The Polish Flag – More Than Just Red And White Stripes
The Polish flag is two equal horizontal stripes, the upper one white and the lower in red. The colours are defined in the Polish constitution as the national colours. The Polish coat of arms is placed in the centre of the white stripe for official use abroad and while at sea.
The national flag of Poland is simple in design, but still strikes a certain level of pride for many Poles all over the world. Poland has a national holiday for the flag – Flag Day, May 2nd, is a holiday set aside to celebrate the raising of the Polish flag in Berlin after the battle of Berlin.
If you’ve ever wanted to know a little more about the plain white and red, or biały czerwony, you’re in the right place.
In this article, you’ll see:
- History of the Polish flag
- Rules around the flag of Poland
- The many variations of the Polish flag
It’s worth noting that it’s hard to talk about the Polish flag without referencing the red and white of Poland and the Polish coat of arms. So to learn where the Polish flag comes from, you first need to know a little about the origin of red and white in Poland.
Origins of the Polish Flag
To find the first official usage of red and white representing Poland, we need to go back over 1000 years to 966 – the baptism of Poland. This is when Mieszko I converted to Christianity, leaving behind paganism.
In Christianity, White represents purity, and red represents love. The legend of the Polish Eagle states that the first settlers of Poland saw a white eagle landing in front of a red sunset and use that as a sign that they should settle there (in what is present-day Gniezno).
Combine the legend of the Polish Eagle with the christening of Poland, and we get the origin of the colours of the Polish flag.
But what about the flag?
After Poland’s baptism, the church required a lot of Pagan symbols to be replaced with Christian ones. As many countries back then didn’t have ‘flag’s as we know it today, but rather banners and insignia.
Poland’s first royal banner dates back to King Boleslaus the Generous (who reigned for a whole 3 years from 1076 to 1079).
But it was King Vladislaus the Elbow-High (who ruled from 1320 to 1333) who used red cloth and placed a white eagle on it.
This banner was used at royal ceremonies and taken into battle. So important is the Polish Eagle, that it’s mentioned in The Witcher Books and video games.
The Polish flag throughout history
In the 1500s, when Poland and Lithuania created the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, a new banner had to be designed that incorporated the symbols of both Poland and Lithuania.
Luckily, Poland’s Eagle was white, just like Lithuania’s symbol of a knight on horseback, and both symbols were on a white background.
Therefore, the flag of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was both coats of arms displayed on a horizontally-stripped red and white flag.
In the picture below, you can see the Royal Banner of the commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. You can also see the Polish Eagle on a red shield – one of the first official records of its use in warfare.
This may very well be the origin of the Polish flag as it stands today.
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, European militaries used cockades, knots of coloured ribbons pinned to the hat, to show the nationality of their military. Throughout the battles of this period, Polish cockades were red and white.
When the military commission announced that a metal cross, representing Christ, must be worn into battle, heroes like General Kościusko and Poniatowski continued to pin their red and white cockades to their hats.
Below, you can see Kościusko riding into battle and the cockade on his hat.
As red and white began to be used more and more in military and government situations, civilians started to use the colours to celebrate. The first recorded usage of red and white by civilians was on May 3, 1792, in Warsaw, where the population celebrated the first anniversary of the Polish constitution.
Between 1807 and 1830, Poland was a ‘puppet state’ of both France and then Russia. During the November uprising against Russian rule in 1830, it was decided that a unique national insignia was needed by its military. Red and white cockades were then again worn as the Polish military fought for its independence from Russia, Prussia and Austria.
The Polish Flag today
One of Poland’s first public celebrations since regaining independence was on May 3, 1916, in Warsaw.
So new was the Polish flag to its citizens, that government official had to go into the crowd and tell Poles which way to hold their flag.
To prevent the Polish Navy from the incorrect use of the flag, a Polish Eagle was placed in the middle of the white stripe to clearly show which way is up.
Since the start of the twentieth century, the Polish flag has remained mostly the same. The only change being some slight alterations to the definition of the colour red – but more on that later.
The Polish flag even comes in alcoholic form! Below, you can see a shot made from Polish Vodka and raspberry juice!
Polish flag & WW2
During the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the Polish Army, Navy and Airforce used little to no red or white on their uniforms, as you can see below.
Throughout Europe and North Africa, the Polish flag was raised over many battlefields after an allied victory where Poles played a major role.
One example is after the Battle of Monte Cassino. On May 18, 1944, after the allied victory over Germany, a Polish flag was raised over the ruins of Monte Cassino abbey.
Another well-known example of the Polish Flag being used in victory is in Berlin. On May 2, 1945, after the Battle of Berlin, Poles of three separate battalions raised Polish flags on the Berlin Victory Column to signal that the capital of the Third Reich was in allied control.
