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Flags outside schools: Patriotic or populist?

November 21, 2019

Germany's troubled relationship with its flag has hit the headlines again as conservative politicians debate putting the national color outside schools. Will the move help the country reclaim the flag from the far-right?

German flag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

Chancellor Angela Merkel's party will vote on whether all schools in Germany should fly the national flag outside their buildings, alongside the flag of the appropriate state and that of the European Union, following an initiative launched by one regional organization of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The motion will be put before delegates at the CDU conference in Leipzig this weekend by the branch representing the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Several leading party members support the plan, and many expect the motion to be adopted into party policy.

The motion was initiated by the regional school students' association, the Schülerunion (SU), an independent conservative organization that has several thousand members across Germany.

Read more: More foreign teachers working in Germany

Reclaiming the national colors

"I think it's an important signal in times when our national flag is being appropriated and denigrated by left and right-wing radicals," Sven Fontaine, deputy chairman of the national SU, told DW. "Hate is once again being spread using our national colors. We're a country based on diversity, unity, justice, and freedom, not on hate."

Fontaine said the SU had been discussing the issue for several years and adopted it into the organization's policy in 2018. "It's important that it happens at schools because schools mediate our values," argued Fontaine, speaking from the middle of his own school day. "It's at schools where you take your first steps in your own political development: We see that today with Fridays for Future.

"If flags are flying outside schools, then you think about why those flags are there, and then you can bring the values they stand for into the lessons," he added.

Lots of soccer fans waving German flags in Berlin during the 2006 World Cup
German flags made a major comeback when Germany hosted the 2006 World CupImage: AP

The motion also enjoys the support of the CDU's youth wing, the Junge Union (JU), whose chairman Tilman Kuban told the RND newspaper network that flying flags outside schools "was also a clear signal that we won't allow the flag to be taken away by forces who don't share the values associated with it."

The idea was greeted skeptically by the CDU's coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), though only on administrative grounds: "I'm happy to see every German flag being flown anywhere," Johannes Kahrs of the SPD. "But schools are administered by the states, and so this should be decided at local level."  

An old flag for new times

Merkel's conservatives have tried in recent years to rhetorically reclaim Germany's national colors — black, red, and gold — from far-right populists who have been resurging in German politics.

In 2015, when the national flags were flown prominently at anti-Islamization far-right PEGIDA demos, then CDU General-Secretary Peter Tauber called on the party not to leave Germany's colors to "those who spread hate and fear beneath our flag."

That was echoed by Fontaine. 

"We can see that Germans have a problem with national pride, partly because of our history, which it is always important to work through," he said. "But we should still fly our national colors, which before the dark past always stood for unity, justice, freedom, and human dignity."

Most government buildings in Germany fly the national flag alongside the EU flag, with state government buildings also flying their respective flags. But few private citizens fly national flags in Germany, except during major international soccer tournaments.

Germany's black-red-gold colors were first flown during the country's wars of liberation from Napoleon between 1813 and 1815 to signify unity among the various German states. The flag was became a subversive symbol of republicanism before being famously adopted by the German parliament in 1848 as a sop to revolutionaries. 

The flag became Germany's official colors in 1919 at the dawn of the Weimar Republic, was later replaced by a red, white and black swastika flag by the Nazi regime, and then re-instated when the two Germanys were founded in 1949.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight