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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY EIGHTY THREE Surfing and Symbols

We have just finished lunch in Munich's Englischer Garten, a rather heavy meal of Obatzter - two parts soft cheese (Romadur or all too often these days, Camembert) and one part butter mixed to a smooth paste with paprika, onions, garlic, horseradish, cloves and caraway – with a splash of beer and just a little cream. Best eaten with pretzels and an oxygen cylinder within easy reach.

We did take some vicarious exercise, though, watching the surfers on the Eisbach Wave. To disrupt a viciously fast flow, some huge concrete blocks were dropped into the man-made river in the Garten and they unintentionally created an ongoing wave one metre high and ten metres wide. Now you can surf on what is genuinely dangerous water in the middle of Europe.

The Eisbach Wave (c)wikicommons

It might have been the youth of the surfers or perhaps the crest on our menu but, unbidden, the memory rose of a squalid terraced house in the Midlands that had on the parlour wall a wooden shield painted with an oak tree. I was there making a film about the support available to pregnant teenagers. Unusually in this case, the father was still around - a boy of 19 (the girl was 16). The boy was a bodybuilder and had a history of parental abuse, violence and abandonment. His determination that his child would have something better expressed itself in the shield he had painted: he would be an oak in his child's life.

The boy was uneducated and acting on some deep instinct that understood the power of symbols to influence behaviour. He had created what is recognised as an 'ideological symbol', a pointer to the right thing to do.

Symbols are also often simple identifiers. For people with learning disabilities, symbols bring meaning to words; for drivers speeding on the motorway, they give instant instruction. In 800 AD you would have known that a parchment sealed with the Imperial Eagle was a missive from Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. You would also have recognised its ideological aspect and obeyed accordingly.

No image of Charlemagne's coat of arms - this is Henry IV's of 1169 (c)wikipedia

Three and a half centuries later Charlemagne's successors - Henry IV being the eighteenth Emperor - were still using the eagle. And in 1950, modern-day Germany adopted a national symbol that looked very much the same - the Bundesadler (the Federal eagle). Chancellor Konrad Adenauer announced: 'the Federal coat of arms on a gold-yellow shield shows the one headed black eagle, the head turned to the right, the wings open but with closed feathering, beak, tongue and claws of red colour'. Modern Germany had chosen to replicate what had also been the symbol of the Weimar Republic to stress democratic continuity. But one can't help but find continuity with Charlemagne and hear in the cry of the eagle echoes of the victory two millennia ago when the great German hero Hermann stopped the Roman advance into Germany.

The Bundesadler of both the Weimar Republic and modern Germany since 1950 (c)wikicommons

To imply continuity in symbolism from Charlemagne to Federal Germany is, of course, historically reprehensible. “Germany” and its symbols have passed through so many incarnations in the last 1300 years. The nation's history is littered with shape-shifting seals and shields of ruling princes, noble families, comfortable burghers, guilds, peasants, corporations, and, latterly, national governments - East, West and now unified.

Towns and cities always had a shield and a seal. When Munich was founded in the fourteenth century, the crest represented the city's founders – Benedictine monks. (The word Munich derives from the old German word Munichen, monks). The earliest known city seal dates from 28th May 1239 and shows a monk wearing an open hood, holding a book (probably the Bible) with one hand while the other hand has three fingers raised in blessing.

Munich city seal (c)wikicommons

The monk as central to Munich's symbolism has enjoyed an extraordinary persistence, though seen at times hooded, bare-headed, curly-headed, old and since the nineteenth century, young - a Münchner Kindl (Munich child, in the local dialect) dressed in Benedictine robes.

After Napoleon established the Kingdom of Bavaria, King Maximilian removed the monk from Munich's crest and replaced him with a gold lion holding a sword in one paw and a shield emblazoned with "M" for Maximilian in the other. The citizens resisted and within a decade, the shield was recast to show the head of a monk.

The monk returns on the shield (c)wikicommons

Munich had the misfortune to be significant to the Nazis. Misfortune because the average support for Hitler from Bavarians in the four relevant Reichstag elections was just 22.5%. But in Munich, Hitler had attempted his first coup; here the National Socialist Party was headquartered; and here the Nazis built the first concentration camp, Dachau. Such was Nazi affection for the city that they named it Hauptstadt der Bewegung (capital of the movement). And they gave the city a new shield: the monk remained but he now stood in the gate of a castle topped by the Nazis' version of the imperial eagle.

Munich's present-day shield is cheerful: the monk is there, looking quite happily androgynous, framed by a castellated gate topped by the gold lion of the House of Wittelsbach, the ancient ruling family.

Munich's coat of arms today (c)wikicommons

I don't like it. It's not my business, of course, but it seems flat and one-dimensional, not right for a city as deep and vibrant as Munich is today. The designer, Edouard Ege, was very eminent - he was responsible for the Deutsche Bundesbahn logo which was used on the Federal Railway from 1955 to 1993, for the coat of arms of Bavaria itself, for stamps for the German Federal Post Office and for the Ege Font (below).

We went to see more of his work yesterday - for a residential complex, the Borstei, built in the late 1920s by Bernhard Borst who had bought 90,000 square metres of Munich and wanted to build an estate within the city that was far in advance of other housing projects. "The basic idea for the Borstei was to relieve the housewife", he said in May 1929. And he did his best - central heating, a laundry service, vacuum cleaners, 'dust removal rooms' where you shook out your blankets and carpets, a shopping service, telephone exchange, heated garages (with washing facilities), storage rooms for prams and bicycles, bathrooms with bidets and well-equipped kitchens - advantages not shared by many homes, other than those of the rich.

frescoes on a Borstei apartment block (c)

Borst also believed in the transformative power of art and he employed the best artists that he could. To this day, people tour the Borstei as though it were an art gallery. One of his artists was Edouard Ege whom he commissioned to design the lettering, numbers and signage across the estate.


A compelling march through German heraldry from 1701 to the present day -

A short sequence on the Bavarian coat of arms -

Film of the Borstei with some of the commentary in English. There are glimpses of Edouard Ege's lettering -

Film of an era that is no more -

And rather sadly, that era brought into the present -

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