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Meaning of Switzerland's National Flag

Form, Colors and Symbol

Switzerland's national flag
national flag

Switzerland's national flag is a red square (not a rectangle!) with a white cross on it, whose arms do not reach the borders. Until 1890 the arms of the white cross had the same width as their length, but then it was decided that they should be one sixth longer than wide. The Swiss Cross, as it is often called by the native population, is a generalization of the coat of arms of canton Schwyz, one of the three founding members of the Swiss confederation back in 1291.

Schwyz, one of the three cantons [federal states] that founded the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291 apparently played a leading role in the early days, so its name soon was being used for the confederacy as a whole. When the old Swiss went to battles, the soldiers of each federal state had their own style of clothing and carried their own cantonal banner with them. As the confederation grew, they needed a common symbol to recognize friend from foe and applied white stripes in the form of a cross on their clothes and helmets.

Coat of arms: canton Schwyz
Canton Schwyz
Coat of arms

The Legend of the Flag with a Cross

But what are the origins of the white cross on the coat of arms of Schwyz? During the middle ages, Switzerland was first part of Charlemagne's great continental European empire (around A.D. 800). His sons split the empire in three parts, the eastern part (including Italy, the Alps and Germany) was called Holy Roman Empire of German Nation.

When the German emperor once went to Italy around 1230, soldiers from Schwyz accompanied him. It is reported that he was very pleased about the support they gave him and granted them the privilege to add a white cross to their red banner.

An old legend says that one of the last Roman emperors, Constantin, used a banner with a cross symbol when he defeated his rival Maxentius in 312. It is very likely that the cross symbol was taken over by Charlemagne and his successors as a sign of their leadership over the "Christian continent".

The privilege to use the Emperor's cross on their banner was not exclusively granted to the people of Schwyz, however, and so you may find many other political entities using a similar coat of arms, for example the Dukes of Savoy or the city of Vienna (capital of Austria) and Danmark - all showing not only the same symbol (white cross on red background) but even in the same colors, while Finnland and Sweden use different colors and the United Kingdom's Union Jack and the Dominican Republic have different colours and some additional features in their flags.

Who "Founded" Switzerland's National Flag?

The answer depends on the focus:

If you go right back to the very origins of Swiss troops using the white cross on red banners, this was a privilege granted by German emperor Friedrich II., so you would suggest that he "founded" the Swiss flag.

But if you are asking for the person who convinced a majority of Swiss politicians to use a common national flag instead of a variety of cantonal banners in 1840, when the white cross on a red square emblem was officially introduced as the Swiss army flag, this was Guillaume Henri Dufour, who later became general of the federal troops in the short Sonderbundskrieg (civil war) in 1847 and co-founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1864. Of course, it was also Guillaume Henri Dufour who proposed the red cross on white ground as the emblem and name for the Red Cross.

Geneva: monument for general Guillaume Henri Dufour

Facts about Switzerland's Flag

Emblem white cross on red square background
National colors red and white
Origins from the coat of arms of canton Schwyz
Introduction as a national flag: 1840
Correct form square (except for flags on ships)
Correct size length of cross arms : width must be 7:6
Older Swiss flags
during the Helvetic Republic (1798 to 1815),
a French style green-red-yellow tricolor flag was used

Symbols of Switzerland's Flag and their significance

Considering the origins of Switzerland's flag one should say that the white cross on a red square background symbolizes nothing more than just being part of the (once) "Christian Occident" in a very general way, and ironically the privilege to use this symbol was granted to the Swiss by a German emperor in 1230 right before they started to strive for autonomy in 1291.

The introduction of a tricolor in 1798 and the name Helvetic Republic by the Swiss Revolution symbolized that the dominance of the old members of the Swiss confederation was broken. The abolition of both tricolor and helvetic name and the restauration of cantonal flags inevitably marked the return to power of conservative anti-centralistic forces in 1815.

Discussing the introduction of a common national flag in the 1830's was part of the process leading to a federal state (instead of a loose confederacy). It was certainly more than mere coincidence that the very same man, general Guillaume Henri Dufour, who advocated the use of the white cross on red background as Switzerland's national flag, was the one who, as commander of the federal troops, decided the civil war in favour of national unity. (The civil war had been unleashed by conservative "cantonalists".)

On the other hand, using the old cross symbol and colors referring to canton Schwyz in the heart of conservative central Switzerland instead of the Helvetic tricolor flag referring to the centralist Helvetic Republic of 1798 marks a compromise: a political development leading to more centralism than the conservatives wanted was being symbolized with a major symbol of the conservatives instead of using a liberal symbol. Quite clever - one of the thousands of compromise solutions that have guaranteed Switzerland's famous and all but evident political stability as a federal nation composed of four different ethnic/language based regional cultures.

To sum it up: For the Swiss, the introduction of Switzerland's national flag in 1840 and its widespread use instead of the cantonal flags symbolizes first and foremost that Switzerland has found its national identity and that the national identity has become more important than the disparate cantonal identities that have dominated Switzerland's history from 1291 (Federal Charter) to 1848 (modern Federal Constitution).

Switzerland from A to Z
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