On the 11th of November, Europe will be honouring the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. But this is not the only important WWI centenary this year. In fact, several countries have already celebrated their own 100th anniversary, having declared independence before the the armistice was signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the famous Compiègne Wagon. Both Estonia and Lithuania celebrated their anniversary in February, and Czechs and Slovaks will be marking the centenary of the declaration of their common state on the 28th of October. However, the most important event marking the creation of a new state is the adoption of its flag. And the flag you all know as the Czech, and Czechoslovak flag is only 98 years old . . .
To learn the story of the Czechoslovak flag and what preceeded it as Czech and Slovak national symbols, we need to go back a few years, into the heat of World War I. During the war, various groups representing Czech and Slovak interests were established in Allied countries. The first which successfully began to represent the Czechs on an international level was the Czech Committee Abroad, founded in 1915 by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a Moravian politician in exile. Gaining the support of various Slovak groups in the Western world, the Committee re-branded itself as the Czechoslovak National Council. This council was the eye of the vortex around which several flag designs were created. Around 1917, the Czech artist and designer Vojtěch Preissig began publishing various posters and postcards promoting the Czechoslovak cause and bearing what is today referred to as the Flag of the Foreign Resistance, or simply the “Preissig Banner”. This flag contained five horizontal stripes: red, white, blue, white and red. The central blue stripe was wider than the rest (though the width changes depending on the depiction) and contained four stars aligned in a vertical 1, 2, 1 pattern. The colours were derived from the Czech colours (white and red) and the Slovak / Slavic red, white and blue. Meanwhile, the stars represent the four lands which were to form this new country, namely Bohemia, Slovakia, Moravia and Silesia.
It is worth noting that the authorship of the flag was for a long time disputed and instead attributed to Milan Rastislav Štefánik, a Slovak politician, member of the National Council, and the first Czechoslovak Minster of War. The photo shown below is borrowed from a 1918 edition of the New York Times and shows Czechoslovaks in the USA with the Preissig banner (an interesting mistake: the description mislabels Slovakia as “Slavonia”, a province of Croatia). The flag itself was mainly connected to the American communities of Czechs and Slovaks (being officially adopted as such by the American Czecho-Slovak Board in 1918) and did not make the final cut for the national flag. It was, however, a prominent flag that represented the Czechoslovak cause in the West for a long time.
Flag of the Czechoslovak National Council
While he did not author the previously mentioned Preissig Banner, Štefánik did participate in the design process of another flag that played a major role in Czechoslovakia’s vexillographical history. During the first half of 1918, the Czechoslovak National Council was in the process of preparing The Czechoslovak Flag, a publication which was intended to present Czech and Slovak national symbols to the wider world. Here we get our first glimpse at what is to be the first official flag of Czechoslovakia, that is the Bohemian bicolour. But we will return to that later. To move in chronological order, we must look at another flag contained in the aforementioned publication. Namely, the flag of the National Council. The publication specifies that it is merely a provisional flag and that a future “Diet of the Czechoslovak state alone can adopt an official flag for the State.” The flag of the National Council is described as follows:
“The National Council has adopted as its official colors [sic] white and red in a blue field. In the center are the initials Č S, the insignia of the Czechoslovak armies in France and Italy. The blue field is taken from the color of the three mountains Tatra, Matra and Fatra on the Slovak coat of arms.”
The description is not exactly all-encompassing as it fails to specify the unusual nature of the shape of the blue field, which can be seen in the annex of the publication. The central white and red stripes, rimmed above and below with a thin blue stripe and all emerging from the hoist, taper to a point in the fly and the blue stripes thus join together along the fly edge. The flag itself was designed by Štefánik and underwent two major changes before it became a final design. The original design used a distinctly lighter shade of blue (expressly specified by Štefánik) while the line separating the bicolour from the blue background curved inwards at the point where it begins to taper instead of an angular break. Aleš Brožek describes the shape as a “horizontal shield” in his article on Štefánik’s vexillological activities. The shade of blue was later changed to a darker version by the artist Rudolf Růžička while the shape of the division between the blue and the bicolour was simplified in the interest of easier production of the flag. The flag was also equipped with its own flagpole finial, namely “four interlaced rings, symbolic of the four component lands of the Czechoslovak State: Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia.”
