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Colours of the Flag (Germany)

Last modified: 2006-09-09 by jarig bakker
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Origins of the Colours

The German flag consists of the colors of the coat-of-arms of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (i.e. the First Reich) - a black eagle, with red beak and claws, on a gold field. The red, at least, does not mean anything; it is usual to paint the claws red, unless the beast itself is red or on a red field. The Belgian tricolour has a similar origin: the dukes of Brabant bore a gold lion with red claws and tongue on a black field.
Anton Sherwood, 19 Oct 1995

The black-red-gold was not taken from the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. That is only a legend, even though one must admit it appears to be logical. We have to go back only to 1813, to the time of the Liberation War against Napoleon. It was not only a war for independence, but also for German unification, after the breakdown of the Roman Empire in 1806. During the war there was a free corps called Lützowsche Jäger (Lützow's Rifles), soldiers - especially students - which became pioneers of the national movement. They wore - by chance - black tunics with red facings. From these colours the first flag of the student movement [Jenaer Burschenschaft] after the war was inspired: Gules, a fess Sable, an oakleaf Or. Shortly afterwards the gold was given an equal rank, to make the flag similar to the French tricolour, a symbol of the revolution and of a new beginning. Similarly to the Tricolore, the flag was then called Dreifarb (tricolour).

However black-red-gold would not only stay as colours of a student movement, they were to become the German national colours. Therefore it was necessary to find a good reason for black-red-gold. A clever student from Jena declared, that these were the old Imperial colours. All fellows agreed, because this way the colours were given an acceptable historical background. And if you want, you can establish a relationship between this flag and the old Imperial coat of arms. But such relationship is only a happy accident.
Source: Hattenhauer 1984.
Carsten Linke, 24 May 1996

With due respect to Smith 1975 and Hattenhauer 1984 I personally do not quite agree with the theory of the German colours originating in the uniform of the Lützowsche Jäger, which was all black (to the point they were known as the schwarze Schar or black troop) except for the lapel and cuff facings which were red and the buttons which were gold. I do not say it is impossible that such uniform could originate a black-red-gold triband, but honestly I find its similarity to the livery colours of the old Reich far greater.
Santiago Dotor, 2 Oct 2000

According to Putzger's Historischer Atlas 1925, these colours also appeared on the flags of Waldeck-Pyrmont and Reuss ältere Linie (old line) and jüngere Linie (young line).
Ziko Marcus Sikosek, 2 Oct 2000

It is true that the Landesfarben of Reuss (both lines) and of Waldeck-Pyrmont were black-red-yellow. As far as I know, the national colors were always referred to as black-red-gold, although shades were not mentioned. Occasionally gold was a slightly darker color than yellow, but this could not be depended on. It would be odd if the national colors were chosen because they were the colors of three of the smaller German states and it is fairly clear that the national colors were chosen because it was believed (probably mistakenly) that these were the traditional national colors. This may possibly have also been affected by the colors of the Lützow Free Corps, the colors of the Jena Burschenschaft, and the arms of the Holy Roman Empire. As far as I know, there is no 19th century evidence of any influence from Reuss or Waldeck-Pyrmont.
Norman Martin, 2 Oct 2000

The theory that the black-red-gold originated from the Lützow Free Corps is advocated in Schurdel 1995. Schurdel says the colours of the uniforms originated from black being the colour in fashion of the time. As far as I understand him, the colours on the uniforms were adopted for a tricolour, as the Germans wanted a tricolour just as the French had one, but the German tricolour should have its own colours - naturally, I suppose, as they had been fighting Napoleon. The black-red-gold was developed in the years 1815-1848 and was for the first time officially adopted by the parliament of the German Confederation in Frankfurt on 9 March 1848. The idea that it was the old national colours which were adopted for the tricolour was an idea invented for marketing the colours, and believed by many (such as the members of the Bundestag when the flag was adopted in 1848), but the resemblance was really just coincidental, according to Schurdel 1995.
Elias Granqvist, 2 Oct 2000

So the colours are the same as those in the old Imperial coat-of-arms (even if the livery colours, strictly speaking, would omit the red) and the members of parliament who discussed and passed the law believed those were the traditional German colours, but actually they come from the almost-completely-black uniforms of a small Prussian volunteer force. How strange...
Santiago Dotor, 3 Oct 2000

Colour Specifications

Today I got a letter from the German Federal Ministry of the Interior whom I had asked for the correct colour shades of the national flag. The reply of 30 July 1998 states:
In accordance to article 22 of the Constitution the federal colours for the Federal Republic of Germany are black-red-gold. Technical prescriptions of the colour shades had not been fixed by the Federal Minister of the Interior, since these always change in the course of the years. Currently the following colour shades are used:
- for the federal flag:
    black = RAL 9017
    red = RAL 3020
    gold = RAL 1028
- for printings:
    black = 100% black or HKS black
    red = 100% magenta + 100% yellow or HKS 14
    gold = 10% magenta + 100% yellow or HKS 4
Dieter Linder, 5 Aug 1998

As approximate colour shades Pantone 032C (for red) and Pantone 109C (for gold) can be used.
Armand Noel du Payrat, 13 Mar 2001

German flag colours are officially specified in RAL. These can be transcribed into the Pantone and HKS systems as follows, I also have a ministerial department's CMYK recommendation:

Colour RAL (official) Pantone HKS CMYK
Black RAL 9017
Red RAL 3020 PMS 485 HKS 14 C 0, M 100, Y 100, K 0
Gold / yellow RAL 1028 PMS 116 HKS 5 C 0, M 10, Y 100, K 0
These semi-official CMYK values result in a slighty too light yellow, as RAL 1028 corresponds to a shade between PMS 116 and 123 or CMYK C 0, M 35, Y 100, K 0. The semi-official CMYK values for yellow correspond to the Pantone colours given by Armand du Payrat. As for the shade he gives for red, 032, it is as exact as PMS 485, as the differences between those shades are minimal and neither corresponds exactly to the official RAL colour.
Ralf Stelter, 13 Mar 2001

Gold or Chrome Yellow?

