‘The Army of the Reich must gradually be steeped in the old traditions, especially those of Prussia, Bavaria and Austria…” so said Adolf Hitler in 1941 and amidst the pomp & tradition of Hitler’s Germany, one of the most enduring aspects of the Third Reich was the magnificence of its dress: a whole nation in uniform, with a tailored outfit, dagger and ornate accoutrement for every conceivable occasion. But it was perhaps the myriad visions of Nazi flags, banners & drapes, with their mix of Roman & Wagnerian imagery that would remain long after the Reich crumbled in the ashes of Berlin in 1945.
The word ‘flag’ is derived from the ancient German or Saxon word ‘flaken’, meaning ‘to fly’ or ‘to float in the wind’, and whilst Roman legions carried their ornate eagle atop a banner as a standard, the use of a flag as a means of identification began with the Vikings and was later used to great effect in the Crusades of the Middle Ages.
In 1848, the original German Federation adopted a tricolour of black, red and gold, colours based on the black coats, red collar piping and gold buttons worn by German university students who were raised as a volunteer force by Major Lützow in 1813 to assist in the struggle against Napoleon. Bismarck, however, later replaced this flag with the national tricolour of black, red and white, but at the end of World War One, the new Weimar Republic declared that the official colours of the new German republic were to revert back, and so in 1919, black, red and gold once again became the official colours of the German nation.
With the increasing unrest and upheavals in Germany in the 1920′s and 1930′s, the Weimar colours increasingly came to remind those on the right of Germany’s capitulation and subsequent humiliation brought about by the Versailles Treaty in 1918. As a result of this association, when the National Socialists came to power, one of Hitler’s very first acts was to abolish the loathed Weimar tricolour of black, red and gold. On April 22nd 1933, he decreed that a new national flag of black, red and white would henceforth be flown in conjunction with the NSDAP party flag of a black swastika within a white circle on a blood-red background.
As far as the armed forces were concerned, no official unit colours had been presented or indeed carried during the period of the Weimar Republic; however, one year on from the reintroduction of military conscription in 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that unit flags, banners and standards would once again be issued, and between 1936 and 1937, the vast majority of Wehrmacht units were presented with new official colours.
All subsequent unit insignia, from flags to pennants, were to incorporate and refer back to the initial unit colour issued, including regimental bands. Emblems displayed on or within flags & banners during the Third Reich usually included, in addition to unit details and/or towns of origin, the evocative images of either the German eagle, swastika, iron cross, SS runes or death’s head.
The origins of the eagle as Germany’s national emblem can be traced back to the ninth century and Charlemagne, who saw himself as the successor to the emperors of Rome and adopted the eagle upon the legionnaire’s standard as the symbol of his rule.
During the later periods of Hohenstaufen and the Holy Roman Empire, the German eagle developed into its distinctive upright stance, with its single-head, spread-wing and out-stretched talons, which became known as the ‘displayed’ eagle. This impressive image was adopted by the German Second Reich in 1871 and continued by the Weimar Republic in 1919, before coming to real prominence with the National Socialists in 1933.
This new eagle incorporated the National Socialist’s emblem of the swastika, mounted within a garland of oak leaves – the traditional German symbol of strength and longevity; thus the combination of eagle & swastika was enshrined as the official emblem of the Third Reich and as such was officially adopted by the German armed forces:
The army and navy adopted a differing version from the standard political eagle, known as the ‘Wehrmachtadler’, a ‘displayed’ eagle whose wings were only half open; whilst the Luftwaffe, as the newest branch of service, desired a more distinct emblem in the shape of an eagle & swastika whose wings gave the impression of flight.
Seemingly associated with Germany since time immemorial, the symbol of the iron cross actually dates back to the Crusades where German knights, ruling over Prussia, Estonia and Kurland, adopted a white surcoat upon which was displayed a distinctive cross in black. Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia later adopted this black cross and, having watched Napoleon create the Legion d’Honeur medal for bravery in 1802, introduced the Iron Cross as a German military award for gallantry some 11 years later.
1871 saw the iron cross adopted by the Kaiser and incorporated into the flag of Imperial Germany, whereupon it became the focus of a nation during the Great War between 1914 and 1918, before its adoption by the incoming National Socialists in 1933. Such is the historical bond with Germany and the iron cross that a Maltese-style version continues to be the symbol of the post war Bundeswehr’s displayed on its fighting vehicles & aircraft.
An ancient symbol, the swastika was traditionally a sign of good fortune and is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Su’, meaning well and ‘Asti’, meaning ‘being’. Used widely as a Buddhist emblem, the swastika was also the pagan Germanic sign of Thor the god of thunder, in addition to being a featured symbol in the Nordic runic alphabet. During the nineteenth century, the swastika was widely regarded throughout Europe as a symbol of nationalism, and was adopted by the Ehrhardt Brigade and other Freikorps units during the German uprisings, following the defeat at end of the WW-I.
Adopted by Adolf Hitler, the Hakenkreuz (literally ‘crooked cross’) came to represent National Socialism, and in the years 1933 to 1945 was displayed on most flags and banners, either individually or with the traditional German eagle.
Perhaps the eeriest of all German insignia was the ‘Death’s Head’ adopted by the SS in 1934, but whose Germanic associations date back to 1740. Often thought as a design to terrorise the nation’s enemies, the Totenkopf actually has strong links with German medieval literature, where it was a symbol of death & destruction. However, as a piece of German military insignia, it made its first appearance as a large, silver bullion jaw-less skull & bones, embroidered on the black drape at the funeral of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I. In tribute to Friedrich, the elite Prussian Royal Bodyguard Divisions (the Leibhusaren-Regimenten no.’s I and II), formed after his death, adopted black uniforms with large silver Totenkopf affixed to the front of their large busbies (Pelzmützen).
During the First World War, a number of crack Imperial German flamethrower & storm-trooper units also adopted the death’s head, and in 1918 it appeared painted on the steel helmets of the Freikorps in the German uprising, where it became a symbol of both war-time bravery and post-war anti-Bolshevism! Not surprisingly, members of the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler took up the Totenkopf as their distinctive emblem in 1923, and with the coming of the National Socialists in 1933, the Stosstrupp’s successor, the Schutzstaffel, adopted the Prussian jaw-less skull as their symbol.
However, when the Wehrmacht’s new elite Panzer-Korps decided they too wished to be represented by the Prussian death’s head, the SS devised & ordered their own particular ‘grinning skull’, which became the standard death’s head for both the Allgemeine and Waffen-SS. Used in conjunction with the SS’s own distinctive version of the displayed wing eagle & swastika, the Totenkopf was used through to 1945 on all SS uniform insignia, vehicles, flags, standards, trumpet banners, drapes and drum covers.
Inextricably linked with the Totenkopf, the ‘twin lightning’ runes of the SS were derived from the historical alphabets and figures used by Germanic tribes of pre-Christian Europe. The standard single Sig Rune was long regarded historically as a symbol of victory, and by the end of the Second World War, some 14 variations were eventually in use by the Waffen-SS.
The double-SS runes originated in 1932 when SS-Mann Walter Heck, graphic designer with Bonn insignia manufacturer Ferdinand Hoffman, put two single sig-runes side-by-side to create the infamous SS-Runen. The SS leadership paid him the princely sum of 2.50 Reichmarks for the full design rights, and the organisation thereafter utilised the runes throughout all branches of service to represent the Allgemeine/Waffen- SS during the entire period of the Third Reich.
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014
Extracted from the book: The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945 Published by The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive. ISBN 0-9542812-0-9