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by Marcus Schmöger, 22 February 2002
In 1914, the German Empire entered into the conflict which acquired the name of the First World War. When in the fall of 1918, Germany was finally clearly losing the war, disorder and rebellion broke out in many places in Germany. Among others, on October 28th 1918, the large naval garrison at Kiel, with the ships in port, mutinied and at least some lowered their ensigns and raised red flags. As far as I know, these were plain red flags, although some may have had the initials or names of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) or, less likely, the Social Democrats (SPD). When on 21st June 1919, the German fleet of 10 battleships, and 169 smaller ships scuttled their ships at Scapa Flow (Scotland) rather than surrender, the reports that mention flags indicate that they were flying the Imperial ensign.
During the overthrow of the monarchy in November, there are many reports of the use of red flags as symbol of the new order: on the 9th and 10th, red flags were raised at the railway station at Mannheim, at the palace of the crown prince and the castle in Berlin, at the Royal Palace in Leipzig, and carried by troops marching through the street in Berlin. In addition many of the ships also raised the red flag. Some of these represented the fledgling Communists, but many were more identifying with the new Social Democratic government. For instance, the auto carrying Chancellor (later President) Ebert flew a red flag on November 9 and 10. The confusion concerning flags can be seen in some photographs of the period. For example, in a picture showing the Guard Division marching into the Pariserplatz (in front of the Brandenburg gate) on December 10th, 1918, it is not clear what flags outside of white and black lance pennons the troops are carrying, but the welcoming crowd has red flags, black-white-red tricolors, Imperial Ensigns and black-red-gold flags. In a picture about a month later showing the 47th division, returning from the front, marching into the same square, the troops are marching under the black-white Prussian colours, soon to become the official Landesflagge of Prussia, while the buildings are decorated with Imperial ensigns and a few black-white-red tricolors. There are many pictures during this period of soldiers flying red flags. During the Spartacist uprising (December 1918-March 1919), the Volksmarinedivision and other Communist units flew of course the red flag.
Although I have several dozen photographs of government troops during the uprising, not one shows any flags even one of a parade has no flag visible. It is difficult to be certain about flags during such periods of political upheaval. In general, one cannot assume that old flags were being used merely because new official ones had not been adopted, nor can one necessarily conclude that old ones were discarded merely because the new government was not fond of them. I could make some guesses, but I am trying to report what I have really good reason to believe.
Norman Martin, 1998
Article 3 of the Weimar Constitution provided for the national flag (Reichsfarben) to be black-red-gold. Technically, I suppose the previous national flag (black-white-red) would have continued in effect until then. One might also say that Germany had no national flag from the proclamation of the Republic on November 1918, or that the black-red-gold or the red flag was de facto in use in this period; in fact, all three flags and some others were intermittently in use, but none had a constitutional basis until the adoption of the Weimar Constitution.
Norman Martin, 16 September 1998
The defeat in the First World War and the revolution brought about significant flag changes in the German Empire. The German flag debate is one of the best known quarrels about national symbolism. It is not so well known that, due to the political turmoil and inexact specifications, it is far from easy to tell the story of German national flags of the Weimar Republic period (1919-1933). The key dates are 1919, 1921, 1926 and 1933. The nationalsocialist regime soon replaced the black-red-gold flags with black-white-red flags and swastika flags in 1933. However, the series of regulations in the first months of the nationalsocialist regime provided uncertainty and confusion regarding the flags.
Marcus Schmöger, 22 February 2002
It is a bit confusing in English to use the adjective 'imperial' in connection with Weimar-era flags. My first thought when I read 'imperial colors' was black-white-red the colors of the Second Reich or Imperial Germany. I realize that 'Reich' is rather a generic term in the German language, not necessarily meaning 'imperial', but I think that 'national' is a better English translation of the word for our purposes.
Tom Gregg, 22 February 2002
The question is, what is the meaning of 'imperial' (and what means 'national') and what is the meaning of 'Reich'. Up to 1806 and 1871-1945 Germany was always called a 'Reich'. The name Deutsches Reich was the same 1871-1918 (monarchic system) as 1919-1933 (republic) as well as 1933-1945 (nationalsocialist regime). So at least we have to call German flags consistently, and should not make a difference between monarchic times and republican times. 'Reich' itself was (from medieval times) the basis of the state idea in the territory which is now called Germany (and much beyond). The term was, of course, a translation of the word (and idea) 'imperium' from Roman times. The so-called Holy Roman Empire saw itself as the successor of the 'imperium Romanum' and called itself 'imperium Romanum'. This state idea was revived, at least in part, with the Kaiserreich of 1871, and not abolished 1918/1919.
