Today commemorates the 29th anniversary of the unification of East and West Germany to form the present-day German state. It was the culmination of a process that had begun in 1989 with the famous fall of the Berlin Wall. So yes, of course we’re going to be talking about the eagle.
The German coat of arms is iconic, and as such, has a very long and well-documented history. In fact, these can probably be traced back much farther than most other arms I’m familiar with, all the way back to the Roman Empire. Now, the Romans didn’t have heraldry in the same way that we think of it today – it wasn’t systematic, the emblems didn’t pass in a genealogical line, and it was by no means widespread. We do have some examples from the ancient world of people painting pictures on their shields, though it’s unclear whether these were unique or intended to be used as identification. However, what we’re interested in right now are the military standards.
Prior to 107 BCE, we have records of the Roman legions using five animals as their standards: a wolf, an eagle, a horse, a boar, and, somewhat bafflingly, an ox with a man’s head. In 107 BCE, the Marian reforms took place, founding a standing army, offering employment as soldiers to the lower classes of Roman society, and implementing the practice of land grants for retired soldiers. As an admittedly small part of these reforms, the other animals were discontinued, and the eagle became the sole standard of the Roman army. Given Rome’s strong ties between the army and the state, it’s unsurprising that the eagle soon became a symbol of the empire as a whole, appearing on coins, monuments, and tombs.
After the western Roman Empire fell in the late 480s CE, the Byzantine Empire kept the symbol of the eagle alive, though it was never as popular as more explicitly Christian iconography. Still, we can see the eagle on Byzantine coins, imperial regalia, and manuscripts. The association of the eagle with Rome made it a natural choice of insignia for Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, who wanted to emphasize his state as the heir of ancient Rome. And, well… after that, it’s pretty much set. There’s evidence that Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, used the eagle in what we would recognize as a heraldic fashion during his reign from 1191 to 1197.
From there, there were a few modifications of the German eagle, including giving it two heads to symbolize the Empire’s dominion over West and East; this seems to have been in place by the mid-thirteenth century. Many emperors would display their personal arms as an escutcheon charged on the breast of the imperial eagle, or use it as a sort of single supporter if they had too damn many arms to fit in a smaller shield. (See Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, for a dizzying example of the latter.) It’s also used in the Quaternion Eagle, an extremely common heraldic convention that depicts the arms of the Holy Roman Empire (or, later, the component states of Germany) as shields on the wings of a double-headed imperial eagle.
Unfortunately, we do have to talk about the Nazis.* After over a thousand years of almost continual use, the Nazis were not about to abandon the eagle, especially considering their fetishization of the mythic German past. They adapted it into a fairly stylized design of the eagle displayed perching on a wreath containing a swastika, versions of which were used as both the national emblem and the Nazi Party’s official symbol.
After World War II, in 1950, the Federal Republic of Germany readopted the previous form of the eagle (sable on or) as the nation’s coat of arms in a decision that used exactly the same wording as the last time the eagle was formally adopted by a non-fascist government in 1919. Its use has been consistent and uninterrupted for nearly 70 years now. (One last thing that I found absolutely delightful – the version of the eagle in the Bundestag building is a little on the chubby side, and as such, is nicknamed “Fette Henne,” which translates exactly how you think it does.)
*Nazis are bad. Fascism is bad. White supremacy is bad. Argument on these points is not welcome, and will get you blocked.