The coat of arms of Germany displays a black eagle (the Bundesadler “Federal Eagle”, formerly Reichsadler “Imperial Eagle”) on a yellow shield (Or, an eagle displayed sable). It is a re-introduction of the coat of arms of the Weimar Republic (in use 1919–1935) adopted by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1950. The current official design is due to Tobias Schwab (1887–1967) and was introduced in 1928.
The Weimar Republic had re-introduced the medieval coat of arms of the Holy Roman Emperors, in use during the 13th and 14th centuries, before the emperors adopted the double-headed eagle, beginning with Sigismund of Luxemburg in 1433. The single-headed Imperial Eagle (on a white background, Argent, an eagle displayed sable) had also been used by the German Empire during 1889–1918, based on the earlier coat of arms of Prussia.
Holy Roman Empire
The German Reichsadler (Imperial Eagle) dates back to the time of Charlemagne, the first Frankish ruler to be crowned emperor by the pope (AD 800), ultimately derived from the eagle standard of the Roman army.
By the 13th century, the black eagle icon on a gold field was generally recognised as the imperial coat of arms. During the medieval period, the imperial eagle was mostly single-headed. A double-headed eagle is attributed to Frederick II in the Chronica Majora (ca. 1250). In 1433 the double-headed eagle was adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Since then the double-headed eagle came to be used as the symbol of the German emperor, and hence as the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. From the 12th century, the Emperors would have a personal coat of arms separate from the imperial one. Starting with Albert II (r. 1438–39), each Emperor bore arms with an inescutcheon of his personal arms on the torso of a two-headed eagle.
Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, but the Weimar eagle was retained until 1935. The Nazi Party used a rather aggressively styled black eagle above a highly stylised oak wreath, with a swastika at its centre. When the eagle is looking to its left shoulder, it symbolises the Nazi party, and was therefore called the Parteiadler. After 1935 the Nazis introduced their party symbol as the national insignia (Hoheitszeichen) as well. This version symbolises the country (Reich), and was therefore called the Reichsadler. It can be distinguished from the Parteiadler because the eagle is looking to its right shoulder.
The Reichsadler (“Imperial Eagle”) was the heraldic eagle, derived from the Roman eagle standard, used by the Holy Roman Emperors and in modern coats of arms of Germany, including those of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. The same design has remained in use by the Federal Republic of Germany since 1945, but under a different name, now called Bundesadler“Federal Eagle” rather than “Imperial Eagle”.
The Reichsadler can be traced back to the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, when the eagle was the insignia of the Imperial power as distinguished from the Imperial states. It was meant to embody the reference to the Roman tradition (translatio imperii), similar to the double-headed eagle used by the Palaiologi emperors of the Byzantine Empire or the tsars of Russia.
The eagle began to appear in the 9th century on the banner of Charlemagne and his successors. A double-headed eagle was attributed to Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in the Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris about 1250, it also appeared on the seal of the Imperial city of Kaiserswerth in the 13th century. The Reichsadler was widely used by Imperial cities such as Lübeck, Besançon or Cheb to underline their immediacy. The Teutonic Order under Hermann von Salza had the privilege to display the Imperial eagle in their coat of arms, granted by Emperor Frederick II. The black eagle was later adopted when the Teutonic State was transformed into the Duchy of Prussia in 1525.
Sigismund of Luxembourg used a black double-headed eagle after he was crowned Emperor in 1433, while the single-head eagle remained an ensign of the elected King of the Romans and Emperor-to-be. After the Empire’s dissolution in 1806, the Habsburg Monarchy with the Imperial title adopted the double-headed eagle, aggrandized by an inescutcheon emblem of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and the Order of the Golden Fleece, as coat of arms of the Austrian Empire. Since 1919 a single-head eagle is depicted in the coat of arms of Austria.
During the revolutions of 1848 in the German states, some attempts were made to reimplement the Reichsadler as a symbol of national unity. These ideas were taken up again when a single-head eagle with a Prussian inescutcheon became the insignia of Bismarcks’s kleindeutsche Lösung in the shape of the German Empire in 1871. After World War I the Weimar Republic under President Friedrich Ebert assumed a plain version of the Reichsadler, which stayed in use until 1935.
During Nazi rule, a stylised eagle combined with the Nazi swastika was made the national emblem (Hoheitszeichen) by order of Adolf Hitler in 1935. Despite its mediæval origin, the term “Reichsadler” in common English understanding is mostly associated with this specific Nazi times version. The Nazi Party had used a very similar symbol for itself, called the Parteiadler (“Party’s eagle”). These two insignia can be distinguished as the Reichsadler looks to its right shoulder whereas the Parteiadler looks to its left shoulder.
After World War II the Federal Republic of Germany re-implemented the eagle used by the Weimar Republic by enactment of President Theodor Heuss in 1950.