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GERMANY : WWI Battle Flag Serves as Surrogate Symbol of Hate : With Nazi symbols <i> verboten, </i> extremists have rallied around the kaiser’s banner. Efforts to ban it have bogged down.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

German businessman Karl Dersch learned the hard way about the power of symbols in a country tormented by right-wing extremism.

An avid collector of military memorabilia, the prominent aerospace executive often displayed a World War I naval flag outside his suburban Munich home.

But just days after a photograph of Dersch’s garden--and his battle flag--appeared in a national news magazine, Dersch was out of a job.

“I certainly must ask myself the question why I simply forgot about the flag despite political developments in Germany,” he said in submitting his resignation.

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The political developments are startling: The so-called German imperial war flag has fast become the prized possession of neo-Nazis, skinheads and radical right-wing parties across Germany.

With the swastika and other prominent Nazi symbols long outlawed, the forbidding reichskriegsflagge has served as a popular legal surrogate, appearing in neo-Nazi literature, at anti-foreigner marches and rallies and on the living room walls of right-wing extremists.

As formidable as Kaiser Wilhelm’s naval fleet was famed to be, it hardly could have evoked more terror than the distinctive white-black-and-red flag arouses today in foreign enclaves across Germany.

“It has always represented German aggressiveness,” said Georgios Tsapanos of the federal commission for foreigners. “But now it has become the foremost symbol for right-wing extremism.”

The battle flag was first used by a federation of German states in 1867, several years before the founding of modern Germany. It was later adopted by the united Germany’s imperial navy, and it was hoisted above warships through the end of World War I.

The flag’s design is steeped in history. A white field is divided into quarters by a large black cross, with the crowned Prussian eagle displayed prominently in the center. The first quarter is filled with a black-white-and- red tricolor--the colors of Prussia and the 13th-Century Hanseatic League--and the black iron cross of the Teutonic knights.

The flag was reconfigured by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s to include a large swastika on a red background, but authorities said the underlying similarities help explain the banner’s current popularity among right-wing groups.

“They have found a substitute for the real thing,” said Hans-Gert Lange, a spokesman for the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Police recently found one of the flags flying in the eastern German village of Dolgenbrodt, where residents are suspected to have hired right-wing extremists to firebomb a building intended to house asylum-seekers.

The government has been virtually helpless in combatting the flag’s soaring popularity because the federal ban--dating to the end of World War II--is strictly limited to Nazi symbols. Under the rules, Hitler’s version of the flag is illegal, but the kaiser’s is not.

The Justice Ministry has proposed amending the penal code to extend the ban to symbols similar to those of the Nazi era. The proposal would include the imperial war flag as well as a popular neo-Nazi salute that remains legal because it uses three fingers, not five as made infamous by Hitler.

But the proposal has been bogged down by bickering over other suggested changes to the code, partisan politics and a debate over how to define “similar” so as not to infringe on freedom of speech.

Meantime, local authorities have grown restless over their inability to regulate the flag. In recent weeks, seven of Germany’s 16 states imposed local bans on the flag, invoking the state’s power to maintain public order.

The local efforts, however, are largely symbolic themselves, because under German law, states have limited authority in criminal matters. Displaying the flag is considered an infraction under state law, making it no more serious than a traffic violation.

Some officials worry that banning the flag will lull Germans into unwarranted complacency about the right-wing threat. Justice Ministry spokesman Klaus Meyer said Germans have a propensity to address social problems by imposing rules and regulations, often ignoring the underlying causes.

“It is fine to ban the flag, but you haven’t solved the real problem by doing that,” Meyer said. “It is not the flag itself that is the problem, but what is behind the flag.”


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