Origins and Symbolism of the German National Flag

Full Frame Shot Of German Flag

Jörg Farys/EyeEm/Getty Images

These days, when you come across a larger number of German flags, you are probably running into a bunch of soccer fans or walking through an allot settlement. But as many state flags, also the German one has quite an interesting history. Even though the Federal Republic of Germany wasn’t founded until 1949, the country's flag, bearing the tricolors black, red, and gold, is actually much older than the year 1949. The flag was created as a symbol of hope for a united state, that didn’t even exist at that time.

1848: A Symbol of Revolution

The year 1848 was probably one of the most influential years in European history. It brought revolutions and massive change in many areas of daily and political life all over the continent. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, hopes for a united non-authoritarian German state were quickly disappointed as Austria in the South and Prussia in the North achieved practical domination over the patchwork of dozens of smaller kingdoms and realms that were Germany back then.

Shaped by the traumatic experience of French occupation, in the following years, the incrementally educated middle classes, especially the younger people, were appalled by the autocratic rule from the outside. After the German revolution in 1848, the National Assembly in Frankfurt declared the constitution of a new, free, and united Germany. The colors of this country, or rather its people, were to be black, red, and gold.

Why Black, Red, and Gold?

The tricolor dates back to the Prussian resistance against Napoleonic Rule. A squad of voluntary fighters wore black uniforms with red buttons and golden trimmings. Originating there, the colors were soon used as a symbol of freedom and nation. From 1830 onwards, more and more black, red, and gold flags could be found, even though it was mostly illegal to fly them openly as the people were not allowed to defy their respective rulers. With the beginning of the revolution in 1848, the people took to the flag as the emblem of their cause. 

Some Prussian cities were practically painted in its colors. Their inhabitants were fully aware of the fact that this would humiliate the government. The idea behind the use of the flag was, that a united Germany should be constituted by the people: One nation, including all of the different realms and territories. But the high hopes of the revolutionaries didn’t last long. The Frankfurt parliament basically dismantled itself in 1850, Austria and Prussia once more took over effective power. The hard-won constitutions were weakened and the flag was once again forbidden.

A Short Return in 1918

The later German Empire under Otto von Bismarck and the emperors, that did unite Germany after all, chose a different tricolor as its national flag (the Prussian colors black, white and red). After World War I, the Weimar Republic emerged from the rubble. The parliament was trying to set up a democratic constitution and found its ideals represented in the old revolutionary flag of 1848. The democratic values this flag stands for could of course not be tolerated by the National Socialists (die Nationalsozialisten) and after they seized the power, the black, red, and gold was again replaced.

Two Versions from 1949

But the old tricolor returned in 1949, twice even. As the Federal Republic and the GDR were formed, they reclaimed the black, red, and gold for their emblems. The Federal Republic clung to the traditional version of the flag while the GDR changed theirs in 1959. Their new variant bore a hammer and a compass within a ring of rye.

It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, that the one national flag of a united Germany should finally be the old symbol of the democratic revolution of 1848.

Interesting Fact

Like in many other countries, burning the German flag or even trying so, is illegal according to §90 Strafgesetzbuch (StGB) and can be punished with up to three years in prison or a fine. But you might get away with burning the flags of other countries. In the USA though, the burning of flags isn't illegal per se. What do you think? Should burning or damaging flags be illegal?

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Schmitz, Michael. "Origins and Symbolism of the German National Flag." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Schmitz, Michael. (2020, August 27). Origins and Symbolism of the German National Flag. Retrieved from Schmitz, Michael. "Origins and Symbolism of the German National Flag." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).