What is an example of a symbol

Images in history and politics

Dr. Elmar Elling

To person

Dr. Elmar Elling, born 1952, linguist and media scientist, works as a freelance author and editor as well as a language teacher.

Like all symbols, the national symbols refer to something else beyond themselves. Through them, every state becomes perceptible to its people. Elmar Elling explains by way of example the different types of national symbols, their origin and meaning.

The term nation came up in the course of the French Revolution and was initially understood negatively. With him one demarcated oneself against autocracy, against feudal structures and, in Germany, against small states. A further, affirmative provision was made with a view to a (supposedly) common ancestry of the large group understood as a nation, with a view to their common religion, their state structures or - a frequent criterion - as a commitment to a common culture (traditions, customs, customs) and language. The concept of the nation is thus based essentially on symbolic systems; Nation is an "imagined community," as Anderson puts it.

The Brandenburg Gate symbol

What all symbols have in common is that they point beyond themselves. The Brandenburg Gate, for example, was nothing more than the western end of the then royal seat of Berlin when it was built. Later it was a pronounced construction on the notorious wall, a gate that was completely robbed of its task of allowing passage and stood lonely and senseless in an almost free space. In this historical context, the gate could symbolize more than the building itself could have represented.


Symbols often arise from (political) actions and are used in such. For example, the middle archway of the Brandenburg Gate was previously only allowed to be passed through by the emperor. Precisely for this reason the SA torchlight procession led through this archway on January 30, 1933: It was a demonstration of the newly won power and at the same time the claim to national continuity.

So it was no coincidence that in 1987 US President Reagan demanded that the wall be torn down precisely opposite this gate. Today, for example, the Brandenburg Gate can be found on the smaller German coins.

Diversity of national symbols

The number and type of symbols that represent nations are astonishingly numerous and varied. Apart from linguistic references, melodies, food and other things, the following objects are more often used in the function of national symbols: plants (clover leaf, lily, maple leaf), animals (eagle, kiwi, lion), buildings (Brandenburg Gate, Big Ben, Acropolis), Political figures (Ataturk, Garibaldi, Mandela), poets (Dante, Goethe and Schiller, Shakespeare), stars (rising sun, Star of David, Southern Cross), places (Amselfeld, Masada, Rütliwiese), musical instruments (harp, bagpipes), sacred Objects (seven-armed candlestick) and more.

National symbol figures

Many nations have symbolic figures that do not necessarily have a historical background, but in which values, historical moments or features of the national mentality can be found. Well-known examples include the Swiss Wilhelm Tell, the Danish Holger Danske, Italia, Helvetia and, in Germany, Germania, Bavaria, Arminius and a few more. The best known are the French Marianne, the English John Bull, the American Uncle Sam and the German Michel.

The French 'Marianne' with her Phrygian cap, the symbol of the freed slaves, is a symbol of freedom. She often carries a lance and, as a defensive third party, together with brotherhood and equality, forms the trio of basic democratic values. Although the first depictions of this allegorical female figure appeared as early as 1775, it only gained wide attention and recognition in the course of the French Revolution; In 1792 the figure was even elevated to the status of an official representative. In the famous painting (1830) by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), freedom leads the people into the July Revolution of 1830 so that they can restore political rights.

The German Michel supposedly has a historical model, but he is also considered a symbol of stupidity and indolence regardless of it. In the 16th century he embodied the common people for the foreign-oriented stratum of German academics and was therefore the symbol of what was rejected. Foreign prejudices about "Germans" reinforced this image and its function. But Michel did not keep his early characteristics: in the 17th century he stood for the commitment to the German language and culture, later also for German cosiness and honesty. Caricaturists of the 19th and 20th centuries reacted to this and used the figure to hold up a mirror to the Germans.

John Bull, stocky, mostly dressed in tailcoats and knee breeches, as well as a Union Jack vest, was created in 1712. Common sense condenses in it, paired with a conservative attitude and not necessarily in a good mood. From the end of the 18th century onwards, numerous artists used this figure with the intention of caricaturing. But she also appears in numerous campaigns and is probably the template for Uncle Sam and one of the most famous posters with this character.

The "nephew" of John Bulls came up at the beginning of the 19th century: a gaunt elderly gentleman endowed with national attributes, Uncle Sam (of the US) is more of the official United States, the government and its intentions. Allegedly, his role model is a historical figure in the American army. The best-known representation is "Uncle Sam needs you", officially used, but at the same time for criticism and satire. Uncle Sam is usually respected and seen as a symbol of American consciousness.

Eagle, lion and others

Many figures and symbols do not represent a specific nation, but are used by a number of them. Lion and eagle are well-known examples of this. They accompany humanity from the beginning of their history and symbolize courage, eternal life, royalty and more. Their meanings vary, just as the representations vary and are adapted to the understanding and taste of the times.

A less common symbol is the oak. The tree or its foliage and its fruits are Indo-European symbols and were already used by the Greeks and Romans. The oak stood for Zeus, Jupiter and, among the Germans, for Donar. It was considered a symbol of life and immortality because it was believed not to decay. The oak has been a symbol of heroism in Germany since the 18th century and its leaves have been used for award ceremonies since the 19th century - but this was also common in ancient Rome.

After the Congress of Vienna (1815) Germany began to develop into a unified state. The customs barriers fell and in the 1830s a development towards common coins began. The use of oak leaves (together with the ear) on German coins goes back to the efforts at that time to achieve unity and uniformity.

A wreath made of oak leaves was also in use in France until Napoleon replaced it with the imperial laurel. In Germany the wreath of oak leaves combined with the emerging national colors and stood for the hope for the unity of the nation. The oak leaves have survived to our days and now adorns the German coin coins.

The Danish flag, the Danebrog

Not all countries in the world have a coat of arms, but a flag, it is a national symbol par excellence. The national flag of Denmark, the Dannebrog (dt. Danish cloth), is generally considered to be the oldest national flag in the world that is still in use. First mentioned in writing in the 14th century, it is at least 600 years old, probably more.

According to legend, the Danebrog fell from the sky on June 15, 1219, when Danes fought against pagan Estonians under their King Waldemar II (1170-1241) near Lyndanisse (Estonia). Believe it or not, origin stories like this surround quite a few visual symbols. The stories explain or justify, praise or stir, in any case they contribute to the creation of meaning.

The Danebrog was only declared the official state symbol in 1854. In any case, before the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions and their political consequences, we could not speak of nations in the current sense and consequently also not of national symbols.