The Heraldic Eagle, or Reichsadler is still to this day used as the coat of arms of the German empire. Its use in the coat of arms, and on German symbolism generally picture an eagle with curved wings and a red open beak.

Heraldic eagle on German coat of arms

Nazis used a heraldic eagle with wider and straighter wings, and no apparent colors.

Nazi eagle symbolism

In October 2018, a Philly cop was noticed wearing the said eagle on his forearm, and was frowned upon by the national press. However, no apparent sign appeared to me to link this type of symbolism directly to nazism (especially since it wasn't known if the eagle was carrying any swastika).

Is there any way to dissociate the Reichsadler from nazism?

How does an heraldic eagle become a nazi symbol?

  • Are there pictures of the cop's arm that show the lower part of the symbol? Jul 15, 2019 at 11:16
  • I couldn't find any (at least, none that are either from a source of trust, or that are not blatantly photoshopped). Jul 15, 2019 at 11:30
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    I'm not sure that this portion of the question "Is there any way to dissociate the Reichsadler from nazism?" is within scope for H:SE. I may be wrong; community is the final authority, but I thought I'd raise the question. Probably not worth editing a question from last year, but I'd like to set the precedent that questions phrased in the present or future tense may not be in scope.
    – MCW
    Apr 8, 2020 at 12:43

3 Answers 3


Simply by using (or abusing) it. An heraldic eagle (or any other heraldic symbol) on its own is neutral. Remember the 3 powers of advertising: repeat, repeat and repeat.

I live in Thailand were the swastika has a very different (and religious) meaning. I've seen a Buddhist temple with a fence decorated with swastika's. To me it's somewhat eerily funny, but I am not a Buddhist. For Buddhists there's nothing wrong with that fence. Likewise I had to ask a pupil not to wear a very fashionable red shirt with a huge white circle and a swastika in class. For the pupil, it was just a fashion statement. He hardly knew what Nazis were or what they have done. (History has a very low priority here.)

In a similar vein the Dutch flag is a red-white-blue tricolor. We used to have a different version, in the 17th century, which was orange-white-light blue, the Princevlag. During the 1930's the NSB (Dutch quislings) started promoting that old flag. In reply the Dutch government officially described the colors of the flag, being red-white-blue.

The Princevlag, like the heraldic eagle, doesn't not have a specific political meaning. People give it meaning. Right now some groups would like to use the Princevlag, but that has been permanently tainted by the NSB.

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    +1 for: "symbols don't have an intrinsic meaning, people give them meaning"
    – Dohn Joe
    Jul 15, 2019 at 7:55
  • Most religious based swastikas (often used in Asia) point to the left, whereas the nazi swastika points to the right. Also the eagle that looks to the right (as above) is the party eagle and when looking to the left is the Reichsadler (as used on uniforms, passports etc.). So anyone who lets themselfs be tattooed with the eagle looking to the right has a nazi symbol and one to the left just bad (or disrespectful) taste. Jul 20, 2019 at 11:46

However, no apparent sign appeared to me to link this type of symbolism directly to nazism (especially since it wasn't known if the eagle was carrying any swastika).

Well, the eagle as displayed the way the Nazis displayed it, together with the word "Fatherland" in some gothic font certainly makes it a symbol of the Third Reich. Either that, or the guy is a real fan of the book "Fatherland" and chose a really strange way to make his fandom known.

Is there any way to dissociate the Reichsadler from nazism?

After the fact? Well, Germany tried. With the Reichsadler so prominently displayed on many buildings, it just wasn't feasible to tear them all down or at least substantially damage them, especially not after the war when non-bombed buildings where rare.

"Entnazifizierung" ("denazifying") in this case happened by removing the swastika. The remaining eagle with the hole where the swastika had once been was deemed enough. (Example)

But if somebody would build a new building and put one up, it would certainly raise questions and eyebrows.

How does an heraldic eagle become a nazi symbol?

Because they used it. Just like the swastika, brown shirts or Hitlers mustache. They are all connected to Nazis because the Nazis used them. The same way as the star spangled banner is American or the yellow M is for McDonalds. It's not an inherent property, it's what we make of it.


Here is an interesting undergraduate thesis that compares the different ways the eagle was appropriated as a national symbol in US and German contexts. In both cases, the author traces this symbol to Roman times (the aquila). Regarding the specific way the Nazi Party (NSDAP) used the eagle (the Parteiadler):

When the partially Germanic Holy Roman Empire came about, they took the Roman eagle as their own in order to link the legacies and lineages so as to justify their claims of authority and identity. Specifically the double-headed Byzantine eagle was adopted (Becker 114), which became the emblem of Germany during the middle ages (Whittick 236), and the bird continued to be the national insignia in either its single or double headed form. Whereas the American eagle was meant to represent virtue, the adler here clearly retains much more of the militaristic significance that the aquila held, for it gazes over its left shoulder, toward the sinister. This seems to suggest, especially when compared to the American eagle, a preference of the adler for war, rather than peace. Additionally the NSDAP changed the iconography to make the eagle sharper, darker, and more intimidating, but also placed in its talons a swastika encircled by a stylized oak wreath. (emphasis added)

I find it almost impossible to believe that Lichterman's tattoo isn't an intentional reference to the Nazi Parteiadler. Even if it lacks the swastika and oak wreath, the other elements I put in bold above are present.

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    You don't know why he chose that version. A lot of misinformation and sometimes plain ol' trying to be edgy is pushed in tattoo shops hence all the skull designs and flames. This guy may simply have liked that shape. I would liken it to men with an interest in Scottish Highland culture, but not having actually done any real study on it, getting a kilt which turns out to be the female version - typically those guys you see with the kilt well below their knees.
    – Daniel
    Jul 15, 2019 at 5:55
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    @Daniel if you look at the link provided by the OP, there is a picture of the subject showing the tattoos; the eagle is just under some text in gothic letters that seems to spell "Fatherland". Even if we believe that the cop did not know what it meant(how can someone have some text written on himself without checking what it means?), there is no possibility that the designer did not know it. And of course, if the cop was unaware when the tattoo was made, once if he became aware he could have tried to get the tattoo removed or at least to cover it while in uniform...
    – SJuan76
    Jul 15, 2019 at 9:14
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    It's clear to me that the tattoo of the cop was a symbol of hate, especially because of the "Fatherland" spelling above. However, I find it sad that the sharper,darker and more intimidating iconography of the symbol is so unavoidably linked to NSDAP. Thanks for the pointers ! Jul 15, 2019 at 10:35
  • @SJuan76 In this age of political correctness I find it impossible to believe that this cop willingly exposed himself to career suicide by making such an obvious political statement as the one you're claiming. Fatherland is what Germany was referred to long before the nazis. The nazis later opposed the font it was written in too as being too hard to read. They were more art deco than gothic. It's such a huge tattoo that removing it would be difficult.
    – Daniel
    Jul 15, 2019 at 20:34
  • @Daniel: You would be surprised. I spontaneously found mention of a case where a German police officer was discharged for having, among others, lines from the Horst-Wessel-Lied tattoed. He claimed ignorance (ha...). The real WTF is that this had to go through three levels of jurisdiction, with two previous courts acquitting the man. Don't underestimate the amount of extremism they can get away with...
    – DevSolar
    Jul 16, 2019 at 9:45

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