Prague, Czech Republic – National flags are an eloquent symbol of a country’s historical roots, cultural standing and political aspirations. They are, in other words, a concentrated version of a nation’s complex and changing identity.
This is why Kafkadesk has decided to explore the meaning of Central European flags and shed some light on the significance of symbols you might encounter on an every-day basis.
The flag of the Czech Republic is made up of two horizontal stripes of white over red, with a blue triangle at the hoist. Its current design dates back to the early 20th century and was created in the aftermath of the foundation of Czechoslovakia.
From Bohemia’s coat of arms…
The traditional colours of the Czech lands – white and red – originated from the 1192 coat of arms of the duchy (later kingdom) of Bohemia.
It includes four squares, all of which have a strong symbolic meaning: both squares dedicated to Bohemia feature a double-tailed and crowned white lion on a red shield (top left and bottom right); Moravia’s square shows a red and white chequered eagle on a blue shield (top right), while the Silesian part of the coat of arms displays a black eagle on a yellow shield (bottom left).
White and red were defined as the national colours of the Czech lands at a very early stage. But throughout most of its history, Bohemia was under the rule of foreign powers and part of wider geopolitical entities, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The flag therefore had no international standing, and the fact that it was similar to Poland‘s wasn’t really an issue.
… to 20th century designs
Things got more complicated after Czechoslovakia gained independence in 1918. The new state initially used a simple bicolour of white over red stripes as its national flag. But it quickly proved inadequate, for several reasons.
Not only was it too similar to Poland’s flag – now that both countries had reached independence, this became a problem – but its symbolism only took into account the traditional colours of the Czech lands, disregarding other ethnic groups of the new-born state, including Slovaks and Ruthenians.
In 1920, a new design was commissioned to find a solution. Designed by Jaroslav Kursa, the winning proposal simply added a blue triangle at the hoist of the flag – blue being one of Slovakia’s national colours, as well as Ruthenians’.
After the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, the flag was banned and replaced, on the Czech side, by a tricolour flag with horizontal stripes of white, red and blue: this was the official flag of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia until 1945 (Slovakia became a separate entity during the war ).
At the end of the war, the original flag from 1920 was reinstated and remained as such during the communist period.
The modern Czech flag and the 1993 betrayal
After the fall of communism in 1990, the Czech part of the new Czechoslovak federated state briefly reinstated the previous bicolour flag of white and red (the 1918-1920 design). But as Czechoslovakia was moving towards its split, the change went largely unnoticed.
Ahead of the so-called “Velvet divorce” between the Czech and Slovak Republics, a common resolution was passed, forbidding both countries to use the former national symbols of Czechoslovakia – its flag included.
Although Slovakia kept its side of the bargain and came up with a new design, the Czech side kept on using Czechoslovakia’s flag as its own. This is the one currently in use in the country.
When asked about it, many Slovaks remain pretty sour about it. Czechs, on the other hand, try to spin it in a more positive way. Interviewed by Radio Prague on the issue, Ondrej Matejka, deputy-director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, argued that “Czechs never really accepted this break-up as a real division […]. So, having this old flag from 1920, we still somehow believe that we live in the same state as back then”, he argued.