With the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, the existing flag of the North German Confederation—a horizontal tricolor of black, white and red—became the national flag of a united Germany. Black, white and red are said to have been selected by Bismarck in 1867 because by combining the colors of Prussia (black-white) and Brandenburg (red-white), they flattered the dynastic sensibilities of King William I of Prussia, a man by no means convinced of the advisability of German unification. (William was a Prussian patriot who feared that his kingdom and crown would be swallowed up by Bismarck's united Germany).

Also taken over from the North German Confederation were its war ensign, naval jack and commissioning pennant. The former was modified twice: first to change the artistic rendition of the eagle, and then to widen the large cross and add a thick ring around the central disk. Surprisingly, however, the original Prussian eagle was never replaced with the eagle from the new imperial arms. Except for minor modifications of the size of the cross, the jack remained unchanged from 1871 to 1919. The commissioning pennant remained unchanged as well, and in fact is still in use nowadays by the German Navy.

From 1871 to 1893, naval auxiliary vessels flew the war ensign with a blue anchor added below the canton. Thereafter they flew a variant of the black-white-red national flag with an imperial crown over an anchor, both gold, on a white disk. Also adopted in 1893 was an ensign for merchant ships commanded by naval reserve officers: a black-white-red national flag with a large Iron Cross at the hoist.

All these flags were abolished in the aftermath of World War I, the Weimar Republic's 1921 flag decree constituting their official death sentence. However, the black-white-red flag and the Imperial war ensign remained popular with right-wing groups such as the Freikorps. In 1933, the new Nazi government restored the black-white-red national flag and adopted the Imperial jack as Germany's war ensign.

Nomenclature: The war ensign was first known as the "War Flag," then as the "Imperial War Flag," and finally as the "Reich War Flag." In 1892 a decree permitted it to be flown at Army installations. The naval auxiliary/government ensign was called the "Reich Authorities Flag." The naval reserve ensign was called the "Merchant Flag with Iron Cross" The commissioning pennant was called the "War Pennant."

Flag Proportions: The war ensign, jack, naval reserve ensign and first naval auxiliary ensign were made in 3:5 proportions. The second naval auxiliary ensign (which also served as the government ensign) was made in 2:3 proportions.

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WAR ENSIGN (Kriegsflagge), (1871-92)


WAR ENSIGN (Kaiserliche Kriegsflagge) (1892-1903 •  WAR ENSIGN (Reichkriegsflagge) (1903-1919)

NAVAL JACK (Kriegsschiffgösch) (1871-1919)



NAVAL AUXILIARY ENSIGN (Reichdienstflagge)
1871-93  •  1893-1922

NAVAL RESERVE ENSIGN (Handelsflagge mit Eisernem Kreuz ) (1893-1918)

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