In recent months, the German media and top-level politicians have been up in arms about public outings of a flag that has been traditionally used by Neo-Nazis. During demonstrations of Covid-19 deniers, and most famously during an attempted storming of the Reichstag in Berlin, the German parliament building, on 29 August 2020, the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag) was displayed by members of the crowd. What is this flag, why do Covid-19 deniers use it, and are there good reasons to ban its public display?
When the North German Federation was established in 1867 as a first step towards German unification, the new political entity needed a flag for the use of the merchant navy and its (very few) warships, which were mostly run by Prussia. The colour scheme for both was black-white-red, which combined the Prussian black and white with the red of the Hanse cities Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck. The war flag (Kriegsflagge) of the military navy added an Iron Cross, since 1813 a Prussian military decoration, and the Prussian eagle in the centre, with black-white-red confined to the top inner corner, the canton.
Upon the founding of Imperial Germany in 1871, the colour scheme and flag design were kept, with only minor tweaks implemented in 1903. In 1892, however, the flag for the military navy was renamed: henceforth, it was called the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag). At this point, the flag was still only relevant for its original purpose: to make German warships identifiable on international waters, in accordance with international law.
This only changed when the Imperial Navy was massively expanded in the wake of the 1898 Navy Laws, and became henceforth a cornerstone of the collective imagination, most prominently among radical nationalist pressure groups.
During the First World War, the use of the Imperial War Flag expanded even further. It was not only used in propaganda and on picture postcards, but also in advertisements for chocolate and sparkling wine. A painting by Hans Bohrdt encapsulated the deep sense of belligerence and nationalist defiance that was now associated with the flag. Imagining a scene from the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, it shows a sailor of the light cruiser SMS Leipzig. In the moment of his imminent death, he waves the Imperial War Flag at battleships of the Royal Navy.
The Weimar Republic continued to use the established Imperial design of the flag until 1921, because the command officers of the much-diminished military navy stalled. But from 1922, a new design with the republican colours black-red-gold was in place.
Already since the moment of defeat in November 1918, however, the Imperial War Flag had become a symbol of radical rejection of the new republican order, regularly used by right-wing Freikorps and other military desperados. When the Navy Brigade Ehrhardt entered Berlin during the Kapp putsch in March 1920, they displayed the flag as a matter of course. In Bavaria, a proto-fascist league was renamed as Reichskriegsflagge in 1923. During the Hitler putsch in Munich on 9 November 1923, none other than Heinrich Himmler – not yet a member of the NSDAP, but a member of the league Reichskriegsflagge – held a flagstaff with the eponymous flag.
After the Second World War, the Federal Republic, established in 1949, found legal means to ban the use of Nazi flags and insignia, most prominently the Swastika, first by declaring it a public order offence, and since 1960 via a designated clause in the penal code. Yet this did not affect the Imperial War Flag in its 1867 to 1918 version, as this was legally a marker of the sovereignty of Imperial Germany, not a Nazi symbol. Ever since the 1950s, this distinction has given ‘old’ Nazis – for instance former members of the Waffen-SS – and neo-Nazis licence to display the Imperial War Flag in public.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the neo-Nazi usage of the flag was limited. The floodgates were only opened when Germany won the football World Cup in 1990, and with the German reunification that took place a few months later. Ever since, members and sympathisers of the neo-Fascist party NPD, but also skinheads and other unorganised Neo-Nazi groups have used the Imperial War Flag in their marches and other public outings. When the movement of Covid-19 deniers – much stronger in Germany than in most other European countries – emerged in 2020, the use of the flag became even more prominent, and a regular feature among those who are unified in their radical rejection of the parliamentary democracy of the Federal Republic.
Could the public display of the Reichskriegsflagge be banned? Pending a detailed legal discussion, it probably could, either by labelling it a public order offence or by adapting paragraph 86a of the penal code, thus taking into account that also flags without a Swastika can be used to express Neo-Nazi sympathies.
Should the Reichskriegsflagge be banned? There are good reasons to do so, as it is essentially used as a proxy for the banned Nazi flags that include Swastika symbols, but with the same rationale: to express a fundamentalist rejection of parliamentary democracy. Historically speaking, the Imperial War Flag has been used for that purpose ever since 1919. Ultimately, such a ban would also close a loophole and remove a legal anomaly, because the Imperial War Flag design that was in place from 1933 to 1935 can still be shown, even though it was a national emblem of the Nazi State.
Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Weimar Republic (Oxford: OUP, 2021). An extended German text on the topic of this blog post has appeared in the Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 69 (2021), issue 3: https://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/zeitschrift-fuer-geschichtswissenschaft-69-jg-heft-3-2021/
Cover Image: The painting ‘The last man standing’ by Hans Bohrdt (reproduction on picture postcard, ca. 1916). Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Hans_Bohrdt_-_Der_letzte_Mann_(Ansichtskarte).jpg