National colours of Germany
The national colours of Germany are officially Black, Red and Gold, defined by article 22 sec. 2 of the German Basic Law constitution on the flag of Germany: Die Bundesflagge ist schwarz-rot-gold. ("The federal flag shall be black, red, and gold.").
The colours were used by nationalist and democratic revolutionaries since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, and can be recognized in Holy Roman Empire symbols since the Middle Ages. The "Gold" (Or) is nearly always represented by a shade of Yellow, as there is no distinct color "Yellow" in heraldry; they both count as "Gold".
Though the medieval Holy Roman Empire knew no national colours, a black eagle, referring to the Roman Aquila standard, displayed on a gold shield with red trim had been used on the semi-official Reichsadler of the Emperor since the 12th century. The Imperial colours Black and Gold were adopted by many Imperial cities to underline their immediacy; when the last Habsburg emperor Francis II abdicated from the throne in 1806, he adopted the colours as the flag of his Austrian Empire.
The colours Black, Red and Gold were used e.g. at the election of Frederick Barbarossa as King of the Romans on 4 March 1152 in Frankfurt. According to contemporary sources, the new king's way from Frankfurt Cathedral to the Römer square was covered with a coloured carpet, which was afterwards cut into numerous small parts and distributed to the crowds. A red armed, beaked and langued Imperial eagle was used from the 14th century onwards, as depicted in the Codex Manesse about 1304. According to Friedrich Engels (The Peasant War in Germany, 1850), the insurgents of the 1525 German Peasants' War marched against the Princes under a Black, Red an Gold banner.
Wars of Liberation
Uniforms of the Lützow Free Corps during the German campaign (1813–1814) against French occupation under Napoleon also consisted of a combination of black, red and gold—though mainly for functional reasons: the corps under command of the Prussian major Ludwig Adolf Wilhelm von Lützow was made up of volunteer university students from all over Germany, whose varied clothing was uniformly coloured in black, festooned with common brass knobs and red facings. The Uhlan forces used Red an Black lance pennons.
The Black, Red and Gold resembling the former Imperial colours soon became symbols of the German struggle for freedom, symbolizing the road from servitude (black) through bloody fight (red) to the stars (gold), similar to the per aspera ad astra. This interpretive culture was perpetuated in the memory of venerated martyrs like Theodor Körner. The Red and Black colours with a golden oak leaf cluster were adopted as couleur by the first German national Urburschenschaft student fraternity established on 12 June 1815 in Jena, and publicly displayed on the 1817 Wartburg Festival.
The students' hopes of a national awakening dashed with the implementation of the German Confederation, not a nation state but a loose federation of the German monarchs, who by the 1819 reactionary Carlsbad Decrees banned any fraternity activities. Since then Black, Red and Gold tricolour became a widespread symbol of the pursuit of liberty, democracy and liberal unity, thus the colours were used on horizontal tri-colour flags by Lützow veterans and other democratic revolutionaries of the Hambach Festival in 1832, and in the Revolutions of 1848.
As a result of the 1848 revolutions, the Federal Convention of the German monarchs, who had continued the use of the Imperial Eagle coat of arms in 1815, also adopted the tricolour ("from German time immemorial") in order to steady the nationalist unrest. Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria had the Black, Red, and Gold flag hoisted on St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna and showed himself with the flag on a window of Hofburg Palace. In Berlin, King Frederick William IV of Prussia had to bow to the fallen insurgents of the liberation movement and to wear a Black, Red and Gold armband while riding through the city.
When on 18 May 1848 the Frankfurt Parliament first convened, the city streets were decorated in the "German colours" like the assembly room in St. Paul's Church. On November 12, the parliament passed a resolution whereafter Black, Red and Gold became the German war and merchant flag. However, as official flag of the German Confederation, the tricolour was mainly used in the small Imperial fleet (Reichsflotte), which was dissolved already by 1852. The Frankfurt Constitution adopted in 1849 and never carried into effect, omitted any provision of national symbols. After the dissolution of the Frankfurt Parliament, the tricolour vanished from public space. Mocked by Heinrich Heine as "Old-Germanic rubbish", it nevertheless remained the official flag of the German Confederation, "revitalized" in 1866 as the banner of Austria and her allies in the War with Prussia and the North German states.
Black, White and Red
After the war and the break-up of the German Confederation, the Prussian-led North German Confederation was established at the instance of Minister-President Otto von Bismarck to answer the German question. Another colour scheme was desired, as the Black and Gold colours were associated with Austria. From 187, the Black, White and Red colours became the flag of the newly established federated state; the tricolour derived from the Prussian Black and White colours, and the White and Red flag of the North German Hanseatic cities.
Since the 13th century, a Black cross on White coat had been carried by medieval Teutonic Knights which had founded the State of the Teutonic Order in Prussia. Their Grand Master Hermann von Salza received the rights to bear the Imperial black eagle by the 1226 Golden Bull of Rimini, issued by Emperor Frederick II, to indicate that he enjoyed Imperial immediacy as a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. When the Teutonic state was secularized in 1525 as Duchy of Prussia, the black eagle on a white shield became the Prussian coat of arms. The ruling House of Hohenzollern also had a Black and White family coat of arms.
In addition to the Black and White of Prussia, the White and Red colours of the former Hanseatic League were added. Even though this medieval international trade organization had lost its influence over two centuries earlier, the city-states of Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck, all former Free Imperial Cities, took pride in their centuries-old Hanse tradition. The navy commander Prince Adalbert of Prussia strongly advocated the implementation of a combined tricolour of Prussian Black and White and Hanseatic White and Red as war flag and civil ensign. Bismarck ("I don't care whatsoever about those colors! Whatever, green and yellow and dancing pleasure, or the flag of Mecklenburg-Strelitz...") made no objections.
