empire.
People might not agree on the colors, but that fierce German heraldic eagle has definitely been around for a long time. It showed up with one head as early as 800 AD and even grew a second head in the 12th century. The switch between a single-headed and a double-headed eagle continued until 1871, when the Prussian King and German King Wilhelm I chose the one-headed guy for the imperial coat of arms of the German Empire. After a dark stint as a Nazi symbol, the federal eagle took a cue from the mythical phoenix and rose from the ashes to become an official emblem of a reunified Germany in 1990.
2. It was used to mock the French and celebrate democracy
Pictures of the German Chancellor and French President smiling and shaking hands for the camera may make you think these two countries have always been the best of friends. However, history tells us this is far from the truth. After Napoleon and his allies defeated the Holy Roman Empire, Germany and France entered into a state of rivalry, hostility and violence that lasted almost 150 years.
Black, red and gold were first used as a political symbol after the Wars of Liberation against the French Empire. During the war, the Prussians praised a particular fighting unit known as the Lützower Jäger (Lützow hunters). This unit wore uniforms decorated with gold buttons and red insignias. Black came into play purely by chance. The soldiers had to bring their own uniform, which they dyed black themselves.
Later, the colors were adopted by groups calling for democracy. Black, red and gold flags were waved by the crowds at the pro-democracy Hambach Festival in 1832 – partly to mock the French. The French had their tricolor flag, now the Germans had theirs too. The meaning of this new German flag was national unity and civic freedom. In 1848, the Bundestag (parliament) declared the colors for the German Confederation they wished to found. Black, red and gold flew over the barricades during the revolution of 1848/1849.
3. The flag can make Germans feel uncomfortable
It’s important to mention that the current German flag was never a Nazi symbol. Hitler and his National Socialist cronies ditched the black-red-gold for the swastika. However, because of this dark chapter in the country’s history, many Germans today still feel squeamish about displays of nationalism. True, the flag and its colors still show up at sporting events and over official government buildings. But people don’t usually hang it in front of their homes or wear it on t-shirts.
Unfortunately, right-wing groups have increasingly adopted black-red-gold colors at their rallies and protests. This has led some citizens to equate the German flag with the far-right, although history tells us this is not the case.
4. Bears, griffins and crowned bulls on German state flags– oh my!
The German flag may have a simple design, but the same can’t be said for German state flags. Three German states use black-red-gold stripes combined with coats of arms, while other states use different colors. Most of the flags feature animals such as bears (two states, including the city-state Berlin), lions (seven states), eagles (two states) and horses (two states).
When it comes to state flag design, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Bavaria stand out from the crowds. “Meck-Pom’s” state flag pictures a crowned black bull sticking out his tongue and a fierce-looking griffin. Bavaria, on the other hand, went the minimalist route. Their flag features white and sky blue diamonds or two stripes in these colors, which is why you often see these colors at Bavarian-style beer gardens.
The German flag in a nutshell
The black-red-gold flag has its roots in democracy – and rivalry with France. Reinstating the plain colors after the unification could therefore be considered a strong statement and promise for the future. However, German sentiments towards the flag are likely to remain contentious.
But the same can’t be said for the state flags. So flaunt that Berliner Bär (Berlin bear) or deck yourself in blue and white for Oktoberfest as much as you like. No one will bat an eye.
Rebecca Dean is a freelance writer originally from California who specializes in writing about travel, education, culture and language learning. A long-time Wahlberlinerin (Berliner-by-choice), Rebecca became a dual US/German citizen in 2019. In her free time, she writes fiction, makes jewelry, sings and hangs out with family and friends. You can find Rebecca professionally on LinkedIn and personally on Instagram.