The German flag, or Flagge Deutschlands, consists of three horizontal stripes of black, red, and gold (top-to-bottom). Like many other European countries, the German national flag has a fascinating and long-standing history, which can be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire. This article below summarizes the flag’s important developments down the history, its design aspects, and its significance.
Design and Color
The flag of Germany
In its present form, the German national flag first appeared in 1950, a year after the formation of West Germany. The flag’s three horizontal stripes of colors black, red, and gold are of equal width and an overall width-length ratio of 3:5.
Article 22 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Germany’s constitution) declares that ‘the federal flag shall be black, red, and gold.’ The hexadecimal values of the German tricolor are Black (#000000), red (#FF0000), and gold (#FFCC00).
According to vexillology, the study of flags, the colors yellow and gold are virtually identical. However, in the case of the German flag, a clear distinction is made.
The German national flag has two variants; one is for civilian use (Bundesflagge), and the other is for use by government authorities (Bundesdienstflagge). The civilian or federal flag of Germany features the plain tricolor of black, red, and gold. Apart from civilians (and non-governmental organizations), the flag is used by various German states along with their coats of arms.
Federal flag of Germany (Bundesdienstflagge)
Bundesdienstflagge (or flag of the federal authorities) has the German federal shield defaced at its center instead of the plain tricolor. The German federal shield, or the ‘Bundesschild,’ is a modern variation of Germany’s coat of arms and is depicted as a black eagle with a red beak and claws on a golden shield.
This variant of the German flag can only be used by federal government authorities, while its civilian use is strictly prohibited. However, civilian use of the national flag defaced with Germany’s actual coat of arms (slightly larger and different shape than the Bundesschild) is accepted.
The German armed forces have used Bundesdienstflagge from time to time as a war flag. Since the 1950s, the German Navy has used this flag (with swallowtail ending) as its ensign.
Just as with other national flags, both the German national flag’s civil and government variants have vertical versions. In fact, many city and town halls in the country use only a vertical banner. No specific dimensions of the vertical flag have been mentioned.
What Does the Flag Symbolize
Various interpretations of the German national colors have been made over the years, and each has multiple symbolism and references.
The black color stands for power, death, fear, aggression, and elegance. Red is the color of love, passion, desire, but it is associated with blood, fire, anger, courage, and leadership. Gold is traditionally associated with material wealth and prosperity, but it’s also linked with compassion and wisdom.
In the early 1800s, at the heals of the Napoleonic Wars, many scholars believed that the color red represented the bloody fight for liberty and freedom.
History And The Origin of the German Flag
The use of black and gold colors in the German ensign can be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire. Since at least the 14 century, these two colors featured on banners of the Roman Emperors: a black eagle with a golden backdrop. The claws and beak of the eagle were depicted in red.
Banner of the Holy Roman Emperor | Image Courtesy: David Liuzzo
More than three centuries later, in 1778, the Principality of Reuss-Greiz (present Thuringia) adopted a tricolor state flag almost identical to the modern-day flag of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was the first-ever recorded appearance of such a flag within the German borders.
During the Late Middle Ages, the color white was also used extensively on German Imperial ensigns. In the 12th century, the Holy Roman Emperors used war banners similar to Norway’s present-day flag (red cross on red background). The Norwegian flag is, in fact, derived from the Holy Roman-era war flag.
When the German Confederation came into existence in 1815, no standard flag was adopted. Instead, each StateState had its separate ensign. One of the banners that emerged, at that time, was the imperial-era horizontal tricolor of black, red, and gold. By the 1830s, it became the symbol of freedom and unity in Germany.
Protesters during the Revolutions of 1848 in Berlin
The tricolor was adopted as the official colors of Germany in 1848 by Frankfurt Parliament, the first freely elected legislative body in the nation’s history. However, the black, red, and gold tricolor was stripped of its status in just two years (collapse of the Frankfurt Parliament).
The German National Flag Between 1867 and 1949
From 1867 until the start of the Second World War in 1918, the German StateState embraced a different tricolor flag. Instead of black, red, and gold colors, the flag of the North German Confederation (formed in 1866) featured horizontal stripes of black, white, and red.
It combined the traditional colors of Persia (black and white) and the Hanseatic League (red and white). The absence of color gold signifies the exclusion of the Austrian Empire from the German State at that time. In 1871, a new constitution transformed the North German Confederation into the German Empire. However, the national flag of black, white, and red color was kept undisturbed.
The flag of the North German Confederation and later, the German Empire
After the end of the First World War in 1918, a new republic was established in Germany. The republic, inspired by the democratic revolutions of the previous century, re-instated the old tricolor as the national flag. Though the black, white, and red tricolor remained in use by the nation’s military organizations.
During the period of economic and political turmoil in Germany, the black, red, and gold tricolor was seen as the symbol of democracy and political moderation.
In 1933, with Hitler in power, the German flag was again scrapped in favor of black, white, and red tricolor. However, this flag’s aspect (height-width) ratio was different from the one used under the North German Confederation.
Another flag that gained prominence in Germany at that time was the banner of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party or the N*zi Party. It replaced the imperial era tricolor as the national flag of Germany in 1935. The infamous N*zi banner, a black swastika on a white circular disk centered on a red background, was first introduced in the 1920s.
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler explains the swastika symbolizes a racially pure state. The flag was deliberately based on the color scheme of the Imperial (black, white, and red) tricolor “to pay homage to the nation’s glorious past.”
After the end of the Second World War, when Germany came under the Allied control, the banner and all related symbols were abolished. Consequently, the Allied council assigned a new flag (maritime signal flag Charlie) to identify German ships in international waters.
Flags Of Divided Germany
In 1948-49, Germany was divided into two blocs; West Germany and East Germany. The initial flag of both East and West Germany was black, red, and gold color (the same as modern-day Germany). However, to make a clear distinction between the two flags, the national emblem of East Germany (a gold hammer and a compass surrounded by ring) was added to their national flag in 1959.
East Germany Flag
Between 1956 and 1964, both East and West Germany participated in the Olympics under a standard flag. However, when the national flag of East Germany was changed in 1959, a separate ensign was created, particularly for the Olympics.
After the Berlin Wall fall in 1989, the East German flag was publicly abolished in quick succession. In many instances, the public hoisted the national colors with the coat of arms of East Germany taken out. It was an act of solidarity.
Finally, on October 3, 1990, the black, red, and gold tricolor became the national flag of unified Germany and has remained since.
Germany Had A Long-Standing Fear Over the Flag
Ever since the end of the Second World War, the use of national emblems and even flags have remained moderately low in Germany. It was a widespread fear that those symbols could be used in propaganda – something that the nation had already seen before.
FIFA World Cup 2006 | Image Courtesy: Arne Müseler
However, that fear disappeared during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, when the national tricolor was used extensively throughout the country for the first time in more than five decades. Then in 2014, the public use of the national flag exploded in Germany after winning the FIFA World Cup.