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.
Poland’s flag is made up of two horizontal stripes of white over red and was officially adopted in the early 20th century. But first, let’s see where it all started.
From the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth…
The first reported Polish coat of arms – a white eagle on a red shield – dates from the 13th century. Although it remains uncertain what motivated this exact choice of colours, it is believed that it may simply have been to differentiate it from the arms of the Holy Roman Empire (a black eagle on a golden shield).
White and red were adopted as the national colours of the Polish people in the early 19th century, when a legislation was passed defining the official national cockade as white and red – until then, soldiers could wear cockades of different colours, including the revolutionary blue-white-red.
This choice originated more directly from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a confederation that united both states during more than two hundred years from the late 16th century. Its coat of arms featured a white eagle (arms of Poland) and the Pursuer (a white knight on a white horse, symbol of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), both placed on a red background.
… to Poland’s early flags
Poland’s early flag simply used the design of the traditional coat of arms and transformed it into a banner by filling the field of the flag with the shield pattern. However, the red flag with a white eagle was eventually rejected in favour of another design. In 1919, Poland officially adopted the plain bicolour horizontal flag of white over red stripes as its national flag: “The colours of the Republic of Poland are to be white and red in extended parallel stripes – white at the top, red at the bottom”, read the resolution passed by the lower house of Parliament at that time.
There hasn’t been much change since then. It is, however, important to mention that Czechoslovakia adopted an almost similar flag between 1918 and 1920. Considered too similar to Poland’s, a new design was eventually found, with an additional blue triangle at the hoist (the current flag in use in the Czech Republic, despite the promise made to Slovakia not to use it after the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993).
Fifty shades of red and rainbow patterns
For a long time, the exact shades of red that should be used were not clearly or legally defined: the red stripe therefore underwent a number of subtle changes, from crimson to the cheaper amaranth before turning to vermillion in the late 1920’s.
Banned under the Nazi occupation, Poland’s flag was restored at the end of the war. Communist authorities only removed the golden crown on the eagle’s head, interpreted as a symbol of monarchy, from Poland’s coat of arms. Apart from that, the Polish flag stayed as such during communist rule.
After 1990, the crown was restored on the eagle’s head, and white and red were once again defined as the country’s national colours in the Constitution. Since 2004, Polish flag day is celebrated every year on May 2nd. Although the most common version that can be seen remains the plain white and red bicolour flag, the coat of arms is sometimes added on the white strip of the flag for official purpose (embassies and consulates, civilian airports, merchant civil ensigns, etc.).
Insulting a state emblem is a crime in Poland, and carries a prison sentence of up to one year, as Notes From Poland recently explained in a thorough article on the country’s legal arsenal of “insult laws”.
During the LGBT pride last summer, an investigation was launched due, according to public prosecutors, to the “reasonable suspicion a crime was committed” by people marching with Poland’s flag coloured with the LGBT community’s well-known rainbow pattern (see picture below).