Black, red and gold - the German flag

Since 1949, the year the Federal Republic of Germany was founded after the war, the civil and state flag of the country is a tricolor with three equally sized, horizontal bands of black, red and gold. However, the flag’s colors were by no means an invention of the postwar years, but rather held some significance since the 19th century, when the black, red and gold combination had already been in use.

After Napoleon’s loss in 1816, the Vienna Congress had created the German Confederation which in reality was a network of almost 40, largely independent states dominated by Austria and - to a lesser extent - Prussia. In the following years, calls for civil rights as well as for a unification of the Confederation states began gaining strength, although the states’ leaders were trying to suppress these movements, trying to uphold the old structures of aristocratic ruling.


Democratic ideas nevertheless continued to be on the rise, fed by more or less successfull attempts at revolution in other European countries. In 1848, a parliament representing all German states in one assembly was elected for the first time. This parliament, which today is often refered to by its meeting place, the Frankfurt Paulskirche, chose black, red and gold as official colors for the Confederation. Up until today, it is not quite certain why exactly these colors had been picked. A number of theories revolve around this issue, one claiming that black and gold were used to depict the Austrian influence while red symbolizes the Hanseatic League. However, it is most likely that the color combination derives from a Prussian corps defending Germany against French occupation in 1813 and whose members came from many different parts of Germany. Lacking a common uniform, the corps leaders dyed all uniforms of the men from various parts of the country black, while buttons remained golden and ensigns mainly red. At the Hambach Festival of 1832, a  gathering of democrats from all ranks of society demanding reforms and the states’ unification, a tricolor flag was flown as a symbol for a united, democratic country.

flag empire

The Paulskirche parliament however, did not have the lasting effects some had hoped for and another eighteen years went by before there would be at least an attempt at creating a unified German country. In 1867, an association of Northern German states was founded. Prussia held the leadership in this association called Norddeutscher Bund and thus, its official flag resembled the Prussian flag in its color scheme of red, white and black. When Prussia within the framework of the new association defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Germany became a nation state for the first time in its history.

The new German Empire did not use the colors that had previously been used to illustrate the fight for such a nation state, but continued to carry the black, red and white flag. These were also going to be the colors under which Germany would enter - and lose - WWI, so when Germany was re-founded in 1919 as the Weimar Republic, the old black-red-gold colors did not have a blemish and officially became the national flag once again.

Some Germans regarded this very act as a dishonor to their country, so when Hitler seized power in 1933, he was quick to re-establish the black-white-red tricolor and ban the black-red-gold flag once again. This, in turn, enabled the new Germany after WWII to have a historically significant flag that had not been associated with the atrocities of the Third Reich. When the future of West Germany was discussed among the Western allies, none of them was too eager to grant the defeated country too many opportunities to display a national identity. However, they faced two challenges: One, the East German government had been quick in setting up national symbols and had already determined black-red-gold as flag colors in 1946. Two, it was desirable to have the new nation become a successor of the Weimar Republic both in the law of nations as well as in the self-concept of the nation and it was thus determined to have black-red-gold as the flag once again. 

Yet, history held another turn of events for the German flag. From 1949 on, the traditional German colors for democracy, black, red, and gold, were also used as flag for the German Democratic Republic in East Germany. In 1959, in an attempt to distinguish the flag from the one used in the West, the government had the socialist symbols of hammer, compass and a ring of rye added to the flag. In West Germany, it became thereupon prohibited to display the German flag in case it was adorned with these symbols - although it was essentially the same flag with the same intended meaning and symbolism.

flag gdr

Finally, in 1990, the black-red-gold tricolor became the national flag for the re-united Germany. Despite the positive symbolism linked to the flag, Germans tended to be reluctant to display the flag. This has changed in the past years, notably since the World Cup of soccer was hosted by Germany in 2006.