Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Flag

I bought my flag today. It’s the only souvenir I usually buy for myself when I visit a different country since I consider my copious pictures reminder enough of my visit. The trend started in Greece when a cute Greek girl selling then out-of-date Athens Olympic banners hooked me with her eyelashes. It became a tradition when I inadvertently started haggling for a Kenyan flag in Malindi with a wily Indian woman.

Buying the flag usually caps the experience and often involves chatting with the proprietor about how much I enjoyed my visit. The flag usually requires a visit to a locally owned souvenir stand. Museums and trendy shopping districts never deal out the national banner. Ya gotta go for kitsch. Was it possible to find such an establishment in quietly dignified Bonn?

Crossing from the Poppelsdorfer Palace to the city center there’s a walking path that dives under the railroad tracks that divide the idyllic university from the equally idyllic - but slightly more bustling - city. This path gets a lot of foot and cyclist traffic. Because so many people pack the path, barriers have been installed to slow down the bike riders. They are forced to dismount and carefully weave through the posts. This operation provides hours of entertainment as tandem cyclists and mothers powering strollers equipped with bicycle rims try to weave through and end up enlisting about six spectators to help them lift their awkward burden over the barriers.

Once you’re in the bike-safe-zone between the posts there are five entrepreneurs who quietly peddle their wares to the pedestrians of Bonn. There’s a florist who sells sunflowers large enough to signal a rescue helicopter, a fruit stand that only seems to offer strawberries and “forest berries,” a bakery with cold cut sandwiches that are sterility lit with a battery of florescent lights, and…the shop. It seems to have begun its life as a place to get keys copied. Then the proprietor expanded into the bumper and novelty sticker market.

You can get an white oval with a letter designation for every country in the European Union. You can also get crossing signs for every animal you can imagine and several that you can’t, stickers with puns and double entendres in six different get the idea. But stickers weren’t quite bringing in the rent, so he tacked on ethnic souvenirs, displaying West African tribal masks and didgeridoos. Finally, and most importantly, he decided he needed a little color and he started selling flags.

I knew my flag would come from this stand on my first trip to Bonn when I saw the Black, Red, and God held in place on the path’s wall with a wooden toadstool and a plaster replica of Akhenaten. Every time I walked under the train tracks, I would look at my flag, waving next to the Tibetan colors and the Stars and Bars, and knew it would be mine in July.

So, today I bellied up to the shop’s small counter. The owner, roughly seventy years old and wearing a well-loved wool sweater, was tucked behind a table cluttered with non-descript nick-nacks and keys. He seemed surprised someone had actually stopped to make a purchase and was a little flustered about how to begin the transaction, so I took the lead:

Me: I would like a large German flag, please. I was hoping he would follow, “Would you like fries with that?” Sadly he replied…

Him: Yes, I have the German flag. He exited his shop to point out the existence of the faded Teutonic glory I had been checking out all year.

Me: Yes, I would like to buy it.

Him: Well, would you like a flag with the “Adler” or without the “Adler.”

I was prepared for “with or without mayo” given the my opening line, but this Adler thing was new to me.

Me: Could I see one with the “Adler” and one without the “Adler?”

He obliged. Apparently the “Adler” is the black imperial eagle that symbolizes Germany. It also looks a little…Fascist. I wondered if this was maybe an antiquated flag, perhaps the banner that flew over the Wiemar Republic.

Him: The flag with the eagle is very German. This eagle goes back to the Holy Roman Empire. This is 1200 years ago!

Me: Yes, but I think I will take the flag without the eagle. It’s more typical, isn’t it? I see this (indicating the flag without the coat-of-arms) in every city, but I am not sure if I have ever seen this one with the Adler.

Him: Yes, without the Adler is everywhere but it is less German. I think (leaning closely and checking over his shoulder) that young people are worried about it. They think it looks like a Nazi flag.