The Warsaw uprising, the home army & the flag
The red and white stripes took on a new meaning, especially for those in Warsaw during WW2.
During the Warsaw Uprising, the infamous 63-day battle where the home army fought off Nazi occupiers, those fighting for Warsaw’s liberation wore red and white armbands to distinguish themselves. These armbands were worn by civilian Polish women and men, as well as doctors and nurses.
Similar armbands were also worn by Polish Freedom fighters in the south of Poland between 1918 and 1921.
During the Warsaw Uprising, equipment was in short supply, so it wasn’t unusual to see a Pole wearing the familiar shape of a Nazi helmet, however with its own red and white stripes, and sometimes with a white eagle.
The Polish flag would be raised over the ruins of Central Station of Warsaw (Dworzec Centralny) after the liberation of Warsaw by the Home Army and Soviet Forces on January 17th, 1945.
Communism and Poland’s flag
When Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, it’s flag remained unchanged. This is quite unusual, as many other communist countries had their flags modified to include a red star or a hammer and sickle.
For example, this is the Albian flag during communist rule:
And the Romanian flag:
It’s not clear why the Polish flag wasn’t modified to include some form of socialist imagery, but the Polish Coat Of Arms was changed. In one of the most humiliating acts in Polish History, the Polish Eagle had its crown removed from the coat of arms.
Polish flags also played a very important part of the Solidarity movement. During the 1956 riots in Poznan, protesters waved Polish flags that were covered in blood on the white stripe.
In the picture above, you can see similar examples of a blood-stained Polish flag from anti-socialist protests in Gdynia in 1970.
Colours of Poland’s flag
Red and white, right?
As you can see in the image above, the colour red has changed quite a lot throughout time.
You read earlier about cockades, the piece of ribbon that was tied to a soldiers hat during battle. While Poland had a National Cockade act that defined when and where cockades were to be used, it didn’t specify the exact colour of red that had to be used.
The Coat of Arms act from this time also didn’t specify the exact shade of red that represented Poland.
In 1921, the government released a pamphlet that simply suggested that the colour ‘Crimson’ be used. This was not an official law but was made official by a presidential decree in 1955.
In 1980, a new version of the coat of arms act changed the shade back to a more of a crimson shade, and also gave it official tri-chromatic values as follows:
- Hex: #dc143c
- RGB: (220, 20, 60)
- CMYK: 0, 0.909, 0.727, 0.137
Polish Flag Variants
The simplicity of the Polish flag means it’s quite simple for it to modify for specific governmental or military purposes.
Below you can see the flag for the Polish Land Forces and how it uses the same colour red as the flag.
Here’s is the Airforce Insignia of the Polish Airforce. It uses the same colours as the flag and was made famous by Polish Fighter Pilots during the Battle of Britain.
The simple two-stripe design is also used by Polish cities. Below, you can see the official flag of Warsaw:
And the flag of Krakow:
The flag of Torun:
And the flag of Katowice:
So as you can see, the Polish flag sets the theme for the flags of many other cities!
Legal usage of the flag of Poland
Polish law says that the flag and coat of arms must be treated ‘with reverence and respect’. Public disrespect, destruction or intentional removal of the Polish flag is a crime and can be punished with a fine, or up to a year behind bars.
Statistics from 2003 and 2004 show that there were a total of 139 ‘crimes’ involving the Polish flag in these two years.
The Coat of Arms Act says that everyone can use the Polish flag as long as it’s done respectfully. What’s interesting is that the ability to use the national colours and fly a flag outside of a holiday was only made legal in 2004. It’s worth noting though that before 2004, this law wasn’t enforced all that much.
Between 1955 and 1985, unauthorized use of any national symbol was an infraction. The monopoly that the communist party had on the use of the flag meant that using the flag was a bit of a ‘middle finger’ to authorities, a form of resistance.
That’s why the Solidarność logo uses the flag in a lot of its imagery
Here are a few more interesting facts about using the Polish flag:
- When hung vertically, the white stripe must be on the left
- When hung on a coffin, the white stripe must be over the heart
- The flag must be raised before 8 am and lowered before sunset.
- If the flag is flown at night, it must be illuminated.
- When disposing of a flag, it must be ripped in half, separating the colours, and then burned.
Many countries have a flag similar to Poland. Indonesia and Monaco in fact, have the same flag as Poland, just inverted.
Recently, Polish and Indonesia Naval Officers met to conduct war exercises. The official meeting was great if you like symmetry.
When you look at local and regional flags of other parts of the world, well, it easy to see a few copy cats:
The Polish Flag: Conclusion
Poland’s flag means a lot to its people. It shows off its history, it’s pride and strikes a certain emotion into the heart of every Pole.
What other ways have you seen the Polish flag been used? What other parts of the world do you see it being flown? Let us know in the comments!
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