Protestors in Germany are waving the German Imperial Flag. It’s a direct assault on German democracy.
During recent demostrations in Berlin, protesters have been waving Germany’s old black, white and red Imperial flag. Because of Germany’s history, this is not just an expression of nostalgia or quaint, old-fashion monarchism. It is a direct assault on Germany’s tradition of post-war democratic rule.
First, A Little History.
In the past 150 years, the German nation has had four flags.
From the founding of the German nation in 1871 until the end of the World War I, the German national flag was composed of three equal horizontal bands of black- white-red. This was the flag of Imperial Germany. It is known as the Reichs flag because it was the symbol of the German Empire, or Reich, which was ruled by an Imperial Emperor, or Kaiser. This was the flag under which Germany started, fought and ultimately lost World War I.
With Germany’s defeat in 1918, the German Empire was dissolved by the victorious Allies and the Kaiser was deposed. Following the fall of this old order, German representatives meeting in the City of Weimar adopted, under the watchful eyes of the Allied armies, a new constitution which put in place for the first time in German history a Republic governed as an elected, representative democracy. Because it was founded in the City of Weimar, it became known as the Weimar Republic.
The Republic did away with the old Imperial Reichs Flag and adopted a new flag composed of black-red-gold bands. These colors harkened back to the colors associated with an earlier but unsuccessful attempt in 1848 to establish a representative democracy in parts of what would ultimately become the German nation. The new flag was meant to demonstrate Germany’s break with its old autocratic and militaristic forms of goverance and to symbolize its new commitment to liberal democratic values.
The Weimar Republic lasted less than 15 years. From its very start many Germans saw it as illegitimate. Those on the right, many of whom believed that the German nation had somehow been betrayed into losing the Great War, saw the liberal democratic Weimar Republic as a alien form of government imposed on them by, and doing the bidding of, foreign powers. Many on the left, especially the more radical socialists and communists, did not believe the political changes in Germany had gone far enough and saw the Republic as a mere fig leaf disguising the fact that the same old economic and military powers still controlled Germany. The Republic, in its short life, had to put down armed rebellions from both sides. The black-red-gold flag of the Republic was reviled by both extremes.
In 1933, after years of accelerating political strife and repeated economic crisis, the Weimar Republic came to end. A party of the far right, the National Socialist Workers Party, known by the acronym for its name in German as the Nazis, won a majority of seats in the German Parliament or Reichstag. Within months of that victory, the party’s leader, Adolph Hitler, did away with the nation’s representative democracy. He banned political parties, imprisoned oppostion leaders, shut down the Reichstag, and instituted one -party dictatorial rule.
Hitler also abolished the flag which had represented the liberal democratic values of the despised Weimar Republic. In its place he initially adopted two flags to be the national flags of Germany: the old Imperial flag was reintroduced and the flag of the Nazi Party, the red, white and black Swastika flag, were adoped as national flags. After 1935, the use of the Imperial flag was abandoned and only the Nazi Swastika flag remained as the official flag of the German state.
With the end of Nazi rule in 1945, that part of Germany not under Soviet domination again established (once more under the watchful eyes of victorious Allied armies) a democratic republican form of government. This is the Federal Republic of Germany with which we are familiar today. It has now lasted over 75 years.
For the flag of this new German Republic, its leadership readopted the black-red-gold flag of the Weimar Republic. Its readoption was meant as an affirmation of the democratic values which the Weimar Republic had attempted to introduce and maintain in German political life, and as a decisive rejection of both the Nazi and Imperial authoritarianism of the German past.
In additon to adopting the Weimar Republic’s black-red-gold flag, the new Federal Republic outlawed the use or display of the Swastika flag and all other Nazi symbols and regalia. It also made it a part of the newly adopted German Constitution that the flag of the new Federal Republic could not be defamed or defaced. Given the symbolic history of Germany’s national flags, the founders of the Federal Republic realized that an assault on its flag would symbolize an assault on its legitimacy and core democratic values.
Fortunately, for most of the history of the current Federal Republic, the issue of flags has been a non-issue. In point of fact, after their excessive use by the Nazis, the use of flags generally in Germany was frowned upon. This included even the approved national flag. It was used almost exclusively by federal- level governmental agencies on official occasions. It was seldom seen at more popular events such as sporting events, and was not typically present in schools, churches, or even town squares. Unlike in America, where politicans often appear at campaign rallies surrounded by dozens of American flags, German politicians tended not to use the national flag in a partisan political context.
But recently the question of flags has moved back to center stage in German politics.
The German Reichstag Is Attacked.
On August 29th, over 30,000 people descended on Berlin to protest the German government’s COVID-19 restrictions. As in America, the crowd was made up of a wide range of persons and interests. Corona skeptics, religious fundamentalists, hippies, health- food advocates, conspiracists, all were present. Many came simply to assert their right to protest by being part of a demonstration that the officials had tried initially to ban. But according to reports, a significant number of far-right protestors were there because it was an opportuity to protest the very legitimacy of the current German political order.
At some point near the end of the rally, several hundred protestors broke through some unmanned security fences, rushed the steps of the Reichstag building, and tried to enter it by force. Security guards were able to stop them, but fighting broke out on the steps and entry porch of the Reichstag building.
Nothing like this had happened in the history of the Federal Republic. Respect for the nation’s democratic institutions such as its national parliament, symbolized by the Reichstag building itself, has been one of the commonly agreed upon guiding principles of post-war German politics.
To see this building attacked was shocking enough, but what made the event even more traumatic was that many of the protestors fighting on the steps of the Reichstag were waving the old black-white-red Imperial German flag.
The use of that flag in this context was immediately understood to be an attack on Germany’s post-war democracy. Germany’s President, Frank- Walter Steinmeier stated, “Reich flags and far-right profanity in front of the German parliament are an unacceptable attack on the heart of our democracy. We will never accept this.”
An Erosion of Democratic Norms?
Steinmeier was right to be concerned. This incident is but the latest in a series of events within Germany indicative of a steady erosion of political and democratic norms.
The AfD, an avowedly right-wing political party preaching a new brand of German nationalism has become a real force in German politics. More outwardly extreme groups such as PEGIDA hold public, and sometimes violent demonstrations, the point of which is to demonize and attack immigrants and other minorities. There have been several high profile physical attacks on politicians, including the murder of a District President, perceived as too liberal or too welcoming of immigrants. Jews within Germany are subject to a rising number of attacks. An increasing number of members of the German military and police forces have been implicated in far-right groups and activities.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it can rhyme, to paraphase Mark Twain. All of these problems are ones the leaders of the Weimar Republic would, unfortunately, recognize.
A stable and democractic Germany has been one of the bedrocks of Europe’s post-war order. That bedrock is under increasing threat. The open use of the Nazi flag as a symbol of Germany’s potential for another destructive anti-democratic turn remains outlawed — for now.
But the return of Germany’s flag wars is not a hopeful sign.