National flags are an eloquent token 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 XXth century and was created in the aftermath of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. But first, let’s take a step back.
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 (see image below). 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, therefore, 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 XXth century designs
Things got more complicated – and interesting – 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 present in the new-born state, including Slovaks and Ruthenians.
In 1920, a new design was commissioned to find a solution to that tricky problem. 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 was 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 briefly 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 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”, through which Czechoslovakia broke up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, 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 broke its promise and 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 Praha 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.
A petty political betrayal or a heartfelt expression of nostalgia for their lost Slovak brothers? We’ll let you choose which version you prefer.
The “red underpants incident”
We cannot write about the Czech Republic’s flag without mentioning the “red underpants incident”. In 2015, activists from the Ztohoven Czech art group replaced the flag over Prague’s castle – the Czech presidential residence – with some one-metre-long red underpants. The stunt was meant to denounce Czech President Milos Zeman, “a man who isn’t ashamed of anything”, protest against some of his latest controversial remarks and criticize his closeness with and admiration for China and its leaders. A presidential spokesman condemned this “desecration of state symbols”.
But the story doesn’t end there. Last June, a revengeful Milos Zeman – re-elected in January – called an impromptu press conference. The purpose? To burn similar red shorts in front of journalists, completely unaware of what was going to happen. “I’m sorry to make you look like little idiots, you really don’t deserve it”, the Czech president, who’s no stranger to odd and bizarre press briefings, told baffled reporters.
Nearly 100 years after its creation, the odyssey of the Czech flag isn’t over yet.