Well, I wasn’t going to tell him, but that was exactly the thought going through my head. I would put the stripes and eagle up on my wall and a regular conversation starter at chateau du Borths would be, “Hey Matt, I know you spent a lot of time in Germany, but did you really need to bring the Nazi pride back here?”

Him: There (he indicated a flag staked in the lawn, a blue field with a yellow eagle). That is the flag of the Roman Legions! See where the Adler comes from? It has so much history!

Me: Yes, I love how much history there is here in Germany (remember, praising the country is part of my ritual, even if the compliment would only be appreciated by a select few).

Two things were obvious. A) He really wanted me to take the Adler home and (B) I would be looking up the history of the German flag as soon as I got within striking distance of Wikipedia. Ultimately I just wanted the regular German flag, but to say as much felt like letting down my slightly-loopy German grandfather. So I did what any other polite, but cornered, American would do. I made up a blatant lie.

Me: Well, this flag is for my brother. He collects flags and I think he wanted the regular German flag. He didn't say anything about this Adler.

Him Ah yes, the flag without the eagle is probably the one he wants. You should tell him the eagle is a national symbol.

Me: I’ll be sure he knows.

Him: Do you know if he wants any other flags? I have these. And he produced a 8.5X11 sheet of paper with a random assortment of nations scrawled across it. I have Indonesia, Tibet, the USA, Texas, the Southern USA, Egypt…

Me: I think the German flag will be fine. He already has the American flag. I’ll come back if he wants Egypt.

Him: Well, have a lovely day, and remember, you should not be afraid of the eagle. This is not a Nazi symbol. This is history.

Rarely have I received so heartfelt a valediction.

So, now it’s time to bring you up to speed on the flag. You could follow this link to the Wikipedia page where I got most of this information. Or you could read on and I’ll summarize. If I'm wrong, at least fifty faceless Wiki-contributors agree with my errors.

So this is the flag of the Holy roman Emperor.
Both the Prussians and the Austrians have laid claim to the HRE as their cultural ancestors. And for good reason. It basically stretched across Central Europe. A one Adolf Hitler considered it the First Reich along with most Germans. The eagle can be found all over coats-of-arms in central and western Europe.

Later on, some revolutionaries in Frankfurt wanted to break away from their Austrian rulers. In 1848 they came up with this design, drawing on the banners created during the Napoleonic Wars. Out of darkness (black) through blood (red) broke the golden light of freedom. Ta-da.
In 1919 the Wiemar republic simplified things, dropping the eagle, creating the recognizable flag of Germany. Then in 1933, the National Socialists rose to power and Chancellor Hitler declared there was only one true flag of Germany. It dropped the yellow and used the black, red, and white of the former German Empire (1871-1918). It also added an ancient device that meant a variety of good things to many cultures throughout history, but now simply means evil.
With the fall of the Third Reich, there was some concern about which flag to use. Many people thought Germany should just revert to the flag of the Wiemar Republic since everyone was hoping to take the democratic ideals that got seeded in 1919 and build on them. One group proposed this flag which was suggested as the Wiemar flag and later became the flag of resistance to the Nazis.
Personally I think that's pretty neat, but people were wary of changing the flag of Germany too much while it was still divided. The above design would have represented the West while this was the flag of the East:
Gotta love a hammer and compass ensign. Eventually the flag of Western then united Germany was simply this:
A design approved in 1949. This is the flag I now own thanks to the guy under the bridge. But what about the Adler thing? Apparently this:
Was approved in 1950 as the Bundesdienstflagge or "State flag of federal authorities." That is, it's used by governmental offices as the eagle is the federal badge. It decorates the uniforms of German soldiers and use of the federal flag by any party unaffiliated with the federal government is a fineable offense.

So, I might have been charged for displaying the "Adler" too publicly. Dodged a bullet there.

Now I'm ready to leave. I have my flag. I had my conversation with a proud local. Now I just need to sample a little more Kölsch...


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