On July 20, 1944 – 73 years ago today – Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carried out a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. The attack failed and Stauffenberg along with several dozen military and conservative elites involved were arrested, tortured and executed.
Since WWII, the bomb plot has been an important part of Germany’s political culture – Stauffenberg and the plotters are seen as evidence that not all Germans supported the Nazis and that within the elite there were still men who represented the traditional values of the nation and were willing to die for this. This interpretation is contested, but within the public sphere, commemoration of the plotters and their efforts is a touchstone of mainstream German politics.
All of this makes it puzzling that the flag of the conservative anti-Hitler resistance has become a symbol of the far right in recent years.
The Wirmer flag was designed by Josef Wirmer as the flag for the new Germany in 1944. Wirmer was a lawyer who had worked in the social left-wing of the Catholic Center Party before the Nazi seizure of power. The flag combined the red, black, gold of the Weimar (and modern) German flag along with the cross to emphasize the importance of Christianity. Wirmer himself was executed in September 1944 in connection with the July 20th plot.
In the immediately post-war era, the Wirmer flag was so popular that it was adopted as a symbol of the democratic right – both Liberals and Christian Democrats of the 1950s incorporated it into their party logos.
The commemoration of the Stauffenberg assassination has only increased in importance in Germany after reunification. Since 1999, the swearing in of new recruits to the Bundeswehr takes place on July 20th to emphasize the importance of military resistance to immoral state actions.
Since 2012, however, the Wirmer flag has also been adopted by the far-right – initially as a counter-flag to celebrate Germany in Euro Cup 2012. Far-right activists use the flag as a symbol “for the self-determination of the Germans instead of foreign domination.” Rather than claiming affinity with the Nazi past the flag is used to explicitly trying to connect their movement to the anti-Nazi resistance and frame xenophobia as resistance.
Recontextualized, the inclusion of the cross, in the style of Nordic flags, takes on a new double meaning. For the far-right it is “a self-confident confession to our Nordic culture tradition” and the “response of the resistance fighters to an unchristian state.”
This could be seen as an eccentricity of political extremists, but it points to an effort of the far-right to co-opt the symbols of German democracy and position themselves its defenders. Rather than openly embrace fascism, groups like PEGIDA claim that it is Chancellor Angela Merkel who is the true fascist: the logic usually goes that by allowing mass immigration of Muslim refugees, who are themselves inherently fascistic, the far-right are the ones who are actually heroically resisting incipient fascism. Thus a German movement that specifically demonizes religious and ethnic minorities now portrays itself as wearing the mantle of those who tried to assassinate Hitler.
In January 1988, a similar process of symbolic co-optation took place in East Berlin at the Luxemburg-Liebknecht rally. Named after the co-founders of the German Communist Party who were murdered by right-wing paramilitaries in 1919, the annual march was an affirmation of the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s connection to this legacy. Dissidents crashed the event with posters bearing one of Luxemburg’s slogans: “Freedom is only the freedom of those who think differently.” The dissidents used this to show they were not opposing socialism, but demanding a role for active citizens within the East German system by invoking the words of its spiritual founder. This symbolic attack on the status quo was an important precursor to the mass demonstrations that would follow in 1989, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The fight over the public meaning of these symbols is crucial in defining the legitimacy of movements on the margins, hence why PEGIDA has adopted not only the Wirmer flag but also the slogans and other symbols of East German dissidents. This political pitch by PEGIDA and others to normalize the far-right has not succeeded in recent years, but radical realignments on a symbolic level can pave the way for actual shifts in political power.