Black, Red, and Gold

The History of the National Colors of Germany

Black, red, and goldOriginal Source:

The German federal flag is seen frequently seen at sporting events or in front of public buildings. Article 22 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany sets out the appearance of the federal flag: its colors are black, red, and gold.

But what's the story behind the federal flag? When was it used for the first time, and were there already other flags in Germany?

Woher kommen die Farben Schwarz-Rot-Gold?Hambach Castle

Banner of the first student fraternity (1816)Hambach Castle


At the beginning of the 19th
century, over the course of the wars of liberation against Napoleon,
transnational voluntary groups known as "Freikorps" were formed in
the German territories (e.g. B. Lützow's Free Corps). Many students also fought
here. Lützow's Free Corps wore black uniforms with red lapels and golden
buttons. Within the troops, a sense of community and the desire for a German
nation state increasingly developed.

After the victory over Napoleon, the returning students organized themselves into student groups. This "fraternity" movement spread throughout Germany and with it its political demands for civil liberties and the unification of Germany. The "Urburschenschaft," the first of such traditional student associations, was founded in Jena in 1815. In 1816 the "Women and Maidens of Jena" (the official dedication on the flag) donated this "Wartburg flag."

The "Wartburg flag" combined the colors of black, red, and gold for the first time. It was modeled on the uniform colors of Lützow's Free Corps which represented national liberation, a liberal attitude, and the desire for freedom and national unity. At the Wartburg festival, the flag of the Jena student association was carried at the top of the procession.

Parade to the Hambach Castle (1832) by unknownOriginal Source: Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer

At the Hambach Festival in May 1832 black, red, and gold were worn for the first time as a "tricolor" (3 equal stripes of different colors). This was modeled on the French Tricolore, created during the French Revolution. The color combination had meanwhile become the symbol of the opposition movement in the "Vormärz" (pre-March) period, and stood for the demands for freedom, civil rights, and German unity. The order of the color stripes had not yet been fixed, and so flags in the order black-gold-red or gold-red-black could also be seen at the Hambach Festival.

The "Hambach flag" (1832) by Johann Philipp AbreschHambach Castle

The Hambach Flag

The flag called the "Hambach main flag" combined the color arrangement of black, red, and gold in 3 equal stripes—still in use today—for the first time . The red stripe contains the lettering "Deutschlands Wiedergeburt" (Germany's rebirth), which expresses the desire for national unity.

Johann Philipp AbreschOriginal Source: Stadtarchiv Neustadt a.d.W.

The "Inventors"

The "Hambach main flag" was made by a couple by the name of Abresch. Johann Philipp Abresch was a farmer and merchant from Neustadt. He was part of the festival committee of the Hambach Festival and was one of the signatories of the invitation to the festival on April 20, 1832.

Anna Maria Abresch, née WolfOriginal Source: Stadtarchiv Neustadt a.d.W.

Abresch's wife, Anna Maria, embroidered the flag with the inscription "Deutschlands Wiedergeburt" (Germany's rebirth), producing a kind of prototype of today's federal flag. The flag combined the colors of Lützow's Free Corps—the colors of the opposition—in the design of the French tricolor. Johann Philipp Abresch carried the flag during the procession to Hambach Castle, where it was flown on the castle tower during Hambach Festival.

QuoteHambach Castle

Johann Georg August Wirth writes about Johann Philipp Abresch in the official description of the Hambach Festival:

Black, red, and gold sash (1833)Hambach Castle

Black, Red, and Gold All Over

The symbolic colors of black, red, and gold weren't only waved on flags in the Vormärz period. Liberal citizens showed their convictions and their desire for freedom, equality, and national unity by wearing the colors on hats, sashes, badges, and much more. To commemorate the festival, numerous everyday items were also decorated with black, red, and gold colors, such as musical instruments and playing cards.

Irregular military cap (1849)Hambach Castle

Partisan military cap from 1849 in Palatinate with a black, red, and gold cockade

Black, red, and gold cockadeHambach Castle

Black, red, and gold cockade

Drum (1848)Hambach Castle

Drum of the Neustadt Civil Defense from 1848

St. Paul's Church, Frankfurt by Leo von ElliotOriginal Source: CC-BY-SA: Historisches Museum Frankfurt / Foto: Horst Ziegenfusz

The Revolution of 1848–49

The Revolution of 1848–49 brought
out into the open what had been growing since Napoleon's defeat, especially in
the Palatinate: the desire for civil liberties and national unity. 

It more or less followed logically that the colors of black, red, and gold were declared to be the federal colors at the Frankfurt National Assembly.

The failure of the revolution meant the symbolic colors also disappeared.

Flag of the German ReichHambach Castle

The German Empire

When the German Empire was founded in 1871, it was decided that the colors black, white, and red would be used instead of black, red, and gold, which had already been used in the North German Confederation. In doing so, they wanted to stand out from the revolutionary movements of the Vormärz period and the failed revolution of 1848–49.