From the 1871 German unification until 1918, Black, White and Red were widely accepted as the national colours of the German Empire, though they were not officially adopted as Imperial flag by law before 1892. At that time, German nationalism under the rule of Emperor Wilhelm II had overcome Prussian traditions and the colours had evolved to a symbol of German imperialistic politics. Numerous German associations embraced the patriotic tricolour, sports organisations that had been founded prior to World War I often choose White with additional Black and/or Red as their colours.
In the German Revolution of 1918–19, Black, White and Red were abandoned drawing on the "democratic" Black, Red and Gold colours of 1848. In view of Germany's unfortunate position after the lost war and under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, monarchist and German National forces advocated the retention of the "Imperial colours" as a matter of national pride. Until then and up to today, Black, White and Red are often associated with right wing radicalism because of the use by right wing parties and later in far-right circles.
Though even liberal deputies in the Weimar National Assembly spoke against a change of colours, Article 3 of the German Constitution of 11 August 1919 determined Black, Red and Gold both for the tri-colour national flag and the eagle coat of arms of the Weimar Republic. Considering the preceding debates however, the former Black, White and Red colours were retained as the German civil ensign, with Black, Red and Gold in the upper left corner. Not until 1922, the Reichskriegsflagge banner was officially outlawed on ships of the German Navy. The official Black, Red and Gold colours were refused by wide circles in the Reichswehr armed forces and World War I veterans' associations.
The issue of the national colours was, however, continuously debated in the German society. Studentenverbindung organisations emphasized the Greater German meaning of Black, Red and Gold, which have actually been frustrated by the Allied Powers prohibiting the accession of German Austria. Most of the centrist political parties were in favour of the new colours, but many people of all different political views still felt that Black, White and Red were the true colours of Germany. The flag of the Weimar Republic was insulted by conservatives and nationalists, Communists and Nazis alike, who sometimes referred to it as "black-red-yellow" or even "black-red-mustard". Still in 1921, even Gustav Stresemann, chairman of the national liberal German People's Party argued for the reintroduction of Black, White and Red. In May 1926, the German government of Chancellor Hans Luther had to resign after a quarrel over the display of flags at German embassies.
To encounter antidemocratic forces, the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold was founded by members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Catholic Centre Party, and the (liberal) German Democratic Party in 1924. Led by the Social Democrat Otto Hörsing, the defined goal of the organisation was to defend the colours and the parliamentary values they represented. Initially a league of World War I veterans, the Reichsbanner soon evolved to a mass organisation with a membership of more than three million. Increasingly attacked by SA, Stahlhelm and Rotfrontkämpferbund paramilitary groups, it joined forces with the ADGB and AfA trade unions to form the democratic Iron Front. With the Weimar democracy, the Black, Red and Gold colours went down fighting.
Yet, upon the Nazi Machtergreifung when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, the "democratic" colours quickly came out of use, though they were not officially abolished. By order of March 7, two days after the German federal election, Reich President Paul von Hindenburg re-introduced Black, White and Red as official decorations on the coming Volkstrauertag public holiday. Alongside the swastika flag of the Nazi Party, the Imperial colours were restored as a provisional national symbol, subject to a final decision by the German government. The concurrent Nazi flag also used a combination of black, white and red colours, but not in the same way as the old flag of the German Empire. Instead, the "socialist" red was the dominant colour.
After Hindenburg's death on 2 August 1934, Hitler styled himself Führer and Reich Chancellor. By law of 15 September 1935 he declared Black, White and Red again the national colours but made his own Nazi Party swastika the sole national flag and civil ensign of Germany. National conservative protests had become silent. In a speech, Reichtsag president Hermann Göring called the Black, White and Red flag of the German Empire "honorably pulled down".
After World War II, Germany was occupied and divided. Both new states founded in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), took up the colours of black, red and gold again, with the GDR adding their socialist symbols in 1959. As a compromise, the Olympic United Team of Germany, which had first competed in 1956, had to add white Olympic rings to the flag for the games of 1960 and 1964, and also for 1968 when two separate German teams entered under common symbols. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East German citizens cut out the socialist symbols of the East German flag in order to show support for a unification with West Germany, which had also continued the use of the traditional eagle coat of arms, called Bundesadler.
In the Federal Republic of Germany (since 1949), and especially after the 1960s, only very far-right parties use Black, White and Red, especially (radical) conservatives and neonazis. Right-wing populist and national conservative parties, for example The Republicans, pointedly display Black, Red and Gold in their logo. Beside the right wing extremists only the very small group of monarchists display the old colours.
Use of colours in sports etc.
German sports teams often use White as main colour, as organisations that had been founded prior to 1919 often have chosen the prussian colours: White with additional Black and sometimes Red. Examples are the German national football team fielded by the German Football Association (DFB) since 1908, German track and field athletes and rowers who use a red chest ring, and German race cars, which were, according to the international auto racing colour scheme, painted white with red numbers (since 1934, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union have used unpainted metal, or Silver).
After 1918 and 1945, Black-Red-Gold became national colours (again). Organisations founded in that time frame, like the German American Football Association (AFVD) or the German Organisation of Non-Olympic sports IGNOV, often use black-red-gold in their colours, mostly on a white background. In recent years, most national teams of older organisations have added black-red-gold trim to their dresses.
- George Henry Preble: The symbols, standards, flags, and banners of ancient and modern nations, prior to 1900, reprint: Flag Research Center, Winchester, USA.
- Die Sendung mit der Maus - Die deutsche Flagge - Origins of the German flag and its colours (German video)