The Nazis and the modern far right complicated Germans' relationship to the country's national symbols. Now seen mainly during sporting events, experts say all Germans can take pride in the black, red and gold flag.
For two weeks, all over the country, German flags fluttered on cars, on balconies, and in allotment gardens. They were a visible expression of cheerful patriotism, and they lasted from the German national team's first defeat by France until its last, by England. As Italy and England face off Sunday in the final of the European Championships and Germany having bowed out, the flag and the face paint have both been stowed away — most likely until next year's World Cup, as long as Germany qualifies.
It was another soccer tournament, the 2006 World Cup in Germany, that marked a turning point in the way Germans related to their flag. "A time to make friends" was the official motto of the championship, and it was the first time the Germans waved their national flag en masse.
"If you compare the stadium crowds [at the World Cups in Germany] in 1974 and in 2006, you can see a huge difference. In 1974, a few people had flags. In 2006, almost everyone had a flag. This was the moment when Germans acknowledged their flag and were happy to wave it," said Harald Biermann, communications director of the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, a museum that focuses on contemporary German history.
Of course, the national flag is not simply merchandise, as the website of the German Bundestag points out: "Germans identify with these colors as they seldom have before in their eventful history, and this is expressed in many places, not just at soccer World Cups." Is this really the case, or is it wishful thinking on the part of national lawmakers?
Burdened by national feelings
The relationship of its citizens to their own flag is more complicated in Germany than in almost any other country in the world, Biermann told DW. He emphasized that this makes Germany a "total exception" among the industrialized developed nations where national flags daily fly in front of government buildings and even people's front lawns.
Each society has its own unique way of dealing with national symbols, and, at first, outsiders often find these peculiarities hard to understand. Something people in other countries may take for granted, such as wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Vive la France!" or "God bless America!" doesn't transfer easily to Germany. The same is true of the way people view the German flag. But why is this?
Biermann explains it as a consequence of recent history. "Basically, it must be said that Germans have a difficult relationship with national feelings, and the colors black-red-gold are associated with those feelings. Because of the history of National Socialism, many people struggle with their attitude to the nation and to national feelings. This burden still weighs on people, and it takes a toll on our relationship to the nation."
Not a Nazi symbol
Enrico Brissa is the author of the book "Flagge zeigen! Warum wir gerade jetzt Schwarz-Rot-Gold brauchen" [Show your colors! Why we need black-red-gold right now]. "The way we deal with state and national symbols is characterized by mistakes and confusion because our relationship to our state and nation has not been a consistent one; furthermore, it is one that has been, and is still, repeatedly brought up for discussion," he said.
Many symbols from the National Socialist era are banned by German law. The use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations is punishable by up to three years in prison. These symbols include things like the swastika and the Nazi salute. The use of such symbols that have not been declared illegal is also widely avoided by general society.
But Biermann said black-red-gold has nothing to do with either National Socialism or dictatorship: "Quite the opposite. Black-red-gold wasn't used under National Socialism. Instead, the swastika flag became the national symbol."
The German national colors first appeared as a combination in the 1813-1815 "Wars of Liberation" against Napoleon. They were used as uniform colors by the Lützow Free Corps, a volunteer unit of the Prussian army, whose uniform consisted of black fabric, red piping, and gold buttons. Over the years that followed, the colors became more widely used, and in 1848 the Frankfurt National Assembly designated a flag with these three colors the official flag of the German Confederation.
Black, red and gold, it said, were the colors of the flag "under which liberals and democrats joined together to found a common state through the national movement," after which, in the Weimar Republic of 1919, it was "established as the flag of the first German democracy."
But this flag was rescinded by the Nazis when they seized power. "In that sense, black-red-gold really is completely untainted in every respect," Biermann said.
'Insidious reinterpretation' since 2014
But even if the Nazis were less interested in the colors of today's German flag, right-wing extremists have flocked to them.
"Since the autumn of 2014, we have also been dealing with an insidious reinterpretation of our national colors," Brissa said. "The joy over the World Cup victory in Brazil had not yet faded when, a few months later, the [far-right, anti-Islam] PEGIDA demonstrations began in Dresden. Since then, black-red-gold has become a constant, highly visible accompaniment to right-wing protests 'against the system.' The big presence of these colors on the streets has been surpassed by their even bigger presence on social media. Since then, too many of our citizens believe that black-red-gold is a symbol of the extreme right — which, of course, is nonsense."
In a speech in November 2020, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the German flag should not be abandoned by society and left to the right-wing extremists.
"Black, red, gold — these are the colors of our democratic history," he said. "We must not allow them to be appropriated and misused by those who want to ignite fresh nationalist hatred."
Gaps in knowledge and education
According to Biermann, one of the reasons for people's uneasy relationship with the German flag is a lack of knowledge about the history and significance of the three colors.
"Many Germans simply don't know what the symbol black-red-gold actually stands for. It must be said that this is a failure on the part of schools," he says. Consequently, people are not sure what Germany's national colors actually mean.
Brissa is committed to raising awareness about black-red-gold: "The aim is to persuade more people to develop positive feelings for the symbols of our state, and to connect with them because they have a better understanding of their meaning and content."