I do not know so much about the history of the word 'empire' and 'imperial' in English. I always had the impression that it is (almost) as ambivalent as 'Reich' in German. On the one hand 'empire' means 'a group of countries under a single supreme authority' (Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English, 1983 ed.), such as the British Empire: a motherland with all the colonies and dominions etc. On the other hand, of course, it has the connotation: a country or group of countries under a monarchic ruler of higher rank than a king/queen, i.e. a Kaiser. With the 'British Empire' one would not automatically link the fact that the British king/queen was Emperor/Empress of India. So 'empire' and 'imperial' does not automatically mean Kaiser-.
On the other hand, 'national' is a political category, that was never properly applicable for Germany. The old Reich (up to 1806) was no nation-state, the Reich of 1871 tried to be something like a compromise between a nation-state of the Germans (but without the Germans in Austria-Hungary) and the old Reich idea, the Weimar Republic was not sure about that whole thing, and the nationalsocialist Reich could be interpreted as a combination of the parts of both the 'national' idea and the 'Reich' idea.
Marcus Schmöger, 26 February 2002
I think anything we choose is open to some objection. However, it seems to me that for the period up to 1815 and 1871-1919, the best choice is in fact 'empire', not because it is a good translation but because that is what the German entities named 'Reich' were called in English at the time: the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire respectively. Otherwise, I would suggest it be left simply as 'Reich'; the word does appear in the Oxford English Dictionary with the meaning of 'kingdom, realm, state' and most other English dictionaries and is generally understood without translation.
The Heraldica website contains this interesting discussion of the titles emperor, kaiser, tsar, empire etc. which notes that the word 'imperium' originally meant 'power, command, dominion, and was used in both military and judicial contexts to denote the authority of a magistrate or official over an area or a jurisdiction'. In that light, 'empire' would be a pretty reasonable equivalent of 'Reich'.
Joseph McMillan, 27 February 2002
by Marcus Schmöger, 22 February 2002
The black-red-gold tricolour. This flag was in use until early 1933 de facto 31st January, de jure April, but was again adopted by the Federal Republic in 1949 and is still in use. It was also used by the German Democratic Republic 1955-1959. Illustrated in Große Brockhaus 1928 [bro28], vol. 4, p. 656, no. 1; Smith 1975 [smi75c] p. 121 and Crampton 1990 [cra90i] p. 43.
Norman Martin, 1998
Smith 1975 [smi75c] shows the 1919-1933 black-red-gold flag in 2:3 proportions and the current black-red-gold flag in 3:5 proportions. Smith also shows the Weimar government ensigns and civil ensign as 2:3, and the naval ensign and jack as 3:5. Is this correct?
Tom Gregg, 15 January 1998
Smith 1975 [smi75c] is in agreement with the illustrations in the official Reichsministerium des Innern 1928 [rmi28], published by the national Ministry of Interior on the dimensions of all the Weimar flags. He is also in agreement on the present flag with Reibert 1942 [rei42], which is quasi-official and with Pedersen 1970 [ped70], who gives explicit dimensions. So I would bet on the Smith data.
Norman Martin, 15 January 1998
The national flag (and national colours, Reichsfarben und Nationalflagge) black-red-gold were adopted with the new constitution (Weimarer Reichsverfassung of 11 August 1919). In a way black-red-gold was a 1919 compromise: at the National Convent (Nationalversammlung) 211 voted for black-red-gold, 90 against, 1 abstained (121 deputies absent). Favouring black-red-gold were the parties in the center, that would form the main democratic parties for the rest of the Weimar Republic: the Social Democrats (SPD), the Center (Zentrum) in part, the Liberals (DDP) in part. The right parties voted for black-white-red: the German National People's Party (DNVP), the German People's Party (DVP), and parts of the Center and the DDP. The left Socialists of the USPD voted for plain red. The communists (KPD) were not represented in the parliament in 1919. The second compromise was, of course, to keep black-white-red with some additions as the civil, state and war ensign. This compromise led to even more quarrel than it should have avoided.
Neither the constitution nor the flag regulations defined the proportions of the black-red-gold civil flag. As most other flags (at least on land) were 2:3, this is the proportion that would have been usually used. The illustrations in all the sources show this proportion, too.
The plain black-red-gold flag was the civil flag, but could also be used as a state flag, instead of the dedicated state flag. As there was no special state flag from 1919-1921, in this period it was the only state flag. It was probably never used as a war flag by the army in a significant amount.
Black-red-gold was officially discarded with the regulations of 12 March 1933 and 31 March 1933. It was re-introduced as the national flag and civil ensign for the Bundesrepublik Deutschland and the DDR in 1949.
Marcus Schmöger, 22 February 2002
In addition to the flags established by the 1919 Constitution and the 1919 Decree, at least the following Imperial naval flags remained in use:
Norman Martin, 1998
Yacht Club Burgees
[Martin and Dreyhaupt 2000 [mdh00] shows the following] Verbandsflaggen:
Jaume Ollé, 24 January 2001