HISTORY OF SWITZERLAND History of Switzerland's Flag

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History of Switzerland: Introduction / Sitemap A Short History of Switzerland History of Switzerland: Detailed Timeline  Early Swiss History
Prehistory: Lake-dwellings in Switzerland Swiss History: Celtic Helvetians Switzerland during the Age of Romans, Aventicum Aventicum, Old Swiss Capital in the Age of Romans Switzerland during the Middle Ages  Old Swiss History
The Old Swiss Confederacy (1291-1515) William Tell (Switzerland's National Hero) The Swiss Reformation (Calvin, Zwingli)  A Modern Constitution
Swiss Revolution and Helvetic Republic (1798) Switzerland's Federal Constitution (1848) History of Switzerland's Flag Switzerland's Political System The Long Way to Women's Right to Vote  Industrialisation
Industrialisation in Switzerland Johanna Spyri: Heidi, the girl from the alps - A bestseller about times of change  World War II
World War II: General Timeline Switzerland's Role in World War II Spiritual Defense against Nazism Switzerland's Economic Dependence and Rationing Jewish Refugees Looted Assets Switzerland's Neutrality Switzerland's National Public Radio Station Beromünster  Country & People
Basic information about Switzerland - country profile Switzerland's Population and Languages Important Swiss monuments: pictures and meaning  Links
Links: History Swiss Museums Links: Switzerland

History of Switzerland's Flag

Swiss flag on the Rütli
Swiss flag on the Rütli
where the history of the Old Swiss Confederacy started in 1291 according to the legend.

The flag of a country is more than just an practical symbol for a country to be used in everyday life. It stands for the country and its people and is therefore of emotional importance - at least with people, for whom people and homeland represent important values.

Switzerland is a federal republic situated in central Europe. Today it consists of 26 federal states called Cantons. Each canton has its own coat of arms or flag. The history of Switzerland as a nation began in 1291, when three cantons in central Switzerland decided to defend their rights against the counts of Habsburg and to help each other in doing so. This is the beginning of the Old Swiss Confederacy. Until 1513 several members joined the confederacy.

Origin of the Swiss flag

Where does the cross on the Swiss flag come from?

The Old Swiss Confederacy (1291 - 1515) was so loose a federation of autonomous regions, that Switzerland had no common field sign nor uniforms, not even a common high commander during most of its history. When swiss troops went to war (and they did so quite often back in late middle ages), they carried the flags of their region with them.

Nevertheless, the characteristic white cross and the red background of Switzerland's flag have their origin in late middle ages. Until 1648, Switzerland was still part of the German Empire. The member states of the Old Swiss Confederacy did not try to build a nation, they just wanted to get rid of the counts of Habsburg that had tried to strengthen their influence. In the 13th century, the German emperor carried with him a flag with the cross as a holy sign, understanding himself as a protector of christianity. Besides, he also carried a blood-red flag as a sign of his power over life and death. Occasionally, he granted the right to carry such flags as a special honor to single cities or regions. (The Dukes of Savoy and the City of Vienna bear a white cross on red ground on their coat of arms. The Scandinavian countries and Great Britain as well have a cross on their flags.) Often the right to bear a cross on one's coat of arms and on a flag was granted together with other privileges, like direct immediacy [direct subordination under the emperor's jurisdiction without jurisdiction of counts].

The region of Schwyz in central Switzerland, one of the three founding members of the Old Swiss Confederacy, and the one, whose name was later in history used to denote the confederacy as a whole, was granted immediacy in 1240 and carried a red flag from the middle of the 13th century on (yet still without the white cross). In 1289 they supported King Rudolf of Habsburg in a war against Burgundy and received as a recognition the right to represent the crucifixion of Christ and the tools used to torture him in the upper right field on their flag. Originally they painted this symbol on parchment and fastened it on the banner. Only later the cross symbol was painted directly on the banner.

The larger the old confederacy became, the more they had a problem with inconsistently clothed troops that were hardly able to recognize their allies on the battlefield. In descriptions of the battle of Laupen (1339), white stripes forming crosses are mentioned for the first time as a joint recognition sign of confederate troops. The white stripes were fastened on the soldier's breast, back, shoulders, arms, leg, hats or weapons. In the middle of the 15th century, the white cross was integrated into the flags of the member states of the confederacy. Originally, the cross reached to the edge of the banner also in Switzerland, like in the scandinavian flags.

The Tricolour of the Helvetic Republic

only a short episode in history

Some people think Switzerland was the first modern democracy in history. This is only half of the truth, actually. While people in some cantons and cities could indeed participate in the political process, a majority of Switzerland's inhabitants had no political rights at all until the Swiss Revolution of 1798 eliminated the old structures and replaced them with a centralistic democracy according to the model of the French Revolution (1789).