The white-red bicolour is an obvious refference to the Bohemian colours, the blue bringing in the third Slovak colour. The letters Č and S, to quote Štefánik, “embracing” themselves are a reference to the Czech and Slovak word for Czechoslovakia, that is “Československo”. Finally, in Štefánik’s own poetic words, loosely translated, “the red colour is to remind you of the blood which bought the freedom of our nation, the white is to be an appeal to you to keep the soul of the Czechoslovak soldier pure, if we wish to preserve our precious liberty” and “the white and red in the form of a wedge, with which we broke through the ice of misunderstanding, adversity, spite and malice. Our colours of white and red, shining on a clear sky, from which it shall, God willing, chase away the clouds of subjugation.”
This flag saw wide use by both the National Council and the Russia-based Czechoslovak legion. The latter flew it both in Russia but it also came to be used as a burial shroud in Japan, as the legions moved east to return home.
First Czechoslovak Flag
As was mentioned earlier, and as you may see in the above image, another flag was presented in The Czechoslovak Flag. A white over red bicolour, labelled as the “Czechoslovak flag” presides over all the other symbols. The flag has in fact two sources. The first, and most obvious, is the Bohemian bicolour. Derived from the arms, the colours white and red have always played a part in Czech symbolism. During the Habsburg era they were officially codified as the Bohemian “landesfarben” or “land colours”, later to be adopted as the Czech colours in general. The less obvious symbol is their connection to Slovakia. While most may know of Slovakia’s use of the Slavic tricolour today, historically this was not so. In the revolutionary year of 1848, the Slovaks issued a manifesto naming white and red the Slovak colours. The white and red bicolour is both Czech and Slovak, thus indeed Czechoslovak.
It is this flag, flown on European battlefields during World War I and along the Trans-Siberian Railway by the Czechoslovak Legions, which was flown by people in the new state on the 28th of October, when the Czechoslovak National Council began to assume power.
The Finishing Touches
Between 1918 and 1919, the new government set up a committee to determine the arms for the new state, and in late spring of 1919 the committee began to also consider suggestions for a new Czechoslovak flag. The problems facing the current flag were twofold. Not only was the bicolour identical to the Polish flag (in all but ratio and the shade of red), using white and red as the national colours also proved problematic for instance when setting up coloured border posts with Austria, which used the same colours. The committee considered designs supplied both by its members and by the members of the public, and in the autumn of 1919 it came to a final design of a white and red bicolour with a hoist-based blue wedge reaching to 1/3 of the length of the field. The flag contained both the historical Bohemian bicolour, but also blue to complete the Slavic tricolour and logically also to represent Slovakia. The flag proposal was, however, met with protests regarding both the aesthetic aspects of the flag and its suitability from a symbolic and historical perspective. Further debate ensued and a change was devised to at least satisfy those complaining about the aesthetic aspect of the flag, extending the wedge to 1/2 of the length of the field. In the end the flag was passed despite the protests.
It is worth noting that over the past decades there has been some confusion over the actual author of the final flag. According to both a 1920 statement of the Czechoslovak Ministry of the Interior and analyses by prominent Czech vexillologists, the primary author of the Czechoslovak flag of 1920 was Jaroslav Kursa, a member of the committee tasked with designing the flag.
The flag which Czechoslovakia adopted in 1920, and which is thus 98 this year, saw a turbulent existence. It was adopted by the first Czechoslovak Republic against protests and served it well until it was revoked by the establishment of the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1938. It flew in exile and returned with the liberating armies to fly proudly over Czechoslovak land once again. It survived the brutal communist regime and a Warsaw Pact invasion and oversaw the Velvet Revolution and the second liberation of Czechoslovakia from an oppressive regime. Finally, it witnessed the end of the joint state of Czechs and Slovaks as it peacefully broke apart in 1993. Though a controversial topic, the flag continues to fly over Czechia, repurposed as the national flag of the Czechs. And yet, through all this adversity, the flag remains to this day both an excellent example of vexillographical design and a common symbol of Czechs and Slovaks, 100 years after their independence.
The following served as the major sources for this article:
Svoboda, Zbyšek. “Československá Vlajka.” Vexilologie 1-3 (1972). https://www.vexilologie.cz/cvs/vexilologie/vexie001-3.pdf.
Brožek, Aleš. “Milan Rastislav Štefánik a Jeho Vexilologické Aktivity.” Vexilologie 188 (June 2018): 3700-3709.
The Czechoslovak Flag. Washington, D.C.: Czechoslovak National Council, September 1918. Sourced from the US Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/resource/dcmsiabooks.czechoslovakflag00fele/?sp=1&st=list
Vlčková, Lucie, and Aleš Brožek. Vojtěch Preissig: Ze Světce Do Světa. Světec: Obec Světec Ve Spolupráci S Nakl. Kapucín Společnosti Přátel Města Duchcova a S Uměleckoprůmyslovým Museem v Praze, 2014.