Opening of the Weimar National Assembly (1919-02-06)Original Source: Bundesarchiv

Weimar Republic

After the end of the First World War, the Weimar Republic was founded in 1919. The Weimar National Assembly reflected on democratic traditions, and decreed in Article 1 of the Constitution that "The imperial colors are black, red, and gold."

Coat of arms of the Weimar RepublicHambach Castle

The "Comeback"

The colors black, red, and gold experienced a comeback with the flag of the Weimar Republic.

Day of the "Black-Red-Gold Banner of the Reich"Original Source: Bundesarchiv

The "Flag Dispute"

This decision was not uncontroversial, however. For years, opponents and supporters of the imperial flag fought each other. It resulted in what was referred to as the "flag dispute," which reached its climax in 1926. The proponents of the black, red, and gold flag saw it as a republican tradition. The SPD (Social Democratic Party), DDP (German Democratic Party) and the German Center Party, and above all the "Black-Red-Gold Banner of the Realm" association fought in the flag dispute for the preservation of the colors as a symbol of the parliamentary democracies. The opponents of the traditional black, red, and gold were found primarily in the conservative faction of the monarchists and the nationalist factions. They contemptuously called the colors "black, red, and mustard." The "flag dispute" even led to a change of government in May 1926 with a vote of no confidence against the Chancellor Hans Luther.

Symbolic destruction of black, red, and gold flags (1933)Original Source: Stadtarchiv Landau

Nazi Era

After the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933, the National Socialists once again declared the colors black, white, and red to be the national colors of the German Reich in order to distinguish themselves from the hated Weimar Republic.

Symbolic destruction of black, red, and gold flags (1933)Original Source: Stadtarchiv Landau

This was followed by numerous burnings of black, red, and gold flags, as seen here in 1933 in the town Neustadt an der Weinstraße.

In 1935 the swastika flag became the sole imperial flag.

The signing of the Basic Law (1949-05-23)Original Source: Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

Federal Republic of Germany

After the Second World War, all earlier flags were initially banned. In 1949 the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany laid down the colors black, red, and gold again as national colors in Basic Law. The colors stood for a return to Germany's democratic traditions: "The tradition of black, red, and gold is unity and freedom. [...] The flag shall be a symbol for us that the notion of freedom, and the idea of personal freedom shall be one of the foundations of our future state" (Dr. Ludwig Bergsträsser, SPD).

State parliament flag (2011)Hambach Castle

Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz)

People were very aware of the democratic traditions in the newly founded federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate given that the Hambach Festival had taken place here in 1832. Therefore, in April 1948, the Rhineland-Palatinate parliament decided to use black, red, and gold as its state colors. Since that time, the flag of Rhineland-Palatinate consists of the German tricolor with the coat of arms of Rhineland-Palatinate in the upper corner.

The Rhineland-Palatinate state parliament still houses one of the oldest flags with the black, red, and gold coloring as a reminder of the traditional state colors.

Berlin Wall (1989-11-09)Original Source: Stiftung Berliner Mauer

Fall of the Berlin Wall

On November 9, 1989, after months of civil protests, the Berlin Wall fell and the reunification of the two Germanies was made possible.

Poster (1966)Original Source: Bundesarchiv

There were soon loud calls for the existing flag of the Federal Republic of Germany to be maintained for the whole of Germany, even after reunification.

Day of German UnityOriginal Source: Bundesarchiv

Less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on October 3, 1990, the whole of Germany celebrated the Day of German Unity and the Basic Law became valid in the new federal states as well. The black, red, and gold flag became the flag of the reunified Germany.

Day of German Unity (2017-10-02)Hambach Castle

Day of German Unity in 2017 in Rhineland-Palatinate

With the motto "Together we are Germany," more than half a million people celebrated the Day of German Unity in Mainz on October 2 and 3, 2017.

The festivities were clad in black, red, and gold: the colors of the Hambach Festival of 1832, the "cradle of German democracy."

Day of German Unity (2017-10-03)Hambach Castle

For a long time, the German federal flag was associated with the reputation of a right-wing extremist or fascist symbol. Historically, however, the colors had the complete opposite meaning. Since the emergence of the black, red, and gold flag in the 19th century, it has symbolized values such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and a pluralistic society. The opponents of these values used different colors.

Today, the federal colors black, red, and gold are symbols of our democratic culture. They represent Rhineland-Palatinate and Germany, German reunification, and an open-minded, cosmopolitan Germany.

Just like at the time of the Hambach Festival in 1832, today the German federal colors blow on the tower of the Hambach Castle. Together with the European flag they remind of the great importance of Hambach Castle.

Credits: Story

Special thanks go to all companies, institutions and people who have provided pictures or material.

We have made every effort to obtain the permission to print all illustrations. Should further claims exist, please contact us.

Exhibition Curator:
Sarah Traub, Institut für Geschichtliche Landeskunde an der Universität Mainz e.V. (IGL)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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