During the time of the first republic (1919-1933) especially monarchists used black-red-yellow (instead of gold) as a spiteful nickname for the new flag, or disdainfully called the gold mustard yellow.
Carsten Linke, 2 May 1996

I read that the gold on the German flag, when in a real flag and not on paper, is chrome yellow.
Pascal Vagnat, 6 May 1996

I'm not sure how the vexillological shorthand "Au" is really defined, but for clarity I would call the bottom stripe of the German flag simply "Y+". Au implies for me a "metallic colour", which is definitely not correct for German flags. However, in many official publications German flags are shown with a metallic golden stripe (as the authorities take the laws too literally). Traditionally, "Gold" in the German triband, has been just a poetic term for yellow.
Marcus Schmöger, 28 Mar 2003

German vexillologist Arnold Rabbow said very wisely that, "in reality the German colours have always been black-red-yellow, but from the very beginning they were called black-red-gold".
Source: [rab69b] and [rab01]
Santiago Dotor, 3 Apr 2003

Colours on Other German Flags

German flag laws usually do not specify the colour shades. They simply state colour names. For instance, in the case of North Rhine-Westphalia, "Die Landesflagge besteht aus drei gleich breiten Querstreifen, oben grün, in der Mitte weiß, unten rot." - the flag of the Land consists of three horizontal stripes of equal width, at the top green, in the middle white, at the bottom red. That is similar for almost all other Länder (except for Mecklenburg-West Pomerania). For my images I usually use the colours that seem most appropriate to me regarding the information in books and from actual flag sightings:
- Black (RGB 0-0-0), white (RGB 255-255-255) and to great extent red (RGB 255-0-0) are no problem.
- For yellow/gold - not only in the federal flags, but also e.g. in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania or Berlin - I usually use a colour that is close to the above specification. Since this would be quite non-browser safe (RGB 251-221-0) I use 255-230-0 (halfway between the BS shades 255-204-0 and 255-255-0). I know 255-230-0 is not browser-safe, however 255-204-0 seems too dark, and 255-255-0 is definitely too bright. So, I prefer 255-230-0, as it reflects better the actual shade of yellow in most German flags.
- For blue I usually use 0-0-204, unless I have evidence for something different (e.g. Bavaria).
- For green I usually use 0-153-0.
Marcus Schmöger, 24 Sep 2001

Colors on the BRD and DDR flags

The two German flags were not identical; DDR had an emblem and a different shade of yellow.
Al Kirsch, 3 Apr 2003

I originally got the timeframe wrong, but for the first ten or so years, the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany) flew the plain black-red-gold horizontal triband, i.e., identical to the West German flag. The emblem wasn't put on the flag until 1959.
Both German constitutions (i.e., East and West) specified the national colors as black-red-gold. Having grown up in E Germany and having been in the middle of unification with W Germany in 1990, I have seen a lot of German flags (both East and West) and there just isn't any discernable difference in colors. Do you have any sources to support your claim?
It's always called gold, never yellow. This may irritate some flag geeks who may claim that as far as flags are concerned, there should be no difference between yellow and gold, but German republicans tend to take this issue very seriously. In the early days of the German (Weimar) republic, monarchists and other anti-republicans used to mock the new national colors, esp. the gold (which was new, the imperial flag having been black-white-red), calling the national colors black-red-yellow or (even worse) black-red-mustard. This has been such a sensitive issue that disparaging the flag is still a felony until, so you may actually get in trouble (at least in theory) if you call the bottom shade anything other than gold.
Thorsten, 3 Apr 2003

My source is Smith 1975.
Al Kirsch, 3 Apr 2003

It may very well be - and probably is - that the two German governments had different specifications for the precise shades of red and "gold" used in their respective flags.  Probably not so for the third color, since as we know, "black is black (I want my baby back)."
Anyway, we should not take these slight differences in shade, assuming they existed, as meaning the BRD and DDR used different *colors.*  Many countries (including, e.g., the United States) have changed their precise color specifications over time; "Old Glory blue," the color now used in the official specification for the S&S, is somewhat darker than "national flag blue," which was used in an earlier version.  But I would not construe that to mean that the U.S. flag now is anything other than the same "red, white, and blue" it has always been.
Joe McMillan, 4 Apr 2004

The supposed difference in color probably stems from the fact, that the West German (and now whole German) authorities have always claimed, that the designation black-red-gold does mean, that the bottom stripe should be really *metallic gold*, as they publish it in official books, e.g. [lab00] and earlier editions of this book. Dark yellow is only meant to be a cheap surrogate. On the other hand, East German authorities always printed the bottom stripe in a (dark) yellow, which is historically, heraldically, vexillologically correct. Real flags (cloth) always showed a (dark) yellow colour in both cases, that of course might have differed somewhat due to different production procedures and specifications.
This is a good example for the difference between "book vexillology" and "cloth vexillology".
Marcus Schmöger, 4 Apr 2003