Corresponding to the revolutionary fashion, the Helvetic Republic also had a tricolor, that is a flag in three colors:

  • Green (the color of nature, symbolizing freedom and/or revolution), with a little freedom hat
  • red: traditional color in many Swiss cantonal coat of arms
  • yellow: traditional color
Tricolour of the Helvetic Republic
  (Switzerland 1798-1815) with freedom hat
Helvetic Tricolor

Extreme centralism, however, did not work well in Switzerland and in 1803 Switzerland returned to a federalistic system while keeping up to the revolutionary principles of freedom, equality and solidarity. Six new member cantons (former territories without political rights) were admitted to the new Confederation. In 1815 three cantons returned to Switzerland that had been annexed by France (Napoleon!) after 1798. The revolutionary green color of 1798 is to be found on the coat of arms of the 1803 cantons (member states) St. Gallen, Thurgau, Vaud as well as Neuchâtel (a 1815 member):

St. Gallen Thurgau Vaud Neuchâtel
Arms of Canton St. Gallen Arms of Canton Thurgau Arms of Canton Vaud Arms of Canton Neuchâtel
1803 1803 1803 1815

The "Swiss Cross" as a national symbol

After the French military dictator Napoleon was defeated by the european powers in 1815, conservative politicians in Switzerland tried to restore the old political institutions. The Helvetic Tricolor was abandoned and William Tell then interpreted a revolutionary hero, was banned from Switzerland's seal and replaced by the white Swiss Cross on red background.

In 1815 some batallions of the Swiss army adopted a flag with the Swiss Cross instead of the traditional regional flags. Not everybody in Switzerland was pleased with that, however. The old white stripes on uniforms were replaced by red armbands with a white cross. These armbands were in use until the beginning of World War I (1914).

Switzerland's flag:
 white cross on red background
Swiss Flag

After the french July Revolution of 1830, liberal politicians regained strength in Switzerland and demanded for more centralistic institutions. Therefore also the question of uniforms and a common flag for all swiss troops was discussed in the 1830's. In 1840 finally, the flag with the Swiss Cross was introduced for all troops. The later general Dufour was an advocate of this flag. By replacing the cantonal banners in the Swiss Army, the Swiss Flag was a key element in the process leading to national (instead of cantonal) identity and in the strenghtening of central institutions of the federal state created with the 1848 federal constitution.

The Red Cross flag

When the International Committee of the Red Cross as a permanent, neutral institution to take care of military and civil persons wounded or imprisoned in war was founded on the initiative of Henri Dunant (a merchant from Geneva, Switzerland) and swiss general Dufour in 1864, Dufour proposed the reversal of the swiss flag (red cross on white ground) as an emblem. Also the armband traditionally used by swiss troops was reused with inverted colors so that medical personnel in wars is obliged to wear white a armband with a red cross according to the Geneva Conventions The national Red Cross organizations in non-christian countries interpreted the Red Cross as a Christian symbol, however, and replaced it by their own religious symbols (red crescent moon in islamic countries, red david star in Israel). The color red on white background was retained.

Red Cross flag
Red Cross Flag:
inverted colors of Swiss Flag

Cantonal Coat of Arms in Switzerland

Arms of Canton Zurich
Arms of Canton Berne
Arms of Canton Lucerne
Arms of Canton Uri
Arms of Canton Schwyz
Arms of Canton Obwalden
Arms of Canton Nidwalden
Arms of Canton Glarus
Arms of Canton Zug
Flag of Switzerland
Arms of Canton Fribourg (Freiburg)
Arms of Canton Solothurn
Arms of Canton Schaffhausen
Arms of Canton Basel-Stadt
Arms of Canton Baselland
Arms of Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden
Arms of Canton Appenzell Innerrhoden
St. Gallen
Arms of Canton St. Gallen
Arms of Canton Graubünden (Grisons)
Arms of Canton Aargau
Arms of Canton Thurgau
Arms of Canton Ticino
Arms of Canton Vaud
Arms of Canton Valais / Wallis
Arms of Canton Neuchâtel
Arms of Canton Geneva
Arms of Canton Jura

For centuries, people in Switzerland identified themselves foremost with their canton (region). When Switzerland's flag was officially introduced in 1848 to mark a new age (modern federal constitution!), there was quite some opposition and many citizens wanted to stay with their cantonal flags. During the 19th and 20th centuries, however, industrialization led to an enormous migration inside Switzerland, so that many swiss citizens do not live where their families originated once any longer - so what can be their identity if not just Swiss.

I have not attempted to count flags in gardens (and there are thousands of them!) - but according to what I see when walking around in different regions of Switzerland, in cities, suburbs or on alpine hiking trails, I'm always getting the same impression and would estimate that today more than 90% of the single flagposts in the country carry Switzerland's national flag, while cantonal and village flags are very rare, and placed on additional flagposts together with a Swiss flag, if at all.

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